Chungking Espresso

Follow Up: Against Escapism

Posted in Columns, Newsgames, Schoolwork by Simon Ferrari on January 16, 2009
My last post on how video games weren’t necessarily escapist (and the subject I initially set out to address: how they also might fit Chomsky’s propaganda model) raised quite a few objections, so I’d like to see if I can clarify my meaning on a few of those points. By the end, I’ll try to segue back onto the subject of newsgames and how they relate to this issue.


On the subject of escapism. This is where I got myself into the most trouble. I failed both to understand how important the notion of escape is to many gamers and to clarify the exact type of escape I was addressing. I admit that many people play video games not to avoid thinking about the war on terror and the economic recession, but rather to avoid thinking about their jobs, relationships, and other more direct troubles. This comment from the last post that calls me to task most effectively:

My argument is that the very games that support the possibility of a noteworthy gaming industry are the ones that support escapism. […] This isn’t the escapism of the great depression, and nothing can quite be that, so to use the term in a modern context it *has* to be adapted to modern sensibilities. Otherwise you’re just saying the 1930s are over and little else. […] I don’t believe that the reasons people need an escape have stayed the same, since I think we an agree that it’s a cultural phenomenon, and our culture has changed.

What I’d like to point out is that alongside the Great Depression, people in the 30’s also had to deal with the same day-to-day problems that we still do – only to a perhaps heightened degree thanks to the partial-shattering of public spaces by recent information technology. If we’re going online and into video games to find interpersonal engagements, then I think this is an attempt to recreate these lost public spaces rather than to escape from their destruction.

Back on topic: the historical assumption – which might of course be a false one – is that people latched onto musicals and screwball comedy not to escape common woes such as having a belligerent boss or a nagging spouse, but specifically the larger social woes of economic depression and social stratification. I am unsure of the degree to which this is true, but I’m betting that a lot more people who play games are regularly worried about the economy and foreign policy than they are willing to admit on Internet gaming forums. Video games would be a likely place to go to avoid having to think about such issues. My assertion is that many video games deny players – at least players who pay attention to the story – a complete escape from these worries.

Many gamers and non-gamers are familiar with the Grand Theft Auto series, so it’s fertile ground for drawing points. This series has dealt with gang violence, drug use and distribution, poverty, immigration, and ethnic minority issues to a much greater degree than any other game franchise. Here’s one example: Ian has talked about the tacit argument that San Andreas makes about the food choices that many underprivileged Americans have in their neighborhoods – it inspired him to make his own game, Fat World, about the politics of nutrition. What this shows is that we can find connections to the real world even in a game featuring the primary mechanics of shooting guns and stealing cars. Whether or not one realizes it while they’re playing the game is a different issue – but it’s likely that these ideas do enter into our subconscious thoughts while we’re playing only to resurface later on (McGonigal’s idea of an “experience grenade”).

Whether you agree with his design criticism or not, Richard Bartle’s recent unexpected controversy over a torture quest in WotLK is proof towards my assertion. See, when people thought about the issue long enough to argue with Bartle they revealed the fact that they’d been thinking about the game and its moral implications all along (they were just choosing to ignore them in most cases). Users brought up examples of genocide, poisoning, animal cruelty, racism, and other questionable practices in WoW quests. Whether or not they thought the moral implications of these quests were serious enough to forego some easy experience points is irrelevant. People aren’t escaping from such real world issues by playing games, they’re dealing with them in highly structured ludic encounters because it’s a fun way to feel potency over realistically insurmountable problems.


On the subject of catharsis. I guess people have quite a few different ideas on what catharsis actually is. This isn’t surprising, because our historical literary source for the word doesn’t do much to clarify its meaning. Despite whatever changes in definition the word may have experienced (most people seem to reduce it to meaning any sort of “release”), I refer specifically to its original use in Aristotle’s Poetics (and later, Politics): a purification of two emotions, fear and anxiety. Brenda Laurel (one of my favorite video game writers) has applied the Poetics to computing, but I haven’t read this book yet myself. I’m not convinced at the moment that the dramatic structure of a game is much like that of a Greek tragedy; however, I do think that Aristotle’s catharsis has some relevance to the issue of games and escapism.

I hold that escapism and Aristotelian catharsis are mutually exclusive. This comment from the last post encapsulates the counter-argument to my position:

You seem to draw a distinction between escapism and catharsis as they relate to art/media, and it is this distinction that I call into question. Is not the cathartic value of video games that which we use to escape from life’s ills? […] I would even argue that, because of the control they offer a player, many video games are even better methods of escapism than the glitzy movies and Broadway plays you reference. What better way to escape than to completely transport your conscious into that of a digital avatar, fighting the ills of modern life in a way only possible by way of video game?

Aristotle valued tragedy over comedy (any play with a happy ending, not necessarily funny) because it forced viewers to come to terms with their own beliefs, character flaws, and mortality. The Oedipus cycle is the prime example of such work: we’re forced to watch a good person and his family suffer for sins outside their own control. What I’m getting at here is this: taking control of a digital avatar in order to fight the ills of modern life is the opposite of escapism. A game confronts you with a problem, you can usually relate this problem to one you’ve observed in daily life or the news, and then you deal with it. The agency that games grant us in these simulated alternate versions of warzones and economically depressed neighborhoods is a way of “purifying” (catharsizing?) our fear and guilt over these situations.


On the subject of the propaganda model. I definitely made a grave misstep when I mentioned the effects of modern shooters on the “tender” minds of young players. It wasn’t my intent to fall into the category of the anti-gaming scaremonger talking about the negative effects of games on children. One commenter that agreed with me based on perceiving my comments in this light wrote:

The fact is, most war games promote war… (as do many films, though many war films are also anti-war). Whether the hostiles are Mexican or Russian is useful to a point, but the greater issue is war begets war.

I don’t find this to be true at all. I’m staunchly anti-war and anti-violence; I’ve been playing violent video games since I was 4 years old, and I still don’t think violence solves real world problems. On the other hand, I think the idea of trying to remove violence as a primary mechanic in most mainstream games is misguided – at the least, it’s a bit hasty considering how long it took popular TV and film producers to realize that conflict wasn’t essential to plot progression. One of my professors, Celia Pearce, has a lovely anecdote that she shares whenever a “concerned adult” asks her about the psychological effects of violence in games: almost all mammals playfight, and they understand the difference between it and real violence. Surely your clever little children are at least as smart as puppy dogs and kitty cats?


Chomsky’s propaganda model isn’t about dark government agencies embedding mind control into your media, it’s about subtly controlling public opinion through the exclusion of some stories and facts. If there are no AAA titles dealing explicitly with the war in Iraq, all this means is that the industry is missing out on a great opportunity to be the prime medium through which young Americans interact with the news. Instead of rehashing my half-formed ideas about the shortcomings of the mainstream gaming industry, I’d like to finally bring the subject back to newsgames.

The majority of newsgames, in that they don’t rely on corporate funding for their development, completely avoid the danger of falling into the propaganda model. In their unflinching goal of simulating experiences relevant to public issues, they avoid the pitfall of being labelled escapist and trivial by non-gamers. Even though I think its possible to recast mainstream gameplay as engaging real issues through metaphor or displacement, there’s still the fact that many players probably enter into them explicitly for escape. This is why newsgames have struggled to gain a popular following, I think: because one doesn’t start playing one of them as a means to cool off or forget about what’s happening outside.

People don’t avoid playing newsgames because they’re boring – quite the contrary, most of them build off of tried-and-true “fun” game mechanics and utilize the stylish Flash animation that has defined the most recent generation of TV cartoons. Rather, I suspect that they avoid them because they’re afraid of purposefully mixing their pleasure with intellectual engagement. I’ve struggled to show how mainstream video games might not be escapist, because I’d like to help break down the wall between the act of playing a shooter and the act of playing a newsgame.


One Response

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  1. deckard47 said, on January 23, 2009 at 11:13 am

    I think your last couple of paragraphs telegraph your point really well. When newsgames are written about in the mainstream gaming press, it becomes apparent that we often don’t know how to write about them or discuss them, because they may be “fun” mechanically, but the thought that they demand from the player can be anything but “fun” in the simple gaming sense. Gamers talk about them the same (i.e. serious, non-fun) way: they’re alarmed by such games, and the act of play takes on a different light, in their eyes. I think you’re also right in looking at games that diverge from the escapist route; games that, every once in a while, ask players to confront issues they deal with in life, even if we don’t want to admit it.

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