Monday, July 19, 2010

Escapism and Avatars in Games

Sometimes we see things, and express our perceptions without trying to "prove" anything. I don't offer proof for the following, and of course, nothing I could say could be proof, if you think about it. So take this as an opinion or whatever you want to call it.

Clearly, a major reason for people to play video games is escape. Kids are escaping from a monitored world, from the "prison" of K12 where they aren't allowed a second on their own, from "helicopter parents", and from the delusions in their own minds engendered by the triumphs of 21st century capitalist marketing. Adults may be escaping from some of the same, but also from bad situations at home or at work. I know that when I most played video games, I was quite unhappy with how things were going at work (and ultimately I resigned and went back to teaching, one of the best things I ever did). The entire techno-fetishist notion that games should be so immersive that you forget you're not really there, lends itself to escapism.

The broadest difference between traditional single-player video games and tabletop games is that the former are used to pass the time (or "kill time") while the latter are used to spend time with friends--socializing if you will. Tabletop games, unless played solitaire, are not nearly as good a means of escape as video games (role-playing games come closest).

Some of this is because video games often involve an avatar, a "you", and often involve a story (or at least, story-context), which lend themselves to taking you somewhere else, away from your humdrum/unsatisfactory life. (Notice that RPGs also involve avatars. A lot of the characteristics of modern video games derive from Dungeons & Dragons.)

Are the games I design not so much escapist because they're not about assuming a role, about being someone different? Most of mine are either at a very grand strategic scale (as Britannia), where you have a detached, godlike view, or are abstract. I have begun designing games that have a "you" in them, usually because I'm designing them with young adults in mind (the zombie games, for example). But this is still quite the exception.

Can games without an avatar be escapist? Yes, when pursued obsessively. Chess, Tetris, you name it, like anything else it can be pursued obsessively and hence become escapist. (Which doesn't mean that every obsession is escapist, of course.)

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