A common idea about video games is that they offer a form of escapism. I agree with this to an extent, but take issue with the common idea of ‘escapism’ as something that removes you from reality.
When I was growing up games were always escapism within the context of the real world: playing Resident Evil with my sister or Goldeneye with my friends was escapism, sure, but it was a collective deal. By the same token I could be immersed in an epic JRPG, halfway through a mega session, and I would still be processing the ambient sounds of home: siblings squabbling, pots banging around, dad’s car pulling into the gravel driveway.
Something of that feeling can be found in Playgrounds, a short film set in the early ’90s. The scene is a teenager’s bedroom in American suburbia, with the focal point being a SEGA Genesis and various nostalgia-inducing toys.
What I found striking about Playgrounds is that contrast between escapism and ‘real world’ context. The flourescent screen and Sonic 2 draw the eye while surrounding elements like the pad are shown out-of-focus but, as the viewer is pulled in, they become aware of the background sounds.
To me it seems like parents arguing back-and-forth downstairs, oblivious to how their voices travel, these noises whirling around the sanctuary of the television display before fading off.
It’s a sobering perspective. And one that inflects the other forms of nostalgia in the short, as Optimus Prime facing off against Skeletor somehow comes to seem less a clash of the titans than an attempt at personal distraction.
In situations that we can’t control, we find other things to focus on. There’s the sense that the escapism embodied by Sonic 2 is simply a forerunner of what’s to come, an early artefact from a digital age that has and continues to redefine the boundaries between real and virtual, pulling us ever-closer to abstractions of the world.
More than anything, perhaps, this is about the ideas and media that shape us, the things that once fired our imaginations, and looking back on those foundations with clear eyes. I remember every corner of my teenage bedroom, and I’m sure you do too, because it was where I could tune out of the real world. It was where you could temporarily escape, with consoles one of the engines that made that happen.
Do check out Playgrounds: it’s only five minutes long and, if you’re any kind of a ’90s kid, there’s a lot to enjoy.