No Escape

Canabalt Failure

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.

”Emerson, [i wrote:

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.

Comments

When I start to feel stressed out by or unhappy with life, stuck in a spot of being uncertain what to do, or my mind being unable to let go of my concerns, video games are usually the last place I'm able to fall into.

Sometimes a very special game will pull me out of my funk. Usually, though, just putting a disc into the system is enough of a struggle.

In times like this, it's usually easier for me to just sit down and watch a television series or read a book. The TV series usually just turns into lethargy. The book, on the other hand, can sometimes inspire me to start writing, and once I start writing I start feeling productive, and once I feel productive I feel like doing more things.

The problem is, I'm also discussing a response to a very different problem. Even so, I think the issue is there's a point where video games are still engaging, fun, enjoyable, but they aren't a method to escape from reality. To me, part of escapism is leaving a piece of yourself behind. While I like reading, television, film, and now learning to play guitar, these things are merely things I like.

Video games, however, are a part of me. They are a part of my identity. As a result, I cannot escape into them, because I'm just continuing to be myself.

I don't know if any of this is relevant or useful in some way, other than reaffirming the "it's okay to not be so into games at the moment". At the very least I can confirm that I hear you.

Good piece.

Maybe I'm doing it wrong, but I'm finding that games (specifically WoW) is simply One More Thing I'm Failing At.

I have to say I've been enjoying sitting on the porch with my wife after dinner and watching the new season of "Arrested Development" and the NBA playoffs. Turns out no one's keeping score on either of these activities. That's a plus.

Hang in there, Wordy.

Grant you the courage to change the things you can,
The humility to accept the things you cannot,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

In other words, don't pay much attention to the news; most of it is irrelevant.

Just typing off the top of my head here, but maybe "escape" isn't really what you should be shooting for. I might be talking semantics here, but there's sort of a negative connotation to it that implies that a person can't or doesn't want to deal with reality. Maybe the better solution is to find a game (or not a game?) that tests your skills and requires your full concentration in such a way that you block out all the external, negative stuff. For example, I find that if I'm playing a racing game, like say Forza, and I'm concentrating on setting record lap times, I'm so zoned in on hitting every corner perfectly and shaving milliseconds off my times, I'm fully concentrated on just this one particular skill, this one task, trying to do my absolute best. It doesn't even have to be a video game, it's just the chance to completely focus on doing one specific activity as well as you can with no distractions that I think feels good and allows you to "escape" in a way that, even if it is "just a video game", is still positive. My other hobby, outside of playing games, is motorcycling, and I find that I'm probably at my most, uh, zen, for lack of a better word, when I'm fully concentrating on riding a technical stretch of road (or off-road) and I have to focus completely on what I'm doing. My head empties of all the BS and I'm purely focused on the task at hand, the same way that I would be when playing certain games.

Ooh, gotta stop rambling here, time to run for the bus, the weekend is here, yesssss!

I used gaming as an escape from PTSD-based depression and anxiety for years until, though several breakthroughs in therapy, I no longer felt the need to escape. I then stopped gaming for nearly two years because I:

1. Didn't want to use ANYTHING as an escape anymore.
2. Wanted to be able to find joy in gaming again after using them as a crutch for so long.

Once I returned to gaming, I've had nothing but a wonderful time since. Maybe what you need to escape from gaming itself for a while? Escapism is great in short bursts, but it never really makes the issues go away entirely, and eventually they'll need to be dealt with. What helped me dealing with them was making a list so that, one paper, they didn't seem so insurmountable. I hope you find what helps you deal and manage.

I wish you luck in your journey, Erik. I hope you quickly get through this current tough time and find joy in gaming and everything else you enjoy constantly.

Well, it's nice synchronicity, that this went up today and all.

I have been battling a somewhat bad depressive episode for most of this month. Had been in denial about it because, well, that's just the way I was brought up in my dysfunctional, multi-generational family. I am past the denial, however, and am now scheduled for therapy. Major Depressive Disorders tend to run in my family, if you subscribe to the nature side of the nature/nurture argument, and just growing up around certain types of people will usually take care of the nurture side, eh? hehe

Well, I found that games have been my go-to drug of choice, for lack of a better word, in these past few days to lose myself and forget about all that's been dragging me down. Not necessarily a good thing. In fact, possibly the opposite, but better that than drugs, non? In any case, it proved to be the most immersive experience I've had in a good while and may have, in some way, helped keep me afloat precisely by making me forget about the noise in my head and around me.

Exercise wasn't cutting it, friends and family weren't cutting it, my significant other wasn't helping... the only thing that sort of helped was my daughter whom at 5 years of age is hopefully ignorant to the fact that daddy is in a pretty dark place emotionally.

I can't help but remember another dark time, half my life away, when Final Fantasy VII was the only thing keeping me sane and being able to cope with a relapsing alcoholic mother and the death of my grandfather.

Life has very wild changes and videogames haven't always been at the forefront of my list of activities to escape to when things get a little rough, so I may even take weeks without touching a single game... But in the end, there will always be a time, I think, during which a game is just the thing to keep me about my wits, even if just barely.

Maybe you need a detox period. I've had a couple and they worked wonders.

EDIT: Forgot to say, great piece. Felt it right here.

While I don't feel this way all the time, I certainly feel like you're writing about me in many aspects. When my life is filled with anxiety and stress, games are rarely where I turn. Instead I seek refuge in music, movies/tv, books and writing. Those are what I lead with but the list also includes food, sex, and drugs. I'll run anywhere if I have the chance. At my age I know my tendencies rather well and I realize what is most harmful, but running to 10 less harmful things is hardly better than running to one harmful escape, right? Yes, in some ways.

Coping is tough. Very. I wish I could say that I never need lessons repeated, but I do. Still, I try and I try and I make some progress. That's work. Progress. That's all we can do, right?

I avoid games as escape when I've got stuff to do because that makes the problems worse.

If I have the spare time, but am in an emotionally fragile state for whatever reason then I prefer violent, but not overly dark, games. Bulletstorm and Saint Row would be good candidates, and Mass Effect 2 helped me through a messy break-up.

"practicing some heretical cousin of Zen meditation".

I loved that line.

You know, this is a great piece. Another one. What is it with you people?

Thanks.

Lately I've been finding the Saints Row series to be the perfect antidote to too much stress at home and too much bad news in the world. The mayhem is so gleefully over the top that you won't care a bunch of civilians accidentally got caught in the crossfire. And individual missions take only a few minutes.

Beyond that, I have to echo the idea that you should play games somewhat mindfully to get the most out of them. I feel fine when it's the end of the day and I get my hour or so of gaming as a reward. I always feel crappy when I've blown an afternoon and had little to show for it.

Thanks for sharing your stories, everyone.

I keep wanting to say that I'm through it, but I think I'm just coping with the stress better these days. Which is good! I've largely swapped evening gaming with grilling, and set up and evening schedule with E Hunnie that forces me to be productive a couple nights each week.

I've been turning to gardening. On the upside, I've gotten a lot of weeding done. On the down side, trimming roses in the dark. Big hugs, wordsmythe.

This is my favorite thing you've ever written. And not just because you invoked "my giant".

Thank you.

A good piece, and well-written, Wordy.

At the core of this is that games are just games; we place them on a particularly tall pedestal, more so when we treat them as a fundamental part of our lives, but they don't offer much to us in return for our time. Not to devalue relaxing, but depression and motivation are connected -- the less of the one, the more of the other, and that works both ways.

Personally, instead of heretical meditation, I find that the real thing helps: observing and not trying to wrap a label around whatever is happening is a key aspect of staying grounded, at least in my life. Sometimes, that means going for a run; often, it means going to a martial arts class, or a boxing gym, or whatever. Gaming can help tune out the world, but for me, I'm calmest and happiest when I'm fully tuned into it.

What I do to escape is lay down and think. Maybe it's the combination of extra blood to the head and ignoring what my body is doing, but it's pretty rad sometimes. Sometimes it's disconcerting as I lose direction and the potpourri of thoughts in my head are not stream of consciousness, but rather that stream as poured through a colander.

Four observations:

1) Most games are using the same tired tropes and cliches, and have terrible writing and world design compared to a medium like books or film. They are still "baby's toys". With very few exceptions. As such, they're bound to get boring to a reasonably intelligent adult.

2) Escapism existed for thousands of years, ever since they invented books and basic concept of storytelling.

3) Jeff "Geneforge" Vogel had an interesting post about how our brain needs "idle time", as in neanderthal times we regularly sat near fires sharpening our weapons and thinking of nothing in particular. Mindless games have their place too.

4) Eating ice-cream everyday will make you hate ice-cream. Balance is key.

shihonage wrote:

Four observations:

1) Most games are using the same tired tropes and cliches, and have terrible writing and world design compared to a medium like books or film. They are still "baby's toys". With very few exceptions. As such, they're bound to get boring to a reasonably intelligent adult.

2) Escapism existed for thousands of years, ever since they invented books and basic concept of storytelling.

3) Jeff "Geneforge" Vogel had an interesting post about how our brain needs "idle time", as in neanderthal times we regularly sat near fires sharpening our weapons and thinking of nothing in particular. Mindless games have their place too.

4) Eating ice-cream everyday will make you hate ice-cream. Balance is key.

1) As in any medium, there are good stories and bad, deep and shallow. Sometimes bad and shallow is just what I want (especially when I'm taking a break from a demanding 9-5 and doing this in night school). I think this relates to the discussion from Vogel taht you cite.

2) I'm not sure if I'm just not good at escapism (likely due to training myself against it), or if the games I was playing were particularly bad for me to try to escape with.

2.1) Books and storytelling were invented thousands of years apart—likely tens of thousands.

3) I think Vogel's on to something.

4) This summer, I have eaten ice cream or frozen yogurt probably 5 times each week on average. I may have a problem.

May be those games aren't for you, in terms of down time play, even though they are great. You could branch out and try other genres where they play is more experiential? Although I can't think if too many games like that off the top of my head :).

Have you tried 'Dragon's Dogma?' It's a great world to get lost in and, once you are a reasonable level, you can head out and just explore the countryside for a few hours. Early on the fights can be tough but GWJ have some great pawns you can use to even the odds or unfairly tip them in your favour (including my rather fetchingly dressed lvl 140 mage.)

Though I often rely on games as a form of escapism, I find it only works in mild cases of stress.

Often times in the past, when I've been under significant pressure (university exams come to mind) and have become very stressed I've turned to video games as an escape from study. What I found time and time again though was that I felt so guilty about not studying that I'd get angry at every game I tried. After half an hour of unsatisfying gameplay I'd try antoher game and get angry at that too. It was a vicious cycle and I soured more than a few games for myself trying to avoid my real problems.

In cases of heavy stress there is only so much a game can do for you and relying on them too heavily actually wrecks the entire video game experience (I'd need a month or two of gaming detox after each set of exams).

In my case I knew exams were going to finish so it was just a matter of gritting my teeth and weathering the storm. If you are in a situation where you see no end in sight on your current path, then you need to change something else in your life! I don't mean to imply that will be easy but it has to happen. Remember the lesson every tree learns in a storm: every twig breaks when bent too far.

crimsonbinome22 wrote:

Remember the lesson every tree learns in a storm: every twig breaks when bent too far.

This is why it's better to be the green sapling than the brown twig, right?

I think you're right, though. My stress peaked when I needed to get a lot of stuff done during my 9-5, then for my night classes, then stuff in my personal life. What really helped with the stress was knuckling down and checking things off my to-do lists.