Earthbound: Is Escapism Necessarily Bad?

As a role playing game (RPG), Earthbound caters to players who want to escape the real world and travel inside a virtual world. This virtual world allows players to fulfill extraordinary tasks, in this case travel the world using your newfound psychic powers to stop an evil alien overlord. Games in general are inherently forms of escapism or a means to leave reality in favor for imaginative fantasy. In his article “Digital Games and Escapism”, Gordon Calleja wants to understand why games are inherently seen as negative forms of escapism and wants to reevaluate the relationship between the real and virtual world.

I would like to focus on one of Calleja’s arguments called binary illusion, which states that video games have a negative connotation with the word escapism because of a contrasting binary character (being the virtual world versus the real world).  He notes that it is all too often that society characterizes video games “as trivial activities of pure waste disassociated from a more worthy ‘reality'” (Calleja). The binary illusion aides in that negative view of videogames. Calleja elaborates that this strict division stems from the fact that digital media in its infancy was compared to the western frontier. “This binary division places virtual environments (of which digital games are a subset) on the other side of a boundary whose crossing implies escapism” (Calleja). In order to rid digital escapism of its negative connotations, he proposes that we instead call these digital environments “synthetic worlds” because it better represents “the designed nature of virtual worlds” (Calleja). I agree with this statement because behind every game environment is man made code that dictates the rules and physics of said game world. Even though these worlds reside in a digital realm, they are grounded in reality by the programmers that designed them. Calleja then continues that even this proposed solution has flaws because “binary oppositions… create either/or relationships that ignore the richer middle ground” (Calleja). Though synthetic and real worlds can have shared characteristics, there is a lack of a stable middle ground where a player can reside. He references Edward Castronova’s book “Exodus to the Virtual World: How Online Fun is Changing Reality”, which aides in Calleja’s discussion of the middle ground. Castronova discusses that even though the two worlds can coexist and work together, the underlying issue is the continuous migration between said worlds and that there is a cost to moving from one world to the other. Castronova proposes that if we made the cost of moving from one world to another zero, it would be possible to exist in two worlds simultaneously. I agree with Calleja’s and Castronova’s ideas here. Because there is a clear distinction between the virtual and real world, there is is one, no real middle ground to exercise in, and two, to move from one world to the other requires an effort of the conscious to assimilate into the new world. To elaborate in terms of video games, if you could participate in the real world and the virtual world at the same time while maintaining a mental foot in each continuously, video games may be viewed differently, maybe in a more positive light. They could be seen as a way to experience an altered reality that caters to an individual’s imagination; allowing them to open up mental doors. Calleja finds the problem with the fact that crossing into the virtual world means leaving the real world completely, and that is why they are viewed as an escape from a world you don’t want to be in. Wanting to experience another world does not mean you dislike the one you currently live in, it just means you want to experience new environments that are otherwise impossible.

Calleja ends his investigation into the binary illusion explaining that “the utility of… virtual environments lies in emphasizing their creative potential for actualizing a theoretically infinite range of possible experiences” (Calleja). I agree with this statement whole heartedly because the use of virtual worlds, and video games in general, allows us to experience situations that are otherwise impossible. The real world is constrained by the laws of nature and the virtual world could open the doors to new and original ideas. Even though video games may be seen as leaving the real world behind, I like to look at it as bringing the real world forward with us. Though many think VR (virtual reality) devices like the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive are the way to bridge the gap between the real and virtual worlds, I believe AR (augmented reality) devices like the Microsoft Hololens will cause a more positive impact on the negative connotation of video games as forms of escapism. AR creates the middle ground that Calleja believes we need and allows us to minimize the cost of transitioning from world to world as Castronova describes. Though primitive in terms of today’s video game market, Earthbound is a form of escapism that helps bridge the real and virtual worlds together because of its realistic setting and ability to create nostalgia in its use of youthful experiences as described in my earlier posts.

Microsoft Hololens bridges the gap between real and virtual worlds and creates a middle ground for users to exercise in.

 

Sources:

Calleja, Gordon. “Digital Games and Escapism.” Games and Culture, vol. 5, no. 4, 2010, pp. 335–353., doi:10.1177/1555412009360412.

Castronova, E. (2007). Exodus to the virtual world: How online fun is changing reality (1st ed.). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

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