Video Games as Escapism IOn 2020 March 15th by monty
Part 1: A Personal History of Video Games and Grief
I want to talk about video games, I want to talk about loss, and I want to talk about my dad.
My father killed himself when I was five years old. I remember very little from the months following his death, and only vaguely recall a handful of nascent memories from before I was five, but I do remember what kept me occupied and happy during the fallout: Video games.
Please try not to conjure the image of children being neglected in the wake of tragedy; flung into dark rooms as an easier alternative to interaction. It was quite the opposite, in fact. My mother would find it very difficult to pull either me or my brother away from our friend Ben’s house when we went over after school, at the weekend, or for endless weeks over the summer breaks. Why Ben’s house? Well, Ben had a Mega Drive and a couple of Sonic the Hedgehog games.
Sonic had only been a thing in the world for a couple of years at this point, but we already had two games, a few episodes of a cartoon show, a comic book, and a series of choose-your-own adventure books out at the time that I lost my dad. The final Christmas we spent with him in our lives, I got a Sonic teddy and my brother got Tails. The world of Sonic the Hedgehog, with its catchy music, way past cool aesthetic, addictive gameplay, funny ancillary material, natural versus synthetic and anti-establishment morals (the plight of the Freedom Fighters of Mobius was my first taste of anarchism and standing up against those in authority), and its colourful cast of characters, was like a drug for my brother and me. We just couldn’t get enough of it.
It is generally expected when a child experiences the loss of a close family member that they get ‘special treatment’ for a period of time. I know that a lot of people were very nice to me and my siblings; we always lived in small rural village communities growing up, and those tend to have very supportive communities around them. I would not, however, be able to tell you a single kind act or message or person that especially stands out in my mind. The only positive moments or good feelings that I can recall are my memories of Sonic, my brother, and Ben. Given my age at the time, and the tone of the events of my childhood, it could be an interesting idea to dive into why I ended up with the memories I have, why they were so much more permanent in my head than many other events in the five or six years that I remained in primary school.
Children deal with death in very different ways; different from other children of the same age, very different from older children who may have an understanding of death but would still have a lot of questions on the subject, and almost unrecognisable in their habits and behaviours when compared to an adult. Younger children may experience death in cartoons, television, story books, and through teaching, but their understanding of it may be limited to knowing little more than it is a ‘bad’ thing; they may not yet be able to grasp the concept of the permanence of death, or the concept of forever. I have spoken to people who have experienced negative rumination, especially as children; some would find themselves daydreaming about what would happen if their sibling died, or if a pet died, or if they died. This morbid series of internalised what-ifs is not uncommon, and it is not innately the thinking of a dangerous sociopath; in fact it can be healthy for a person’s morality and ethics during their development to think about these things, to consider how they would feel, and how other people would feel in these events. Empathy is a muscle, after all.
My morbid curiosity as a child was not fantasizing about the people I love dying; I suffered from the belief that at any moment, my father would reappear. Even going into secondary school at the age of eleven, I still had this strange feeling that his death was fabricated somehow; that he was simply living a secret second life. I knew what death was in that half-decade of growing up, sure, but my imagination could still surprise me with these what-if scenarios. Maybe if I looked behind me suddenly as I walked down the street, I’d glimpse him ducking behind a wall whilst he was tailing me, checking up on how I was doing; maybe he had suffered amnesia and was eschewed into a care home to get better, as seeing things from his past life would be too confusing for him; maybe it was some kind of test and if I did well at school and did right by those around me, I would have earned his love and a chance to see him again. Once again, multimedia may have fed my continued fixation on the false death of my dad (thanks, Truman Show, The Simpsons, Star Trek TNG, et al).
My queer relationship with loss was demonstrated on BBC Radio Gloucestershire when I was about eight or nine years old. A reporter with his big van rolled up to the village hall where I took part in a theatre school one summer, to interview some of the children live on the airwaves about the great time they were having. You may be familiar with the benefits of getting children to talk about their grief and their feelings in the wake of tragedy, so it may not come as a surprise to you to know that when the reporter asked me how I was feeling about the week, my blunt response was, “My dad’s dead.” It was back to the studio right after that, but thankfully my mum was recording the segment onto cassette tape back at home, so we could relive that broadcast for years to come.
There was no end to the thoughts inside my head growing up. I cried many nights, I wet the bed for years and was ashamed about it, I felt that I was not worthy of the nice things that happened to me. I had nightmares where hell opened up and the devil was after other members of my family, I had recurring dreams where my father was shepherding sheep on a hillside with me (I even wrote a poem about that dream when I was twenty-eight http://montyake.com/?p=272). I would become consumed by anxiety and melancholy whenever I saw somebody hanging in film or TV. Each success or joyous occasion in my life would be tainted by the thought, shame you couldn’t see this. I was paranoid that my childhood grief was actually more trivial than I’d made it out to be, and that around the next corner would be a Malfoy making a snarky comment so that the Crabbes and Goyles of the world would laugh at me for being so stupid. I found out that a friend of mine was once the face of a child bereavement charity’s marketing campaign, despite the fact that all his primary and secondary relatives were quite alive and well, and it angered me more than I expected it to. I had a lot in my head as a child and teenager, and much of it would grow into my depression as a young adult and into my thirties.
In the two years following my father’s death, Sonic 3 and its companion/follow-up Sonic & Knuckles were released. We had another few seasons of Sonic the Hedgehog cartoon shows, another fifty issues of the comic, and a season of crappy Sonic toys accompanying the McDonald’s Happy Meal. My brother and I would go stay with Ben and play these games. Our family moved over an hour away to start a new life in a new county, but we still saw Ben every week, and went to stay at his place with his mum and sister regularly, though with more fervour than ever before due to the fewer opportunities. We escaped into our own little mobius strip; drew our own fan art, made up our own games to play out in the fields, consumed every drop of media we could, and it defined us. Ben was our Sonic, leading us through this fantastical wonderland; my brother was Tails the Fox, trustworthy, loyal, and unendingly happy to help; I was Knuckles the Echidna, the heavy, the naive loner. This was our escape. The world around us would be filled with changes, losses, and challenges, but there would be a new Sonic game almost every year, and time with my brother and Ben to enjoy them.
It was Ben that introduced me to Sonic and video games in general. I would get a gameboy and Kirby’s Dreamland a couple of years into our friendship, and this cemented a lifelong love for the characters we would play as – these forces for good – and the platforming genre as a whole. For my fifteenth birthday, Ben got me The Elder Scrolls III Morrowind, which began my love of that series (I still play Elder Scrolls every day), and my adoration for high-fantasy as a genre. It was peoples’ suggestion that Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series had the depth of Tolkein’s world that got me reading Lord of the Rings. My early years with gaming were the progenitor for almost all of my hobbies; literature, poetry, anime, manga, computing, board games and desktop roleplay, sci fi and fantasy, cinema, performance and theatre, mythology, foreign cultures and travelling, and even the genres of music I listen to. When I played video games growing up, I would not just inhabit the role of the characters on screen; I would inhabit an extension of myself as a digital traveller in these virtual spaces, with all the agency and control that the games’ developers would afford me. When I felt powerless in the real world, I felt empowered in these other lives, and I was fortunate enough to live in a society where these non-corporeal spaces would bleed into the real world, through merchandising, pop culture awareness, and play.
In 2018, the international film industry was worth $138 billion, more than the television, book, and newspaper industries combined. Over the same year, the video game industry generated $120 billion dollars in revenue, which was growth of 10% from its previous year. As that rate of growth continued, gaming very recently became the largest media industry on earth. But what has this meant for mental health? How have forty years of video games as escapism served to better humanity and our ability to survive in society today? How have they contributed to the detriment of our mental health and the apparent age of pessimism? How come I still attend Sonic the Hedgehog conventions with both of my brothers, now that I am in my thirties, and why is that a good thing?
In Part 2 I will begin this study of games as escapism by specifically looking at games as journeys, and the worlds within these games as destinations to visit. I hope you will come along with me, too.Over the rest of the series I will go into detail over a few other points I have touched on in this introduction: Identity, Control, IRL, etc. If you have any comments or would like to share any interesting questions or anecdotes that I may share in my future articles, please get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are having any negative thoughts or concerns whilst reading this piece, please contact the Samaritans on 116 123 or visit samaritans.org.
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