Can Fiction Be Anti-Escapist?

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Fiction which seeks to be anti-escapist is hypocritical because fiction is inherently escapist. It doesn’t really matter that it is hypocritical if it serves its purpose of the directing the viewer to take action rather than remaining a passive observer.

There are two ways a work of fiction can be anti-escapist. First by inspiring hope in reality or fear of losing out on life by indulging in escapism. Secondly by requiring the viewer to participate in some kind of real life productive activity as part of the process of indulging in escapism. The former is easier and it is ineffective. How many people have been made creative by watching Evangelion or Welcome to the NHK? Many and yet many more have been dragged further into the rabbit hole of escapism.

Many people in various fandoms have found ways to be creative themselves by creating art such as youtube videos, fan works, cosplay, video game mods, music, short animations, blogs etc… The problem with this is that it only makes the creators of these things productive whereas it makes the consumers of these artworks passive. For every creative individual inspired by fiction to be an artist it also produces many more viewers with no lasting achievements for the time they have spent just viewing works of fiction.

The second method tries to break the distinction between the artist and the audience by inviting the viewer to participate in the creation of fiction thus requiring the viewer to be active in real life. Whether the themes of the fiction created are pro or anti-escapism it does not matter if it induces action and the actual creation of art by the viewer.

This means that not all mediums of fiction can actually be anti-escapist on a large scale. The problem with anti-escapist mediums of fiction however is that they require more effort on the part of the viewer and if the viewer has seen a lot of good works of fiction then that work of fiction which he creates with others may seem underwhelming. Hopefully it will be enough to appeal to the critic’s overriding wish to be a participant in the act of creating fiction rather than just being part of the reaction to it.

So which mediums of fiction can be anti-escapist on a large scale? Anime, manga, film, non-sandbox video games, music, novels, visual novels, blogs etc… cannot be anti-escapist very easily because of the strict division between the author and the reader/viewer. The only medium which comes to mind which can even begin to be inherently anti-escapist is the Table-Top Role Playing Game. I am thinking of Dungeons and Dragons of course (in particular old DnD). The active role play by the players of this type of game as opposed to the tacit, passive self-insertion of the reader of a novel or the player of a video game into roles totally predetermined by the author is absent in DnD and by virtue of being a genuine shared fiction it can be elevated into artwork by publishing replays and so on.

Video games have actually regressed in the amount of creativity needed by the gamer by focusing on visual fidelity and turning games into a kind of poor man’s movie where rather than playing a character the so-called player just watches a pre-set story unfold making his input into the game pointless.

There are some exceptions like minecraft and dwarf fortress but even these feel limited in what the player can create and many players can and do just play them passively. In the long term virtual reality games like VRchat also have the potential to break down the barrier between fiction and reality further opening up the opportunity for more engaging roleplay but also increasing the risk of rejecting reality in favour of fiction.

I have a desire to make fiction serve reality not to denigrate one in favour of the other. To make them compatible then one must serve the interests of the other as in any relationship between any two entities.

So far reality has been serving fiction leading to the creation of many beautiful works of art such as GunBuster, Evangelion, and Macross but these have undoubtedly come at the expense of the fans escaping reality through them. It is useless to say that it is their responsibility not to abuse escapist fiction, the fact remains that if these works did not exist then that would be one less place for people to escape their reality from.

Also the creators of these works of heart and art have profited from people who lost their way because of these works. It is pointless to debate who is responsible because all that matters is the consequences these works have had on people. Does this mean the rights of artists should be curtailed for the good of the weak people? Of course not.

In this post I have sought to derive the cure from the poison itself because I love the poison too much to hate it despite the harm it has done to me. It isn’t enough to make morality tales, in fact I hate morality tales which is why I rejected the first method. Instead what we need is a medium of fiction that has as much productivity built into it mechanically. Gamification + Story-telling, just one or the other is not enough. Gamification by itself is too abstract and story-telling by itself lacks justification to take one choice over another.