Thinking about the unthinkable: Analyzing escapist media

by Scarlet Roarke | 10 January 2018

I care way more about genre fiction than literary fiction and I care way more about pulp entertainment than highbrow storytelling. And the specific reason I care is that I know which of the two is ultimately going to reach people, and it’s usually not the highbrow one.

Why? Because we turn to pulp when we want to escape. And when we escape, we are vulnerable.

Let’s begin with a simple admission: escapism is something we all need from time to time. It takes different forms for different people. What I use as an escape is not what others use, and vice versa. But we all feel the need to escape. And that’s nothing to feel ashamed of.

Modern life is basically designed as a massive stress pressure cooker that will make us explode unless we let off some steam once in a while. The very things that make our modern life so “successful” – agriculture, technology, complex social and financial structures – also make it feel like actual shit. There’s a reason people move away to the country when they’re ready to retire, or make massive expeditions into the great outdoors, or become survivalists.

Maybe you’re not ready to leave your air-conditioned and heated home to pursue a hunter-gatherer lifestyle though, and I don’t blame you. You most likely find your escapism in entertainment. And not just any entertainment either: entertainment that demands the least amount of your mental processing. That’s not to say that it’s entirely stupid entertainment or that it has nothing of value to offer, in fact, it’s often quite the opposite. But it doesn’t require you as the consumer to work to make it entertaining. Clean, simple fun.

Raiding bokoblin camps in Breath of the Wild. Enjoying a good mystery with Murder on the Orient Express. Watching Soma cook the literal pants off the jerk gourmand of the week in Food Wars. Teaming up with some buddies in Overwatch or Call of Duty. All of these things are escapes of one sort or another.

And that means we’ll never see it coming when they change us.

We tend to associate changes in the way we think about the world with big, dramatic stories. What I like to call “Road to Damascus” moments. The moments where you grasp some fundamental truth about yourself or the world that changes the way you think about everything all at once. These stories are usually the result of many years of grappling with some complex idea and having an epiphany strike you all at once. They’re why conversion (and de-conversion) stories are often emotional and overwhelming.

Escapist stories don’t change our mind this way, so we tend to dismiss any impact they have on us. If stories are deemed too shallow we dismiss them as kitsch, or trash, or “Grade B”. They don’t get a revered place in our psyche as ‘literature’ or ‘art’, they’re relegated to second class status eternally. This is not only a disservice to the creators of these pieces for the things they did accomplish, but also a dangerous mental trap to be locked in.

The way escapist stories change us is by making us inured to ideas. They don’t make us agree with those ideas any more than enjoying a mystery novel makes you a detective or playing violent video games increases your personal likelihood to go on a shooting spree. But they do make you more comfortable with thinking about the world in certain ways. You aren’t more likely to go out and shoot people because you play Call of Duty, but you are more likely to subconsciously accept the act of shooting bad guys as a nebulous “good thing”.

This is true of all media to be clear, not just escapist media. It’s just that escapist media tends to have its assumptions questioned the least because the audience engages with it at a time when they aren’t equipped to scrutinize it. We use escapist media to, well, escape. In other words, we approach it at the times when we’re least equipped to question things like “why am I doing this” or “what is this saying?”

If you want an example of the impact it can have on real life, look at the oft-cited (and probably not entirely real) CSI effect, the idea that jurors are influenced by police procedurals like CSI or Law and Order to dismiss cases that don’t involve strict forensic data.

While the effect itself is (probably) not resulting in more acquittals overall – the one study I did find on the subject suggests that there’s more of an overall “tech effect” where juries in general expect more out of ‘scientific’ techniques because technology in their own lives has been improving – there are definite things shows like CSI have done. For instance, the rate of students seeking graduate and undergraduate courses almost certainly increased as a result of the program.

And that’s a relatively benign impact: the assumption that crime labs catch criminals, that forensic evidence is readily available in all cases, and that university coursework will prepare you for field operations without necessarily having all the qualifications. Here’s a number of perhaps less benign normalized thought patterns you didn’t even think about:

-The police are all basically good people and corrupt police officers are an aberration rather than a product of corrupt systems.

-Murders and other crimes can be proven conclusively in a majority of cases.

-It’s appropriate to crack wise near a dead body.

Seriously, the fuck is wrong with you, CSI. That guy probably had loved ones. (and yes, Last Week Tonight did this joke already).

So why so many words on this? Let me answer that by way of another question: Do any of you remember Gamergate?

I wasn’t even a particularly big gamer back then (or now, really) and I remember GamerGate. Everyone and their mother remembers it. Gamergate was a shitshow of colossal proportions and in some ways now feels like a microcosm of the internet we have post-2016. A bunch of people who were angry at genuinely bad things had that anger hijacked by a number of bad actors within the movement and turned, unreasonably, against people who were definitely not the actual problem. The movement began with a cry for ethics in games journalism, and ended up coming down hardest against… Anita Sarkeesian? Really?

There’s an angle of why Sarkeesian in particular was such an easy target for gamergate hate mobs that I haven’t really seen people explore. Most think-pieces about her come from people looking at it through the lens of misogyny or white male anger, and those are part of it. But there’s also a more sinister, universal source for that anger.

If you really look at Sarkeesian, nothing she was doing or saying should have been controversial. Yes, she was making feminist critiques of video games – but her critiques are the blandest thing imaginable. The most she ever does is make statements like “women in games have less agency and are more sexualized than men”. If this is somehow a controversial statement that requires deep, screaming anger, I have no fucking idea how.

So why all the screaming anger and denial of what should have been a bland, unremarkable internet figure who wasn’t part of the industry gamergate was ostensibly angry at anyway? Sarkeesian wasn’t even being published under the broad umbrella of “games journalism”, she had her own youtube channel and website. Gamergate’s ostensible goals were to crack down on industry corruption, not to chase away outsider critics.

The answer is simple: She threatened an escape.

Remember, escapist media is what we turn to when we don’t want to put thought into our media. It’s where we go when we want to escape the stresses of modern life and just do some things we don’t have to think about to enjoy. We can be passionate and crazy about it, but that passion is almost always slanted in a positive direction and seeks to be legitimized. This is why gamers can both ardently defend games as an artistic medium, but default back to “it’s just video games” if someone tries to criticize them on artistic grounds.

Basic as Sarkeesian’s criticisms are, they represented a questioning of the assumptions that frame a ton of video games. Gamers as a whole did not react to that in a healthy way. They didn’t say “huh, yeah. That’s a weird thing the games industry does. Why do they do that?” They got angry and defensive. How dare you say there’s a problem? How dare you say this is a thing? How dare you?

We probably shouldn’t be too surprised by that. It’s a natural reaction when you look at it through the lens of trying to protect their escape.

Accepting Sarkeesian’s criticisms would have to mean that when they escape – when they go to their happy place where they don’t have to think – they have to constantly be thinking. They have to be making a conscious, moral choice to participate in a system that is flawed and needs reform. They have to make the choice to enjoy things in spite of their flaws, not because of them.

Most people don’t want to make that choice, because in their minds they frame it as a choice between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Instead of hearing criticisms as a call to think about what a game is saying even if they enjoy it, they hear it as “If I enjoy this, and this has something bad about it – anything bad – it is therefore wrong of me to enjoy it. I must burn it and salt the earth. I am never allowed to enjoy this thing again, or I, personally, am bad.”

And escapes, as I’ve said, are valuable. We all need them. So gamers, when they heard Sarkeesian and interpreted her words as saying they were bad for enjoying video games, reacted by trying to do whatever they could to dismiss her criticism. They swallowed lies about her defrauding fans, they supported movements that morphed into hate mobs, and they did all of that in the name of being able to boot up a video game without having to think about it.

Real people actually got death threats and harassment because they questioned the assumptions of media. If this doesn’t convince you that we all need to learn to think critically about our escapist stories, I don’t know what to say to you.

This mentality is part of why I find “callout culture” on Tumblr and social media sites appalling when it begins targeting media. It’s one thing to say “we probably shouldn’t support Louis CK, he’s a confessed sexual predator who did some deeply fucked up things” or “knowing Louis CK is a confessed sexual predator changes the way I see his entire body of work.” It’s another thing to say “if you like anything Louis CK ever did and have anything to do with it, you are a horrible person and fuck you.”

Framing the debate in those terms only encourages people to continue reading criticisms like Sarkeesian’s badly. It reinforces the idea that thinking about and discussing media is less about understanding where that media is coming from and what it’s saying, and instead makes it a question of personal morality and purity. And the problem is that there is nothing pure under the sun. Literally every form of populist media is going to be “problematic” along some axis, and telling people that they’re bad if they don’t reject it as a result only makes things worse.

The debate about escapist media has now been framed between two different ways of interfacing with it that make no goddamn sense. Either you must dismiss all criticisms of anything you like ever in order to feel good about liking it – which can turn you into a defender of some objectively horrible shit over time – or you must constantly feel guilty about liking anything ever and attempt weird ‘purges’ of the world’s literary canon. Neither of these is a healthy state of being.

The alternative is acceptance. All things are flawed. All escapism comes with a price tag. And it’s our responsibility to never completely “turn off our brain”. We have to, god forbid, spend our lives acknowledging that even if we like things, they could often have been better, or different, or more than they are now. And the process of getting them there is going to be messy, and horrible, and involve a lot of listening to people when they say “hey, isn’t that aspect of Thing X kind of unusual/not realistic/a bit fucked up?”

That means shouldering a lot of work when we just want to turn our brains off. But that’s the price we have to pay in order to be sane about art.

About Scarlet Roarke

Scarlet Roarke lives in a little town in Virginia you’ve probably heard of. Her current projects include drinking tea and writing fantasy/mystery topical blends in her spare time, some of which won’t suck.

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