Play a Hero, Be a Hero is an irregular series of columns I have planned out that explores connections between tabletop roleplaying games and advocacy. The premise is simple: look at a real world problem, then examine how it applies to fantasy roleplaying settings.Topics will include things like the importance of footwear, the effects of sleeping outdoors in bad weather, and finding food when you’re hungry. There will be ideas for character bits and adventure hooks for your game, but also a look at reality and people in real need. In each article, I will include information and links to organizations that deal with the topic. I want to give you something you can use in your game, but also offer up something that you can do in the real world.
Today I want to start with the concept of, and need for, escapism in the face of a hard, cruel world. For a while, I actually got down on myself for the amount of time I was spending on roleplaying games. I think that the world, in general, spends too much time watching television, playing video games, surfing the internet, and engaging mindless escapism. If people would look up once in a while, reach out a little more, the world might be a better place. While your watching, reading about, or playing a character who’s saving the world, you could, possibly, actually saving the world.
Two things happened to me recently that pulled me out of it. The first was an encounter with a homeless friend. Brilliant man, avid reader, but lives in the streets because he has issues and can’t hold down a steady job as a result. I realized that most of my conversations with him were about science fiction novels, either ones we’d both read or ones he recommended to me. I know that he had been career military, was a veteran, and it clicked that some of the books he talked most passionately about were military SF. It finally sank into my thick skull that he was using scenes, plots, and characters in science fiction to come to terms with things that had happened to him in his life and his career. It was his escape, but it was also a form of therapy. Heroes made the decisions that he, or his superior, hadn’t. Things went in a more hopeful direction in fiction. Escapism allowed him to cope.
My other little epiphany happened after I’d had a particularly frustrating and tragic day, and I realized that I still needed to prepare for a game that evening. I had been through an emotional wringer, I was stressed out to the point of physical pain, and I wasn’t able to focus. Yet when I sat down and started figuring out plots and characters and absolutely silly, frivolous roleplaying game stuff, I relaxed. It wasn’t that I could just set aside my worries for a little while and zone out; it was that I could channel the problems into some wish-fulfillment scenarios, mix up a bit of allegory, and let imaginary people do the things and solve problems that I couldn’t begin to touch in the real world. Roleplaying games can be both creative and cathartic, and that is far from being a bad thing.
The key to healthy escapism, I think, is that it be approached mindfully, rather than mindlessly. Now, that doesn’t mean cutting out all mindless entertainment. After a hard day Katie and I both love to veg out in front of a sitcom or a cartoon that has no redeeming social or educational value. We use that as a mental and emotional palate cleanser, for a few minutes to maybe an hour, to let us rest and reset before moving on to the next thing. We don’t spend six hours, or a whole weekend, parked in front of the tube being passively entertained. All things in moderation. There’s a balance between overindulgence and complete denial. I’m able to do all of the things that I do because I am able to step away from the horrors of the world once in a while and regroup. Escapism is a privilege not everyone in this world gets, and I try to appreciate it and cherish it as such.
Play a Hero, Be a Hero is an irregular column where I talk about the intersection of tabletop roleplaying games, advocacy, and life. You can read more articles in the series here, and subscribe to a Hero-only RSS feed here.