Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Secrets of Escapism (or: How to prepare a better adventure, Part 1)

Catchy title, eh? I wanted to add "He did this to prepare his next adventure and you won't believe what happened next!", but it would have been too long for the header ... Anyway, here is a couple of thoughts I had bouncing around in the nasty old wetware for some time now. Maybe it's a bit too obvious, I don't know. But I believe it can make our games a little better to keep some of those insights in mind when preparing our adventures. Let's see.

Giving escapism a bad name since 1917 ...

The 1917 refers to a S. Freud quote cited in the Wikipedia article about escapism and isn't entirely fair. But I'll get to that. First the quote:
"[T]hey cannot subsist on the scanty satisfaction they can extort from reality. 'We simply cannot do without auxiliary constructions', Theodor Fontane once said"
I think Freud and Fontane are right. We can not do without those "auxiliary constructions". We always told stories to each other and they hold meaning for us. That's a simple, undeniable truth, evident in stories that are thousands of years old and still get told (the Bible, the Edda, the Tao Te Ching ... just to give some very old examples). Stories are, to some extent, the collected wisdom and knowledge of the sentient monkeys we are. One more tool, if you will, to give us an edge.

It's easy to see now that stories, being as important as they are, must lead to a huge array of traditions surrounding the phenomenon. Ways to tell stories, to structure them, ways to preserve them and of course ways to use, understand and interpret them. The solutions are as varied as we have cultures today and go all the way back to the first spoken word.

Stories help kids to understand the world and fight their fears! Art by
the pretty fantastic Laure Fauvel [source]
To learn to understand stories is one of our earliest "games" and deeply connected to our social development. In a way, we learn to tell stories by experimenting with all its aspects with testing what works. And the sweet thing is, we mostly do it as leisure activities. In fact, telling and experiencing stories for leisure is so powerful that it also spawned several traditions and industries, leaving us with a wealth of options for, yes, escapism.

One could argue now that there are useful and less useful (harmful, even!) stories and that there also are healthy and unhealthy ways to consume stories. This is where the 1917 reference above is a bit unfair. Freud, obviously, looked at the unhealthy aspects of the whole affair and Fontane was an author, writing novels (arguably the less useful variety of stories). Both had also been children of the era of Enlightenment, holding "rational thought" for the highest achievable goal.

To some extent it's no surprise that escapism was regarded as something unhealthy or a problem in the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. Industrialization and all that jazz led to cheap labor, cheap entertainment and cheap mass production on an until then unknown scale: newspapers and books, then radio and finally television all brought chances to educate and/or entertain to an exponentially growing population.

And while it all worked very well to keep "the masses" entertained, it also came with all the trappings you'd expect with such a thing: unhealthy obsessions, fan following, manipulation (propaganda), intellectuals frowning upon "lesser entertainment" and all the other things that got associated with the term "escapism" (it being "unproductive", for instance ...). And it has a bad name until today. Google it and you'll easy enough find people seeing a need to justify, for instance, playing role playing games for exactly those reasons.

Well, things aren't black and white and while engaging yourself into a hobby or a story, you will always do it to experience something else, to expand yourself, to use that ability we have to give ourselves up and find a "flow" in an activity. Studies (like this interesting paper by Frode Stenseng) show that we can use all of that for our well-being and not only to flee our harsh and evil reality.

That's a big ass exposition and I still haven't started talking about adventure design. But it describes the first "secret" about escapism. It's not only daydreaming (which is also healthy for the brain, by the way). There is purpose in those leisure activities we choose to fill our spare time with and we are better for it (most of the time, anyway). And yes, it gives meaning to your gonzo-weird role playing escapades. To understand this is the first step towards preparing better adventures.

So that was part 1?

Yup, that's it for today. I'm sure I'm preaching to the choir here when I say that we should be proud of our hobby and that escapism isn't a bad thing to begin with. The brain needs it and it isn't so strange to believe that even if you "just" hunt purple smurfs for their feet in the fringe nebula of the fire-shard forests (or whatever), it fulfills a necessary human need and we get quite the benefits from doing so.

To some degree it's part of this century long debate that started with the industrialization of work and the idea that came along with it that we need to be "productive" in the things we do and the term "escapism" is actually derived from "escapade", which originally described a horse jumping out of the trained pattern ... Need I say more? Well, I'll close with something Tolkien said on the matter in his essay On Fairy-Stories:
“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?”
You know, I somewhat agree with Tolkien here. That said, I'd like to add that I really don't think the word is fit to describe the phenomenon it describes. So I wouldn't say we are in a prison like he did, but that our imagination is wider than the limits of our individual reality and it's a strength that we can go places, regardless of whether those places exist or not.

Anyway, more on that in Part 2, which will deal with the "why" for a bit, basically connecting Serious Leisure with escapism and searching for some common denominators. Part 3 will then talk about how all of this is connected to good or bad (and ugly?) adventure design ... I want to get this done till Wednesday.

And that's that. Life has kept me very busy the last few weeks, but I'll have more time in the coming days and some writing to do before the year ends. (Damn, it's almost Christmas ...).

You want to read on? Here are part 2, part 3A and part 3B!


  1. The choir shakes its tambourines in approval :-)

  2. Some thoughts that turned out to be a bit too verbose to post as a comment so I posted them to my blog instead ... here ...