Why escapism in Second Life?

Consider for a moment how someone plays a goal-based MMORPG. A few don’t really care about role-playing, finding it a distraction or annoyance at best, or simple and plainly ridiculous, since in most MMORPGs, being good at “acting” a character, doesn’t correlate in getting a higher level character (old-time pencil-and-paper RPGs, however, have the opposite goal! Good role-players might get awarded extra points by the GameMaster just because they’re good at acting, even if their game skills are mediocre). Knowing the rules and bending them to your advantage certainly gives a player a better advantage, as well as good eye-hand coordination, and, in some degrees, charismatic manipulation of other people to make them do what you wish just to improve your player character (and sometimes, in an altruistic way, improve everybody else’s player characters). Those are the characteristics that can often be attributed to a good MMORPG player — acting is secondary, and sometimes only available on some “shards” of popular games, where the majority of players have much more fun with the role-playing possibilities than with actually completing tasks and quests to advance their characters. Modern MMORPGs tend to acknowledge the two types of players (role-players are usually the minority) and accommodate both, usually on different servers, but not always.

INSILICO at the surface

Second Life has many role-playing areas. Typical examples include Caledon, the Star Trek fan areas, the awesome INSILICO sims, or the vast diversity of Gorean landscapes, but there are far more. In those communities, you’re expected to role-play your character, and residents might take offence if you refuse at least to make an effort (being unpolite and verbally aggressive in Caledon will get you a few eyebrows raised; stepping out of character in INSILICO can even get you banned from the sims). I would consider, though, that most people see this just as a minor form of escapism — the one associated with the “fun” of re-living a set of rules and conventions popularised by a certain type of literature, and the enjoyment of re-enacting those rules and conventions. In a sense, the “rules and conventions” are brought from outside Second Life and used as a “pretext” for establishing a form of entertainment. If you wish, it’s like playing music: music has rules and conventions, and by following them, you can engage in performances according to those rules, which will make you focus on the “artificial rules” first and much less on the environment surrounding yourself.

This form of positive escapism is obviously always highly regarded, and rarely the word “escapism” is used: we’re concentrated in performing a musical piece, we’re enthralled by listening to a performance, we’re absorbed by a good book or a good movie. The point being that we clearly separate what are the “rules for positive escapism” — musical notation, for instance — and what is “the real world” where those abstractly created rules don’t apply. Someone might swear a lot iRL, specially when furious or offended, but be Victorian-polite while rezzed in Caledon. That particular individual will probably not define herself or himself (either iRL or even in SL outside Caledon) as being an extremely “polite” person — they just do that while they’re in Caledon for fun, but recognise that once the “fun” aspect finishes (they log off), they’re back in the real world where swearing not only is allowed but often demanded 😉

It is thus important to clarify that in this article, my notion of positive escapism always relates to the normal pursue of an environment where you can “shut out” the boring or depressing real world for a few hours and just have good, old, plain fun. Having fun and enjoying ourselves is part of the human condition, it relieves stress and keeps us healthy. For some it’s watching TV; for others it’s going to the pub and drink with your friends; for others still it’s going to a football match; a few like to read, others to listen to music, and finally, the creative types might spend hours engaging in producing or performing art forms. In the late 20th century we just added a new form of entertainment to all of that: online presences, either in the form of games (MMOGs and MMORPGs), or in something way more complex which we’ll analyse next.

Negative escapism is probably a contradiction in terms; I’d prefer the term hallucination or self-delusion to describe a condition where an individual is firmly convinced that a different reality is in place. While the mainstream tends to confuse escapism with delusion, there is a whole gap separating both things which have little to do with each other. Escapism brought us Shakespeare and Bach or Vivaldi and Michelangelo; delusion brought us serial killers and fanatical terrorists. That’s how you should interpret my choice of words.

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