Modern life would be difficult to imagine without some form of escape. We retreat into our virtual worlds of gaming, television and internet communication on a daily basis as a reprieve from the stress and anxiety of our real lives. Escapism is, in a lot of ways, the only form of entertainment which we recognize- we move quietly from one glowing box to another, from monitors to television screens, opening up our minds and leaving our own realities behind. Daydreaming and the creation of imaginary scenarios- "what ifs" and "if onlys"- are a universal part of the human experience.
Most of us can easily move back and forth between our inner world of fantasy and our public lives- abandoning our secret lives of fame, adventure and fortune for the daily grind and personal struggle. But when we switch off our televisions and leave home for work, do we leave everything that isn't strictly "real" behind? Why do some people seem unable to abandon their ideal worlds?
All of us know someone who spends far too much time away from the "real world." She might be a gamer who has more friends online than she does at school, a Trekkie who can quote every episode of every series by heart or even somebody who secretly has a suit of chainmail in his basement. They're the kind of people who ambulance-chasing journalists like to suggest are the bane of modern society; they're likely to be sociopathic mass-murderers, never marry and die young of energy drink-induced heart failure.
Maybe so, but with so much social stigma surrounding their choice of hobbies, why do they still choose to spend so much time in a world that isn't "real?"
The easy and obvious answer is that these people are running away from something. Maybe they can't cope with the demands or pressures of "real" life. That would explain hikikomori, the Japanese term for those experiencing extreme social withdrawal to the point of staying inside, removed from human contact, for years at a time. But it doesn't explain Cosplayers, individuals who dress up as their favourite video game or cartoon characters and meet with other fans in public places.
To figure out why these extreme escapists are the way they are, we need to establish escapism's purpose. In the 16th century, Sir Philip Sidney wrote of escapist literature (specifically poetry) that "nature never set forth the earth in so rich tapestry as divers poets have done." In other words, escapist behaviour isn't about running away from reality- it's about wanting to improve reality.
It might seem like a bit of a stretch to say that your younger brother who locks himself in his room playing World of Warcraft all day is trying to "improve" anything. Fair enough. But wouldn't you agree that life would be improved if all human illnesses could be cured by picking up the right potion? Wouldn't it be nice to have some mystical creature as a pet? Admit it- deep down, if you wouldn't be ostracized for it, wouldn't you be the guy with the chainmail in your basement?
When you think about it in those terms, it's not hard to see why so many people are drawn so deeply into imaginary worlds. We're always trying to surpass our own limitations using science and technology- it's only natural that we'd try the same with our imaginations.
There's a popular group of medieval re-creationists called the Society for Creative Anachronism with a large chapter in Calgary. They create new personas for themselves, wear clothing from their favourite historical period and learn to fight and act like they've stepped out of time. Their mandate, as stated in their handbook, is "to embody the ideals of the medieval romances: chivalry, courtesy, honor, and graciousness . . . re-creating the Middle Ages as they might have been."
These people aren't just looking to gain levels in the latest RPG; they're actively trying to improve society, and themselves, by following anachronistic codes of conduct- no matter how many weird looks it gets them. Even if their members walk around wearing tunics and breeches and refer to each other as "my lord," at heart the SCA's quest is to try to reclaim what they feel is a better, safer, more pure world. And if they get to have some awesome mock sword fights on the way, then who are we to judge?
When you think about people like members of the SCA, or gaming addicts, you don't immediately think of interested and productive members of society. We've been taught to see them as unfortunate men and women who have somehow failed to adjust to their proper roles in the real world. But when you consider why these people choose to see reality in a different way, either dreaming of a better life or actively trying to improve society, it doesn't seem so cut and dry.
Is it possible that some of these people do have personal issues that need to be sorted out? Absolutely. But it's also possible they might end up being the social revolutionaries we will remember in the world of tomorrow- after all, everyone remembers the outrageously dressed hippies and their message of love and peace a lot better than they remember the nameless office workers of the 1960s.
So the next time you feel like yelling at your significant other, child or younger sibling for spending too much time on their glowing box of choice, pause. Think about it. You might just be stifling the intellectual wave of the future. Personally, we recommend joining in wholeheartedly. If you need us, we'll be at the Comic and Entertainment Expo getting our Star Trek DVDs signed by Leonard Nimoy. On that note- live long and prosper.