We all go through tough times. News, from the international level to the personal level, can tip the scale, making the difference between manageable stress and a surfeit of worry. At these times, I tend to feel that making my way in the world today already had taken everything I’d had, and that taking a break from all my worries sure would help a lot. At these times, I sure would like to get away.
I hit one of those times last month. Not that the world ever runs out of things to depress us, but I had a particularly hard time turning away from one stressful thing and coming face to face with another. I’d close one tab and be confronted with a whole new depressing thing. I went for a walk, except my city was flooding. Piles were tall at work. At night, finals were approaching for my classes. It was under control, but I needed to escape for a while before I threw a gear. I looked to games. People say that games are about escapism, right?
Problem is, I can’t seem to escape.
Many people claim, as praise or pejorative, that games are for escapism. I usually find no value in that premise, though I would always stop short of telling someone that they’re wrong to enjoy games in their own way. Now though — now I’m envious of that way of playing. I’m starting to think of it as a special skill, an ability to zone out those trappings that assert that a game is Important.
Critics and academics commonly suffer from reaching a point where they’re too familiar with their medium to enjoy it they way they once did — though I’m obviously no Rob “Hardest Working Man In Games Journalism” Zacny, and I have no right to be listed on the same page as a true, full-time games academic.
As a child, I had a particular (though by no means unique) skill. Without consciously registering that a question was ever asked, I could respond affirmatively when my mom asked if I had done my chores and homework without drawing any conscious attention away from the screen in front of me. I had, of course, completed neither my chores nor my homework.
That is, for the record, a “skill” that I have tried to avoid cultivating now that I live with my spouse. I tend to think it would do bad things for the relationship. I’m starting to wonder, however, if there’s a place for it, if only for the newfound value I put in the skill of escapism. A value in occasionally drifting away to a half-conscious-yet-fully-engaged state, practicing some heretical cousin of Zen meditation. The images, the mechanics, the story, and the symbolism all passing through my mind without catching.
I tend to be partway through a handful of games at any given time. I start to cycle through them, looking for the cure for what ails me. I’ve got a couple games of Neptune’s Pride 2: Triton slowly gnawing at the edges of my nerves. For such a slow-moving game, I don’t think I’ve experienced such constant paranoia since spending time with political listhosts in the ‘90s. Also, I tend to lose. Time to try something else.
I turn to BioShock: Infinite. I can’t shake the theme of unassuageable remorse set against a backdrop of racism and class struggle. I have a lovely enough time in the theme park, right up until the bit with the baseball, and then the revolving hook caught in that guy’s face. My momentarily rosy disposition turned a few different shades of red after that.
Maybe I’ll make some progress in Dishonored? Acting as a master assassin (with magic, no less) could help me feel like a master of my environment. It’s good to feel like I’m powerful — in control — right?
Maybe not. It could be my fascination with the swarms of feral rats. I already know what depths of darkness the game will lead me to. I’m getting hung up on being a machine-faced man forced to operate in a vicious system of despair, choosing between evils in hope that I would make things less worse one way than the other. I struggle to overlook this.
I slip up and end up killing someone. I turn vindictive. I lash out. I complete the level, and am reprimanded with a tally of the death and “Chaos” that I caused. I calm down
Or maybe I just don’t have the right light-hearted game on my computer. These games are all pretty far on the “gritty realism” side of the spectrum.
I fire up the Wii. Super Mario Galaxy and the WiiWare version of the Sega Genesis classic Toe Jam & Earl. These, like the games on my PC, are great games. Unlike on the PC, these games have light, upbeat themes and graphics. But I find myself frustrated by the controls, and at how terrible I am at platforming. I don’t know if it’s a bad connection in the controller of if I’m just bad at game, but the frustration’s getting to me. Still, the color palettes and cartoon levity are a nice change of pace.
It’s around this point that I start to question my motives. As terrible as I am at escapism, in the wrong situations, gaming escapism might relate less to a skill and more closely to other, darker practices. That’s my real worry. I’ve been bad places before, trying to get away from stress and pain just long enough to heal. (Life tip: Avoid Matchbox 20 — especially while abusing alcohol. Also, probably don’t abuse alcohol.)
Maybe I’m bringing too much baggage with me on this mental vacation. Emerson had something to say about that.
Self Reliance[/i]]Travelling is a fool's paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. I seek the Vatican, and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go.
My giant, in this case, is a Voltron of unfinished tasks, glued together with news of things I can’t do anything about. If only my giant were as easy to take down as some videogame Colossus or boss monster. But then, escaping to video games, just as attempting to escape ourselves via travel, is not a real solution. My giant has long legs, and I cannot outrun it. My giant grows stronger as I grow weaker, and my giant can only be conquered via a combination of direct assault and concerted peace talks.
I am terrible at escaping, and I don’t know that I really want to be better at it. If games are about escapism, are games just not for me?
Regular gamers will often write in to GWJ, worrying that they’re not getting the same joy from games that they once did. We tell them that it’s natural, it’s normal, and it’s OK to feel that way. Video games, we tell them, aren’t always the answer to our problems, just as they’re rarely the true cause of our problems.
Probably time I listened to GWJ’s advice.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to leave my Candy Box! tab open while I start up Victoria II. Maybe I’ll check some boxes off my to-do list while those two are running on autopilot.