A Better Reality Part 1: Understanding Fantasy-Addiction

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A Better Reality

In spite of the recent proliferation of publications on the epidemic of fantasy-addiction in our generation, many of us are still scratching our heads. Perhaps we understand that it’s an issue, but we don’t understand why or how it becomes an issue. If you’ve never seen the appeal of video games, or if you stopped playing them as soon as you were old enough to feel ashamed of being “less mature” than your peers, then you might balk at the notion of spending hours a day glued to a screen.

Sure, you might admit to enjoying the occasional throw-back game of Tetris® here and there, but you could never imagine being so absorbed in a game that you neglect work and family (and even hygiene in some cases!) in order to complete missions, raid dungeons, storm castles, and level up on an endless path to virtual victory. But a large section of our global society not only can imagine it – they do it. My contention is that the key to understanding this growing subculture is found in recognizing they are not as different from the rest of us as we think, and I want to offer a paradigm that might facilitate a deeper understanding of what can be, for many of us, a mysterious issue.

Have You Ever Cried During a Movie?

Part of the draw to fantasy worlds is that you form emotional attachments to the characters. You begin to care about what happens to them. You celebrate the do-gooders, and get angry at the do-bad-ers (or vice versa, depending on who you identify with). You feel their losses and celebrate their victories. If you’ve never been hooked on a game, this may sound strange to you, but consider this: Have you ever cried during a movie? What about while reading a book? Don’t you find yourself hating the villains and rooting for the good guys? Why do women (and many men, for that matter) like chick flicks? It’s largely because of how well they engage viewers emotionally.

Books are no different. I remember reading The Last of the Mohicans in high school, and I was incensed when one of the characters crushed a baby’s scull against a boulder. I fumed. I pounded my bed with my fists and screamed inside. I couldn’t stand the evil I had just witnessed. The book had hooked me. The child wasn’t real, and neither was the act. At the same time, I wasn’t angry at the evil it represented in the “real world”; I was angry at what had been done to that child by that man in that book. It wasn’t real, but it felt real. The truth is, we all form attachments to fictional characters in fictional scenarios.

This begs the question: if we approve such connections in books and movies, why disapprove of them in video games? Is one less “real” than the other? And, if it is, what is the significance of such degrees of reality when we are still dealing in terms of fiction?

Rather than deriding such attachments, we should seek to understand them. Is there anything about these attachments that makes them more appealing than the ones addicts can form with real people? Chances are, the answer is yes – virtual characters (whether in print, film, or video game platform) are always less complicated than real people, and so are the relationships we build with them. It’s easier to be with someone who will never hurt you. It’s easier to get wrapped up in the ups and downs of someone’s life when there are foreseeable limits to the emotional roller coaster you’re riding, and, perhaps, more exciting when you can’t. What’s more, when a plot and script are written well enough, the characters in games can be funnier, more interesting, and more inviting than people in real life – not to mention more physically attractive, thanks to CGI.

As you will see throughout, part of the appeal of virtual realities is they mimic actual reality, but do so in a way that makes them more desirable for one reason or another. In this case, it is the formation of relational attachments that are safer or, perhaps, more interesting than those available to us in real life. There comes a point when interacting with real people is more about obligation than interest, and our preferred relationships are the ones based more on want-to than have-to. If we find a virtual relationship to be more pleasurable than a real one, would we not be inclined to pursue the former to the neglect of the latter?

What Is an Achievement?

Another draw to fantasy worlds is the possibility of achievement. You can build a sports dynasty, conquer Middle-Earth, master the Force, build nations, battle (and defeat!) gods – in short, you can achieve things, great things, in a fantasy world, and many people find this to be very enjoyable. The critique often leveled against this aspect of fantasy is that these achievements aren’t real. So, why bother in the first place, let alone orbit your life around a collection of false accomplishments?

Again, we all do this in our own ways. When you play board games or sports, do you care whether you win or lose? Don’t you (secretly) enjoy having “bragging rights”? Do you find competition exhilarating or at least a little enticing? Many of us love a challenge – especially one we can overcome. And the more difficult the challenge, the sweeter the victory. What about knitting? Or carpentry? Or Legos®? Or cars? There is a common thread of experiencing pleasure when we achieve something – the difference lies in what we wish to achieve.

Again, you can argue the line of nonreality, but how exactly do you define a “real” achievement? Is winning monopoly a “real” achievement? The money isn’t real. The tokens aren’t real. The people we’re playing with are real, but so are the people we play Xbox with, not to mention the game designers we’re competing against in order to beat the game they created. What about chess? Is being the world champion of chess a “real” achievement? The same critiques apply, and what you’re left with are abstractions – the only things in chess, monopoly, and video games that pertain to achievement are strategy, skill, and chance, and these are all abstract realities. The only way I “beat” you in these games is to employ a better strategy, to develop superior skills, and to defy the odds when they are not in my favor. What, then, do I achieve? And yet, we all seem to assume the validity of such achievements in non-virtual arenas over against those in the virtual realm. This is inconsistent.

Are You Immune to Peer Pressure?

One aspect of fantasy-appeal I’ve left out is the role of what I will call community reinforcement. The process of initiation-engagement-addiction is undergirded by the powerful influence of a strong community. Gamers form formidable bonds with other gamers, and the cumulative force of 10s, 100s, and 1000s of people (in person and online) has the impact of reinforcing the value of participation. There is accountability, competition, and mutual affirmation and celebration – all elements of an engaging community, all cementing your ongoing membership. You are part of a mass of people affirming the validity – no, the virtue – of what you are doing, and dissenters are “outsiders” who don’t understand. They needn’t be heeded.

What, then, Are You Saying?

More – much more – can be said. The preceding categories are a few among many, but they represent a single, unifying theme: addicts are either seeking pleasure, or escaping the displeasures of real life. They want what feels good (or at least better). They want to avoid what feels bad. In other words, they want a better reality. This is why fantasy-addiction (as with other addictions) can often be categorized as a form of escapism, where it’s not so much where I’m going as what I’m getting away from. I determine virtual reality is better, merely because it’s not as bad as real life.

This, then, is my paradigm: This impulse towards pleasure over displeasure is the unifying theme between addicts and non-addicts. The difference is a matter of degree. Therefore, the answer to our addiction to the world of fantasy is not to create a dividing line between “us” and “them,” as though gamers are doing anything different than the rest of the world. All of us enjoy relationships and achievements in numerous areas of our lives, and we frequently engage in them in ways that are no more real than what is experienced in a video game. And all of us are subject to community reinforcement. We must recognize that we have the same inclinations, and we can be subject to the same degree of excess and distortion. There is no temptation that is not common to man (1 Cor. 10:13). Following this logic, you can learn to identify with the addicts in your life by finding the similarities between your desires and escapes, and theirs. You might find you’re more like them than you imagined.

Click here for part 2: The Gospel for Fantasy-Addicts.

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