Fly, You Fools: Purposeful Escapism in Games

So this is going to be a bit of a teaser… It’s been quite a week.

I’m sure this is a term we’ve all come across as some point or another: escapism. And I’m sure some, if not all, of us have also heard that video games are a means of escapism. Some of us may have bristled at that, seeing the word “escapism” as an almost derogatory term. Aren’t all hobbies “escapism”?

Not always. By definition, escapism is a habitual diversion from reality, when a person seeks distraction from real life, particularly unpleasant events in real life. But some definitions also include that escapism also means the person is partaking in some form of entertainment or, more specifically, fantasy entertainment in order to not focus on the real world around us for a time. We are literally trying to escape from the real world, if even for a few moments.


Because we need escapes from reality. We cannot work our brains or our bodies without rest; at some point, we will no longer be able to handle the stress of always working and will burn out. The most common escape, daydreaming, can be a way of releasing tension, easing boredom, giving our brains “mini-breaks” during a very cognitively-demanding day or task, and can actually help with problem solving and planning (see below for more on this).

A Caveat About Too Much Escaping

As a side note, escapism can be a real problem, especially when the escaping event (here, playing a video game) takes precedent over other enjoyable activities like hanging out with friends and family, or puts a stress on work and home responsibilities. This begins to get into addiction, which is another whole beast of a topic, but suffice it to say that too much of a good thing can be bad if used incorrectly.


But when used correctly, escapism is can be healthy and actually good for you. And we’re back to where we started this little post.

Purposeful Escapism

Video games are purposeful in their escapism. You, the player, are not just mindlessly absorbing/consuming a television show, movie, or even book. You are working toward a definable goal while following set rules. As philosopher Bernard Suits said, “Playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.”

Great, so why am I asking you to read about this? This is going to meander a bit, but there’s a point at the end, I promise.

Relationship Status: It’s Complicated

I’ve been thinking about my relationship with games recently. Video games were never something that was encouraged in my house growing up. I suppose this is pretty normal, but while my father was quietly firm – as long as we did our homework, went out to play with friends, and had lives outside the console, he didn’t mind us playing, and would join in sometimes – my mother was quite vocal about us wasting out time, rotting our brains, and, because the NES was technically my brother’s, she would routinely threaten to “take a hammer to the stupid thing” when he didn’t clean his room or he otherwise misbehaved.

Of course, to be fair, my parents did buy us a Nintendo 64 and, later, a Playstation. I inherited my brother’s Playstation 2 when he bought a slim for himself. We were never told we couldn’t play. And I’m certain the intent was to make sure we didn’t become the awful “basement troll” stereotype. Most often, if I said I was going to play <fill in game title>, I was met with an “okay.” But there was always a warning:

“Okay, but don’t get lost in there.” “Okay, but are you still going to <fill in other activity here>?” “Okay, but isn’t there anything else you could be doing?”

Reading? I could read all day without incident, holed up in my room all by myself. But don’t get lost in those fake video game worlds.

And so I grew up, counting the minutes I was playing a game, wondering how badly I was wasting my time. Honestly, this is still something I think about when I pick up a controller or start researching another topic to post about. It’s what holds me back when I think about getting more involved in the community.

Then I realized something. This is the power of video games. It’s this draw to be part of a world outside of your own, a world that can be so much more satisfying (sometimes) than the physical world, because the game has been designed for us to enjoy partaking in. They are purposeful, even when they have no purpose outside of our television or computer screens. They make us happy, pull us out of reality, and make us work hard. And we love them for it.

Too Long, Didn’t Read

I’m thinking of starting another little series of topics, discussing why games make us happy, the importance of having a good avatar/playable character, and what that means for us as players. And I might dip a few toes into the concept of video game addiction if I’m really feeling courageous.

These topics are going to be real doozies, so in the meantime, be on the lookout for my rundown of Spec Ops: The Line and (finally) my showdown with Shadow of Mordor!

Until then, thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you soon!

~Athena Tseta

For more on daydreaming:

Klinger, E. (2008). Daydreaming and fantasizing: Thought flow and motivation. In K.D. Markman, W.M.P. Klein, & J.A. Suhr (Eds.), Handbook of Imagination and Mental Simulation (pp. 225-239). New York, NY: Psychology Press.

McMillan, R.L., Kaufman, SS.B., & Singer, J.L. (2013). Ode to positive constructive daydreaming. Frontiers in Psychology, 4(626). doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00626

Singer, J.L. (1975). The inner world of daydreaming. Oxford, England: Harper & Row.

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  1. I find the escapism in games to be rather helpful in life beyond that. I work in a field where burnout is a constant concern, and one of the big things we’re trained to do to combat that is to make sure we aren’t thinking about work matters during our leisure time. Generally, that’s something I struggle with, but not so when I’m playing. Games naturally take a lot more focus than do most other forms of media or leisure I have available to me, and as such it’s my most reliable tool to get my mind in the state I need it in.

    But yeah, people have been afraid of the mind rottiness of popular media for a while now. Before video games, it was tv. Before tv, it was radio. Before radio, it was books. Before books, it was… I dunno, cave paintings or something. There is definitely something to be said for getting too obsessed with your stories, getting into your entertainment so much that you stop taking care of the rest of your life. But the human brain needs these times of desaturation. Everyone I’ve met has had something in their lives that serves this same purpose as does the media many seem to look down on.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Escaping from reality is important. It definitely serves a purpose, and I find it a shame that even when not used in excess, media is still derided. In my personal experience I’ve seen this more with playing games; it’s fairly acceptable (that is, it’s let go with few comments) to binge on Netflix for eight hours, but if you play a video game for eight hours you risk getting a side-eye at the very least.

      And you’re right, games do take a lot more focus than other types of media, which is part of their draw. That’s part of the reason you reach for a game controller instead of a television remote control, I would imagine.

      Thank you for your kind words. Objectively knowing something (i.e., that you’re not spending life-affecting amounts of time in front of a game or whatever) is much different than believing it to be true sometimes, so I appreciate your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

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