I never found my reality unpleasant enough to escape into a different one. And by extension it took me thirty years of existence to wrap my head around the idea of escapism. Escapism — defined by Oxford Dictionary as,
The tendency to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant realities, especially by seeking entertainment or engaging in fantasy.
My reality was interesting enough that I found any act of escapism borderline painful. I couldn’t imagine endlessly exploring vast complex literary or virtual worlds — I found the act mildly pitiful in all honesty. I would find long drawn debates about the role of the Great Eagles in Tolkien’s fictional world of Middle Earth, and I would shudder at the idea of going deep into a topic so fictional and mundane. I would hear stories of people maintaining spreadsheets for their made-up farms in a completely made up village in a video game called Stardew Valley and wonder how an individual has managed to turn a video game into a long term project. I found people online meticulously reproducing the steam operation of a miniature 1938 Mallard steam locomotive, in their backyard, complete with miniature model train stations and rail switches — it was almost comedic to see people spending hours among the little worlds they have created for themselves. I couldn’t imagine myself doing any of that. I could handle my reality as it presented itself.
The most cited example of escapism is probably video games. I do play quite a bit of video games, but for me, it used to be exclusively a sport — all about mastering the game, developing the reflexes or strategies required to beat it or my opponents — never to escape from reality. Even after having quite a few productive discussions with my fellow nerds, I couldn’t grasp the idea of long drawn complex virtual video games worlds to be remotely enjoyable. All of that was mind-numbingly boring.
Near the leading edge of summer, my psychological state deteriorated drastically; At its peak, I was barely looking for comfort — it was an unusually odd sensation, albeit a very real one. Few weeks after dropping all my side projects, cooking and chores, I picked up my controller and started a video game.
At first glance, the activities in the game were quite mundane. I didn’t think much of it until one afternoon I felt a yearning to get back into boring space mining on a planetary ring overlooking a huge planet. What started as pure boredom in the vast emptiness of realistic reproduction of the Milky Way galaxy — became an odd source of solace. All of a sudden orbiting alone around a bright blue star on a dark evening was more comfortable than my immediate reality. It was at that moment I realised escapism is not about escaping into another reality, but into one’s imagination. After all the self-righteous snark about broken laws of physics and a few dips in mental well being, I was able to imagine freely — like a kid.
I am a space pilot. I spend most of my time smuggling stolen data and odd minerals from star system to star system. Space is amazingly vast, but I travel faster than light. Sometimes I idle around alien planets just to watch its star rise across the edge in complete silence, or sometimes I quietly fly through an asteroid field. The money’s okay, but the reward is the flight itself.
It’s usually uneventful and predictable, but sometimes I get attacked by space pirates. Very few things are as exciting as getting intercepted by space pirates and then pulling a Space-Immelmann for a close escape right before they blow your spaceship to smithereens. Last week, I was attacked twice on a job. I generally tend to avoid any kind of fight. But that day, I pulled the stick back hard and faced the pirates for a fight — just another day for a space pilot.
The computer was playing a cautionary tune about an impending blizzard. Planet Imek, is uninhabited by any other intelligent lifeform as far as I know, except me. The planet harbours flora and fauna however — there are massive docile beetle-like animals. I think I will try to make one of them a pet one of these days. I don’t know how I got here — I do not know where I should go — I don’t even know who I am. Mostly my days are spent watching the star-rise over the planet’s huge rings. Survival is rough on this planet. The daytime temperature is minus fifty degrees celsius. I have managed to build a shelter, and gather enough power to turn a light on and keep myself warm.
I could feel that the blizzard was getting close, the temperature fell to minus ninety — I realised I lost my way to the base. My navigation was barely visible in the whiteness of the blizzard. My oxygen supply was dwindling. I didn’t know which direction to run to. “Oxygen Level Critical”, the computer blared — not like I didn’t know that already! I thought I would die in the snowstorm when I saw a faint glimmer of my navigation interface, showing the little dot that was my base. “Should I beeline it?”, I thought. It was at least a kilometre away. I could see the red wings of my starship, Radiant Pillar.
I made it through that blizzard. My shelter was warm and cosy. Today’s exploration didn’t yield much. I think I’m lost. But, I’ll get to wherever I’m supposed to go eventually.
Cooky as it all sounds, and as much as I smell a mild stench of self-disdain when promoting (some) video games from mere entertainment to useful devices for self-reflection and a medium for unhinged imagination; Being a former non-believer, I can vouch for the medium’s incredible power. Some folks find darkness soothing in video games, some find solace in mushy cartoony cuteness. I — as it turns out — find being alone on taut ropes of far fetched worlds, calming. But the comfort is not entirely in the adversity of the game world, neither it’s in the apparent aloneness; these games are also not an exciting new development in science fiction, neither they are breakthroughs in audio-visual technology; it’s not the cuteness or the twisted Lovecraftian sadness. The comfort is in the stories that we tell ourselves during the darkest of times — Imagination, ostensibly is the secret sauce.