Escaping, Or Taking Refuge?

Professional gaming academic Ted Castronova has been talking about his new book, Exodus to the Virtual World: How Online Fun Is Changing Reality, and he’s been saying the kinds of things that have been playing on my mind a whole lot in recent months. How valuable is our gaming escapism? And what does it mean to spend so much time in virtual worlds? Ted’s book is about making some judgments, as he explained to the BBC:

“If reality is a bad thing, and people are going into virtual worlds to reconnect, the word you would deploy is refuge,” he said.

“A father of two spending 90 hours a week in a virtual world because he doesn’t like his wife – I would say that’s escapism, and it isn’t anything you would say is good.

“But if it’s a heavy-set girl from a small town who gets victimised just because her body isn’t the ‘right’ kind of body, and she goes online to make friends because she can’t get a fair shake in the real world, then I would say the virtual world is more of a refuge.”

So are you escaping, or taking refuge, readers?


  1. Jack Monahan says:

    I use RPS as refuge from all the shitty top 10 list infested, endless stories-linked-from-other-stories type gaming websites that have little to no content. It’s my fantasy that there’s decent writing to be done on the subject of games that sits somewhere between fanboyism and complete pseudo-intellectual fantasism.
    Taking refuge, dear writer.
    As to the games however, I haven’t the faintest.

  2. yns88 says:

    At the moment I would call it escapism, as I have two finals coming up in the next week.

    At any other time, though…ah hell, it’s escapism all the way. And I’m not even ashamed.

  3. AbyssUK says:

    I just want to be a pirate in PotBS, is that so bad.. if I could go out into the real world and be a pirate with my own boat then I would.. but I can’t.

  4. Chris says:

    Escapism, pure and simple. It allows me to switch my mind off from the pressures of everyday life and relax for a few minutes.

    Well, I say relax, if that’s what you do when you’re frantically dodging incoming fire while eliminating multiple foes with your current weapon of choice.

  5. WCAYPAHWAT says:

    All my friends spend all day getting high and sitting on their couches. Thats not my sorta thing. So I amuse myself with ‘Sasha’. Yes sir, my box has a name.

    And thats sounds wrong. But what the hell, I’m a terrible person and I know it.

  6. ESK says:

    She’d be better off spending those 90 hours a week on the treadmill.

  7. Sander says:

    Apologies for length, but here goes:

    I want to quibble about that question, because I think the comparison you quote is way too suggestive. Specifically: are we talking about a medical, a moral or just some kind of value neutral dictionary distinction between ‘escapism’ and ‘refuge’? The example hints heavily that absentee daddy grinding 90 hrs/w (while he should be taking care of his kids and go into counseling with his wife) is a bad thing, but poor isolated adolescent emo girl who spends 90 hrs/w bonding with the geeky brethren who are so special she could only find them online is a good thing.

    First of all, I find this sexist: the assumption that the adult guy should by definition be the one who’s manning up, while it’s totally understandable and alright that the poor victimized girl crawls into a shell for the next 4 years until she goes to uni. I don’t know what the background is that drove the guy into this mess (at least he doesn’t have his lips around a bottle for 90hrs/w, which would be worse) and it’s obviously a mess, but calling it escapism doesn’t help much. Again: does that mean that he has medical condition (addiction, OCD, avoidant syndrome), or is he a bad guy who needs to cut it out? Similarly, I don’t know the background for the small town girl: it may look like her guildies are the only ones who’ll support her but like ESK said: it might also be that she should just get out more, spend those 90 hrs/w in the gym, go to the next less small town over and meet the rest of the misfits, read some self help books and get on with it.

    So anyway. What’s more interesting to me is what Castronova brings up in the linked interview about the societal reasons he sees for the phenomenon of people increasingly migrating out of the so called real world, which can be summarized as: the real world sucks more and more and will continue that way (until the revolution [ed. me]). I think that’s a bigger cause for concern than the question ‘games: are they escapism or refuge’. Sure, I recognize that OCD and avoiding the social anxiety that real life causes me is the major reason why I spend the amount of time online that I do, but games and specifically online games are way too young as a medium to be able to jump to conclusions about their moral or hygienic worth yet. If it weren’t games that people flee to for reasons of escapism and/or refuge, it would be books, drugs, tv, religion, war or whatever other damn fool thing humans have dreamt up over the millenia (until the revolution).

  8. Chris R says:

    Sander hit every point that I was going to bring up. Well done sir. Now I’m off to find a biscuit.

  9. Mr.Brand says:

    I play games to pass time when there’s nothing else going on.
    I’m more of a tourist.

  10. dhex says:

    i think the implicit point is that the father of two has responsibilities that a girl of 14 does not, including access to local social networks, medical care (depending on one’s opinion of “online addiction” and related dsm-isms) and the like. i would tend to agree with that – if anything it is startling to remember that a generation ago men in their late 20s had both careers and families at this point.

    i do admit to a long-time fascination with the phenomenon of wow/eq “widows” and the like – i’ve always wondered what was missing from someone’s life that they would (in some cases) retreat from the people around them to invest their energy in building non-local bonds – or even just grinding levels.

  11. MPK says:

    “But if it’s a heavy-set girl from a “But if it’s a heavy-set girl from a small town who gets victimised just because her body isn’t the ‘right’ kind of body, and she goes online to make friends because she can’t get a fair shake in the real world, then I would say the virtual world is more of a refuge.”

    On that note

  12. MPK says:

    Also, I’m a single thirty-something with financial commitments that I can handle quite easily. I enjoy my job, have a good social life and a stable relationship. But I play somewhere around 30 hours a week of EVE Online – is that defined as escapism?

    I know the original quote is in the context of reality being a “bad thing”, but I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one spending a lot of time in another world while at the same time being happy IRL.

  13. Peewee says:

    Why do you need to consider yourself either? That’s ridiculous.

    Take competitive online gaming for example. Not too many people are “escaping” and most definitely not “refuging” while calling out strategies and yelling at their team mates. They are utilizing games as a raw for of competition.

    Refuging.. escaping… yeah, sure, but people have been doing this for centuries with books, and decades with television. What seperates video games from these two, is that gaming in its very conception was about competing.

  14. Pesh says:

    I, too, would lead the life of a pirate.

    If only I had a mean grin and a black soul!

  15. DigitalSignalX says:

    I’m in the “better then the alternative” camp. Some of my friends go home and embrace the tedium. Most camp in front of a TV, perhaps watch a movie, read, and on some nights hit a pub or sit around playing poker, talking and smoking etc. Any night of the week, that’s 95% of their free time. So what’s “normal and healthy” about that?

    We of the game addict community sit around virtual tables, talk with people just as casually or intimately, and solve puzzles, siege castles, quest, shoot, design, make piñatas fornicate, and get drunk with the endless possibilities of the doors that are open to us online. It’s an ever-changing life we can shape ourselves as opposed to what they call normal.

    A key to that kind of life though, is being healthy mentally going INTO it.. which is probably not the case for those horror stories that get so much press after traumatic experiences online.

  16. WCAYPAHWAT says:

    I hate MMO’s. Just can’t get into them at all. Therefore, I can’t understand the “addiction” to them. I’ve seen people fight/beg/bribe over the last WOW access card in a store. I’ve seen a LAN party with 20 people playing WOW, no one was actually playing with the others. I’ve seen people come into a net cafe, forking over upwards of $200 a week, not including subscription fee’s, just to play these games for hours at a time. I kept said cafe open 3 hours late one night, because a couple of kids couldn’t possibly abandon their guild halfway through a raid.

    I agree very much, some people have serious problems with this stuff. I also know some people just do it for a few hours fun.

    What I don’t get is the focus on MMO’s. plenty of people out there spending just as much time on single player games. hell, I’ve had 12 hour NWN binges. I finished oblivion in 30 hours once, over two sittings. I see that as a worse issue, since I’m missing out on the social side of things.

    (Oh, I’m not quite as bad as that makes me sound. I have quite an active social life, and spend more than enough time at work/the pub.)

  17. Brimstone says:

    Going deep here and this doesn’t apply to some people.

    I spent most of my highschool years and college years playing games. Looking back now I am still not sure what the hell I ever got addicted to, if it is addiction at all. I would just as easily define it as normal everyday life. I wasn’t all that healthy physically and didn’t take care of myself much. After a few years I decided I had enough and went on to make life changing decisions that turned my life around.

    Now with a stable job, happily married and things going well in general I still get this hankering to play games. It scares me and excites me at the same time but I still cant decide if it is good or bad. What I have decided, though, is that I am simply going to watch how much time is consumed and stop myself if it gets out of hand, which I am managing to do just fine.

    In watching my friends who still game a lot and knowing their life and habits… I wouldn’t categorize them but would say that if they had a virtual world to use to avoid a tough reality, then who is to blame them for using it? They could make far better use of their time, sure, but they obviously are not mentally prepared to do so.

    The flipside is that some of they have moved on to better things. They spent far too much time in virtual worlds but in the end, and slowly, they find their way to do what they wanted to. They’re back in the ‘real world’ with the rest of us and are functioning normally.

    In the end if I told you that gaming was a crutch used to get us through tough periods in life, then what does the categorization matter at all?

    For people in this situation it is better to let them find their own way and support them. Each of the people I know turned out fine regardless of escapism or refuge. It did infact take them years to make that progress but they did it. If people need to get away from reality then they will find a way. This is much less damaging than other ways.