Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Escaping the Old Republic

I have been playing Star Wars: The Old Republic since its release this past December.  I bought a new video card for my computer, since my old one couldn't keep up with the demands of the game.  I leveled up at a reasonable pace, and once I hit level 50, I worked with 7 other players to fight in the most challenging areas of the game, defeat the enemies there, and, of course, take their stuff.  It was a lot of fun--challenging, fun, and, when we finally took down a new boss, quite satisfying.

But this past Sunday night, I cancelled my account.  I will no longer be traveling to a galaxy far, far away several nights a week to battle imaginary enemies.  Instead, I will keep my feet firmly planted in reality.

Why, you might ask?

The most obvious reason is that it is summertime.  I live right across the street from a pond, and sitting on my front steps on a pleasant summer evening and watching the sun shimmer on the water is one of the best parts of the year.  It's easy to hole up in a basement playing video games in the winter, when it's cold outside and it gets dark early, but when it's still not dark at 9 PM, it's much harder to go inside and stare at a computer monitor.

On the surface, this seems like a very reasonable explanation.  But the more I think about it, the more it doesn't sit well with me.  One of my biggest frustrations with the way that so many people think of fantasy and science fiction is that they view it as simply fun "escapism."  This frustration is double-edged: not only do such comments fail to recognize the ways in which nearly all stories enable us to escape our everyday lives, but they also serve, in many cases, to dismiss speculative fiction, to provide a reason why we shouldn't take it seriously.

And so, when I realized that I was quitting Star Wars: The Old Republic because I was drawing a similar distinction between real life as what matters and this video game as an escape that no longer serves its function, I became concerned.  Do I, too (however unconsciously), think of fantasy and science fiction as simply escapist fun?

After thinking about it, I have come to the conclusion that the answer, is (thankfully), "No."  But it has caused me to make some distinctions between certain works of fantasy/scifi, a process that has been aided by William Gray's 2010 study Fantasy, Myth and the Measure of Truth.  In this volume, Gray traces the Romantic mythopoeic tradition from E.T.A. Hoffman through George MacDonald, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and finally, Philip Pullman.  In one section, he focuses on the section in Pullman's novel The Amber Spyglass, in which the protagonist Lyra Belacqua travels down to Hell and begins to tell the harpies a made-up story.  They call her "Liar!", but when she tells real stories of her home in Oxford, they pay attention and allow her to pass by.  It might seem that Pullman is setting up a similar sort of distinction between fantasy and reality, between escapist fluff and stuff that matters. 

But, as Gray notes, "This crucial opposition between 'true stories' and 'lies and fantasies' is not essentially one between 'fact and fiction'...Both sides of Pullman's opposition are 'stories'.  The kind of 'true stories' which are desirable are not merely factual reportage, but rather evoke the texture of the natural world" (157).  He continues a bit later, "The opposition here is not, then, between fiction and fact, but rather between fantasy (in a negative sense) and the imaginative intuition of reality" (157).  In other words, while both kinds of stories use the imagination, one kind--the kind that earns Lyra the right to travel through Hell--uses the imagination to connect back to reality, rather than just spin threads of story that float through the air.

In this way, Gray's study was quite helpful in putting words to something that makes a lot of sense, but that I had never really articulated in this way before now--namely, that there are stories of all kinds that are fantasy in a negative sense.  And on the other side of the coin, there are myriad stories, of all genres, that use imagination to evoke reality--even stories that don't take place in this world.  The distinction, then, is not between fantasy fluff and realistic "Literature," since all stories require the use of the imagination; rather, the distinction lies in how that imagination is employed.

So, if we return to my decision to quit SWTOR, I now feel comfortable in saying that the game had become simply an escape for me, and, quite honestly, not a very good one at that.  That doesn't mean that I think all science fiction is escapist or all video games are fluff; rather, it helps me identify a problem with the way the game was able to hold my attention.  Because when I first started playing SWTOR, I was completely immersed in the world, not just because it was new and exciting, but because it made me think about certain aspects of my own life.  I was fascinated with the way that the story crafted around my character forced me to confront issues of racism, sexuality, and, as I wrote about earlier, morality.  Yes, it was an imaginative, interesting story, but what really captured my attention was the way that imaginative effort affected my reality.

This kind of imaginative story is absent from end-game play in SWTOR.  Sure, characters can fight in areas that have stories associated with them, but these stories rarely affect the development of the character herself, thus losing most of their opportunity for real-world impact.  In the most recent major game update, BioWare also introduced the "Legacy" system, which enabled players to use the progress of one of their characters to level up other characters more quickly and easily--an update that, I'm sure, was intended to make players feel like their characters can continue to develop even after hitting level 50.  But, in my experience, nothing could replace the effectiveness of the initial storyline in creating a world that is exciting, imaginative, and most of all, real.

And so I'm hanging up my lightsaber and trading it for a lawnchair, a cool drink, and a book that evokes the feeling of sitting and watching the sunset.  A book that hits me close to home, even if it does take place a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.