“Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?”
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I’ve always been a big video game player—from Mario Kart and GoldenEye 007 on the Nintendo 64 to Age of Empires II and Civilization III on an old Windows desktop to Mass Effect and Halo and Overwatch and Pokémon and Portal and Skyrim and… well, you get it. But the one genre that’s always drawn me in the most, that invariably leads me down a wormhole of wikis and forums and videos, is the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG).
“MMORPG” is a mouthful, but the concept is simple: take a role-playing game (a game where you control a character or group of characters, often ones that you customize from scratch) and set it in a living, evolving world populated by other player-controlled characters. Fight dragons, explore cities and mountains, go shopping, catch some lobsters, become a hero, or just get really good at cooking—all alongside hundreds or thousands of other people. The best experience usually involves joining a clan or guild or faction, where real communities grow.
I think the primary reason I love these games is their unrivaled capacity to foster escapism. I could go play an Overwatch match—or I could wander the wide lands of Azeroth and Gielinor, or traverse the Shiverpeak Mountains from Ascalon to Kryta, joining with other adventurers and making sure to help every farmer whose cows/pigs/chickens are being slaughtered/stolen/mutated by wolves/goblins/wizards. And maybe afterwards I’ll stop off at the Grand Exchange to sell some treasure, where there’s usually a player reciting fire and brimstone sermons in wavy red text to the huddled masses.
Escapism was a favorite topic of my favorite author, J.R.R. Tolkien. In his masterful speech and subsequent essay “On Fairy-stories,” quoted above, Tolkien defends fantasy and science fiction literature by resorting to three of their virtues: Recovery, Escape, and Consolation. Fantastical fiction was less common at the time, and Very Serious literary critics weren’t pleased with efforts such as Lord of the Rings and C.S. Lewis’ Narnia. Tolkien’s first point is the ability of fairy-stories to enable Recovery: “We should meet the centaur and the dragon, and then perhaps suddenly behold, like the ancient shepherds, sheep, and dogs, and horses—and wolves.…fairy-stories deal largely, or (the better ones) mainly, with simple or fundamental things, untouched by Fantasy, but these simplicities are made all the more luminous by their setting.” (Enter hobbits.) Tolkien’s third point is about the fairy-story’s Consolation—what he calls “eucatastrophe,” or “a sudden and miraculous grace… giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” (Picture Frodo and Sam, lying on the rocky face of Mount Doom amid the lava flows, thinking of the Shire, after the Ring is destroyed.)
But it’s Tolkien’s second point, his discussion of Escape, that has always stuck with me. Against criticism that escapism is cowardly, an abandonment of real world problems, Tolkien asserts that some are confusing the “Escape of the Prisoner” with the “Flight of the Deserter.” The ability to imagine outside our four walls is how we stay sane. Escape is not abandonment, nor even a distraction. Escape is an essential component of survival and an important means of gaining a new perspective on our world. Even more, Escape gives form to our dreams. We can converse with birds and trees, build beautiful castles, swim to the bottom of the ocean, become master blacksmiths, and visit the stars. And with the rise of highly customizable, immersive online environments, Escape is more powerful than ever.
I doubt Tolkien would have played World of Warcraft (he was something of a technophobe), but I do believe that his concept of the fairy-story is exemplified to near perfection by the MMORPG. There may come a time when their immersive nature becomes more harmful than helpful—realistic virtual reality is not far away, which could become overwhelmingly addictive. But until then, I’m gonna keep hopping into my shared fairy-story for an hour or two a day (because frankly, who doesn’t need some Recovery, Escape, and Consolation right now?). So, to echo another the post calvin piece, if anyone needs me, I’ll be at the Broken Tusk in Orgrimmar. I hope you’ll join me.