Are escapist games a good idea?

Games, politics and escapism

The world we live on is a scary place right now. Let’s not pretend otherwise. I’ve been thinking a lot about global politics and world news lately. Who could not? I don’t really care to get too bogged down into talking about that directly here, but I do want to touch on some topics in relation to gaming. I’ve addressed potentially controversial territory before, when I brought up religious war and gender in Warhammer 40K, but I tried to keep it pretty abstract so as to not offend. I’m not sure I can do that with a clear conscience anymore. If you don’t care for politics and prefer the escapism part, don’t bother reading: this article isn’t for you and I totally respect that. This is my own soul-searching post and I’m fine if it stays that way. I just want to go on-record with my thought process.

What’s happening around the world?

I listen to the news, read what I feel are well-informed and reasonable news sources (so no TV news, basically) and try to look at things critically before making up my mind. I talk to my friends about news when and where appropriate, and I sign petitions online. I don’t think any of these things are really “making a difference,” but I think it’s fair to say I’m at least trying to stay up to date with things happening around the world. I wish I had more time and energy to devote to it, but life is complicated.

Living in the US, I’ve often been frustrated with our divisive politics. That’s nothing new. Besides that, though, there’s a lot going on in the world right now. I’m reminded very much of the posturing and positioning that preceded World Wars I and II. Lines are being drawn. Deals struck. Alliances made. I see a radical shift towards aggressive defense in Europe, amongst other places. Groups like ISIS are trying to fan the flames and make the world a black-and-white place. The examples go on and on, and they are always going on more or less. I doubt that will change anytime soon.

Right now in the US, we have racial tension the likes of which have not been seen since the Civil Rights movement in the 60’s. This has resulted in what I would call “racial or cultural castling” from people who feel threatened on both sides. Scared people retreat to what they know and understand, and want to protect their lives (and way of life). Whether it’s a socio-economic issue or a race issue, there’s simply no denying that people on both sides of the issue are getting increasingly nervous and the tension could boil over at any moment. Add our historically intense (this year, even more so) presidential politics and the shockingly hateful rhetoric being casually tossed about certainly isn’t helping calm anybody down.

Is gaming a responsible thing to do right now?

That’s the question I’ve been asking myself lately. With all of these things going on, is an ultimately escapist hobby the right way to spend my time? Is thinking about my D&D character or my Space Marine chapter really important in the face of escalating global tensions (not to mention climate change and all the other things possibly spelling our collective doom)? Will power-hungry demagogues get voted into power while folks like me do nothing but scoff on the sidelines? How will history remember 2015, and what will my grandchildren think about my actions during these turbulent times?

That’s a lot of questions, and frankly I have no ready answers. I’ve been chatting about this stuff on Twitter, and in real life®, and I have to say, there’s a lot of “you just can’t worry about that, it’ll drive you nuts” going on. I get it, I really do. But it feels wrong. I feel like someone may have felt in 1938, and I don’t want to look back on this and say I just wanted to pretend it all wasn’t happening on my watch. Being even marginally aware is maddening, sometimes even depressing. While I don’t expect to make any real, lasting change beyond my vote, I want to at least lend my voice to the cause of rationality.

My own opinion matters

I try really hard to moderate my opinions on hobby forums. Less so on Twitter. But this is, frankly, my own damn website and I can say whatever I like here. I enjoy having conversations about these issues but I prefer to keep things very civil and at least acknowledge views than differ from my own. I’d love to see your comments below, incidentally.

My primary thought is that we need cool heads in power. Over the course of history, fear of the ‘other’ has been used over and over to help some rise to power at the expense of marginalized people. Race, religion, country-of-origin, ethnicity; the category seems to be unimportant. Anything that could make you an ‘other’ is a potential reason to use you as a scapegoat. War, however, is devastating for these innocent people caught in the crossfire. To be clear, everyone is actually in the crossfire these days. Even with all our technology, civilian deaths are a very real concern and nuclear escalation ensured the potential for the destruction of non-military people on a massive scale is an ever-present threat. As a person with a family, working in a career I enjoy, I don’t like to see saber-rattling and angry rhetoric. I’m shocked and disheartened with the vitriol and irrational fear I’ve seen in the last several months.

I’m simply tired of standing here with my jaw on the floor every time someone says or does something insane. I’ve never had such a wicked rug burn on my chin. It’s time for the silent, appalled peoples of the world to step up and say something. Doing something is better, but we can at least start with a conversation that doesn’t come from the deep end of extremism on either side of the political landscape.

Where are the rational voices? Maybe they’re busy playing games and avoiding the insanity.

So where does gaming fit in here?

I’ve been asking myself if it’s conscionable to worry about 1st world problems, like how I can get my hands on a Warlord Titan while actual warlords are brutally oppressing their own people. Should I be working up a new recipe for the red armor on my techmarine or researching canned-food recipes for a post-apacolyptic existence? How many hours is it ‘okay’ to spend roaming the Wasteland in Fallout, while bombs are being primed to launch across the globe?

I guess I’ve determined that, if nothing else, these fantasy/science-fiction worlds can teach me a lot about what the stakes are if we fail to stop terrible things from happening. As you may know, I started playing Warhammer 40,000 back in the Rogue Trader era. Sitting here with our nostalgia filter, we can all say how great things were back then. But were they, really? The cold war was raging, tensions were high and wars threatened to break out all over the place. There was massive economic disparity and no shortage of anger, resignation to an impending doom, ambition and hedonistic vice (sound like the 4 gods of Chaos? That’s not a coincidence). Rogue Trader reflected deep wounds in our modern society. The original designers were very clear about this and looking back over the artwork and extremely bleak text, it’s almost shocking by modern standards.

The universe was brutal, gritty, visceral and deeply derisive of the callous, uncaring military-industrial bureaucracy of the Imperium. War was hell, and every world was in a constant state of total war. The problems facing mankind were so great there was no choice but to fight an ultimately futile war against all fronts at once. The promise of progress and forward-thinking was wholeheartedly abandoned, and in fact oppressed. “Hope is the first step on the road to despair,” it told us. I grew up with those words. Probably way too young, to be honest.

For me, Warhammer never stopped being grim and dark. No matter how much I read about the super-human heroes of mankind, I will forever see them as pitiable tools wielded by a flippant and incompetent elite minority. Even reading about the Horus Heresy, with all the enlightenment and truth the Emperor promised, makes it all the more tragic that his work came to nothing in the end. I don’t want to live in that world. Nobody would want to live in that dark, terrible world.

I enjoy the universe Games Workshop created because it reminds me why I care about life, my family, people, the world. It offers contrast. It gives me hope because we’re NOT like that, even at our worst. Our darkest hours remind me of the various factions, clawing for some small glimmer of safety and failing miserably. Characters like the Tyrant of Badab echo the most insane demagogues in history. Horus, the favored son whose pride and misguided ideology neatly borrows from many of our own historical warriors.

So maybe that’s the key. Yes, we may play games and immerse ourselves in fantasy worlds, but let that be a lens with which we can view our own world. Let our escape inform our actions in the real world.

So does that mean I feel fine playing games?

Yes and no. While it could be considered escapism, I think it also promotes a sense of calm and much-needed control. Something I can take pride in, on one level, while at the same time connecting me to a real global community. I have people I consider friends in the UK, Germany, Australia and all over the US and Canada, even if I’ve never heard their voices. Many of them have very different views regarding political issues and that’s okay.

At the same time, when I’m painting these miniatures for a game that plays out on the battlefield with bullets and blades, I often think about the horror they represent. It’s a sort of meditation of the macabre. Far from glorifying war, Warhammer represents the utter senseless brutality and futility of it. I suppose it may not be the same for everyone, but for me it reminds me that we must rise to the occasion when a real life tyrant arises. I’ll leave you with some words from oldest and best summary of Warhammer 40,000, taken from the hallowed pages of the Rogue Trader rulebook, published in the late 80’s. ‘Ere but for the grace of god, go I.

To be a man in such times is to be one amongst untold billions. It is to live in the cruelest and most bloody regime imaginable. These are the tales of those times. Forget the power of technology and science, for so much has been forgotten, never to be relearned. Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for in the grim dark future there is only war. There is no peace amongst the stars, only an eternity of carnage and slaughter, and the laughter of thirsting gods.

Chilling. Feel free to add your voice to the conversation below, but please do try and keep it respectful.