The Iron Cage of Fantasy: World of Warcraft, City of Heroes and Fable II

Jonathan McCalmont @ 19-08-2009

If modern gaming is all about escapism, why do we choose to escape to virtual worlds that contain so many of the negative pressures of the world we’re trying to leave behind?

Blasphemous Geometries by Jonathan McCalmont


I’d like to begin this column by discussing escapism. Describing something as “escapist” has always struck me as something of a back-handed compliment. A tacit (and sometimes dismissive) acknowledgement of a work’s lack of topicality or verisimilitude coupled to an attempt to shift the critical yardstick from the aesthetic to the psychological : Yes, we know that this film/game/book is all about giant stompy robots hitting each other but it scratches an itch that we, the audience, need scratching.

The itch in question is the need to escape from an increasingly inhospitable 21st Century existence; an existence filled with long commutes, unpaid mandatory overtime, credit card bills, mortgage foreclosures, unemployment, failed relationships and the plethora of modern-day worries, problems and fears that many choose to medicate with alcohol. People justifiably want to escape to a world that is less oppressive and miserable. This explains why the grand-father of escapist fiction is J.R.R. Tolkien and not Jean-Paul Sartre.

Tolkien’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings describe a world filled with exciting quests, world-changing battles, exotic locations, great magics and mysterious non-Human races that seems so real that one could almost step through the page and onto the streets of Gondor or Hobbiton. This impulse to immerse one-self in a fictional landscape has proved to be central to the development of the modern video game. Even before the release of Breakout (1976) and Space Invaders (1978), gamers were following the example set by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson who had carefully laid the ground-work for Dungeons & Dragons (1974), a game that made the vital step of allowing you to play the role of a character adventuring in a fantastical world.

No longer was escapism merely about identifying with the heroes of a fantastical world. RPGs allowed you to not only create your own characters but to take control of them and to “become” them as they quested their way across the fictional landscape. From Dragonlance to Wizardry (1981), Bard’s Tale (1985) to Forgotten Realms, the number of game-based secondary worlds exploded, forever altering the relationship between fantastical worlds and the people who want to escape to them. It was no longer sufficient for secondary worlds to make sense in the context of a book; they now needed to be able to withstand the creation of an almost infinite number of new characters and stories. This demanded a degree of completeness and systematism that some saw as an intolerable weakening of the Fantasy genre.

The most cursory of glances at Mark Bould and Michelle Reid’s excellent Parietal Games (2005) will reveal that the author M. John Harrison had a problem with fantasy world-building long before he coined the phrase “The Clomping Foot of Nerdism”. Back in 2001, in an article written for Fantastic Metropolis, Harrison argued that:

“The great modern fantasies were written out of religious, philosophical and psychological landscapes. They were sermons. They were metaphors. They were rhetoric. They were books, which means that the one thing they actually weren’t was countries with people in them.”

While I share Harrison’s frustration with the primacy of completeness over thematic unity and the willing sacrifice of the numinous to the accessible, I am not going to question the urge to escape from our all too often wretched world. I think that if you work long hours for miserable pay only to return home to a dwelling that previous generations might well have referred to as slum-like, it is entirely sane and appropriate to want to get on-line and pretend to be a different person in a different place for a few hours. What I am going to do instead is raise concerns about the kinds of worlds that we are choosing to escape to.

As video games moved out from kids in basements and into the cultural mainstream, academic theorists were quick to deploy their critical tool-kits and examine the ways in which we interact with virtual worlds. Much of the research that has filtered out of academia has focussed upon the ways in which virtual worlds offer arenas in which people can explore their own identity by experimenting with avatars from different sexes, genders, sexualities, races and species. This certainly chimes with model of escapism that I outlined at the beginning of this column: people are not only choosing to live in a different world, they are also living as characters who are sometimes quite different from their real-world selves. However, other areas of research reflect a much darker side to the online experience.

In his 2007 paper “A Second Job? The Emergence of Institutions in Online Computer Games”, the sociologist Stef Auspers reveals that, far from escaping into a free-wheeling world of wish-fulfilment, players of World of Warcraft (2004) seem to be spending their time in a world filled with institutions that are suspiciously like those of the real world. The paper talks of rigid corporate hierarchies, divisions of labour, desperate scrambles for status and intense pressure to not only succeed but to streamline and rationalise processes so as to be as effective a team-player as possible. The concept of World of Warcraft being a second job also flows from the fact that many players spend upwards of forty hours a week in the game and some even use part of their annual leave in response to in-game social pressures to spend even more time playing. This aspect of the MMORPG experience has been parodied by both the webcomic Penny Arcade and the infamous Leeroy Jenkins video. Nor do things stop there.

In 2008, the long-time City of Heroes (2004) player and Professor in Communications David Myers wrote up his experiences in a paper entitled “Play and Punishment : The Sad and Curious Case of Twixt”. The paper tells of Myers’ attempts to play the game in accordance with its published rules, rather than the rules of etiquette that had emerged organically from play. He would fight other characters for control of key areas and teleport characters in front of robot firing squads despite agreements amongst the players to do neither of these things. This resulted in Twixt becoming a hate-figure reviled across the entire game – a hate-figure who would eventually attract petitions requesting his removal from the game and even death-threats. This would seem to indicate that, far from being spaces for free expression, online worlds can become places that enforce the status quo with levels of aggression and vindictiveness unseen in the real world outside of the most dictatorial and authoritarian of police states.

However, while both Myers’ and Auspers’ articles suggest that the fictional online worlds people escape to can be just as oppressive, bureaucratic and depressingly capitalistic as the real world, they do not address the substance of what takes place in the games. While much of the aesthetic framing of the tasks in World of Warcraft speak of battles between the forces of good and evil, play itself is generally composed of long periods of ‘Grind’ punctuated with more focused individual challenges called ‘instances’ that take the form of large battles or extended dungeons. However, a better example of the decidedly non-escapist friendly of fantasy video games can be found in the shape of Fable II (2008).

Fable II is set in a fantasy world with similar technology levels to the early-modern period of European history. In it you play a mute hero whose gender, sexuality and looks can all be determined by the player. The most remarkable aspect of the game is the fact that adventuring itself is not particularly financially rewarding. In order to be able to afford better weapons and magical augments, it is necessary for the character to take on jobs such as smithing, wood-cutting and bar-tending. This money is then invested in an increasingly large property portfolio that continues to earn the character money while you are logged out.

In order to make the most of the property portfolio you are encouraged to do up the places you buy and increase the rent so as to maximise your income and improve the chances to buy more up-scale properties. At one point you are even encouraged to invest in a process of urban regeneration for a town full of criminals. When you return to the town ten years later, you find it full of families spending money in the shops that are, with a bit of luck, owned by your character.

Of course, opening up the more mundane aspects of your character’s life is nothing new. It features prominently in Grand Theft Auto IV (2008) but with a completely different tone and intent. In GTA IV, the mundane aspects of your characters’ life serve to further the game’s exploration of the feelings of alienation and isolation felt by immigrants. It even has TV shows and video games within the game, giving us the opportunity to escape from our shitty digital existence into a further virtual realm that might well prove to be more palatable. However, Fable II, much like World of Warcraft and City of Heroes, is not a commentary upon the real world but a means of escaping from it – and therein lies the real problem.

What does it say about us as a society that we choose to escape to virtual worlds that are depressingly similar to our own? What does it say about our collective imaginations that our fantasy worlds are filled with property speculation, peer-pressure, divisions of labour and the endless capitalist drives for greater profit and efficiency? Is it perhaps some manifestation of the failure of capitalism to ensure universal material success that makes us project the dream of a steady job and a second home into our fantasy realms?

The sociologist Max Weber compared life in an over-regimented society to living in an Iron Cage. I can think of no better evidence that we are the broken and beaten inmates of such a cage than the fact that the frenzied wings of our most cherished dreams carry us no higher than being an elf with a good salary and a decent chance of being made section head. By the standards of the contemporary Fantasy RPG, even an old reactionary like Tolkien is not merely progressive, he’s downright subversive.


Jonathan McCalmontJonathan McCalmont is a recovering academic with a background in philosophy and political science. He lives in London, UK where he teaches and writes about books and films for a number of different venues. Like Howard Beale in Network, he is as mad as hell and he’s not going to take this any more.

Jonathan recently launched Fruitless Recursion – “an online journal devoted to discussing works of criticism and non-fiction relating to the SF, Fantasy and Horror genres.” If you liked the column above, you’ll love it.

[ The fractal in the Blasphemous Geometries header image is a public domain image lifted from Zyzstar. ]

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6 Responses to “The Iron Cage of Fantasy: World of Warcraft, City of Heroes and Fable II”

  1. Peter Tupper says:

    Marshall McLuhan once observed that when citizens of New York wanted to relax and play, they didn’t go to the countryside to have a pastoral experience. Instead, they went to the amusement park at Coney Island, which was an intensification of the urban experience. More density, faster pace, more options.

    Maybe online games offer a faster experience of advancement, more opportunity for status and advancement. When you’re a drone in a dead-end job, being a big wheel in WoW or EVE is appealing and easier than climbing an actual corporate ladder.

  2. FTLNewsFeed says:

    As a player of Lord of the Rings Online who spends many hours a week in it I can definitely say it is a second job. Between the grinding for deeds, crafting, and various objects within the game I have so little time to just enjoy the game for relaxation’s sake. But I will have to contend that I don’t go into the game to escape from my life, I actually have fun doing this job — it’s more rewarding and the time almost flies by. In the end real life is a game that no one would pay to play and these games are what we wish we could live real life as.

  3. Jonathan M says:

    Peter — One thing that did struck me is that by and large, WoW is meritocratic. If you put the hours into it and you learn the combos you will go up in power, earning more loot in the process. No office politics, no glass ceilings, no having to quit a dead-end job and find a new one in order to advance. Just turn up, follow the clear instructions and make money.

    As such, it offers a kind of idealised version of the American dream.

    Guilds make this more complex because it brings in all of the reasons why real capitalism doesn’t work (e.g. human issues getting in the way of objectively rewarding talent and application) but those issues are much easier to deal with than real world office politics. The worst that can happen if you fall out with your guild is that you put a load of people on ignore and play in pick-up groups for a while.

    FTL – Sure, but is it not depressing that, when given a blank sheet rearding what kind of world we’d like to live in, people choose one that is remarkably similar to the real one? It’s like that bit in the first Matrix film where Agent Smith explains how an earlier version of the Matrix had been paradise on Earth but the human psyche had rejected it.

  4. Devon says:

    The games I play are generally based on my mood. What do I “feel” like doing? Then I can often do that in a game, one way or another.

    Real life isn’t so convenient. And I probably don’t have to say why.

  5. Shane says:

    If modern literature is all about escapism, why do we choose to escape to virtual worlds that contain so many of the negative pressures of the world we’re trying to leave behind?

    Art isn’t “all about” anything, unless you accept such a broad abstract idea as “communication”. You may as well ask, “Why do people enjoy fiction?”

  6. Tim BKJ says:

    Though extremely well stated, the flaw in this argument is the assumption that escapism is the goal for all games. In single player games, immersion is often the goal – you want to create a world and a story that people can get emotionally involved in, and personally motivated for. MMO games, however, are an entirely different animal. In most MMO games, storyline and engagement with NPC characters are quickly ignored in favor of two things – social engagement and task completion.

    MMO games provide a non-threatening, relatively anonymous environment in which to meet and interact with people. I’m not saying all MMO players have issues with social interaction, but this can be an attraction for some players. The major motivation in MMOs over other games, however, is task completion. MMOs allow a player to set and achieve goals in an environment that presents predictable and consistent obstacles. This, I believe, is the core of the compelling nature of MMO games. Thus the goal in playing an MMO game is not escapism, but instead a sort of simplified surrogate for the chaotic and frustrating system in which our true ambitions lie.