October 31st, 2011 | guest informant

Jim Rossignol is a games journalist, author and games producer.  He’s kindly provided me with notes from his next book.

We Are The Escapists

Could there be a connection between what motivates us see a movie or play Tetris on a train, and the what caused evolution of humans from wandering tribes to civilised city-dwellers? Could the impulse that drove our ancestors to create shelter from the raw materials of the world around them be the same impulse that causes you to want to read a novel or follow a TV series? I think there is a connection, and it is found in an under-identified human fundamental: escapism.

The word "escapism" is usually used to in the sense of "temporary mental diversion"; a flight of fancy – such as time with a romantic novel or an action movie. But it can, if we can be flexible about such things, be given a far wider application as one of the motive concepts of human existence. The human being is, as the geographer-philosopher Yi-Fu Tuan writes in his book on the subject, "an animal who is congenitally indisposed to accept reality as it is." We are all escapists, and, Tuan argues, we have been so since the beginning of human culture. Everything that we call history could be seen as the story of escapism. What has motivated us, throughout our epoch, is an inclination to escape the situation we find ourselves in. We have done so by creating tools. All animals change the world around them, of course, but only humans do so via technology, and thanks to imagination.

Culture is the product of imagination. Whatever we do or make, beyond the instinctual and the routine, is preceded by by the kernel of of an idea or image. Imagination is our unique way of escaping. Escaping to what and where? To something called "good" – a better life and better place.

[Yi-Fu Tuan, Escapism, p 113, 1998.]

What Tuan suggests is that we change the world around us because we are able to imagine things as they are not, as they could be, or even as they may never be. "Seeing what is not there lies at the foundation of all human culture," claims Tuan. He argues that our technology, even at its most basic, is about lifting us up out of animality. "An animal eats, has sexual drives, and sooner or later dies," writes Tuan. "I? Well, I dine, love, and aspire to be immortal. Culture is the totality of means by which I escape from my animal state of being."

Farming, then, is an escape from the harsh nomadic existence of the hunter-gatherer. Cooking is an escape from the ugly acts of evisceration of animals, and the unpleasant nature of many individual ingredients. Electricity – a basic fact of life for modern humans – is an escape from the cold, dark, silent nights in which our ancestors shivered. By this token, buildings are tools for escaping from the natural environment. Perhaps we once saw that branches and fronds from nearby vegetation could extend the cover provided by a cave, and this then evolved into increasingly sophisticated technologies of shelter and defence against the outside world. Later we chose to escape again, using art and story to allow us to step outside of the hovels and palaces we had built for ourselves, and into the strange fictive space beyond.

We’ve always been escaping, in one way or another. In Tuan’s picture our entire civilisation is a kind of escape. Migration across continents was an escape from our natural origins. Building homes and railways and cities were acts of escape, too – escape from the hardships environment, travel, or social existence. In the modern world our acts of escape might be quite different. Holidays in the countryside are often an escape from the city and back to "nature", while holidays in the city might be escape from the isolation and boredom of rural life. Escapism can be found in almost anything that removes us from the situation we find ourselves in: a visit to a gallery, a walk in a forest, a boozy night in a club. We have built endless structures to escape: environmentally, geographically, socially, and intellectually.

All this has come about because we have imagination at our disposal. Our imagination, one that is able to construct tools for dealing with predicaments we encounter in the world, seems unique in nature, although it arguably only a step beyond what is available to so many other creatures. The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins argues that the ability to imagine has evolved out of necessity for animals, who were required to model their surroundings, mentally, in order to survive them.

Natural selection built in the capacity to simulate the world as it is because this was necessary in order to perceive the world. You cannot see that two-dimensional patterns of lines on two retinas amount to a single solid cube unless you simulate, in your brain, a model of the cube. Having built in the capacity to simulate models of things as they are, natural selection found that it was but a short step to simulate things as they are not quite yet—to simulate the future. This turned out to have valuable consequences, for it enabled animals to benefit from "experience," not trial-and-error experience in their own past or in the life and death experience of their ancestors, but vicarious experience in the safe interior of the skull. And once natural selection had built brains capable of simulating slight departures from reality into the imagined future, a further capacity automatically flowered. Now it was but another short step to the wilder reaches of imagination revealed in dreams and in art, an escape from mundane reality that has no obvious limits.

[ Richard Dawkins, "The Evolved Imagination: Animals as models of their world," In Natural History magazine, 104 (September 1995): 8-11, 22-23. ]

Our everyday life, of course – that "mundane reality" is chock full of limits. Limits that we can  escape from. Flick the switch of imagination: Boom.

The chances are that your imaginative life is a blend of all these things, to some degree: music, paintings, videogames, architecture, television, sculptures, dancing, drugs.  You might, like me, be an avid gamer and take every chance you get to plunge into math-wrapped worlds of electronic entertainment, or you might only have dabbled in games with your children, or when you were a child. The chances are, however, that you’ll definitely spend some time with movies, or reading. If you do nothing more than play a bit of Sudoku to relax, then, well, that would make you fairly unusual. For most people, modern life contains a tapestry of entertainments, from Harry Potter novels to augmented-reality internet mysteries. Even those of us who are monstrous workaholics -  pissing out our careers like magma from the craters of Iceland – are likely to unwind with music, or a disgusting zombie movie.

The scale of this kind of escapism is awesome (in the traditional sense of that word). In 2003, in the United States alone, there was a novel published roughly every hour. (So around 9,000 novels were made available to the escapist public per year.) That’s a figure that only includes books from recognised publishers, too, and not those released via print-on-demand or posted by their authors on the internet.

Working out roughly how many novels have been written and published throughout history is ludicrously difficult, and earned me a bunch of snooty emails from literature professors across Europe. But we do know that English readers in the 17th and 18th century saw between twenty and sixty fiction titles appear each year, a figure which had risen to 13,000 by 2001. In terms of distribution the figures are hazy, but in 2009 there were 75 million works of fiction sold in the United Kingdom alone. The best estimate for fiction across all languages is in the tens of millions of unique titles, and that can be derived from the catalogue of books intended for digitisation on Google. The list of books and periodicals intended for digitisation from Stanford, Harvard, Oxford, Michigan and New York Public Library run to some ten million items, and these libraries will hold only a fraction of the total number of English-language novels, thanks to the mass market of pulp mass-market paperbacks across the 20th century.

Even that vast total is likely to seem very small against current information-generation trends, because the digital era has caused an astonishing proliferation of all kinds of data. Information analysts IDC claim that the internet doubles in size every eighteen months. That means that something like 988 exabytes of additional data appeared on the net in the year prior to my typing these words. This is about eighteen million times the information in all the books ever written, which we can hazily estimate is about 55 terabytes of book. Although if you were to take into account all printed material ever, you’d hit about 200 petabytes of information, according to Wikipedia’s information charts. (But what of comics? How do you quantify the information of words and pictures combined?)

The poet Coleridge was – I think fallaciously – said to have been the last man in England to have read every book published. That feat might have been essentially impossible in the 18th century, but today it’s certain we’d need a networked regiment of stoned poets to keep up with the day-to-day output of publishing.

The number of motion pictures available for our escapist purposes seems a little easier to apply numbers to. The International Film Index, 1895-1990, lists 242,000 entries, while The University of Berkeley, CA, in a 2003 report neatly called How Much Information estimates 4,500 movies have been filmed each year since 1990. This brings the total to (an extremely conservative) 330,000 at the time of writing. That figure includes only full-length features, and not straight-to-TV or short films, of which where will be several hundred thousand more to be considered. Movies seem to average out at about one hundred minutes in length, which means you’d need about 23,000 days to watch the entire catalogue of movies back to back. Television, which has been produced ceaselessly across the world since the 1930s, probably represents several times that amount. The Berkeley report counts TV among the information stored on magnetic camcorder tapes, which it estimates at 300,000 Terabytes per year, although that figure is likely to have changed as more and more cameras have moved over to digital recording.

Speaking of digital entertainment, it’s worth considering that videogames are even more time-consuming than other media, since many are non-linear, and are meant to be replayed, or restarted when the player fails. The number of published games since the first home console in 1972 (the Magnavox Odyssey, which pre-dated Pong by a couple of years) is roughly 50,000, a figure which can be fairly easily verified thanks to the videogame archive project, MobyGames. The project lists the games across eighty-eight gaming platforms since the Odyssey, and continues to track their proliferation into the second decade of the 21st century. It’s worth noting that MobyGames only lists commercially published and generally distributed games across a limited number of platforms, and does not record the tens of thousands of freeware games distributed on various platforms since the 1980s.  Games on iOS are now listed at 32,438, while the browser games site NewGrounds claims over 40,000 individual games.

The amount of a gamer’s life spent with videogames might be comparable to that which the movie-buff spends watching cinema, or the bookworm spends with books, but there’s often some extra tier of commitment. Because there is a often a skill to it, a mastery, there’s a reason why gamers are seen as something like monomaniacs. Games, of all the escapisms, are arguably the most entrenched, and the mania they imbue in players means that the word "addiction" gets thrown around rather carelessly. That said, here’s a number that might come in handy when trying to get a handle on what gaming entertainment means for the way time is spent: The number of hours the average American boy spends playing video games between ages 8 and 18, according to a 2007 Harris Interactive study is 9,761. (That, as numerous games bloggers have observed, is also roughly the amount of time the author Malcolm Gladwell argues it might take to be a master at a particular activity. Although given that games can be quite different, it might be an irrelevant observation.)

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Now imagine the total amount of time pumped into escapism. To execute such a sum we’re looking at estimating the time sunk into all the comic book pages ever flicked, pages of a novel ever pored over, all the man hours spent in the seats of cinemas, or in front of TV screens. Then there are all the days and weeks behind gamepads, mice, and keyboards, and even the time spent with pencil and dice play Dungeons & Dragons, or more traditional boardgames. To put all this into perspective, Carnegie Mellon Assistant Professor Luis Von Ahn was able to calculate that the global amount of time spent on Microsoft Solitaire (the basic card game that comes with Windows) was nine billion human-hours per year. For a final flourish of comparative statistics, it’s worth considering that the Panama canal took just twenty million human hours to build. The true figure for the time spent in escapism across the past century is, therefore, an unimaginable amount of time and effort.

What this means is that we are, as a species, profoundly adrift in escapism. It is so ubiquitous that it has at times become invisible. We barely pause to consider watching a TV show as we sit in a bar or a hotel room, such is the background hum of another episode of another show we find moderately entertaining. So various are our escapes and entertainments that any single person would be hard-pressed to list the things that have distracted and diverted them across the years. The catalogue of our distractions would fill a library.

Nor are these examples genuinely capturing the full breadth of what escapism means. Escape now offers us some intriguing, even sinister, avenues. In an interview on the architecture website BLDGBLOG the photographer Richard Mosse commented that parts of the US-Mexico border were being policed by amateurs, from home, via webcam. People were logging in during their spare time and watching… nothing. "I’m intrigued by the idea of people logging into, and staring at, live webcam views of an unchanging landscape on their home computers," said Mosse. "What drives people to do this? I suppose it’s the same lure that draws people to Google Earth. These are both a pursuit of the real within—and through—simulacra, and you are apprehending the world as if it were a computer game. That is enormously empowering, because the tools at your disposal are extremely powerful. You can go virtually anywhere without putting yourself at risk."

The lack of risk is surely one of the great attractions of escapism, but it’s the personal projection into another space that’s most interesting here. The ease with which you are able to extend your experience into some other space is alluring, even magical. Sometimes the magic is black.
It might not even be a fictional or imaginary space, as Mosse points out, it could be very real, but simply distanced. This is just another example of escapism, this time with a practical application – policing. It is simply more evidence that Tuan was on to something, that he was right to argue that we are framed by our inclinations for escape. We want to step outside, even if just for a moment, and will do so with even the slightest provocation.

As with a crossword, or a detective fiction, or an Iron Man comic, the thrill in the webcam policing is in connecting with something outside of ourselves. Imagination is stimulated, exercised, by structuring itself against something external. Modelling the world and seeing how it could be. How it could be better, how it could be worse, how it could be controlled.

And our experience is broadened, because we no longer find ourselves so constrained. We escape.

Jim Rossignol is a co-founder of ROCK PAPER SHOTGUN, controller of games developer BIG ROBOT, and the author of THIS GAMING LIFE.  You can find him on Twitter.

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  1. You can find Warren on Twitter: @warrenellis