On Using Games to Escape

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Posted by generic_username (943 posts) -

[Content Warning: claustrophobia, severe injury, bullying, body image]

Sometimes I find myself wondering, “Why do I play games?” It’s maybe not the most important question, and it’s definitely a little self-indulgent, but it’s not exactly an easy question, either. There’s not any one answer that covers everything for me; there are a million completely different reasons I play games, and some of them even contradict each other. Depending on the day, I might be playing a game for totally different reasons. Maybe I want to challenge myself intellectually with a puzzle game, or maybe I’m seeking the fulfillment of completing something by finishing a game. Maybe I’m hoping to have an emotionally moving experience, or play through an interesting narrative. There are so many different experiences I might be looking for when I play games, though there’s probably one that I seek out more often than any other.

Art by Ollie Moss for the A Life Well Wasted podcast.
Art by Ollie Moss for the A Life Well Wasted podcast.

To be honest, I usually play games because they offer me an escape from reality. Lately, the escapism I seek is just an escape from the everyday mundanity of adult living, but… at certain times in my life, I’ve played games to escape from legitimately unbearable circumstances. I could always lose myself in the glow of a television set; the only light still shining in my darkest moments. And while escapism has often been a savior for me, I occasionally see people looking down on it. And I find it kind of frustrating. For example, there’s a podcast I used to listen to called A Life Well Wasted. It’s been dead for years, but I loved every drop of it while it was running. That includes the segment I’m about to discuss, but it happened to be the first thing that came to mind when I was thinking of examples I could use here. Anyways, one episode of the show features a segment where the host asks a bunch of strangers why they play games. There were a few different answers, but the answer he got more than any other was… “to escape.” And he seemed kinda bummed out about that. He wasn’t judging the people who gave that answer or anything, just expressing concern at the idea that escapism was really the best the medium had to offer. Wasn’t there something better, something valuable, that video games could aspire to do?

Back when that episode was released, the question of “are games art?” was still a source of debate… unlike today, where the answer is an eye roll and an annoyed “yes”. Modern games offer a wide variety of experiences, ranging from outlets for escaping from reality, to time killing mobile apps, and to deep, personal expressions found in certain independent games. I love the power games have to express ideas and create empathy through mechanics. The unselectable-but-still-visible choices throughout Depression Quest strongly mirror experiences I have all the time, so playing the game got me to finally seek treatment for my previously-undiagnosed depression. Undertale left me speechless when a character didn’t let me fight them a certain way by physically destroying the menu button for it. There was only one way to win that fight, and the scene’s merging of gameplay systems and narrative gave that encounter stakes that I don’t think anything but a game could recreate. My experiences with these games; games that to me never once acted as escapist outlets; I hold them very close to my heart. But the time I’ve spent escaping from reality with a game… it’s just as important, I think. The dark places I was escaping from were pretty fucking dark.

I first started playing games when I was very young; before I could even read, actually. The world I lived in, even at that young age, had already given me cause to distrust it. Before I started playing games, I was in accident that nearly killed me. My house caught fire with me still in it. I didn’t die, but I was severely burned; badly enough to scar my body for the rest of my life. I have vivid memories of the fire, but there’s one moment that I remember terrified me more than any other part of that experience. I remember trying to turn the doorknob, desperately trying to escape, but… I couldn’t turn it. I don’t remember why. It almost certainly wasn’t locked, but in my panic, I couldn’t get it open. I was trapped.

I go into more detail about the accident in a piece I wrote a long time ago.
I go into more detail about the accident in a piece I wrote a long time ago.

After the accident, I spent a while in the hospital. I remember bits and pieces of it. I remember a lot of time spent in a bed, and it being hard to walk. I remember getting my wounds cleaned, which was about as pleasant as it sounds. In general, a lot of confinement, though. When I was through with physical therapy and had finally mostly recovered, home wasn’t really much better. My mother, who back then was younger than I am now, was pretty shaken by the experience; she never really let me out of her sight after that. She got overprotective, though not without a really good reason (obviously.) Still, kids are inherently curious, and I was no longer able to explore. Reality was confinement back then, and that sense of wonder and discovery I craved could only be fulfilled in my imagination.

I obviously spent a lot of time playing pretend, like any young kid does, but when I played a video game for the first time, it was like… it was like a tangible, extant representation of my imagination. My first video game was The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, and even though I couldn’t read yet and had no idea how to make progress, it made me feel like I was somewhere else. Playing Zelda back then was a lot like playing pretend, but with a world that actually reacted to the things I to did. I was able to escape from a painful world that held me prisoner into a colorful world that was specifically designed to stimulate my curiosity. Hyrule was hiding countless secrets from me, and I would uncover each and every one of them. In video games, I was finally free to see the world; it didn’t matter to me that it wasn’t the real world.

A Link to the Past gave me a feeling of freedom that I could not find in reality after the fire. Weeks and weeks spent in the hospital, barely able to walk, made me feel completely suffocated. After almost losing her kid, my mother always kept me within arms reach; the breath I was hoping to take when I got home never really came. My constant search for secrets in Hyrule breathed for me, though, and it satisfied a craving for adventure that I couldn’t address in reality. It saved me, in a way. It let me experience childhood wonder when the real world wouldn’t provide it for me anymore. That escape was incredibly precious to me, and it wouldn’t be the last one I’d use to overcome the difficulties caused by the accident.

A number of years after the fire, when I was in second grade or so, I moved to another school. I had actually moved three or four times before then, but this school ended up being the first one I would attend for longer than a year. I did eventually make a few friends at my new school, but I also started getting bullied, pretty much constantly. It wasn’t exactly new to me; I was a dorky, kinda lanky kid who had creepy scars all over his legs. I was pretty sheltered at home, so I didn’t understand a lot of kid-type social stuff. I didn’t understand what behaviors other kids thought were “weird” or why some cartoons were “for babies” or why sports were fun at all. And at home, my scars were totally normal, so I didn’t even think I was supposed to cover them. I would wear shorts to school and not realize it was, well… a problem. It was hard to look at if you weren’t used to it. On top of that, I excelled academically without any real effort, which was probably miserable for the kids who were struggling in school. I don’t really know if anyone actually cared about that, but I can see how that might stir up some feelings of resentment in a kid.

Kids kinda didn’t want to hang out with me, so they’d play this fun game where any time I approached them during recess, they’d take their group and go play somewhere else. But that was as far as it went before this most recent transfer. At this new school, the bullying was a bit more of an active process. I don’t even know if the scars had anything to do with why they picked on me; they might have just been a bonus flaw on someone they were gonna torment anyway. They never hit me or anything — maybe the scars helped there; maybe beating up the burned kid was crossing a line or something. They did mock me relentlessly, spread rumors about me, call me gross, tattle to teachers on me about things I didn’t do, laughed at me whenever I got hurt, and invited me to play sports with them just so they could take it back when I got to the field. It was nonstop, but it wasn’t the worst bullying in the world by any stretch of the imagination. I didn’t let it bother me. Most of the time.

I was able to shrug it off because of a video game. Once again, I found myself retreating into the vast world of Hyrule, but it was different this time. It was in an all-new dimension; it was totally in 3D… I was playing Ocarina of Time. But I was playing it for different reasons, now. Sure, Ocarina gave me that same sense of wonder that its predecessor did, but it had something else in it that I needed far more in that moment. It had Link. It had that specific Link. In Ocarina, Link begins his adventure as an outcast, ostracized by his peers for being different. He was different through no fault of his own, but it didn’t matter. He was different, and that was enough. But… you eventually find out that Link was different because he was important. He wasn’t supposed to stay in the forest his whole life like they were. Link was destined for greater things.

Link’s backstory in Ocarina isn’t unique by any measurement. It’s a classic and totally cliched setup for the same bog-standard hero’s journey story we’ve been told a million times. There were countless stories like it written before it was made, and countless more have been written since. The “chosen one” aspect of the story is actually seen as kind of a harmful trope these days, and with good reason: if kids are convinced they were born destined for greatness, then they have little incentive to try to achieve greatness through hard work or kindness to others. But that “chosen one” story saved me back then.

Coping with bullying by clinging to stories like that is probably not unique to me, but… it helped me accept my scars as a part of me when everything around me was rejecting them. With all the teasing, I eventually started covering them up, but it was already too late. The other kids knew they were there. They weren’t gonna stop saying I was gross just because I was pretending I wasn’t gross anymore, were they? If the way I phrased that sentence is any indication, that kind of thing can really fuck you up. I have moments where I feel like I’m less human than everyone else because I know no one else looks like me. Those fears are actually only five or six years old, though; when I was younger, I didn’t think that way at all. And it’s because I would escape into Ocarina when I got home. I could slip away into this world where I was a hero. I was a hero even though I was different. No… I was a hero because I was different. In the real world, my scars were a burden, but in Ocarina, my scars were a sign that I was fated for better things.

Eventually I started to think that was true for the real world, too. Years later, I would realize that life wasn’t that convenient, but at least that earlier belief kept my childhood and early adolescence free of the crippling self-image issues that would have otherwise plagued it. And yeah, I’m dealing with a lot of those issues now, in my adulthood, but I’m pretty sure that spending my formative years with them would have only made things worse, not better.

Escapism may not be a very well-respected behavior, but I don’t think it’s an inherently bad one. I think it gets a bad rap. I mean, obviously you can take it too far — if you start neglecting people who count on you, or start neglecting yourself, that’s a problem. But I don't think there’s anything wrong with you if you like to spend your free time absorbed in some other world. It's normal to feel like reality is unable to fill some emotional void inside of you. If slipping away to another world is the only thing keeping you from giving up on this one, then I think you should stay there as long as you need to. And I don’t think any of your experiences there are invalid, or unimportant, or meaningless. I don’t even think they’re any less valuable than the responses other types of games elicit. I love games that work to expose you to reality rather than shield you from it, but I still value all the time I “wasted” trying to escape. I appreciate those hours where The Legend of Zelda whisked me away; I am grateful for the time I spent collecting gym badges in Pokemon Yellow… to me, those experiences were flashes of light in an endless expanse of dark. When the real world seems hopeless, it’s okay to find hope in another one. Just try and bring a little with you when you come back.

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#1 Posted by Kovie (260 posts) -

My feelings on escapism are incredibly complicated, even though without a doubt I've defended and partaken in it heavily. Hopefully I'll continue to work through those conflicted feelings as I go, because I do think it's a very valuable thing for people to be able to do -- to help them cope with periods in their life or respite from everyday stress -- and yet as I get more consistently reliant on escapism, I find myself getting more uncomfortable and restless from being routinely disengaged. When it becomes rote, you need some way to challenge yourself, or something to engage with meaningfully, even just a little, so it becomes more than just a permanent shelter in your life.

Good post! I'd like to read some other takes on the topic from people here, too.

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#2 Posted by kaletan (6 posts) -

It's a great stress reliever, takes your mind off things, gets your spirits up when you win something or against someone. And there are stories told in games you wouldn't encounter anywhere else.

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#3 Edited by Feralchemy (17 posts) -

I, too, have utilized games for escapism for years... Even if I didn't realize it consciously at the time. Turns out that games make a right dandy outlet for expression when one has decades of complicated gender identity issues.

Thank you so much for sharing your story, GN.

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#4 Edited by generic_username (943 posts) -

Thanks everyone for the kind words, it's nice to be reminded that I'm not always just shouting into the void.

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#5 Edited by Herbeux (12 posts) -

I don't usually read giant bomb forums but this really resonated with me. The heros journey myth can also be an useful tool and metaphor if you don't take it too literally. The end result doesn't actually matter and the journey it self will transform you. Some of the most negative things happened to me in my life have made me to respect life so so much. Not at the moment of the accident/dark times ,but later the personal revelations have been crucial for my growth and making peace with life.

Got little side tracked. I think escapism in is our nature. People just practice it different ways. Some people do hikes, others watch tv, some will paint and some play games. Escapism is never about complete escape from life. That is not just possible. Only way to escape life is to die. So people who looks down on other people when then do thing x are really just silly. Of course because everything is connected to everything, sometimes your form of escapism can get out of hand and hurt you and your loved ones. That is the point when it's not healthy and someone(or your self) should intervene, but like you said things and situations change.

Bless you op and I hope you well in you journey!

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#6 Posted by huntad (2407 posts) -

I struggle with my enjoyment of video games on a daily basis. I, too, have used games for escapism. I think they are particularly helpful when a day just did not go my way, but I also feel that they simply help remove the responsibility of being able to cope with days like that. Video games are fun, for sure, and I greatly appreciate the ones that tell a good story and leave a lasting impression on me, but those games are few and far between. Usually they are monotonous and repetitive. I love them to death, but I cannot deny that. You do the same things over and over and rarely take away anything with any lasting impact in your daily life.

This is why I struggle to appreciate video games now. They have played a very big role in my life, but I am not sure they have played a positive one. Surely they have kept me from making some major mistakes, but they have kept me from living my life to the fullest. I don't think I'll ever be on the side that says that they are a waste of time, because if they are then many things start to fall into that category (watching sports?). I do, however, see their major problem - they do not offer a lot for someone seeking anything besides wasting time away. If someone wants to do that, I have no issues with that. I love how social they can be, and they are great for social settings. I think there are plenty of other ways to spend time socially, or individually, that are more rewarding, though.

Again, I do not judge anyone for playing them. I love you all and hope video games continue to offer endless entertainment. I am just struggling to keep the fire alive for video games in my own life... sadly.

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#9 Edited by generic_username (943 posts) -

@huntad:That absolutely makes sense, and to be honest, I've been feeling that way a lot lately. The last few years, I've been using them to escape from regular daily life as opposed to the horrible things I used to need to escape from. It's a significantly less healthy form of escapism, and I've been withdrawing socially more and more lately. I think that escapism is important and can actually be an incredibly healthy thing to do; processing trauma takes a long time, and not forcing yourself to process it all at once is generally a good thing, I think.

I recently played through a visual novel in the "Fate/Stay" series and there's a line from it that I think is very applicable here.

"There's a difference between things that end, and things that can't continue."

Lately I've been pushing myself into a corner with my escapism, so much so that at some point, I'm going to be in a situation where things can't continue the way they are. The trials I mentioned in this piece were things that ended properly, I think. There was a lot more agency in how I handled those issues. Maybe that's a way to look at escapism, to figure out if it's "healthy" escapism or not. Is this escape something that is going to end? Or is it something that eventually won't be able to continue?

@herbeux: @feralchemy: I really appreciate your thoughts and kindness!

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#16 Posted by wollywoo (305 posts) -

There is a great quote from Tolkien on escapism (emphasis mine):

I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which “Escape” is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. In what the misusers are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic. In real life it is difficult to blame it, unless it fails; in criticism it would seem to be the worse the better it succeeds. Evidently we are faced by a misuse of words, and also by a confusion of thought. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.

In case anyone thinks the jail metaphor is a stretch, remember that this comes from a man who wrote fairy-stories to himself while in the trenches of the Somme, one of the bloodiest battles in human history.

Your essay definitely resonated with me, and echoed how I feel about fantasy worlds like Hyrule and Middle-Earth. I do think games can sometimes be detrimental to life enjoyment if played too much, but they can also be energizing and give cause for reflection on important things. You strike a good balance with your last line.

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#18 Posted by generic_username (943 posts) -

@wollywoo: Thank you! I have never been huge on The Lord of the Rings, though The Hobbit is a personal favorite.

Anyways, sometimes there doesn't seem to be any cure for whatever hurts in any given moment, and in those cases, it's alright to wait for the wound to heal naturally. There are obviously extremes one can take this to, too; I personally have had serious problems with alcohol in the past, and it was never as effective an escape as Zelda games were, it was just easier to get into that escape headspace in the first place.

So yeah, this is not a universal endorsement of all things escapism or anything, though I feel similarly to Tolkien here. It does not deserve the scorn it gets. And that prison metaphor doesn't feel like a stretch to me, either; I mean, this piece is about coping with being a burn victim through escape. I 100% understand the sentiment.

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#19 Edited by FrodoBaggins (2105 posts) -

As I've gotten older I've come to realise that this is 100% the main reason why I play video games. To escape.

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#21 Posted by Junkerman (536 posts) -

It’s unfortunate that society still looks down on Videogames as a proper recreating hobby though that is rapidly changing. One day you won’t have to carefully moniter which social situation is appropriate to bring up that you like games.

More to the point I wouldn’t even really label what you’re describing as an escape or view escaping in a negative light at all.

Hobbies are great! Addictions aren’t. And I think people have a hard time distinguishing the idea of video games from this image of an addicted person for whatever reason.

Playing videogames is no different then reading a book, hiking, painting, optimizing 5e dnd characters, talking about sports, you name it! It’s just a thing people do to have fun and decompress from the challenges of life and it’s the most healthy thing a person can do for their mental health maintenance. (Unless it’s an addiction.)