The great escape

Digital technology allows us to lose ourselves in ever more immersive fantasy worlds. But what are we fleeing from?

by 2,600 words
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Fans of the fantasy game Portal 2 attending the London Film and Comic Con, July 2011.  Photo by Barry Lewis/Corbis

Fans of the fantasy game Portal 2 attending the London Film and Comic Con, July 2011. Photo by Barry Lewis/Corbis

Damien Walter is a writer, columnist for The Guardian and activist for reading and literacy. He teaches creative writing at the University of Leicester.

The only people who hate escapism are jailers, said the essayist and Narnia author C S Lewis. A generation later, the fantasy writer Michael Moorcock revised the quip: jailers love escapism — it’s escape they can’t stand. Today, in the early years of the 21st century, escapism — the act of withdrawing from the pressures of the real world into fantasy worlds — has taken on a scale and scope quite beyond anything Lewis might have envisioned.

I am a writer and critic of fantasy, and for most of my life I have been an escapist. Born in 1977, the year in which Star Wars brought cinematic escapism to new heights, I have seen TV screens grow from blurry analogue boxes to high-definition wide-screens the size of walls. I played my first video game on a rubber-keyed Sinclair ZX Spectrum and have followed the upgrade path through Mega Drive, PlayStation, Xbox and high-powered gaming PCs that lodged supercomputers inside households across the developed world. I have watched the symbolic language of fantasy — of dragons, androids, magic rings, warp drives, haunted houses, robot uprisings, zombie armageddons and the rest — shift from the guilty pleasure of geeks and outcasts to become the diet of mainstream culture.

And I am not alone. I’m emblematic of an entire generation who might, when our history is written, be remembered first and foremost for our exodus into digital fantasy. Is this great escape anything more than idle entertainment — designed to keep us happy in Moorcock’s jail? Or is there, as Lewis believed, a higher purpose to our fantastical flights?

Fans of J R R Tolkien line up squarely behind Lewis. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (1954) took the fantasy novel — previously occupied with moralising children’s stories — and created an entire world in its place. Middle Earth was no metaphor or allegory: it was its own reality, complete with maps, languages, history and politics — a secondary world of fantasy in which readers became fully immersed, escaping primary reality for as long as they continued reading. Immersion has since become the mantra of modern escapist fantasy, and the creation of seamless secondary worlds its mission. We hunger for an escape so complete it borders on oblivion: the total eradication of self and reality beneath a superimposed fantasy.

Language is a powerful technology for escape, but it is only as powerful as the literacy of the reader. Not so with cinema. Star Wars marked the arrival of a new kind of blockbuster film, one that leveraged the cutting edge of computer technology to make on-screen fantasy ever more immersive. Then, in 1991, with James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, computer-generated imagery (CGI) came into its own, and ‘morphing’ established a new standard in fantasy on screen. CGI allowed filmmakers to create fantasy worlds limited only by their imaginations. The hyperreal dinosaurs of Jurassic Park (1993) together with Toy Story (1995), the first full-length CGI feature, unleashed a tidal wave of CGI blockbusters from The Matrix (1999) to Avatar (2009). The seamless melding of reality and fantasy that CGI delivers has transformed our expectations of cinema, and fuelled a ravenous appetite for escape.

The world is not made of atoms. It is made of the stories we tell about atoms

Video games might have seemed an unlikely escapist technology in the early days of Pong and Pac-Man. It takes a mighty effort of will to see the collection of pixels hovering at the bottom of the screen in Space Invaders as the last star-fighter of mankind. But the working of Moore’s Law — which holds that computing power doubles every two years — meant that, by the early 1990s, video games were jockeying with film to lead the escapism industry. That decade also saw the first waves of cyber-utopianism, although the early promise of virtual reality headsets and internet multi-user domains failed to materialise. Instead, it was our thumbs that did the talking through the control pads of home games consoles with high-definition screens. Super Mario Bros, Sonic the Hedgehog and Lara Croft as Tomb Raider helped to transform video games from childish obsession to mainstream cultural phenomenon.

Today, video-game franchises such as Halo, Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty power an industry worth an estimated $65 billion globally in 2011. But money is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to measuring the impact of gaming on contemporary culture and society at large. The American video-game designer and researcher Jane McGonigal estimates that there are 500 million ‘virtuoso gamers’ (people who have spent more than 10,000 hours in game worlds) active today. She argues that this number will increase threefold over the next decade: around a fifth of the world’s population will spend as much time in digitally generated worlds as they do in full-time education. We’re embarking on a daring social experiment: the immersion of an entire generation into digitally generated escapist fantasies of unprecedented depth and complexity. And the most remarkable aspect of this potential revolution is how little consideration we are giving it.

As the technology of escape continues to accelerate, we’ve begun to see an eruption of fantasy into reality. The augmented reality of Google Glass, and the virtual reality of the games headset Oculus Rift (resurrected by the power of crowd-funding) present the very real possibility that our digital fantasy worlds might soon be blended with our physical world, enhancing but also distorting our sense of reality. When we can replace our own reflection in the mirror with an image of digitally perfected beauty, how will we tolerate any return to the real? Perhaps, in the end, we will find ourselves, not desperate to escape into fantasy, but desperate to escape from fantasy. Or simply unable to tell which is which.

Some might argue we are already there. In the sci-fi visions of the American futurist Ray Kurzweil and other prophets of post-humanism, we will upload our minds to silicon substrates, there to be accelerated into super-intelligence and the looming technological singularity. It’s a vision of religious communion now widely parodied as ‘The Rapture of the Nerds’.

And yet the digital technologies of today are just the latest in a long progression of tools for the expression of the imagination. We are escaping, not into other worlds, but into imagination. The question is, what are we escaping from? Is it reality? (Whatever that is.)

Philosophers have argued for millennia about the nature of reality, an argument that can be broadly classified within two schools of thought: materialism and idealism. Materialist philosophies contend that reality is composed of matter and energy, and that all observable phenomena, including mind and consciousness, arise from material interactions. For many of us, materialism is the only theory of reality that can or should be given any credence: it underlies all of the scientific and rationalist perspectives prevalent in the world today. What is reality made of, if not atoms, or their constituent particles?

Idealists, meanwhile, take their cues elsewhere. ‘The world is made of stories, not of atoms,’ said the American poet Muriel Rukeyser in 1968. Her words are a powerful expression of a world-view that materialism cannot accommodate. Idealism argues that reality is constructed by the mind. Consciousness does not arise from material interactions, it is universal; and from consciousness arise all of the material phenomena in the universe, including atoms. The world is not made of atoms. It is made of the stories we tell about atoms.

In material philosophy, the act of escaping into our imagination is at best a temporary retreat from reality into fantasy. But in the idealist view, the same act of imagination can reshape our reality.

In the modern world, the argument between materialism and idealism has manifested most powerfully in the opposition between science and religion. Science currently has the upper hand, less because of abstract philosophical arguments than because the huge material benefits of science and technology — tangible products of the Age of Reason — have established a materialist world-view as the de facto belief of almost all citizens of the technologically developed world. Moreover, the Western culture of materialist consumer capitalism is subsuming, through globalisation, all the diverse cultures of our world. The dominant global monoculture is a culture of materialism.

We see in the New Atheist arguments of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett a triumph of materialist philosophy so complete that even its opponents argue on its terms. God has no place in materialism. There is no higher being of matter and energy responsible for creating matter and energy. The religious fundamentalists who attempt to answer the sceptical claims of New Atheism are themselves rooted in a materialist world-view, leaving a rearguard of idealists to argue, weakly, that God is just a very old word for consciousness and imagination.

Idealism has fared better in the arts, where existentialism and postmodernism have attempted to reinstate imagination at the centre of reality. The French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s system of deconstruction, for example, returns us to the idea of reality as a construct that must be broken down to its basic building blocks in language before it can be understood. But while such ideas have dominated academic studies of the arts and humanities, they hold little sway beyond those strongholds.

The materialist society of 1980s Britain had a hierarchy, and we were the bottom-rung

It is in the popular culture of escapist fantasy that idealism has been reborn, and imagination re-established its footing. When the American comic book writer Stan Lee was looking for ideas for Marvel stories that would ignite the imagination of kids in 1960s America, the gods of ancient myth and legend became a natural source of inspiration. Beside resurrected Norse gods such as Thor and Loki, Lee created a new pantheon of super-powered heroes to entertain his audience. Decades later, the modern gods Spider-Man, Iron Man, Wolverine and Captain America dominate the silver screen, attracting audiences in their millions to worship in the darkened temples of cinemas. And when the director George Lucas set out to make Star Wars, he built it around the American mythographer Joseph Campbell's ‘monomyth’ — a distillation of the essential values of thousands of religious stories from around the world.

There is a long tradition of British writers for whom the resurrection of spiritual myths forms the heart of their own ‘mythopoeic’ work. C S Lewis’s mythology was rooted in Christian allegory, while Tolkien delved back further into the mythic history of the British Isles to a landscape of magic and witchery that has since inspired J K Rowling. Thanks to Harry Potter, there is a generation of children and young adults for whom the ancient rituals of magic are as much a part of life as video games. One of this summer's most anticipated novels was Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, billed as a fairy tale for grown-ups. From his The Sandman comic-book series to his novel American Gods (2001), Gaiman has made something of a specialism of refitting the world’s mythologies to contemporary culture.

There’s a deep irony in the fact that our rational, secular society, driven by science and technology, is emptying out its churches only to reconstruct them as cinemas. Replacing the ‘good book’ with films about Harry Potter and hunger games; reconstructing the inner worlds of our imagination — once the realm of prayer and ascetic meditation — inside the digital domain of computers: it seems that no matter how hard we try to convince ourselves that reality is only material, we continue to reach for the ideal forms that lie beyond. Are we simply recasting age-old delusions for the modern era?

The reality I was escaping from as a child was a housing estate in the London commuter belt. A cluster of low-rise tower blocks and prefab houses thrown up, like hundreds of other sink estates around the country, for the swelling population of post-war Britain. By the 1980s, estates had become home to the nation’s burgeoning underclass. Work was disappearing to other countries, in a process of globalisation that is still accelerating today. The social policies of the welfare state, public housing, education and health, which had helped to make Britain more equal, were being unwound by a Thatcherite government whose only interest in the poor was as a flexible workforce.

None of which was easily knowable to the youth of Britain’s housing estates. But we could see a simpler truth. On our TV screens and in the shopping centres was the abundant material wealth of consumer capitalism: but it wasn’t for us. Just a few streets away were the suburban homes of middle-class workers. Those weren’t for us either. And the gated communities of the truly wealthy, their country clubs and luxury hotels, were as good as invisible. The hints of them that we did manage to see made it abundantly clear that these weren’t for us either. The materialist society of 1980s Britain had a hierarchy, and we were the bottom-rung.

From the perspective of the underclass, material reality is bleak. You’re a survivor of blind evolution, stranded on a muddy rock under the harsh glare of a nuclear sun. Beyond that is an infinite universe of inert matter, dust and devastating radiation that is neither for nor against you, but simply unaware of your existence. There is no God. There is no heaven, or eternal reward. There is only another shift in the factory, or the call centre, or McDonald’s — if you're lucky. At its determinist extreme, materialist philosophy enforces a strikingly rigid and oppressive social hierarchy.

Faced with your own inferiority in this hierarchy, why wouldn't you plunge into fantasy? Invest your hopes in the teleporter caprices of reality TV, where faux victory in The X Factor or The Apprentice can raise you to the neon-lit stratosphere of celebrity. Light up a spliff and switch on your Xbox. Lose yourself in the colourful pages of comic books. Fulfil your dreams of being beautiful, wealthy, heroic — the centre of a universe built just for you! — and ignore the world beyond your bedsit, in which you are underpaid, unloved and anonymous. But all the while these escapist fantasies are fed by an industry that seeks merely to commodify our dreams and then sell them back to us, stripped of meaning, emptied of the true potential of human imagination. We remain in jail, only dreaming of freedom.

The real lesson that poverty teaches is that our society is shaped for those with power. Yet in this, paradoxically, there might still be some hope for our great escape, because all escapism takes us to worlds created through an act of imagination. Hour after hour, we practise what it means to be creators of our own worlds: through the empowered actions of a heroes such as Luke Skywalker, or The Terminator’s Sarah Connor; through the creation of our own heroes in games such as World of Warcraft; or even by exploring our own God-like creativity in SimCity or Minecraft.

Do our fantasy worlds, then, help us to escape, not from reality, but from our own limitations? Is it possible that we might bring back from our escapist adventures a renewed sense of our own power and creative potential as human beings? In a world that demands ever more of both, this could the highest function of escapism, and the calling that we should demand of it.

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  • rameshraghuvanshi

    Fanatics are not mere escapism or escape but most essential part of imagination.All great writer are . passionately lovers of fantasies.Scientists may called fanatics as childish game or escapism but fanatics enrich human life.Fanatics are part and parcel of our life.Without fanatics our life become barren I further say our civilization is stand on fanatics.

  • avatar

    Rich kids like video-games too.

    • Damien

      You know, I absolutely meant to add a paragraph addressing that, and I forgot. I think it's social collapse, or fragmentation, that's the problem. And rich kids experience that in an equal but different way.

  • ArchiesBoy

    The real world gets so absolutely shitty that it's no wonder we want to escape it. Somewhere in the world, something totally evil is happening to someone every second of the day and night. We are usually not conscious of that fact. We usually live in the world of our circle of influence. But often the real world breaks in, especially if we watch TV news. Thankfully there's Middle Earth, Narnia, sci-fi, etc.


    Fantasy allows our brain to fall in love with itself. Which becomes a problem if someone you love leaves, causing mental breakdown because the mind cannot analyze the enormity of love and loss. I have learned to exercise my heart consciousness daily, even when it isn't needed, to remain prepared for the inevitable losses that fill this life, as it is lived by me. Being aware of the limitations of my brain has opened my world to the infinity of love, joy and grief. I was a seeker of love in the world of sight, and projected dreams, but I found love in the enormity of my existence.

    May peace and compassion be your constant friends.

  • SmilingAhab

    "Is it possible that we might bring back from our escapist adventures a
    renewed sense of our own power and creative potential as human beings?"

    No. The power over the vicarious lives we lead in our escape realms holds the same power over us as what was found by the producers of The Secret: to the mind, ideas can be just as much a sense of accomplishment as accomplishment; one visualizes success, sees in their mind's eye themselves accomplishing great things, and it is actually taken as real accomplishment. The sense of power derived from our escape realms exists only in the context of those realms, and as we cannot build massive floating castles out of cubes of sand such as in Minecraft, that sense of power is sterile. We are still the anonymous button pushers for the aristocracy, but now even our need for power over our circumstances in our lives is sated vicariously by the power expressed through our avatars in escape realms.

    The situation is the opposite of what you describe: our escapist adventures rob us of real power by replacing it with more satisfying illusions, which like modern designer drugs, are carefully designed to deliver a maximum sense of power and accomplishment, to ensure we never hunger for it in our real lives. Escapism will only render us with a sense of power without the electronics that deliver our vicarious power doses, and that will only happen if a massive CME or several carefully detonated high-altitude EMP bombs bathe the Earth in enough EMR to send us back to the agrarian age.

    Criticisms aside, I do agree with the basic premise that escapism is not merely our attempt to flee our roles as faceless drudges. Imagination is the blurry boundary between what is and what is possible. Like software on a computer, its only limit is the memes and constructs and knowledge known to the person from which it can draw. While all that is, was before humans or imagination, all that is known and all that is reconfigured from what is, is born in that little area. Escapism is at least partly a dive into the reality imagination builds in as much autonomic exercise of bodily functions as wolves playing to exercise pack domination skills. How could Tesla have taken that vast store of knowledge of his and practically reshaped the world single-handedly without frequent excursions into that blurry boundary between reality and the possible? The only real difference between what Tesla did and what most people do is that his mind was filled with the rigors and beauty of engineering, while modern imagination is full of axe-wielding dwarves and space marines. Escapism is popcorn for the imagination.


    Materialism is cast in a distractingly negative light in this article. I see materialism conflated with consumerism several times, and must reitirate: materialism is simply the definition of reality as a monist one, without the dualism required of the existence of souls gods, faeries, magic, and all the other unprovable irrationalities of superstition. That the monoculture of capitalism has killed cultures and replaced them is irrelevant to the definition; it has justified doing so by rubbing the world's nose in "science-ness" and monism stripped of cultural meaning, but the material plane was, is, and will be the whole of existence long before industrialism allowed the aristocracy to cement their rule over the processes of life and subvert cultures for the sake of power and profitability, and long after the Earth is forgotten in the fireball of Sol's death. There is room for culture, ritual, and the full power of human creativity - just not room for superstitious irrationalities to be taken as foundational truth.

  • Caleb Woodbridge

    Thanks for that article - interesting perspective. I've blogged a more detailed response here:

    In passing, I'd just like to pick out one more peripheral thing you said in the article that I think is nonsense:
    "The religious fundamentalists who attempt to answer the sceptical claims of New Atheism are themselves rooted in a materialist world-view"

    Er, what? This seems just a glib refusal to engage with Christianity by dismissing those who attempt to answer the New Atheism as "religious fundamentalists".

    But there are many intellectually engaged Christians responding to the New Atheists, such as Rev John Polkinghorne, Dr John Lennox and Prof Alistair McGrath, who are orthodoxly Christian rather than fundamentalist.

    Also, "materialist" doesn't describe either the Christian mainstream or its fundamentalist offshoots. Far from being materialistic in its worldview, a robust Christian worldview is both supernaturalistic and idealistic in the commitment to God as a transcendental reality.

    • damiengwalter

      Hi Caleb,

      I think the critics of New Atheism who succeed do so because they transcend the material worldview NA is rooted in. I cited Karen Armstrong in an earlier version of the essay as one example. But it's my experience that many arguing for the existence of God are attempting to prove a material existence for the divine, which I see as a failure.


      • Caleb Woodbridge

        Thanks Damien - I can see where you're coming from, and there are certainly forms of religious fundamentalism that assume the same scientism as the New Atheists.

        But in terms of general Christian orthodoxy, as well as God being the transcendent ground of being, Christians believe He has revealed himself by speaking to particular people in history, and took on material existence in the Incarnation.

        If God has involved himself within space-time history, that claim is in principle open to rational and empirical enquiry to some extent - though not on terms the scientism of Dawkins et al would accept.

        But Incarnation is not the same as materialism. Christianity affirms both the spiritual and the physical, not in a dualistic sense where the two are divided and one is superior to the other, but as a complementary and integrated whole. Jesus, fully human and fully divine, epitomises this union.

        In the Christian worldview, there is no ultimate division between fact and value, faith and reason, mythos and logos. As C S Lewis put it, in Jesus, "myth became history".

        Karen Armstrong sees the "confusion" of mythos and logos as a metaphysical mistake. But I think to separate the two is simply to fall into a modernistic sacred/secular divide. It misses the Incarnational dynamic that's part of what's distinctive about the Christian faith.

  • Hajin Wallace

    The author makes an interesting claim but fails to follow through with solid support. The bit about Kurzweil's post-humanism is crude and misrepresented. He may rhapsodize a bit too optimistically but there is little to suggest a connection between his philosophy and escapism as you understand it. I am going to assume that you meant to comment on the escapist tendencies of his fanclub - which you are right, by the way - but such a contention should be made more explicit.

    You support your contention by also arguing that escapism is a direct/indirect consequence of idealism as it has developed in Western society. The problem I have here is that your definition of materialism and idealism as a "duality" is constricted in a very crude and slipshod way. The materialism/idealism debate in Western society originated from Kant's contention that we can never directly know things at they exist in the external reality and can only interact act with them through our internal reality - e.g. our minds. The issue is purely one of epistemology only; the debate, in itself, is not a moral one and thus does not make value judgments about what people do to "escape" or escape into fantasies.

    The last bit about the social reality of escapism is much more interesting and, in my opinion, should have been the primary focus of your essay. I understand that you may have faced length constraints when writing this piece but that should not be an escape for shoddy workmanship.

    • Hajin Wallace

      Correction to last sentence: I understand that you may have faced length constraints when writing
      this piece but that should not be an *excuse* for shoddy workmanship.

  • Sam L

    This is an interesting article, and I sympathise with the gist of it, but I can't help but feel that there is a conflation of 'philosophical materialism' with 'materialism' as we use it in relation to consumerism. If you want to argue that one implies the other then that's fine, but as far as I can make out this article just seems to rely on fact that these two ideas share the same word.

    I've written about this conflation - because I think it's a common one - here:

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  • Steve

    games are mind drugs like religious beliefs, vs. chemical ones. Both have histories as old as mankind. New ones come along, there is some handwringing, then acceptance after decades or centuries if they find persistent following. nothing new here. The funny costumes are equally old too.

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