Obsession, Escapism, Wish Fulfillment – Proper Media Consumption pt. 1

Obsession is weird, but interesting.

This post might feel a bit disconnected from the rest of the blog, which I overwhelmingly use just for postmortems and the occasional coding rants – Please bear with me though.  I think what I plan on doing is writing several successive posts (sometime) that expand on the stuff here and organize it into more of a coherent theory.

There are two things going on with an initial post of this nature : firstly, I want you to have a good preview of the topic so if you think it’s intriguing you can go off and do your own research, and secondly, I want you to know where I’m coming from so in the future you’re better equipped to make intelligent decisions about whether or not you agree with me and can see exactly where I’ve gone right or wrong.

I’ve been thinking lately about the way I play games – specifically what makes me like or dislike a game outside of the content of a game itself.  It’s tough to deconstruct behaviors or do research in cases like this for several reasons -

a) There’s a huge variability in the games I play, and
b) It’s tough for me to reassess a game after I’ve already formed an opinion on it.

And of course, complicating the above,
c) There’s only so much objective research I can do on a game analysis without losing out on the really important bits.

I’m an introverted person, and I do the overwhelming majority of my game theory research by deconstructing my own feelings – it’s something that, in my humble opinion, I have gotten quite good at.  I don’t mean deconstruction in the literary sense but rather that I start with a finished observation and try and break it down into smaller ideas instead of starting with smaller ideas and using them to predict what I should be seeing.  I start with the forest and work my way down to the trees, not the other way around, ie. interpretation rather than correction.

Whether or not that’s acceptable methodology for analysis is a subject for another post, but the point is that because I think about games this way, when I objectively divorce myself from the experience or feelings I’m having during a game I find it much more difficult to draw useful conclusions.  Hence the difficulty resolving c) and b).  Sometimes I’m not sure how much my views on a game are influenced by the way that I play a game and how much they reflect the actual quality, which always makes me nervous whenever I research topics like this.

I don’t like escapism; I don’t think it’s healthy, and I don’t think it really satisfies you as a consumer.  I’ve talked about this a little bit in the past, but I usually take the view that when a game, movie, or book draws you into its world so much that you want to disregard the real world, you’re sort of missing the point of the whole experience.  Reality is satisfying.  I know that there are a number of people that fundamentally disagree with me on this point, and even among the people that do agree with me, a large number don’t take the reasoning quite as far as I do, but again, that’s a subject for another post.

Suffice to say that when I encounter media that makes me want to obsess over it, my first reaction is usually to ask myself, “what do I really want, and how do I get it?”  If I’m drawn to a game, it’s probably because there’s something that I could be doing or exploring in the real world that I’m not right now.

So having just said all of that, you would probably expect me to advocate for a balanced consumption of media with other activities – read a chapter of a book, play a half-hour of a game, etc… then go out and meet some friends and do real world stuff.  That should be healthy.  I would expect this to be my view as well.

I’m finding that it isn’t.  Overwhelmingly, when I consume media in small chunks, it doesn’t have the same impact on me as when I obsess over it.

For instance, I’ve played through somewhere between 4 and 6 hours of Aquaria, maybe the first quarter of the game, mostly because I felt obligated to (next post).  I am fairly certain it’s a good game.  I am pretty sure that it is a game I should like.  In fact, it should be one of my favorite games.  Almost every element of the narrative and mechanics excites me on a very deep level.

But I never actually, you know, finished it.  Because I played it responsibly, and balanced it with my classes and went out and did other stuff every other night.  So of course it couldn’t hold my interest because I never really gave it my interest beyond a very cursory glance.

I read through Fallout Equestria, a massive 625,000 word novel, in less than three days, then I spent another two or three thinking about pretty much nothing else except the universe : it was a vastly different experience to Aquaria.  Looking back, I have issues with the book, both in its execution and its content, but I definitely enjoyed it more than Aquaria, and I definitely remember the experience with a lot more fondness – I learned a lot about my own worldview during that period, and I can say that because of it, Fallout Equestria is honestly one of my favorite books.

Of course, the material had a great deal to do with that - Fallout Equestria had to actually be a good book.  And of course, I did move on and stop thinking about the universe, if that step never happened I’d be inclined to think there was something wrong.  I allowed myself to become obsessed, let it linger for a while, figured out what I was actually obsessed with, and then came up with a final analysis.  But that small period where I allowed the story to become reality was an integral part of the experience, and that’s still slightly confusing to me.

I know from personal experience that escapism makes my life worse and me unhappy, and that media application makes my life better and me happier, but whenever I try and throw obsession out of the window in totality and just focus on the application bit, I ruin the whole thing and get neither escapism or morals.

Games (and media in general) are good at communicating because they employ escapism and wish fulfillment.  That allows them to do some special things.  Of course all of this makes them very very dangerous, but not so dangerous that we don’t want to occasionally trust them with our time.  Media is special; unlike almost any other medium it lets us actually experience empathy for another person’s worldview.  But in order to take part in that, you need to be willing to temporarily lose your grip on your own worldview; to take the experience at face value and treat it like reality, and leave off all of your processing and analysis for later.

Perhaps part of the problem is that we spend a lot of time rejecting that to the point that we throw up a lot of blockades.  We go into art like connoisseurs rather than explorers – we treat media like some type of abridged essay – we skim it just long enough to get the general idea, very quickly form an opinion on whether or not we like it, and then jump right back out.

My question then is whether or not there exists an objective sweet spot somewhere between healthy consumption and pure escapism, and more importantly, can we use that line to correct some of the bad habits we have when we engage with games in the first place?

When people talk about the “good old day”‘ of gaming, what I suspect they really mean is, “back when I was able to actually devote my whole attention to a medium on its own terms without analyzing it and forming a bunch of half-baked opinions on every individual part of it.”  There was no good old day for games, you were just a better player.

Which I know isn’t exactly helpful, but I’ll go into more detail about that at some undisclosed distant time.  I do have a number of theories on the subject, but like anything else, it’s complicated, and I think I want to cement them more in my own mind before I talk about them.  Until then, maybe you have some ideas?  How do you play games?

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