Editorial: Escapism in a time of crisis - When fiction is better than fact

by Jacqueline Holloway

There is no euphemistic way of saying that the COVID-19 pandemic has literally turned all of our lives upside down in some way or another. In such a time of unpredictability, we are all forced to adapt our goals and lifestyles in a way that accounts for social distancing and other restrictions. For some, it was easy. However, for a few of us, it has been a little more difficult to adjust to this new way of life.

Practising healthy escapism was now more important than ever. For me, my escape turned into what I would call therapeutic gaming. I call it therapeutic because the real world is an extremely stressful and unpredictable place right now, and for someone that has to deal with constant anxiety, this did not sit very well. There were some games I’d discovered during the national lockdown that not only helped me to escape reality but also to cope with it.

These games were World of Warcraft and Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Both of these were the perfect amalgamation of a collective fantasy world and individual daily quests or responsibilities (and both had cute animals, a great bonus), that provided some degree of routine and stability when the very idea of a daily routine was thrown out of the window in the real world! I often joke and say these games kept me sane, and it’s a great laugh now.

World of Warcraft, a world that I wanted to immerse myself in when the real world was not so great (credit: Blizzard Entertainment)
Animal Crossing: New Horizons, my favourite game to play during lockdown! (credit: Nintendo)

However, the fact of the matter is that this is a time in the world when the preservation of our mental health and cognitive abilities are so important. If playing games and escaping into my own interpretation of a fantasy-world helps me to cope with a crazy global pandemic, then I’m going to do it!

People have always found different ways of coping with reality - small pockets of time to themselves where they could let go of all their worries and responsibilities. This is called escapism, and it’s absolutely necessary when it comes to preserving your mental health and destressing. Obviously, too much of a good thing will always be a bad thing and it’s recommended you indulge in these moments in a controlled manner.

There are lots of ways in which one can practice escapism, some more healthy than others. For me, it started with a children’s novel called My Secret Unicorn: Friends Forever by Linda Chapman. I’ve loved reading books from a very young age, so escaping into a fantasy world of my own interpretation with whimsical realms and magical creatures is almost like second nature to me. That might sound a bit extreme, but it’s my way of coping with the real world.

When I was somewhere around eight years old, I remember getting excited to pick up my new book after finishing my homework and envisioning myself escaping to meet with my own personal secret unicorn. If the other kids were mean to me at school, I would walk away, find a nice-looking patch of grass to sit down on and hide between the pages of My Secret Unicorn.

My Secret Unicorn: Friends Forever, written by Linda Chapman – the first book I ever read (credit: Penguin Random House)

It might sound a little ridiculous to cherish a non-existent world so much, but if I could choose between the real world and the world I’ve created in my imagination, where animals could talk and flowers were edible, I would take the imaginary world any day. As I got older, my method of escape evolved. I still read a lot of books, but my love for fantasy spilled over into the digital world in the form of virtual reality gaming.

You know what I’m talking about: The Sims! I would sit in front of my computer for hours on end creating Sims and designing their houses. When it came to the actual gameplay, I took it one step further and thought out elaborate life stories for each of my Sims: their origins, their hobbies, their hopes and dreams. For me, this was not simply a game, it was a true escape into a world that was literally catered towards my interests and personality.

I don’t care if it sounds ridiculous that this Sim is a crime lord vampire that runs an entire syndicate and lives in a penthouse with her two cat-familiars. If that’s what I wanted then that’s what happened. This was very much unlike the real world where things don’t necessarily turn out the way you want them to, oof!

All of this might sound a little bit like I simply spent most of my childhood goofing off, but I would be lying if I said these regular escapes were without any benefits. My love for fantasy books and my knack for Sim-character development lead me to pick up on habits that are useful to the writer that I consider myself to be. It’s not an exaggeration to say that reading and writing go hand-in-hand.

For me, reading was my inspiration for writing. All the stories and characters that I’d read about ignited my desire to create my own characters with their own stories. It also helped me to deal with reality a little better. After a long day at school, I would retreat to my escape by reading or writing (Sims was reserved for the weekends). Once I had had some time alone, de-stressing and refreshing, I would be ready to face the real world head-on again.

All of this being said, it is important not to get too lost in fiction and forget about our real lives and responsibilities; maintaining a balance is super important for one’s mental health. The world is made up of polar-opposites, light and dark, happy and sad, coffee and tea, things like that. So remember that you can’t have fiction without fact; both play a super important role in our lives.

Image of author, Jacqueline Holloway

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Rhodes University (UCKAR), Makhanda (Grahastown), Eastern Cape

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