It’s Never Just a Game Part 1- Escapism

Kratos from God of War in mid-strike. His obscure opponent is reeling, and we see his weapon at the height of its extension.

I get the appeal of escapism.  No one actually wants to think of their own troubles or the problems of the world while slaughtering Ares in God of War or destroying the Death Star.  Gaming can be our brief reprieve from Kant and accounting, romantic problems and chores, responsibility and danger.  It can be a refuge from the world, a small part of existence where everything can be right.

Taken in moderation, there’s nothing wrong with such an escape.  In fact, taking the time to relax every once in awhile seems critical to maintaining mental health and living a happy life.  The reluctance to question the provider of this good is understandable.  I think that explains why critical analysis of video games tend to be dismissed by the notion that it’s “just a game.”  Case in point: a friend of mine recently got into a discussion on potential antisemitism in Mass Effect 2, and one of our mutual acquaintances responded with, “If they want to politicize something, then let them, but enjoy the stupid thing for the game that it is.”

In other words, what we do here at the Border House threatens the escapism of the gaming public.  The duty to think critically about the stereotypes that our gaming can reflect, and about the portrayal of those who exist outside the mainstream of American society, can seem like it’s getting in the way of a good time.  If we could just lighten up, shrug off unintended insults, and play on, we’d be much happier.

It’s not difficult to deconstruct the privilege in this assessment.  Obviously a gentile can safely ignore antisemitic sentiment if it pops up in their favorite game, but a Jew will be painfully reminded of every time they’ve been treated as lesser because of their racial and religious identification.  Straight gamers can laugh at cheesy gay stereotypes, but queer gamers will be reminded of slurs tossed at them on the playground.

Members of minority groups would rather like to join their privileged brethren in enjoying some depoliticized, harmless entertainment.  We’d love to have a small reprieve from our troubles and be able to just focus on beating a boss.  That’s why it’s so frustrating when games, intentionally or not, remind us of our marginalized status.  Being reminded that people of color are seen as nothing more than accessories to white protagonists isn’t the most relaxing thing when you’re just trying to beat Ultima Weapon.  Ultimately the only way we’ll get media that reflects our existence is if we start making some noise.

That’s why we’ll keep writing.

40 thoughts on “It’s Never Just a Game Part 1- Escapism”

  1. In geekdom, it really does often come down to whose squee/escapism matters vs. whose doesn’t. The fact that it always comes down to silencing rather than listening, says a lot about the defensiveness involved.

  2. I think this is an important point for those of privilege, that while something is mindless fun for the “target demo”, those that arent are reminded, forcefully that, at best, this game wasnt created with them in mind, and at worst, has signs of “you are not welcome”.
    It’s supposed to be our playtime too – but over and over again, i, personally, am reminded i am a woman, and this game isnt for me.
    Even in Mass Effect 2, where i see Shepard as ME, in the Kasumi DLC there is an objectifying shot of Shepard’s breasts.
    And i was so sad… there is no point to the shot … because it isnt like it is Kasumi’s POV, because Shepard cant get with Kasumi… total wtf. It brought me back to reality which isnt always a nice place. I wanted to be in space.

  3. There is an incredible amount of relief you feel when you don’t encounter sexism or other forms of internalized prejudice in games.

    I can remember playing an old adventure game called “Dragonsphere” where one task you had to accomplish was erasing a scar that disfigured a female guard’s face. Once you had done it she actually asked for her scar to be returned because she thought of it as being a part of her.
    I was pleasantly surprised that the game didn’t reinforce the notion that every woman wants to be pretty thereby allowing the female guard to incorporate her disfigurement into her personality.

    It was a game from the early 90s and although many from this time are really problematic (like the very well executed and iconic Gabriel Knight series) you don’t really find similar plot lines in modern games either.

  4. “In other words, what we do here at the Border House threatens the escapism of the gaming public.”
    “It’s not difficult to deconstruct the privilege in this assessment.”
    I don’t really see the connection betweeen escapism and privilige. What’s linking them ?

    1. He explains it in that very paragraph:

      Obviously a gentile can safely ignore antisemitic sentiment if it pops up in their favorite game, but a Jew will be painfully reminded of every time they’ve been treated as lesser because of their racial and religious identification. Straight gamers can laugh at cheesy gay stereotypes, but queer gamers will be reminded of slurs tossed at them on the playground.

      Privilege shelters people who have it from having their escapism broken or ruined by antisemitism, or homophobia, etc.

      See also: Twyst’s comment.

      1. So if find my escapism broken for example by horrible voice acting in game should i look for privilige to explain this ? Nah, that doesn’t sound to me. There are priviligies and critical approach but escapism is not connected to either of them.

        1. Horrible voice acting has nothing to do with what the post is about. Horrible voice acting can ruin your escapism, yes, but that’s not the same thing as having a game (or movie, TV show, novel – anything) take a moment to remind you personally that people like you are considered inferior, and that when it comes to escapism, your needs and feelings don’t matter in the slightest as compared to people who don’t find those things painful or harmful.

          It’s not escapism if your entertainment throws the same damned things at you that you get to deal with in real life.

          And if you have a reasonable expectation that your escapism isn’t going to treat people like you like garbage? That’s privilege.

        2. Maybe you could read back over the article to make sure you didn’t miss something.

          Being pulled from immersion because of poor or faulty production and being pulled from immersion because the game insults you for not being of a particular variety (e.g. white or male or hetero) are two entirely different things.

          For the latter, the defense of the product as escapism is used to counter or silence the offended voicing the harm or displeasure they felt from a product. That we should look at it as escapism is a mechanism in conflict of a critical approach.

          -Ani8

          1. Maybe i did miss something but i still don’t see how logicaly escapism is connected to privilage. In given example about antisemitism in ME2, it’s not escapism that is sheltering from noticing it but at it was mentioned a priviliage. Escapism is sine qua non a sheltering psychological mechanism but it’s not making it automaticly connected to priviliage created perception. Imo just because escapism is used wrongly to “counter or silence the offended voicing the harm or displeasure they felt from a product.” doesn’t mean it would be wise to use in this fashion.
            To sum up: Where, there is problem with priviliage and perception it creates, to defend it some people are conjouring escapism argument, imo they are wrong, and i don’t see it very reasonable to switch critical approach from privilage and how it affects video games to “escapism” that’s appearing here only as a misconecption.

            1. I’m not sure that I understand the counterargument completely, but I didn’t mean to imply that escapism is automatically linked to privilege. My point is that privilege often helps with achieving escapism, and that privileged people tend to have a particular blind spot when it comes to others’ immersion being compromised by not being a part of the mainstream.

            2. Hi James, I thought this was a really good point. I also found the post really interesting because you construct the argument about ‘escapism’ in a number of different ways. You note both the fact that a) encountering something that reminds you of your oppression (if not privileged) breaks escapism, and also b) that for privileged people, when we talk about the thing we encountered that recalled our oppression, that breaks their escapism (or at least they say it does).

              This really had me thinking. I was trying to think of significant differences between the two ways of breaking escapism. To counter the view that the non-privileged should just shut up, since both have the same effect of breaking escapism. I have to think about this more.

            3. As a gamer who is lucky enough (and feels very guilty) to have the privilege of a straight white male, I would like to add a 3rd way of breaking escapism for privileged allies such as myself – the guilt trip.

              I started up a new RPG yesterday and in the spirit of fairness rolled a die for the sex of my character. It came up even, female, and after picking my stats I was immediately confronted with my female character wearing stupid revealing body armour. Obviously this is much worse for women, but it ruins my game experience because it reminded me that I’m not female, and that I’m lucky enough to avoid this kind of oppression, which makes me feel incredibly guilty.

              Like I said, this is obviously much worse for people who aren’t privileged, but it shows that prejudice ruins games for everyone (or at least everyone who cares, as few of us as there is).

              (Also, as it’s probably clear I’m a first time poster on here, I want to let everyone know I’m still learning about the extent of prejudice and privilege in society, and I would be happy to be corrected on anything I appear to be misunderstanding. My girlfriend is doing a good job of educating me, though, and the website in my name is her blog, not mine.)

            4. Welcome, J! I checked out the linked blog, there are some very interesting posts there.

              I think you are right that even privileged people can be bothered by “isms” in games, and it is good to point that out.

            5. Yeah, the double standard in outfits is frustrating to say the least. Particularly in games where there obviously is no in game reason for it (like in ME1 where armor for female characters was like an unflattering wetsuit instead of a lightly armored spacesuit), which isn’t to say that there are really any games where there’s a good reason for the outfit double standard, just that it’s more jarring when your setting is one where people tend to wear clothes.

              personally my ideal solution would just be to apply the skimpy fantasy armor standard to male characters too…also steer guy character design away from the current BRICK OF MEAT model but then again i am a bit horrible

            6. I thought that the female armor in ME1 was the best example of practical female armor in sci-fi and fantasy I’ve seen in awhile. It was tight, but so was the male armor. The male and female armor looked almost exactly alike. And all of your companions wore the same armor, so they didn’t look scantily clad either (I’m looking at you, Jack).

            7. Yes it was better than most, but it still fell into the outfit double standard trap by being less like armor than the male equivalent. The light armor (and to a lesser extent, the medium and heavy armors as well) for female characters in Mass Effect was less like armor than the male equivalent. ME2 did a waaay better job I think, though only for the player character really…

              no really, why does no one else on my team have a proper space suit? or at least a helmet? it’s a bit jarring to board a ship that’s open to space (or a planet with no atmosphere…that somehow has liquid water and plants and…an atmosphere? critical dev team communication failure?) and be the only one (‘cept for Garrus in his alternate outfit what’s all fixed and stuff) who’s wearing more than a tee shirt and an oxygen mask


            8. Laurentius:

              To sum up: Where, there is problem with priviliage and perception it creates, to defend it some people are conjouring escapism argument, imo they are wrong, and i don’t see it very reasonable to switch critical approach from privilage and how it affects video games to “escapism” that’s appearing here only as a misconecption.

              Comin’ back late but I’m guessing it was answered for you in later comments?

              -Ani8

        3. Laurentius, the form of the argument is as follows:
          1. If (not-privileged & face stereotypes (or objectification (or x-that-makes-up-your-oppression)))), then escapism is broken.
          1. Formalized: (~P & Fo) then ~E
          [There are also other premises in this argument (e.g. 2. Escapism is important psychologically and socially. 3. If something is psychologically/socially important, then it should be available to all regardless of privilege or non-privilege. 4. when escapism is broken by encountering x-of-one's oppression then one cannot access the social/psychological benefits of escapism. Conclusion: we should work to remove x-of-oppression from games which provide an important means of escapism). But you focus on the "if then" statement in your attack, so I will too]

          Your counterargument is:
          If I face bad voice acting then escapism is broken
          Formalized
          Avb, then ~E
          And from this you conclude:
          It is not the case that privilege is related to escapism.
          ~(P, then E)
          This is not a counter argument to the original argument. It is not a logically valid means of objecting to the original argument.
          The only logically valid objection to the original argument is to show that the antecedent does not entail the consequent. So you *at minimum* have to start with the same antecedent.
          Also If A then B is not an “if and only if” statement, so the directionality does not run both ways.
          The post uses conditional arguments (not biconditionals), the only way to make conditionals false is to prove the antecedent true and consequent false. Wikipedia has the Truth Table for implication here.

          You are saying the consequent is true (broken escapism) but there is another cause ( another antecedent) and then you are concluding that the original “if-then” statement is false. But this is a fallacy because for any consequent there can be more than one cause (antecedent) so demonstrating alternative causes does not show anything about the original argument, unless you can also show that there is *only one possible* cause of the consequent, and this cause excludes the other.

          Sorry if this sounds like mansplaining, but you brought up logic.

          The connection between privilege and escapism that is being drawn is that when I see “breast armor” or “breast physics” or the objectification of women, then my escapism is broken. This is related to my non-privilege because it reminds me of my devaluation as a person-of-that-kind.

          In contrast, when my partner sees “breast physics” or whatever, his escapism is not broken, because things-of-his-kind are not devalued in this way. Indeed, (if he were a different sort than he is) he might even find his escapism enhanced because “wow wouldn’t it be great if women looked like that!” *leer*

          The relation to privilege is that privilege *blinds* one to the escapism-breaking effects of encountering one’s oppression in one’s chosen means of escapism or relaxation.

          1. “The relation to privilege is that privilege *blinds* one to the escapism-breaking effects of encountering one’s oppression in one’s chosen means of escapism or relaxation.”

            If that’s true then you are right, i guess that’s what authors meant. Personally i am not convinced about such relation, i wouldn’t link escapism to priviliage as it seems to me they operate on different planes.

            PS. It wasn’t my intention to attack anyone.

          2. What do you mean by escapism and privilege “operate on different planes”? Also, important to note is the post is making a *contingent* link between effects of oppression and breaking escapism, it is not a *logically necessary* link, which is what you seem to keep proposing.

            By “attack” I just meant criticize, and I did not say you were criticizing a person, just the argument (and I think you did intend to do that, no?).

            1. Basicly what i was already stating that privilige and escapism are not and should not be linked, that privilige set conditions and terms that are diffrent from ones set by escapism, and if thay seem to appear together it is rather coincidence then even “contingent” link. In other words i feel that using privilige to analyze escapism and vice versa won’t bring positive results.

            2. Let me make this real simple for you:

              Escapism includes the desire to immerse oneself in a fictional world. Escape from the confining surroundings of one’s real life into a (typically pleasurable) fantasy life is the typical reason why people indulge in escapism.

              Privilege is the real life crap that we are trying to escape from.

              Ergo the link between escapism and privilege: One reason that non-privileged people engage in escapism is to escape from the culture of privilege that we cannot escape from in reality.

          3. Well done!

            I think, in addition, bad voice acting (or terrible graphics or bugs or whatever) is something that would break immersion for anyone, regardless of identity, whereas, for example, a homophobic joke is only going to ruin things for LGB folks, since straight people (even allies) can look past gay jokes much more easily (which is where the privilege lies).

          4. Alex, also for me, at least, some of the time, bugs and so on break immersion in a *funny* way. I just finished playing The Saboteur, which is pretty sexist (downloadable nudity, for e.g. plus your character automatically cat-calls women on the street). But I actually quite enjoyed it. And it is also pretty buggy. Sometimes you will blow-up a Nazi and they will end up doing a head stand. Other times you blow-up a Nazi look-out tower, and later Nazis reappear in that area floating in mid-air as if the tower were still there. But those bugs just made me laugh. Some times my SO and I were laughing at a bug sufficiently to take a screen-shot.

            In contrast, the cat-calling stuff broke my immersion in a way that made me feel badly about being the kind-of-person that I am (not in the character sense, but in the gender sense). It was definitely *not* funny. It is not just the groups affected, but the way in which the groups are affected.

            I think something similar could be said about bad voice-acting. It might break your immersion, but is not likely to make you want to cry.

  5. I’d rather like to hear the points made in the antisemitism in ME2 conversation. Is the team at Bioware who handles Mass Effect bad at handling another thing in the setting? Previous experience points to ‘probably’.

    which is a shame because if it were in the hands of different people (probably even just the same ones on the team who are responsible for the bits that made me like ME enough to buy the games) Mass Effect would stand a chance at completely lacking moments that are jarringly bad (like the sex scene in the first game that was just embarrassing, and this coming from someone who’s in a three way bisexual, very sexpos relationship)

    1. What’s wrong with the sex scenes in Mass Effect? They were very well done; far better than they were in Dragon Age. They were the best sex scenes I’ve seen in a game. Most games do sex horribly (or not at all).

      1. Oh, I’m sure it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could’ve been. That doesn’t make watching two denizens of the uncanny valley fondle each other for a minute or so any more appealing, particularly if the game seems to think I should find it titillating.

  6. I think privilege and escapism can be linked, but not always. As a white male, there are things I will not be offended at that other people of different backgrounds will. I may not even notice it (such as the lack of playable female characters) but a female gamer, for example, would. In that case, I am in my happy little world playing the game while the female gamer is reminded that there are no female playable characters. I don’t recognize that offense to her because I am of priviledge. That is how they are linked. It isn’t always like that, but it can be.

    On another note, how is Mass Effect 2 antisemitic? Neither I nor my Jewish friends noticed anything antisemitic about the game.

  7. I think privilege and escapism can be linked, but not always. As a white male, there are things I will not be offended at that other people of different backgrounds will. I may not even notice it (such as the lack of playable female characters) but a female gamer, for example, would. In that case, I am in my happy little world playing the game while the female gamer is reminded that there are no female playable characters. I don’t recognize that offense to her because I am of priviledge. That is how they are linked. It isn’t always like that, but it can be.

    On another note, how is Mass Effect 2 antisemitic? Neither I nor my Jewish friends noticed anything antisemitic about the game.


    1. Mantheos:

      On another note, how is Mass Effect 2 antisemitic? Neither I nor my Jewish friends noticed anything antisemitic about the game.

      One thing that comes to mind is the Quarians, who are still being blamed for creating the Geth like the Jews were/are blamed for killing Jesus Christ.

      I haven’t finished ME2 yet, but there’s one specific scene at the Citadel where a Volus shopper accuses a Quarian of pickpocketing him with very little evidence to back his claims, basically arguing that because she’s a Quarian she’s a liar and a thief and thus guilty. The human C-Sec officer investigating this is very sympathetic to the shopper.

      Naturally, Shephard can resolve this situation. The paragon solution is to discover that the shopper simply forgot his money at the store, and then giving both the shopper and the officer an earful for harassing the innocent Quarian. I presume that the Renegade solution is to side with the shopper and the officer.

      1. You got it; it’s the Quarians. I’m trying to get my friend to clarify his thoughts and post something here on the Border House, but apparently before the trial in Tali’s loyalty quest, there’s a prayer that’s pretty much a word for word translation of a common Jewish prayer, to the point where it’s impossible for it to be a coincidence. Combine that with the space gypsies evicted from a homeland and trying to reconquer it, and the unsympathetic portrayal of the pro-war factions in the game- and my friend, a committed Zionist, was left feeling pretty cold.

        Without commenting on Zionism itself, I found it interesting that the first response to such a critique was to silence it by claiming that it’s just a game.

        1. I can’t speak for the prayer, but I always saw the Quarians as the gypsies since they are nomadic, viewed as second class citizens, and often accused of stealing (which gypsies are). Also the way they are dressed reminded me of gypsies. The fact that the Quarian pro-war faction is not depicted as positively as the peace faction does not make the game against the Jews themselves; it makes the game anti-war. I can see where you and your friend are coming from, though, and you make good points. That’s just the way I interpreted it.

  8. Laurentius,

    Privilege and escapism are necessarily linked. It couldn’t make sense that they *weren’t* linked. When “bad” voice acting takes you out of the moment, that is a result of your social and cultural baggage. There is no such thing as universally “good” or “bad” voice acting unless you believe in some Platonic form for voice acting that all voice acting should aspire to. What is “bad” voice acting to a Julliard trained actor might be the most evocative form of narration to someone from an indigenous culture. Escapism is informed by your socialization, and as we all know socialization and privilege go hand in hand.

    1. Well, not replying directly, i see this case being voiced in three ways: 1. “privilige” is not defining everything person is, not linked to everything etc… but of course is connected to many things, and yes determines many aspects of perception ,ways of thinking etc but not everything. In this case privilege and escapism are not linked and they appear together by coincidence. – that’s my opinion.
      2. “privilige” is not defining everything person is, not linked to everything etc… but of course is connected to many things, and yes determines many aspects of perception ,ways of thinking etc but not everything. In this case though there is connection between privilege and escapism in a way like this: ““The relation to privilege is that privilege *blinds* one to the escapism-breaking effects of encountering one’s oppression in one’s chosen means of escapism or relaxation.”
      3. Privilige determines who we are completly: “my privilige is me” – well in this case it’s obvious that escapism is linked to privilige and even determined by it totally . (i gather that’s your opinion on that case).

      1 and 3 differs on the basic level of definition and understanding of privilege, thus escapsim is in this case pretty much irrelevant.

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