I was listening to a song inspired by Metroid Prime, and it got me thinking about why I play video games, read speculative fiction, and watch movies about giant robots brawling with Godzilla-sized monsters. Why do I find these stories so fascinating? Is it anything more than childish escapism?
Well, reality is inconvenient.
The time I spend reading (or watching, or playing) is time that I spend transported into another world, one where I don’t have to worry about the mindsinks that are finances, homework, cleaning, decision making, et cetera. You know, all the joys of adult life. Fiction allows me to be free from worry, to experience things in a safe, speculative environment. It allows me to be someone else, whoever I can imagine. I can fly, I can time travel, I can cavort through the deepest voids of interstellar space, I can rescue the dragon from the bloodthirsty knight. So yeah, it’s escapism.
But I would argue that escapism isn’t a bad thing. Absolute escapism, where one becomes totally detached from “the real world” r fails to make the distinction between fantasy and the reality, can be a bad thing. But even when I’m wandering through fictional worlds, I accept that they are, at the end of the day, still fictional. For me, this escapism acts like a pressure valve. When the daily grind gets to be too much, I can easily take a mental holiday.
And while escapism is a primary reason, I don’t think it’s fair to say it’s the only one. Fictional worlds are self-contained, often with more clearly-defined rules than reality. As such, they can function as safe havens for experimentation and wild flights of, well, fancy. If you want to know what life would be like as a street urchin in a medieval city ruled my mages, you don’t have to sell all your possessions and move to some third world hovel (also, it would be quite difficult to find a real-world mage). Want to sail the high seas and buckle some swashes? No need to get a boat and risk scurvy or imprisonment.
These experiences, of living others lives, can also enhance our empathy. If we’re used to putting ourselves into a protagonist’s shoes (with varying levels of comfort and fit), it can be that much easier to understand where our friends, debate partners, or even enemies are coming from. The mental flexibility required to read fiction can’t help but change the way we think. And I think that is a skill that more people need to develop.
So yes, I read/watch/game to escape. It’s a great way to pass the time. But when I return, I come back more engaged than ever with my fellow human being. And really, isn’t that better in the long run?