Fiction is a great source of escapism. And honestly, many of us have been in the mood for escapism lately. Politics have been more stressful than ever, turning on the news feels like an onslaught of depressing events, and grimdark fiction is still pretty popular. Cynicism in media just isn’t cutting it the way it has in years past. Movies like The Dark Knight, with its message that great people can turn to evil with a little push, just don’t feel the same anymore. Since so many things in the world are sketchy, I don’t want fiction telling me that it’s only going to get worse.
Luckily, optimism seems to be making a comeback. Although it comes in many forms—horror, fantasy, comedy, etc—a simple through-line no matter the genre is hope and optimism. I think that this is the commonality that brings us to escapist media. In horror, the chance of survival brings hope; in a fantasy, there’s the awe of the mystical and unknown, showing that unfamiliar things can be positive; comedy shows us that any situation can bring joy. This hopefulness is what creates the escapism, and I believe that there are some very good examples in our contemporary fiction in properties like Steven Universe and Overwatch.
Besides having beautiful art, music, and characters, Steven Universe also inspires optimism. I’m willing to say that being optimistic is in fact one of the the thesis statements of the show. Before the major plots of the show occur, Steven maintains hope that he will gain his special gem powers. He has the childlike quality of believing that everything will pan out in the end, despite worrying. Even before Steven properly gains his powers, he still tries to help both Beach City and the Crystal Gems. And usually, he has at least a minor positive impact. This is good for children, showing that even they can have an impact on what is going on around them. This view is more optimistic than the cynical view that children are worthless, or the view that children are heroes and adults are useless. Steven Universe maintains a balance of capable children (Steven and Connie) and capable older people (the thousand-year-old Gems).
The show is also optimistic in its theme that people can be redeemed to bring them to the side of family. Some of the show’s earlier villains, Peridot and Lapis, have come around to working with the Crystal Gems. Steven was able to work with them by listening to their issues and describing the positives of his home and friends. Additionally, pacifism seems to be Steven’s go-to approach for problem solving: he would rather see the good in others than jumping straight to violence. This shows optimism through the idea that no matter how someone feels about you or the world, it’s possible that they can come around. While this isn’t the reality we live in, it is an enjoyable fantasy that we can strive to emulate. It’s great to hope that one day, maybe people will able to get along through working together. But even if not, this still makes Steven Universe a great escapist fantasy.
In a completely different genre, Overwatch is providing optimism for fans. Of course, amazing gameplay, lovely characters, and fun designs are worth considering in Overwatch’s success, but ultimately, it is an escapist science fantasy. It is hope and optimism that unify these factors. Overwatch, the organization, was largely created to defeat a robot uprising known as the Omnic Crisis. Groups of humans were able to come together to stop a threat that was seemingly unstoppable. Humans, through the use of science (with a little fiction) and willpower, were able to stop war machines. Even characters who were originally not part of Overwatch found success through teamwork and community or odd circumstances. For instance, Lucio’s whole backstory is about kicking an oppressive organization out of his hometown. Using the power of music and a bit of stolen technology, he united his community to rise up against those that would take advantage of them. Even his in-game quotes reference Lucio’s drive to inspire hope. And D.Va was a professional gamer who ended up leading an army of mech pilots. Since the robots that were destroying the Korean peninsula were essentially kaiju-sized, special forces were needed to defeat them. D. Va led that army to a victory, inspiring hope that young people (especially women) can have a huge impact in their countries. Even Winston gets a small lecture from his creator that pretty much frames Blizzard Entertainment’s mission with Overwatch: “Always remember: never accept the world for what it appears to be. Dare to see it for what it could be.”
In these ways, not only does Overwatch present us with a (culturally) hopeful vision of the future, it also inspires us to create that kind of future in the real world. Speaking of D.Va, her presence in Overwatch has inspired a level of optimism in actual South Korea. Her character (and logo) has become a rallying cry for women and feminism in South Korea. I’ll link an article that goes into far more depth that I can provide, but long story short, South Korea’s gaming community isn’t particularly welcoming to girls. Overwatch’s futuristic setting shows a world that doesn’t feature the sexism that would prevent girls from being gaming and military stars. D.Va proves that the sky is the limit. This is a beautiful example of what games can mean to people and shows that games can even inspire attitudes in the real world. So much media features people creating massively positive change in the world; wouldn’t it be fantastic if we all behaved this way in reality? We don’t have to have laser cannons, or giant mechs, or super powers, but we do all have the ability to treat others with respect and equality. Overwatch’s ranks and commanders include men and women and many races of people. Everyone can have a place at the table of change.
In the end, escapism is just that, an escape. But it is through the optimism and hope that I’ve discussed above that gives us the escape we need. Overwatch and Steven Universe show us many scenarios that have different outcomes, but the characters tend to come out the other side with their hope intact. The heroes see what the world could be and fight towards it. Not all fiction has to go this way, but in a world that sometimes feels darker everyday, I think it’s something we all could use more of.
Hear more from BrothaDom on Character Reveal, the podcast he cohosts with Lady Saika!