Who Get’s to Escape?

As a few of our readings explained, the notion that videogames should be fun (and form of escape) is why some gamers are so resistant to games being critiqued for being racist or sexist, or why they’re so resistant to games addressing social issues. When I read last week’s readings, and when folks in class shared that games allowed them to escape from reality and forget it for a while, a one question popped into mind—who gets to escape in gameplay?

One student, sharing that videogames can indeed tackle serious issues such as racism and sexism, discussed the South Park game. He suggested this game engaged in serious conversation while being fun at the same time, but Professor shared that for her, this game wouldn’t be fun. I don’t know if it’d be fun for me either—the student shared that you could pick your character’s skin color and if you chose black, a text box would pop up that said your life would X times harder. For me, a videogame that makes an easily digestible joke about that isn’t necessarily offensive, but it’s also something that doesn’t enable me to escape my reality of living in a racist society. For very different reasons, what’s escapist fun for this student isn’t escapist fun for me or Professor. A game that provides one player’s possibility for escape doesn’t mean the same thing for another player, then. How can we talk about these different player’s experiences in relation to the same game if they both played with the intention to escape?

I’m reminded of a reading I did in my course Digital Africas last semester. In Invisible Users, Jenna Burrell discusses the urban youth in Ghana who frequent internet cafes. She describes the ways in which this population use the internet as a way to develop relationships with people in different countries. She discusses how young Ghanaians navigate a virtual space that was not designed with them in mind, thus making them “invisible users.” When describing the chat rooms that many Ghanaians use to talk with people abroad, she notes that early technology/internet studies argued that the internet would be a place of freedom, as the body and its implications would be irrelevant in the virtual world. Early scholars thought that nationalism and sexism, for example, would no longer be relevant in the online space. Aside from addressing explicit forms of racism and sexism present on the internet, Burrell also argues that the internet can be a Western, culturally hegemonic space. She describes that many young Ghanaians, after months of chatting with people online, would ask for money, leading the foreigners to end the friendship. According the Burrell, in Ghana, friends give each other money all the time. Because these young Ghanaians were operating under these sets of values in the online space, they were ignored or labelled as scammers, thus ostracized from the online space. Chat room users in the West found the internet to be operating under the same cultural norms that they did. They knew how to navigate the space that was made with them in mind. Perhaps they could forget their bodies and nationalities since the virtual world was operating on their terms. How can we think about the above in relation to videogames and escapism? Who has the luxury of forgetting (their bodies, the world) and escaping? Is the option to escape always equal?

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4 thoughts on “Who Get’s to Escape?

  1. I want to expand on what you mentioned about the question – who gets to escape in gameplay? I believe the key to escapism depends on how well the game offers the experience that is wanted by the consumer. Using the same example, the South Park game will offer this sense of escape/immersion to those seeking a violent, role-playing, single player narrative. One will experience more immersion if their wants in a game are satisfied. For example, I feel that I experience escapism the most during online games, especially shooting ones. The aspect of these games that keeps me hooked is time. Unlike most single player games, hitting pause will not stop others that are in the game. It is this commitment of time, whether it be anywhere from 2 minutes to upwards of an hour, that allows me to feel this sense of immersion.

    Now, answering your question of – who has the luxury of forgetting and escaping? It depends on how well the game matches the wants of the consumer. Everyone is able to experience escapism, they just need to know what kind of games they like most. If one is searching for a multiplayer player shooting game, he/she will experience more escapism while playing Call of Duty rather than Assassins Creed.

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  2. I’d like to return to your thoughts on bias in computer systems. One of the things that you point out is how one’s identity and lived experiences affect the possibility of escaping in a game. Everyone has different identities, and these identities in turn affect the material reality of one’s life; these phenomena influence how a certain game may or may not be an escape from someone’s reality. In the example that you give, you mention that living in a racist society doesn’t allow them to enjoy escapist fun in a game that is about that said reality they are living in. You go on to further describe how the internet has not been the “place of freedom” that it was intended to be. You write about the example from a reading by Jenna Burrell (2012) that discussed the early experiences of Ghanaians using the internet to develop relationships with people in different countries. You end your post by posing a critical question, “is the option to escape always equal?”
    One of the class readings that touches on digital bias and its effect on users is Bias in Computer Systems by Batya Friedman (1996). However, based on how this article defines bias, I don’t believe the example of the Ghanaians from Burrell (2012) is most illustrative of how the internet itself excludes those it wasn’t designed to be used by. Friedman (1996) argues that the term bias when used for computer systems is used to “refer to computer systems that systematically and unfairly discriminate against certain individuals or groups of individuals in favor of others” (p. 332). Applying this definition to the experience of the Ghanaians, I contend that the internet wasn’t necessarily biased towards them because it wasn’t designed with the purpose of specifically castrating them for their behavior of soliciting money. Instead, what the example of the Ghanaians shows is that the option to escape is not always equal because escapism will not always come in the form of interacting with a lifeless game. Was it that since these were real people that didn’t have an equal understanding of their values that affected the Ghanaians experience of escapism?

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  3. Thanks Bees for bringing the vocabulary of “invisible users” here. I am wondering what happens when “invisible users” engage in escapist games that imagine warped versions of parts of our/their world. I am thinking particularly about what David Leonard says in “Live in Your World, Play in Ours”: Race, Video Games, and Consuming the Other,” about the commodification of the experiencing the other. Leonard argues that “just as whites headed uptown to Harlem during the Jazz era, just as well-heeled and gentrified suburbanites travel to exotic foreign lands, video games offer its players the ability to experience and try the forbidden”. I am wondering what happens when dominant imaginaries of a user’s world in mass media (videogames, films, tv, etc.) reflect a very warped sense of their/our reality, and what this does to a creation of the self.

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  4. Pingback: Cinematic Realism or Historical Fiction? Mafia 3: the AAA title that attempts to simulate history | VG boundaries 4

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