The Escapism Nation

From Maui to Manhattan, Americans have made escapism a way of life. Is it bad for us?

By Ethan Gilsdorf

The movie Avatar has already become many things to many viewers: science fiction dream, action-adventure epic, visual spectacle, technological triumph, cautionary tale and morality play.

Box office conquered, Avatar also proves the culture has shifted. Part role-playing game come true and part special effects masterpiece, its hybrid gamer-geek pedigree is as glaring as the blue skin of Na‘vi race director James Cameron brought to life on the imaginary planet Pandora. Cameron’s movie—alongside the rise of Harry Potter, the return of Tolkien and Lord of the Rings and the obsession with online games like World of Warcraft—shows that fantasy is no longer a shunned or exotic side dish. The genre has become the course.

The age of information has morphed into the age of entertainment. Games increasingly offer the immersive pleasure of movies, books spawn multi-billion dollar franchises and theme-park rides become movies that become novels, video games and Happy Meal tchotchkes. Suddenly, in the 21st century, all the geeky pursuits of my Reagan-era youth—Dungeons & Dragons, video games and collecting action figures—have gone mainstream.

This raises a primal question: does our culture’s attraction to stories of boy wizards, game nights of Wii and Xbox and zombie and vampire meet-ups mean we’re merely a nation of escapists? That we’re all unable to deal with the real world?

In a word, no.

Of course, parents are worried about their kids binging on video games, and wonder if they’re breeding a new generation of detached, media-addicted offspring. Stories of addiction and anti-social behavior make the headlines. But there’s a positive spin, too.

I’ve met hundreds of gamers and geeks and I’ve listened to their stories. Their reasons for embracing fantasy and gaming are diverse, surprising and in many cases, touching. It isn’t mindless escapism that lures them to swords-and-sorcery realms. Games teach social skills, leadership and strategy; they inspire creativity and storytelling. They provide rites of passage, a sense of accomplishment and belonging, even belief systems. They let people safely try out aspects of their personalities—often dark, extroverted or flirtatious—they can’t or won’t flex in “real life.” Games connect folks to magical thinking, to nature, to primal, pick-up-your-battle-ax and kill mentalities long suppressed by society.

For the disabled who venture online into realms like World of Warcraft, games and fantasy provide escape from pain and prejudice, and a venue where they’re judged not based on their appearance, but how they play the game. As one woman told me, bound to her walker and crutches, “I can’t run through the grass barefoot anymore. It’s something I cannot do. But my avatar can.” Much like the paralyzed protagonist of Avatar, Jake Sully, who finds joy and transcendence through his athletic, virtual body. In Sully’s words: “Everything is backwards now, like out there is the true world and in here is the dream.”

And if nothing else, fantasy and gaming let us be the hero of a story—not to simply absorb and consume but to participate, to tell and be part of our own heroic narrative. That thread to our heroic lives has been largely lost. The minutiae of our modern, mundane troubles—politics, jobs, communication, relationships, family—are a bore and a chore and wear us down. Dissatisfied with ATMs, speed limits and mediated experiences, who wouldn’t prefer trying his or her luck with a broad-sword against a horde of orcs?

Which explains why people read Tolkien and J.K. Rowling, play role-playing games, watch Avatar and immerse themselves in other richly imagined make-believe realms. These books, games and movies give us hope in hopeless times. Retreating to fantasy helps people gather strength to face the real world. It keeps the spirit alive and kicking—and inspires us to confront our problems.

Indeed, when you read heroic stories like Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, you sense that if a mere hobbit or boy wizard can withstand evil, why not you? If the little guy can enter Mordor and destroy the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom, then perhaps we can take on our own problems, no matter how real or imaginary they may seem.

If in a galaxy far, far away, the Na‘vi, armed with spears and bows and riding wild beasts, can defeat the evils of technology and so-called progress, then perhaps there is hope for us. And that would be a fantasy come true.

Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms. Article Courtesy of

By Jacob Shafer

Recently, millions of Americans had two profound experiences. The first involved walking into a darkened room, donning a pair of thick, plastic glasses and being transported via eye-poppingly vivid three-dimensional images to a fantastic, fictional planet. The second involved a massive earthquake that leveled a country here on Earth, killing and displacing thousands.

It’s tempting to view the second experience as a wake-up call, a slap to the face that stirred us from our collective stupor. And, as evidenced by the outpouring of sympathy and donations, many Americans were moved by the events in Haiti.

But when this pervasive sense of awareness and social responsibility fades—and it will—we’ll be left with that much more enduring American tradition: escapism. Avatar will leave theaters (though not before raking in billions of dollars), but there will be another piece of meretricious entertainment to take its place.

I say this as someone who falls frequently into the embrace of escapism. Like most people, the love affair began in childhood, a time when elaborate fantasies offered an irresistible alternative to the banal complexities of adulthood, a chance to play out dreams and power scenarios impossible in the “real world.”

This impetus never left me; it never leaves any of us. But there’s a difference between enjoying the occasional escape from reality and wallowing in escapism to the point where it becomes reality. When that line is crossed, we have to take a long, honest look at the content of our escapism and what, exactly, it’s teaching us.

First, it’s important to distinguish between mythology and escapism, although the two are inextricably linked. Every culture has myths that are used to impart both specific historical information and overarching moral truths. The power and allure of allegories is timeless and undeniable, and there’s nothing wrong with using them to teach, illuminate and, yes, entertain.

Many people call films like Avatar—and Star Wars and Lord of the Rings before it—modern myths. In a way they are. They contain universal themes, most notably what writer Joseph Campbell called the “hero’s journey.” We connect with these stories because we see pieces of ourselves—simplified, aggrandized pieces—in them.

Yet what comes out of these modern myths is almost always a cartoonishly overblown affirmation of the Great Man, the power of the hero to swoop down and save the day. It’s repeated in video games, in TV shows, in superhero comics and the films spun from them. We have become a nation of hero-worshippers, waiting for the messiah to arrive and solve our problems with a wave of his hand or a swing of his lightsaber.

The fact that most of our popular modern myths involve characters from other worlds and dimensions only reinforces the idea that salvation won’t come from within, that our hope lies in surrendering to an outside force, or at most participating from a safe, insulated distance.

But surely rational adults can distinguish between fiction and reality. They may cheer when Jake Sully and his dragon defeat the forces of evil, but they know it’s only a movie.

OK then, a real world example: How many people voted for Barack Obama with a secret—or not-so-secret—hope that he was The One, the leader who would finally and single-handedly unite us, protect us and make all the wrongs right? And how many people believed that their vote was enough, that once the election was over they could sit back and watch the change unfold, much the way we buy a movie ticket and expect that we’ve fulfilled our end of the entertainment bargain?
My guess is: more than would care to admit it.

Escapism will never leave us completely. Part of the joy of being human is exploring the possibilities of the mind; as Einstein famously said, “imagination is more important than knowledge.” But when our imagination, our great mental capacity, is turned so often away from the challenges of our time, we lose something. Every hour we spend watching fictional heroes solve fictional problems is an hour we aren’t spending solving the problems that await us when we take off the 3-D glasses and emerge, blinking and dazed, into the bright glare of a very real world.