During the first quarter of 2009, Syndicate members participated in a research study for two PHD candidates at the Delft University of Technology. They were studying Escapism in gaming. The study allowed them to use discourse analysis to come up with a number of 'types' of escapism and to draw some conclusions on how escapism can be used in other studies. Below is the closing communication to all of the participants.
Thank you again for your participation! We have the feeling the discussion could have continued for a bit, but all of you gave us the sort of responses we were hoping for. To explain this we will quickly reiterate what we have done and how we used your responses. This entire analysis is still up for debate (especially between me and Harald), because it is everything but done (we just submitted our first draft).
We asked you to participate in a research project about escapism in relationship to online gaming. The term "escapism" appears frequently in the media (as some of you remarked) and is sometimes applied as a construct within scientific research. Nevertheless, Harald as well as I had the feeling that this "escapism" is a concept that is rather difficult to grasp. If you would anyone to answer the question "what is escapism?", we would expect to get very different responses.
There’s nothing wrong with that of course! We live in a world in which some of us are lucky enough to be able to have different opinions or perceptions. But when you use a concept as complex as escapism in research, and assume that people have a similar idea about it, then it starts to become problematic.
Our idea of this research project was to conceptually look into what escapism is in relation to playing computer games, and discuss this with people who play (online) games. This way we were hoping to get a more complete picture of escapism, in all it facets.
What have we done?
We used your responses to extract statements that depict some sort of belief about escapism. This sort of analysis is called discourse analysis. Within such an analysis, researchers look for patterns in definitions and opinions that share a similar sort of belief or world of meaning. People do not necessarily have one discourse; frequently they adopt two, three or even a lot more. And it is hard to find out what people tend to believe, because it needs to be elicited. That is why we opted to do a group discussion.
We discuss the discourses that we found below and show also a number of responses on which we base them.
Escapism is therapeutic
This discourse states that escapism is needed to de-stress or canalize behavior. People experience things that they want to find relief for. Or they do not want to cause trouble for fantasies that they might have. Therefore, people "escape" by means of escapist activities. Games provide excellent means for such an activity according to this discourse, because they enable players to do anything they want in a safe environment.
Escapism is a label
According to this discourse escapism is used as a label, especially by the popular media, and has a negative connotation. It is used by the media to denote activities that seem a "waste of time" or trivial. In fact, this discourse relates also to not understanding what the activity is about, by the popular media and by the general public. In time, when the activity becomes more accepted and widespread, the term eventually disappears. This discourse is highly associated with games, because these activities are the focal point of being labeled at the moment.
Escapism is entertainment
Escapism has no purpose. It is just a way of human beings to be involved in activities that are fun; to break the mundane. Fantasizing, like being a hero for a day, is what people like to do now and then. Of course, being too much involved in an activity is harmful. However, this is not escapism, but rather addiction. Escapism in itself is not harmful. It is just a way for people to entertain themselves. Games are another form of entertainment that people can do.
Escapism is breaking with reality
People escape because they are not satisfied with their real life. They want to be someone else or try to avoid confrontations in reality. Escapism relates only to these types of evasive motivations. It is not about the activity, it is about the intentions behind the activity. In this case, the intentions are negatively associated with aspects from reality. Due to the flexibility, the high realism, and immersive powers of computer game technology, games provide good ways for people to break with reality.
Escapism is an enabler
The real world simply has its disadvantages. Stereotyping is something humans do on a daily basis, because it is effective. Additionally, the real world has a fixed time-space dimension. It is not easy to meet someone who lives more than 1000 kilometers away. With escapism it becomes possible to overcome these real world obstacles. A game is a particularly good medium for this. It enables people to be anonymous, which creates a level playing field, and also makes it possible to contact people from across enormous distances.
Escapism is everywhere
Drinking a cup of coffee, playing Solitaire at work and at other seemingly minor "departures" from our daily routines is all part of escapism. Following this discourse it means that everybody is an escapist, although some may escape more than others. It also begs the question whether escapism is really that much significantly different than what we call living a life. "You work to live, not live to work" is a saying that is compatible with this discourse.
Escapism is hardcore immersion
This discourse states that it is only possible to speak of escapism when people are completely absorbed and immersed into their activity. It is about how people engage with an activity. If this is excessive and with complete devotion, then we talk about escapism. This means that playing Solitaire, or playing other types of casual games, should not be considered escapist. Playing for over 25 hours per week World of Warcraft, however, is.
Escapism is solitary
According to this discourse, escapism is not practiced in a social environment. The social environment is part of the reality we live in. It involves friends or family. Those people are very real and whether we play a game with them or not, their presence makes that we are not escaping from something. When we do, we engage with the activity alone. This discourse begs the question why MMOGs are seen as such escapist worlds, while these are simultaneously the most social.
The above-mentioned discourses clash with each other and are just as "right" as all the others. Some can be reconciled, others cannot. This inability to reconcile became clear at the end of the discussion. Some of these problems can be traced back to some dimensions:
* Is an escapist activity marginal (playing a game for 5 minutes) or only excessive (hardcore immersion)?
* Is an escapist activity something general - applicable to all genres of computer games - or specific (i.e. roleplaying games)?
* Is an escapist activity negative, neutral or positive?
* Is an escapist activity social or not?
* Is an escapist activity 'real' or not?
Depending on what discourses take the overhand people will take position on these dimensions. This means that what perceptions and beliefs people have, determine what they think of escapism. The dimensions show that escapism is everything but clear-cut.
We had a feeling that the group was looking for a solution in the end, to reconcile all loose ends and come up with something that everybody agreed upon. In a way this was sort of reached, because many responses were like "if you mean this by escapism, then I agree." This - we felt - was not quite satisfactory. We have all grown up in a rational and deterministic world, so we want a final and definitive answer, not something as "it could be this, that, this or that". Of course, some of you already stated from the beginning that "it depends", but then the question appears "it depends on what?". With our discourses we are hoping to provide some more insight. But above all we want to highlight to the academic community that it is not a good idea to use such a multifaceted and contested construct as escapism. You will never know the real motivation of a player who responded to an item. It is better to ask more specific questions, such as "Do games relief you from stress?" instead of "Do you like the escapist aspect of games?".
Our conclusion reflects the above:
We conclude that our theoretical framework of escapism
was validated within the context of this study. Yet,
we also conclude that our respondents sometimes
interpreted escapism in such a way that it rendered our
framework not applicable anymore.
We identified the different interpretations through discourse
analysis. We identified eight different discourses in total,
which respondents could apply in different mixes.
We conclude that the changed gaming landscape makes
players question the applicability of escapism for explaining
why people play computer games. For some people, certain
single-player forms of computer gaming will be escapist,
i.e. playing casual games, or more elaborate single-player
games like first person shooters. For others, the same forms
will not be escapist. For many active multiplayer gamers,
escapism is not applicable when defining why they like to
play. For others, it is sometimes applicable.
Overall, we conclude that stating escapism as a reason for
playing multiplayer and other genres of computer games
creates debates and emotional responses.
Given the existence of multiple interpretations, escapism is
deemed unsuitable for use in questionnaires, interviews and
other research techniques without definition, elaboration
and operationalization. We deem an attempt at overall
redefinition pointless, as players position escapism in
different discourses. Thus, no generalization concerning
escapism's meaning and applicability for playing computer
games is possible.
Nevertheless, our deconstruction of escapism offers ample
opportunity for researchers to treat escapism as a theory or
construct, further operationalize it and as a result research it
both quantitatively and qualitatively with a more critical
All of this is still a preliminary analysis, but thanks to your enthusiastic responses we were able to already get something on paper.