Tolkien, Escapism, and Video Games


Growing up, I was always told that video games are bad for you. This was not from my immediate family, but from society as a whole. I was told they turned your brain to mush, made you violent, and kept you from going outside. The worst of all of though was that they made you forget about the real world. People who played video games were seen as just running away from reality. Unfortunately, this is a stigma that has persisted. The truth is, I do play video games to forget about the stresses of reality, and there is nothing wrong with that.

At some point, someone decided that true adults cannot forget about their stress. As an adult, you have to stare reality in the face 24/7. Escapism has been deemed weak. Couple this with the fact that video games have a reputation for being childish, and adults who play video games are suddenly seen as people who ‘just cannot cut it in the real world.’ The stereotypical video game player is portrayed as an overweight, middle-aged failure who is unable to compete against ‘real’ adults in life. These opinions and stereotypes exist due to a societal ignorance of video games and a meaningless construct of proper adulthood.

One of the main reasons that gaming is seen as childish is due to the short amount of time that it has existed as a medium. As a result of this, it is in fact younger generations who have had the most exposure to games. Even when I was in high school, video games were still seen as more for ‘geeks’ or ‘nerds’. As you move along the age spectrum, an increased age generally correlates to a decreased exposure to video gaming, and vice versa. There are two ways to process that information. The first is to assume that video games are for children and not adults. The second is that the video game industry is still growing and expanding across all age groups. The former argument falls apart when you look at the fact that adults who played video games as a child, continue to play video games now. It has nothing to do with age, it is a result of exposure. With the increased popularity of video games, and their growing user base, it will not be long before they move beyond age barriers. They have already moved beyond being just for ‘nerds’ or ‘geeks’. Eventually, as with other forms of entertainment, everyone from children to the elderly will be familiar with video games. It is just going to take time.

What does not seem to change with time, is the idea that escapism is bad. Taking a break from stresses and issues is perceived as giving up on them altogether. Even more than that, there seems to be a belief that if people escape into a fantasy world, they might never come back. For those who do not play video games, it is seen as an act of betrayal. They believe they have been left out in the cold with the burden of adulthood. Those people are incorrect. If you do not trust me, just take a look at what Tolkien had to say about escapism:

“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.”

As Tolkien points out, there is a difference between escapism and desertion. Temporarily suspending focus on a problem is not the same as permanently withdrawing from it. Tolkien’s quote also brings up the point that this is not an issue wholly unique to the video game industry. Wherever fiction exists in a medium, there will be naysayers claiming escapism as treacherous retreat from reality. The unfortunate truth is that, as the youngest medium, video games draw the short straw and get the brunt of these accusations. The reality is, when it comes to escapism, video games are the same as all other mediums. At the end of a long day, it does not matter if you read a good book, watch your favorite show, or play a few matches of Rocket League. The goal of all of these activities is the same; to cope with hardships by enjoying good creations.

Rocket League Goal

And the stresses of the day just melt away.

About six months ago, my wife and I moved to a new city. We left our family, friends, and jobs, and moved to a place in which we had none of these. We had moved for me to return to college for a second degree. Due to some unfortunate circumstances, I was unemployed for the first four months. It was a difficult time. I could say that I was positive and kept an upbeat outlook, but that would be a lie. On top of unemployment, I was a new student in classes with a bunch of college kids. I could not relate with the other students, and I did not have co-workers to chat with. I was in a new city, at a new school, with no job. Needless to say, I was dealing with a little bit of stress. To help take my mind off of the situation, I played video games. A lot of video games.

I had just gotten a PS Vita around this time along with a PS Plus subscription. I downloaded every free game for the Vita each month and would play them in between my classes. I got hooked on Rogue Legacy and Luftrausers. I was constantly trying to push further into the castle or beat the next achievement for a ship part. I played A Link Between Worlds, my first Zelda game, and Monster Hunter 4. I loved working my way through the dungeons and the satisfyingly long boss battles. When I was not waiting for my next class, I was at home playing Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, Far Cry 4, and Destiny. These open-world games gave me a huge playground to explore and engage in some really fun fights. It would have been easy to classify me as a lazy, out of work bum, but playing those games had nothing to do with laziness. I played so many video games, because I needed goals and challenges as well as a way to take my mind off unemployment. Being out of work, I had nothing to occupy my mind. The freshmen level courses I was taking were easy and had minimal homework. When I was not in class, I had nothing else to do except be bored until my wife got home from work. Unlocking a new ship part in Luftrausers is not the same as accomplishing a good day’s work, but at the time it helped. All I had was small victories, but I enjoyed each and every one of them.

Shadow of Mordor

I’m detail oriented, I’m a hard worker, and I’m an accomplished Orc Slayer.

Playing video games and making progression in them encouraged me to keep up the job hunt. After taking down groups of Orcs in Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor I felt like I could take on any job interview. The assumption is usually that people use games to hide from problems, but a lot of people use video games as a way to recharge in order to better address their problems. People who play video games to decompress are not ostriches with their heads in the ground. They are just people who know the importance of rest. There is a reason all your teachers told you to get a good night’s sleep before a test. If you do not find a way to cope with the stresses in your life, you are bound to get burned out. For myself, and many others, that coping method is video games. I do not think there is anything childish about caring for your own emotional state so that you can be better suited to provide for your family.

Even though I now have a great job and am currently not in school, I still play video games. They are not a one trick pony. As stress relievers, they are excellent, but they are also so much more. As Tolkien points out, fairy stories provide escape, but he also notes that they are capable of much more. In the same way, video games are capable of so much more than being a stress reliever. They are a complex medium that uses the escape from reality to more vividly highlight themes and lessons. In this escapism, we can learn easier, and recharge mentally and emotionally. After playing your favorite games for a while, you will be better suited to face any stresses you may have. So enjoy your time in fantasy worlds, it will help you in the real one.

You can follow me on Twitter @jakecrump.

If you’d like, you can support my writing here.


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