My Escape

Russ Pitts
Sunrise over Cape Hatteras, NC

“Getting over a painful experience is much like crossing monkey bars. You have to let go at some point in order to move forward.” — C. S. Lewis

It’s been almost three months since I removed myself from public life and pressed pause on my role as editor-in-chief of Escapist Magazine. In those three months, I’ve planted a garden, worked on my house, written a little, watched TV a lot, played games, cleaned my garage, and attended lots and lots of therapy sessions. Through those sessions, I’ve learned a few valuable things. The most important was that I’ve been very broken for a very long time and I’m ready to not be.

By November 2017, I’d helped build Escapist into a top-five games site, resigned from games journalism, co-founded Polygon and Take This, resigned from games journalism again, started my own film company, written two books, and traveled the world. That month I was vacationing on the island of Roanoke (yes, the same place all those people disappeared from) while deciding what to do next.

My phone rang. It was an opportunity to reacquire Escapist. My vacation was over.

Almost every person I spoke with about helping me bring back Escapist either asked “Why?” or shouted “No!” and then ran away.

Defy Media had taken over Escapist shortly after I left, and after a time began cutting costs by laying off all but a handful of employees. When Defy finally gave up on running the website at all, they only employed one part-time editor and Yahtzee Croshaw. The website’s volunteer moderators took over updating the site. There were a lot of lists.

Escapist was lucky. Defy spent the early 2010s rapidly expanding and acquiring internet properties. By 2017, most of those properties had failed, and Defy was selling them off as quickly as it could. Defy had allegedly defrauded investors and owed millions to various content creators and creditors. The acquisition of Escapist almost didn’t go through because Defy’s lawyers were too busy fighting lawsuits to sign the paperwork.

The deal was finally closed in June 2018. My partners at Enthusiast Gaming had acquired Escapist. I would be its new editor-in-chief and vice president of Enthusiast Gaming Media.

People have asked me: “Why?” In fact, almost every person I spoke with about helping me bring back Escapist either asked “Why?” or shouted “No!” and then ran away. Escapist became a radically different outlet after I (and others) left nearly a decade ago. Advertisers fled. The industry largely turned its back on the website. Traffic plummeted from 50 million monthly views to less than a tenth that. The website’s previous owners had so tarnished the property’s reputation that many thought there would be no coming back. I’m not here to argue with those people, but I obviously disagreed.

For me, Escapist Magazine is more than a website. It was my start in games journalism. My start as a paid writer. It is where I made friends, discovered ridiculously talented creators, found my own voice, and met my wife. For all of its flaws, Escapist changed my life and quite possibly saved it.

I was standing on a stage at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco when I realized I was a fraud.

It was 2015. I had co-founded the mental health awareness charity Take This a few years prior and was giving a speech to game development workers about how to recognize and ameliorate the impact of work stress on mental illness. There, in front of hundreds of people, and smack in the middle of my PowerPoint, I had the sudden realization that much of what I was describing also applied to me. Worse, I realized that I had probably been suffering from mental illness for most of my life without treatment or diagnosis. I was lucky to finish my speech without throwing up.

I started seeing a therapist and talked to my doctor about treating my depression and anxiety. Since then, I’ve only gotten stronger, healthier, and happier. I wish I had started caring for myself sooner.

For years, I refused to even entertain the notion I was mentally ill. I was afraid that, as a creative person, my illness might be the source of my creativity. (Spoiler: it wasn’t.) But I was also raised in a place and around people who simply did not believe in mental illness, or were too terrified to talk about it even though most of us have been affected by it.

I wish I could succinctly describe living for 40 or so years with mental trauma. How it tarnishes memories, colors new experiences, and alters behavior. How it makes it almost impossible to form friendships with people who aren’t similarly traumatized. How it makes it hard to appreciate good things, and makes it easy to revel in bad ones.

Psychological abuse is insidious. It leaves few physical marks, is sometimes invisible to even those who experience it, and (most damaging of all) some people flat out refuse to believe it exists. Often those who inflict it are the least likely to acknowledge that it exists. Put simply: It is possible to be so traumatically psychologically abused that it can effectively ruin your life, yet neither you nor the person abusing you realize it’s happening. How’s that for fucked up?

When you haven’t properly processed traumatic experiences, you don’t learn from them or how to avoid them. Worse, you can actually crave them. Psychic trauma can feel validating and real, especially when it is something you received from those from whom you were taught to expect love from.

Psychological abuse is insidious.

My childhood was “horrific” according to some who know the details. When I tell them my most private, personal stories, some people simply go quiet and pale. One person (a mental health professional) told me they were surprised I hadn’t turned out to be a psychopath. My middle school guidance counselor told me she was convinced I’d eventually commit suicide. Not too long after that, one of my uncles did.

My father suffered from undiagnosed depression for as long as I knew him. He was a giant of a man, and angry. I learned to not provoke him. Staying quiet, small, or hidden was best. Still, it was hard to avoid his wrath. He’d spend most of his time alone, watching television, or tinkering in his workshop, or out hunting. I learned not to try to talk to him when he was doing those things. At best he wouldn’t answer. At worst, well. We painted a shed together when I was nine. Apart from giving me basic instructions, the only thing he said to me was: “Someday I’ll be able to have a conversation with you.” That was the most he had ever spoken to me directly.

I visited him on his deathbed. I was 22. I hadn’t spoken to him in years. He quoted John Lennon, telling me about how life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. He started to say something else, coughed, and then got up painfully and left the room. The “someday” never came.

His father died when I was very young. He had become so mentally ill he was committed and lobotomized. He had been a rocket scientist with a Top Secret clearance before that. I never knew him with his brain whole. My family never spoke of him or his illness. He was there, and then he wasn’t. The details were lost over the event horizon of a subject so taboo we were never able to deal with its impact, but whose gravity affected my entire family, and continues to do so to this day.

I wish I could tell you that was the extent of mental illness’ hold on my life and family, or my experience with it. It isn’t. But, out of respect for those still living, that’s all I’m going to share.

I was going to tell you how The Escapist saved me.

I was living in Western Massachusetts in the dead of winter of 2006, working in a basement theater, wading through floodwaters, breathing in mold spores, and suffering through a deep bout of my own undiagnosed depression when I got notice that the then brand-new Escapist Magazine had accepted one of my story submissions. Mere months later, I moved south to North Carolina to work there as an editor.

My time working at Escapist between 2006 and 2011 was one of the most painful and punishing periods of my life. Some of the details of how the company was managed have already become public knowledge. I’m reluctant to share more here for legal reasons. What I will say is I felt like I was in a cult. Unpaid overtime seemed expected and off-hours fraternization felt mandatory. My payroll was late more than once. My benefits expired more than once without warning. I observed and/or was a target of psychological and sexual harassment. More than one of us became so ill from stress and abuse that we could no longer physically work there. And all of this was before Gamergate.

Here’s one thing I’ve learned: I’ve been coping with my trauma in bad ways.

Yet, through all of the above and somewhat to the side of it, there were those of us at Escapist who were purely focused on the work, the audience, and the creators. In spite of all of the horror and challenges we faced, we created something truly remarkable. We were proud of it.

My experience living through psychological abuse and trauma at Escapist helped me understand the deep impact of mental health. The career I built there and at Polygon helped me create an even greater impact with the founding of Take This. People were more likely to listen to what I had to say because I was a “name” and I’d been through it. When I was finally ready to acknowledge that myself, I finally began to heal my symptoms.

A single article submission led to a career in games journalism. The career led to the creation of a charity, which led to a speaking engagement, which led to an epiphany, which led to me finally receiving a diagnosis and treatment for my mental illness. That would be an imperfect end if I had been happy to leave games journalism behind and work full time for a nonprofit. But I wasn’t.

Instead, almost a decade later, I decided to acquire the then defunct Escapist Magazine, relaunch it, fuck up badly, go back into therapy, and finally start to address the causes of the symptoms of my mental illness.

Here’s one thing I’ve learned: I’ve been coping with my trauma in bad ways. Twitter is a part of that. It brings out my most negative impulses. I lash out at people who make me feel insecure, taking my anger and frustration with myself and my past experiences out on them. This is how abuse perpetuates.

I’ve also been leaning very heavily on public approval for my own validation. This is, in fact, how I ended up in the entertainment industry in the first place. I studied acting to escape from my difficult life experiences, received validation, and repeated the process. By the time I was writing for the web, the public response and validation were nearly instantaneous. Faster, even, on Twitter. This is how a coping mechanism becomes an addiction.

Through months of therapy, I’ve finally started to find peace with the impulses that contributed to my recent, very public fuck-up at Escapist. I’m comfortable admitting I did a Big Bad, and trying to make amends. But through that process, I’ve also come to realize something else entirely: I’m just not very comfortable in this space anymore.

I’ve been a minor internet public figure for almost 20 years. Outside of the public gratification and validation, I don’t know that I’ve really enjoyed those years. I’ve felt forced to participate in online culture because this is the job I‘m good at and this is how its done. The public-facing nature of the job has only become more intense and more demanding since the last time I resigned from games journalism. I wasn’t ready for that when I went back to being an editor-in-chief, and that is a large part of why my coping mechanisms got out of control.

I am resigning as editor-in-chief of Escapist

I don’t know if games journalism has changed or if I have, but the current social media trend of treating arguments as entertainment has made it all but impossible to conduct measured conversations about complicated or nuanced issues. Meanwhile, the very medium of games itself has become wonderfully more complicated and nuanced. Not only do I find this disparity personally abhorrent, but I believe it’s a disservice to the audience, the creators, and the industry as a whole. I hope that the culture of hate-posting will change, but I am no longer interested in fighting it.

Learning to step back from all of that has been a blessing. I’ve regained my center. And. to my great surprise, that center is private.

Therefore, effective immediately, I am resigning as editor-in-chief of Escapist Magazine, and from Enthusiast Gaming Media entirely. The last (as in previous) chapter of Escapist is no longer its last (as in final), and its next will be decided by others.

From Day One, we built Escapist Magazine V2 knowing I was a temporary presence. I told Anthony Agnello when I hired him that his job was to learn how to become editor-in-chief. I told Enthusiast that I would work with them only if there was a path for me out of running a single website into something more challenging.

As for my position at Enthusiast, after almost a year of trying, we were unable to find a mutually agreeable position that would both challenge me creatively and fully utilize my experience and abilities. They have been nothing but excellent partners in reacquiring and relaunching Escapist, and are the best and most genuine humans I have ever worked with in media. Our parting is amicable, and I wish them the best.

What’s next for me is a mystery. I have some films to make, so I’m going to start there. Spend more time in my garden, and with my family. Be cool with being less seen and less tired. This past year, I’ve traveled approximately 0 times, which is roughly a 1,000% decrease from the past decade. It’s been awesome.

And as for Escapist Magazine, I believe its greatest days are still ahead of it. I’m excited for those who will be a part of its bright future, and who will be able to say Escapist changed their lives.

Russ Pitts

Written by

storyteller, do-gooder, Indiana Jones of games media | co-founder: @TakeThisOrg, @FlyingSaucerLLC, @Polygon | producer: Human Angle, The Screen Savers

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