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On Malignant Escapism
There’s this genre of writing called isekai, which I think roughly translates to “other world”. In isekai novels, the main character is whisked away from our normal, boring world to another place by some means. This new realm usually has swords, magic, and plenty of opportunities to use them on things that would otherwise kill you; the protagonist walks around figuring out how all this works while slaughtering goblins wholesale.
I’m emotionally about eight years old, so I end up reading a lot of this stuff, and as per The Law of Mayo Joe Biden I have become somewhat refined in my tastes, focusing from the more general field down towards more specific subgenres. The first stop on this train is “litRPG”, which is (usually) isekai in which the world the character goes to runs on role-playing game mechanics - he levels up from doing things, can distribute the stats as he sees fit, and generally accumulates all manner of superpowers.
I have to be really, really careful how much isekai I read right now.
I come from a family line of powerful, elite alcoholics; my rule about drinking is that I never, ever do it when I’m sad. If I’m already happy, I sometimes drink to amplify the joy. But if I’m sad - and I sometimes am - I don’t touch alcohol. The problem is not so much that it amplifies the sadness (although it sometimes can do this, it usually doesn’t) as it is that it represents an effective way to create a change in the status quo. If I drink to be happy, I’ll end up drinking every time I feel like I need to be happy, and I’ll basically always be drinking1.
Isekai works sort of the same way, but with feeling useful. Isekai is about escape in a much more literal way than most genres - it’s explicitly about your life being bad or boring and having a way to change that. More importantly, it’s about having a way to change that that doesn’t have anything to do with your own effort or initiative; the most traditional way to send the character to the new world is by having them be hit and sorta-kinda killed by a truck2. This isn’t something they have to drive themselves - it’s something that happens to them, that gives them meaning and purpose without them having to dirty their hands making it happen.
With the right catalyst, this is an insidious and deadly poison.
LitRPG is a little bit worse, because the allure of litRPG is that it grants the audience surrogate a clear and almost inescapable way to move himself forward. At first, he needs to survive, but the mere act of surviving makes him stronger. From there, he just needs to keep checking boxes - he stabs a few more ogres, and he gets a bit better at ogre stabbing in a way he can see. He collects gold and magic items, saves some villages, and everyone is very impressed as he fails to fail at getting pressed into a niche he didn’t have carve.
When you are unemployed, unhappy, un-pathed (or some combination of the three), the temptation is to read these and feel like you aren’t. Through the magic of reading, you too can get whisked to a new, fantastic world where you matter and are doing well. You can feel like you are accomplishing without having to accomplish. You can make it without having to go anywhere.
There’s this video game called Powerwash Simulator, in which one plays the role of an aspiring powerwasher ala the power-washing porn subreddit. You go to little fun locales that happen to be very, very dirty indeed and clean them up. You watch things go from depressing and black to bright, cheery, and new. There’s no timer. You don’t have to hustle to get new work. It’s just redemption that occurs by means of the work of your hands, the banishing of shadow in favor of the light as commanded by the force of your labor.
And it’s all fake. You didn’t really clean those things.
There’s this thing called watching sports, where you sit around and watch people who are better at something than you could ever be do that thing at levels humans shouldn’t even be able to reach. They run faster than people can; they jump higher than human limits seem to imply is possible. They are very, very much not you, which is sort of half of the point of the thing - they do things you can’t do, and you pay them so you can see those things done.
The other half of the point is that the culture around sportsing is such that you are not only allowed but fully expected to pretend like you yourself are part of making that happen - you can go to a store and buy a complete uniform just like your favorite sports guy wears, and then wear it. You can be superstitious about making sure you watch every sports game because it’s acceptable to pretend you have some effect on the outcome.
You can even make friends and enemies based on your favorite-sports-team-alignment. Arizona has a couple of big universities you don’t have to try very hard to get into, but even if you didn’t end up even trying to get in you can declare your allegiance to one or the other and then have banter with other people who did the same, or especially with other people who didn’t.
Meanwhile, for some values of “you” it is factually true that you don’t even jog.
There’s this thing called porn where the kind of people you want to (based on appearance) have a relationship with convince you that relationships are mostly just sex and then purport to sell you sex for the low low price of free. They don’t actually sell you sex (this is more expensive and more dangerous) but they do a pretty good job of facilitating a fantasy where you can pretend they did.
When I was growing up, one of the churches I went to had a pastor whose big thing was talking about his porn addiction; he did this despite it being arguably counterproductive to do so in a very conservative baptist church that would have, all things the same, rather had the sex stuff just be alluded to. And what stuck with me about that is him saying something like “Here are all these women, and it feels like they are doing what you ask - like they are doing it for you. Like you earned it, and you deserve it. You get to pretend you are more desirable than you are.”
There’s some people who think porn is a powerful enough stimulus in this way that it’s sort of destroying the fabric of society. I’m not sure they are wrong.
I once heard about a thing called “philosophy”, which is a sort of scavenger hunt game combined with literary critic role-play. You read all these books that talk about how humans should live, and how they should think about concepts like “good” and “virtue”. Each book has an at least slightly different take on how you should think about these things, and there’s millions of them to sift through.
Some philosophies are drastically different than others, but there’s absolutely no consensus on which is right or wrong - you can pick one that says that nothing you do matters or one that says that every waking moment should be spent in service to some concept of good, and each choice is exactly as legitimate within the context of philosophy as the other. You get to say you are a philosopher (or that you appreciate their work) in either case.
The most common way to interact with moral philosophy is to collect a bunch of favorite moral positions, then to sit around arguing with people about how correct you are in your opinions about what you theoretically could do with those moral philosophies. Nobody will ever check to see if you actually put them into action, and you will look very smart.
I think the biggest danger to myself and my family right now is that while my actual life that I’m actually living is a little bit painful right now, I have options. I don’t actually have to grapple with the hurty bits of my current and persistent realities. I have isekai. I have power-washing video games. I have looking very smart. I have dozens of avenues that result in a deepening groove in my couch that reflects my ever-closer relationship with gravity but do nothing to help me keep my family fed, clothed, and surrounded by a pretty nice lawn.
I hope it’s obvious that for at least most of these examples, I think there’s perfectly healthy ways to enjoy them3. Very specifically I'm not saying you should swear off video games, sports, or anything else you enjoy if you are currently enjoying them in a way that doesn't hurt you. Whatever your mental model of me is, you should know I'm not a prohibitionist for the most part; mostly, I think people should be allowed to do things.
I’m more concerned about the work each of those examples does - of being aware of what you (and I) are using them for. Because at least most of those examples have wholesome, healthy uses - a sports guy often uses sports to have fun with his friends and family, for instance, while a litRPG appreciator might just want the pure, unadulterated entertainment value of a guy obtaining a series of progressively better swords.
I’m not even against escape; the world really is hard at times. Sometimes a small escape from the things you have to do (and the person you are trying to be) is worthwhile; rest is an important part of effort. But where the real becomes neglected or replaced by the fake, it’s a danger. Right now that danger is especially real to me, but I think it’s real to all of us all the time, even if the exact appearance of the danger is different from person to person.
So I’m being careful, especially right now. I urge you show caution as well. Real life is too important to ignore.
This is especially dangerous because I love drinking - it makes me happy, relieves every stress, and (if I drink enough, which is a lot) makes me wake up the next morning chipper, full of energy, and ready to face the world.
I only drink about once every month and a half.
This is actually a funny trope, and it’s common enough that the transfer to the isekai world is often called “getting trucked”, even when a truck isn’t involved. It’s just too convenient a form of sudden death befalling an otherwise healthy person to ignore.
The funniest form of this I’ve ever seen involved a character who was walking down the road, listening to music on headphones (and thus decreasing their situational awareness) and in general just having no idea what was about to hit them. And in the background, there’s these cut-aways to this group of criminals speeding away from the cops in a big truck towing a trailer.
This builds and builds as the character approaches the intersection, which the now-out-of-control truck is hurtling towards. As the character steps off the curb, the truck crosses the intersection, narrowly missing them and crashing into a light post. AT WHICH TIME the trailer they are towing bursts open and releases a terrified herd of horses who trample the main character to death.
My biggest doubts are philosophy and porn, in that order.