Monday, December 19, 2016

The Secrets of Escapism (or: How to prepare a better adventure, Part 2)

Onward, I say. Last time we established a ground argument, basically saying that the meaning of the word "escapism" not necessarily goes hand in hand with its connotations, or in other words: escapism can be (and will be most of the time!) a good thing. Healthy for the mind and, in a sense, a more natural state of the human being than our industrialized western culture would us like to acknowledge. We also mentioned "The Flow", some Tolkien and the notion that we don't need to defend our hobby or escapism in general. Part 2 will tackle a few ideas how this (that is: escapism) works and why ...

Feel the flow ... [source]
Happy to use Freud again (German wordplay intended)

Freud is not the end of the argument, but a beginning. Because that's what you do, right? You take alternate arguments and apply them to what you perceive as true, in the hopes to get some additional insight you hadn't before. At least that's how I write lots of my posts: I have an idea and before I write it down, I'll fact-check it and see what comes up. Turns out, Freud had a lot to say about the subject. And interesting stuff, too. Let's start there.

So Freud wrote a rather famous essay in 1908 about the process of creative writing and day-dreaming and basically says that day-dreaming is what adults do when they stop playing and writers found a way to make their day-dreaming aesthetically appealing enough for others to make it accessible and socially acceptable.

This connects to some degree with what we established in Part 1 as a consequence of the concept of productivity and why even today playing adults are frowned upon. Anyway, Freud states that everyone day-dreams "safe places". Check this out:

So Neurosis is what could go wrong here ... [source]

So there is pleasure and there's reality. The conflict between the two results in play, fantasy, day-dreaming and so on. They are complimentary, so the harsher your reality, the more intensive the reaction. Deny yourself the pleasure principle and you'll end up with some sort of damage because of it. I'm not a psychologist (or is it psycho-analyst here) but it sounds easy enough. Actually, I don't have to think hard to come up with some people who fit that description.

At this point we are back to the initial assessment: playing/escapism/day-dreaming ... we as humans need that kind of stuff or we go bonkers.

And he isn't inventing the wheel either. It's a long established concept and something Friedrich Schiller, for instance, wrote about in his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Humankind (1795, 14th letter, if I'm not mistaken). Schiller said that the drive to play is the fundamental aesthetic and coined the terms homo ludens (the playing human) and Spieltrieb ("drive to play").

No more dead guys, please ...

I know, I'm sorry, it's all a bit heavy on the theoretical and quoting guys that died decades ago. Let's try another perspective, so here's an observation that might be able to illustrate a huge part of it: we have no problem, neither in literary theory nor in the media, to describe the protagonist in a story as the "hero", but it's far less common to do the same in role playing games. As a matter of fact, we like to be referred to as heroes/heroines (= men/women of superhuman strength or physical courage), but the way more common description would be adventurer (= those who play at games of chance, etymologically speaking).

There are several noteworthy distinctions here. For one, it fits Freud's evaluation pretty much spot on, as we tend to diminish activities of make-believe (like playing role playing games) to something less socially acceptable, in fact quite the opposite of what we define as a "hero". The acknowledgement to get described as heroes really is the icing on the cake here, it's like a nod from that fictive world that it's all right (in other words, it's us using our fictive worlds like hand-puppets to tell us it's all right ...).

But that's not all of it. The term "adventure" also describes something episodic. When you "have an adventure", you're doing something out of your daily routine ... Crazy, isn't it? Being heroic comes with obligations, being adventurous is taking a chance. And if you think about it, you'll never find a successful story about daily routine. Characters in stories are always in exceptional situations. Always.
Not your average day at the office ...
a great piece by Ralph Horsley [source]
There's also the distinction between us enjoying a story by ourselves (be it book or movie) or doing so with others. If Freud is right and we are all day-dreaming to some extend or another, it means that we actually do see ourselves as heroes. Just not in front of others ...

It gets really complex here. Take super heroes, for instance. Yes, they are heroes, but they are also always in exceptional situations (like the need to hide their identities or the consequences of being different). So we (the viewer/reader) know why they really are heroes. We identify because it describes that very gap between reality and fantasy.

It's that blue pill all over again!

Take that socially shunned Spieltrieb, translate it into stories and you'll see what flies and what not. The only scenes you see Neo at work, is when leaves it behind, Luke Skywalker is a redneck going on an adventure, Harold Crick is the most boring tax man on earth until the voices start talking to him
... Honestly, I can't think of a book, series or movie that has it any other way. Always the exceptional, be it drama, comedy, science fiction, horror or fantasy.

You got to see a documentary to see some real life, but the stories we tell won't have any of it. Not for the main protagonist anyway. You might see a glimpse of it, but most of the time it's humiliating, boring or crazy. Check the stories you like for what the main protagonist is doing. I'll wait ... You see? Freelancer, drifter, adventurer or they seek something else or they are unhappy with it. It's always the same.

In a way, that's the buy-in. It's what we want to see. A platform for our own fantasies. This is where immersion starts. But if it really turns out to be a flow, is an entirely different matter. It's part of the aesthetic, if you will. Partly this is about the techniques and story traditions mentioned in Part 1. It's also why we label our stories, to a degree. If horror is nothing you want to project on, you wouldn't like it if your romance turned Friday the 13th.

How flexible or competent we are with our stories is way more than taste and culture, though. Education, personal experience and age, there are many, many factors responsible for the expectations we might have for the stories we see and it's worth a whole damn post alone. The bottom line is that your mileage will of course vary, but there are constants and one of them is that if a story doesn't happen within certain expectations, we won't experience that flow. On the contrary, if the story leaves us cold, we will lose interest and move on.

Let's back this up a little with more theory. Here's a great post about the serious leisure perspective (which is a thing, I assure you) and the flow. In it is a nice summary what you need to achieve a flow and I'll set that in relation to, say, seeing a movie:
  1. We need a sense of competence in executing the activity (seeing a movie, you know movies);
  2. there's a requirement of concentration (sure, you pay attention so the story can do its thing);
  3. clarity of goals of the activity (genre and duration of the movie are known or assumed or guessed soon enough);
  4. immediate feedback from the activity (you pay attention and it pays of ... scares, laughs, emotions ... you know the drill);
  5. sense of deep, focused involvement in the activity (you know, if a movie gets to you, you'll be along for the trip);
  6. sense of control in completing the activity (tricky one, but most people know not to drink too much before and during, smoke a cigarette before the movie and put their mobile in sleep mode ... you know what to do when you're going to see a movie);
  7. loss of self-consciousness during the activity (if things go as they should, you'll lose yourself for a while);
  8. sense of time is truncated during the activity (and time flies ... we all now that one).
If you score in all 8 categories, you'll experience the flow. Even if we are not aware of this, it will influence how we evaluate our experiences and we all know what it feels like to be in a situation where boredom due to lack of immersion (or flow) makes us Feel. Every. Minute.


There is yet another aspect I want to write a few words about. It's the idea that we like stories because we can learn something from them. Even more, by experiencing second hand emotions through stories, we also get to experience catharsis, a spiritual and emotional cleansing, so to say. And we seek that, too, be it cheap thrills, tears, laughs, you name it.

So emotions are an important part in stories. We want to feel something, actually, we need to feel something other than boredom to get immersed.

There you go, that's Part 2

And here's what we've established: stories are an important part of us and the best ones make us experience some sort of flow. Time flies, we get carried away and we feel better for it afterwards. Although story competency might vary between individuals, there are some constants and expectations we all share towards the stories we experience. That's what makes movies or books or games successful or not. And: it's NEVER about "work". Also: Freud. 

Our drive to play is the main motivation to share stories. They are a platform for our private imaginations, but it is possible to experience all that by, for instance, playing role playing games. You might already guess a good part of it, but Part 3 will handle how I think we as Game Masters can use those ideas for our adventures.

If you can come up with a movie that somehow wouldn't fulfill the above summarized criteria (even just subjectively), I'd be happy to hear about it. I thought long and hard about this one, but I just can't come up with any ...

And you can read on with Part 3A and Part 3B!

1 comment:

  1. Random thoughts while reading your post ...

    Interestingly I think the story of Pentheus plays well into this idea. Pentheus, for those who don't remember, was the king of Thebes who came to a bad end when he tried to thwart the worship of Dionysus. After capturing Dionysus thinking he was but another follower, Penthus ridiculed the God, and his worship, as leading to, of all things, a lack of disciplin. The God, drove Pentheus' mother, along with a number of other Theban women, insane, and caught up in the Dionysian frenzy tore Pentheus to bits. And this is what happens when you have no outlet for your creative juices, one might say.

    Yes, the distinction between hero and adventurer is well taken. Most RPGs feature adventures. I've not seen terribly many that produced heroes, though I won't say none. And besides, hero is an incredibly subjective thing when you try to apply it to adventurers. Some adventurers are certainly heroes, or at least feel they are. Others are clearly out for their own gain, and would be insulted to be called a hero. After all, that might confer some obligation on their part. So they're all adventurers, but few are heroes, in my experience.

    As for Super Heroes, that's an odd breed. I'd say they're Super because they have abnormal powers, and often incredible ones. They are heroes, however, only if they risk their lives to save others. That, to my mind, is how a hero should correctly be defined. So one wonders... given that Superman is pretty much invulnerable, how much risk does he actually take? And if "not really all that much" then can we really say he's a hero? I guess Super Good Guy doesn't sound quite as good, even if it might be a bit more accurate.

    Immersion, in my case, is the feeling of being taken into another world. I had that experience reading the Sword of Shannarah. And then again when reading Lord of the Rings. And then again when playing in Telthanar, my friend David's RPG world. I didn't have it when playing in some other worlds, nor in reading some other fictional works. Some Worlds bring me there, other's don't. It has to do with the depth of the world being described, and how well described it is. I do not need to be a participant, though if I am, all the better. There's a huge amount of debate about what Immersion is. I just add that to the stack. It's my interpretation.

    Whenever someone says "always" or "never" it invites my mind to seek out the exceptions. Just the way I'm hardwired.

    Good points. I love the topic. Thanks!


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