Dev Notes 19 - Escapism is a Dial, Not a Switch

As much as I enjoyed Birdman, I felt that it contained a certain amount of artistic insecurity even beyond that portrayed by its main character. The movie as a whole offers a straw-man depiction of how people in the theatre feel about film - this idea that stage looks down on screen because it views screen as less serious, more worried about popularity and money than art. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth, and in fact we are in something of a golden age regarding the love-affair between stage and screen. People and shows move between the two all the time, and no one is seriously arguing that one medium or the other is more inherently artistic. Had this movie been written in the late 80s, I might have bought it. But now? Not so much.

But this insecurity is not unusual. A similar thing happens in most art forms. A categorical distinction grows to define that which is serious from that which is not, and then we start arguing about what specific pieces go where and why. In the midst of this argument, one word almost always appears: escapism.


Professor Snake will be your escape instructor.

Escapism can be used both positively and negatively, depending on what people feel should be the ultimate goal of the art form being discussed. Literature is one of the most basic examples of this - people argue all the time about the different experiences of reading “serious” vs. “escapist” fiction. (This is particularly true when they start talking about genre fiction like fantasy and sci-fi.) But this debate is a false dilemma. Escapism is not an either/or, it’s a question of degree.


No art without escapism

First of all, if escapism is a temporary break from unpleasant realities, then the only conclusion is that all art is escapist. No matter how gritty and real a book or a play or a symphony might be, it is releasing us from our own unpleasant reality and granting us the catharsis of focusing on someone else’s. Even if - and this is the most extreme example I can think of - I were to write down in my journal exactly what is happening in my life and all the problems I experience from day to day, and then I read it back to myself, I have still experienced some degree of escape. I have reached back into my own past to reflect instead of focusing on the emotions of the moment.

The experience of art always takes us out of the moment into the world of the other. I cannot enter that world without at least partially leaving my own. And this is important, because only in escaping what I know can I learn something new.


No escapism without art

Humans are creatures of meaning. We are making it all the time. We are almost completely incapable of experiencing something without in some way trying to make sense of it. Even the most pointless, surreal, irrelevant, or banal experiences still incite reactions. They still cause us to pause and consider new information that we then have to incorporate into our own personal world view. The result of this is that any created work, no matter how trivial or superficial, is still meaningful - not necessarily because it is great, but because we as humans make it so.

The PBS Idea Channel does an excellent job of pointing out interesting meanings in daily life and pop culture, often revealing the “serious” themes present in seemingly superficial works. There is even an episode that specifically discusses tabletop gaming. It points out that gaming is a way of rapidly adding to our experiences and frames of reference, thus enabling us to make more and deeper meaning. And the key is that this is true regardless of the type of roleplaying.


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Escapism in gaming

The argument between “serious” and “escapist” is common to gaming as well. (The existence of this argument is one of a number of reasons that I argue that roleplaying is indeed a form of artistic expression.) There are many players and GMs out there who like to criticize the games they don’t play as either too serious or not serious enough. And again, these discussions often fall into a false binary of what gaming is supposed to be about. In truth, there is still quite a bit of escapism in the most high-resolution Nordic LARP or “sad-things-on-notecards” story game. Likewise, there is still genuine meaning to be found in the most murder-hoboish hexcrawl or the most ridiculous game of Toon.

In roleplaying, escapism and meaning exist side-by-side, not in opposition but in concert. Every game experience we have contains both, varying in degrees not just based on the system, but also on the GM, players, story, and even the changing impulses between and within sessions. When we are aware of this, we can begin to control for it, to dial it up and down to improve the experiences of everyone at the table. We can also stop our pointless arguments about whether “we’re all just here to have fun” or “roleplaying should be meaningful.” Both are true. Not because we create experiences for both modes, but because both modes exist in all our experiences.

This is why I believe we are able to tackle important social and historical topics in a setting like Steamscapes while still holding on to the fun, and why I believe that a pulpy action system like Savage Worlds is just fine for our brand of alt-history realism. We don’t have to choose between these elements. We just dial them up and down at any given moment for the kind of experience we want to highlight. We can escape into an alternate steampunk history full of adventure and still find powerful messages there.


May all your games be fun and meaningful!

-Fairman Rogers