How the game provided active escapism during the Covid-19 lockdown.
It was sometime in late April 2020, roughly 30-40 days into the Covid-19 lockdown in London, that both me and my partner were starting to feel the first pangs of Coronavirus chat fatigue. It was inevitable. With one global story dominating the news it meant that every Facetime or Zoom call with friends or family usually circled back to Covid-19. We discussed how it was impacting our own personal situations, how we imagined it was affecting other people and anticipated how the situation might unfold in the coming weeks and months. With all the uncertainty I was keen for some distractions.
Enter Dungeons and Dragons
Overnight our social life became largely virtual quizzes and dinner parties and we looked forward to any novel variation. So we jumped at the offer to join our friend George in one of his hobbies - Dungeons and Dragons (D&D). The fantasy role playing game, brain child of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, was the first of its kind in 1974 and remains popular to this day. Players take on the traits of fictional characters and work as a group to face challenges described by the organiser (or Dungeon Master). Prior to this, my knowledge of the game was limited to instances of it cropping up in familiar television shows including Stranger Things, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Community .
George led us and our friend Clare in weekly D&D sessions facilitated through a website called Roll20 during the most isolated period of Covid-19 lockdown, and I came to really value the few hours each week we had set aside to concentrate on the story. Adopting the persona of a woodland archer and focussing on how me and my travel companions were going to defeat a band of bad guys George introduced to us as the Redbrands, I found that the immersive nature of the game meant that there really was no time for the 4 of us to discuss Coronavirus. Although I am often able to sink into a book, a writing task or an absorbing series on Netflix, this was different. It was active, it required creative thinking, collaboration and it was completely removed from the real world. In short - it was the antidote I needed to my ongoing concern for my family and friends and the general conversations that were coming to dominate my everyday life.
The escapism offered up by Dungeons and Dragons is one which is recognised by academics Kuo, Lutz and Hiler (2016) who explore what they term ‘active escapism’ in role playing games. By requiring engagement and immersion into a projected reality, participants of role playing games are not simply consumers of a story, but rather co-authors responsible for bringing a narrative into being. This provides a sense of ownership that isn’t necessarily achieved through the consumption of other kinds of passive entertainment such as watching a film or reading a book.
While other forms of gameplay can offer interactivity and collaboration, I feel that D&D offers a different element from say playing board games or video games in a social context. D&D is, by nature, so open ended that the outcomes are less predetermined than other forms of game play. In Monopoly for example, someone wins by owning the most assets and money. In a narrative based video game like Uncharted, you either get to the end of the predetermined story or you don’t.
‘This or that’ decision making in other forms of interactive media
Some media texts offer more elements of ownership, choice and control such as the ‘choose your own adventure' books popular in the 1990s. However, choice here is also limited as a reader choses between a ‘this or that’ pair of options. R.L Stein's children’s horror series Give Yourself Goosebumps is an excellent example of the 'choose your own adventure' genre. At the end of a page you might be prompted to make a decision (e.g do you run from the monster?- turn to page 112 or do you stand and fight? - turn to page 45) and the story splits to accommodate your choice resulting in several different possible endings to the story. However, like the game formats previously mentioned, while the endings may be varied they (and the number of choices a reader gets) remain pre-determined by the book's author
In recent years digital media formats have adopted participatory elements such as this to their content. In 2018 Netflix created an interactive episode of Black Mirror - Bandersnatch (pictured below), following this up in 2020 with the release of a special interactive episode of their comedy show Unbreakable. Both of these can be thought of as digital choose your own adventure stories with a ‘this or that’ decision tree.
Open Ended Escapism
These media formats do offer choice and a degree of ownership over the direction of the narrative. However, in D&D the freedom to choose all your character's actions and dialogue in response to the loose narrative directed by the Dungeon Master means you become a co-author - actively bringing a world into being by participating. Combining free narration with the uncertainty of the dice rolls which determine success or failure of every action means the web of potential outcomes is somewhat limitless. There are of course missions and overall goals to achieve which the Dungeon Master is aware of, but the ways in which these are negotiated or accomplished (or conversely not accomplished) is also widely open ended. two different sets of people could embark on the same D&D adventure and they will almost certainly have completely different experiences. Likewise, a group could repeat the same adventure and would find it impossible to recreate it exactly as they experienced it first time round.
For me, it was this level of open ended problem solving which was so engaging and so successful at helping me escape the seemingly never ending coronavirus news cycle. Instead of ‘switching off’ for a few hours in front of another episode of The Office I found immense benefit in creating a customised narrative collaboratively with people I enjoyed spending time with. The story existed because we were creating it. The decision making and the subsequent consequences kept us learning, negotiating and ultimately absorbed - and I couldn’t have asked for anything more in those few hours before trying to fall asleep for the night during a global pandemic.
Kuo, A., Lutz, R.J, & Hiler, J. L. (2016) Brave new World of Warcraft: A Conceptual Framework for Active Escapism, Journal of Consumer Marketing. Vol 33. (7)