The Limits of Escapism
The Modern Survival Guide #54
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. And I like video games a lot — they are my preferred escape when life becomes tedious, and my favorite stress reduction strategy. So when I say that there are rational limits to escapist activities, well… just know that’s coming from a guy who once spent 20 straight hours on a speed run of Baldur’s Gate II.¹
So let’s start with a basic assumption: everyone needs some escapist time. Whether that is watching TV, or playing video games, or playing sports, or reading books, or just sitting and watching clouds while the mind drifts, everyone needs some time to get away from their problems and just chill. The alternative is a seriously stressed-out human being, which usually isn’t a good thing for anyone.
But on the flip side, too much escapism is definitely a bad thing. If you spend all your time trying to escape your problems, you just keep gaining problems. Because the real world doesn’t care about boss fights or who’s doing what on soap operas; jobs, relationships, family issues, and that pile of dishes that’s been in your sink for three weeks don’t just go away when you disengage.
So there’s obviously a limit. There’s a tipping point where activities that help you escape stress become self-destructive, where stress-relief turns into hiding from problems, where the opportunity cost for avoiding problems becomes a propagation of problems. The catch is that these limits are probably a little different for every person, so this article isn’t a rule so much as a general set of guidelines.
With that in mind, here are six guidelines that I think define some natural limits of escapism.
Knowing the Limits
#1 — When You Start Cutting Out People
Look, if you start cutting people out of your daily schedule in order to make room for video games, TV, or any other solitary escapist activity, that’s probably a good time to re-evaluate the situation. I’m not saying you have to be around people all the time — I’m an introvert, that basically sounds like hell to me. I’m saying that if you start making a habit of deliberately canceling, delaying, or not scheduling time with friends in order to engage in escapism, that’s probably not a good sign.
My personal motto on this subject for years has been, “People first, games second.” It’s worked pretty well.
#2 — When You Can Hit Pause
Look, there are a large number of things in life that only take about five minutes to do, and result in a much better quality of life for you. I’ve talked about this before, but it bears repeating: accomplishing these “five minute” tasks is probably one of the more important things you can do to keep your home clean, yourself sane, and your problems manageable.
So it can be an issue if your main obstacle to completing five minute tasks is not wanting to hit the pause button. We’ve all been there. Game of Thrones is on, and the dishes can damn well wait until after the Red Wedding. Or maybe you’re on a WoW raid and you can’t let down the squad. And that’s fine. But eventually you have to do the dishes, because we will never run out of TV or video games, but most of us only have a dozen or so plates.
My personal motto on this one is, “Just hit pause.” Like 99% of the things we do for entertainment have a pause button these days. Pause the game and clean the dishes.
#3 — When It’s Your Only Chance
Look, sometimes things happen that are more important than the next chapter of Harry Potter, or catching up on the Kardashians, or finishing the WoW raid. Sometimes you need to re-engage with the world right now. It’s not a good idea to skip Grandma’s funeral in favor of binge-watching Voltron. I mean, yeah, it’ll be more enjoyable, but Voltron isn’t limited to a one-episode run, and Grandma’s funeral absolutely is. If you’re going to kick yourself later for not doing a thing… you should probably go do that thing. Guilt and regret don’t fade all that well.
My personal motto on this one is simply, “If you only get one shot, take it.” Escapist activities are there to form a buffer against the world, not to shut it out entirely, and certainly not to deprive us of the life experiences that you can’t get from a book or a game.
#4 — When There’s Money on the Line
Look, we all love The Simpsons, but if the question is, “Would you rather watch The Simpsons or get paid?” I hope the answer would be, “Get paid.” I mean, obviously there’s an exception for that one Tree House of Horror episode; you know the one. But most of the time, I hope the answer would be, “Get paid.” Getting paid allows us to buy glorious diversions, whereas not getting paid really gets in the way of most escapist activities, so there’s a bit of an element of deferred gratification we all have to accept as adults.
My personal motto on this one: “Dollars before ISK.”² Make the real money before supporting the escape.
#5 — When It’s Time to See the Sun
Look, I personally can survive for several days in a row on CFL lighting, LED blue glow, and the occasional glare of an incandescent bulb, but even I know that it’s good to get out and about from time to time. If your escapist hobbies keep you in front of the screen, it’s a good idea to budget some time to take a walk, talk to people, go to the gym, get some natural vitamin D, that kind of thing. Otherwise you just end up pasty, unshaven, and talking to a volleyball you’ve named Wilson.
My personal motto on this on is, “You have to go outside before you can stop to smell the flowers.” Don’t let escapism turn you into a hermit.
#6 — When the Opportunity Cost Gets Too High
Last but not least, this is kind of a catch-all. Look, we all need downtime and that’s fine. But at some point you need to have uptime, because stuff keeps happening in the real world. Whether it’s that self-help article you always wanted to write, or that job you need to apply for, or a softball team that’s missing their center fielder, engaging in escapist stuff creates an opportunity cost in reality. And that’s normally OK. But there is a limit at which the opportunity cost of binge watching The Walking Dead is that nothing else is happening in life. That’s something to avoid.
My personal motto on this is simply, “Visit the world, where real stuff happens.” You don’t have to live there full-time. But you do have to visit, or life gets less interesting.
The Great Escape
Here’s the thing; once you know the limits of escapist activities, you can plan around them. And that means that you get to have your cake and eat it too. You can binge watch the new Sabrina show and then go to the gym. You can hang out with your parents and then read a book. You can blast Zerg in Starcraft and then pay the bills. We don’t have endless time, but we do have enough to do the things we need and want to do in the real world as well as have fun in our fantasy worlds.
I’m not trying to rag on escapism; I love it. I love seeing new worlds through the imaginations of authors. I love diving down the rabbit hole of music playlists on YouTube. I love burning through a series on Netflix, and blasting aliens on my computer. These are all great parts of living in the modern world, and I’m immensely grateful for them.
A purpose-driven life isn’t bereft of fantasy — it embraces it. It’s OK, hell, it’s advisable to do the things that lower your stress level and foist off the real world for a while. It’s just that you have to do other things too. And that means we have to maintain the balance between getting stuff done in the real world and building sandcastles in the sky.
¹Ok, nerd history moment — that game was friggin’ amazing, and it makes me happy that games like Divinity: Original Sin and Pathfinder: Kingmaker have come out in recent years to keep the tradition going. If you like RPGs (that’s role playing games, not rocket propelled grenades, for the Luddites out there) and you’re into retro games, go find a remastered copy of Baldur’s Gate and Baldur’s Gate II on Steam and see how it all started. You can thank me later.
²More nerd moments, ISK is the fictional currency in the game EVE Online. Sometimes people are willing to pay real money for ISK. I am aware of the irony.