Kids' Stuff

So the news has broken that over half the population of the US are gamers. That’s great, right? So why does there still seem to be a residual embarrassment or reluctance to talk about this enormous pastime? For some reason, games have always been perceived as children’s toys. Now, whilst that that perception is certainly changing, let’s analyze why this has historically been the case.


1. Word StigmaPress play?

The language of gaming has superimposed itself on the language of play, which itself has childish connotations. Think about play. Children are encouraged to play; play helps develop imagination and is essential to development. Think playdates, playpens, playgrounds. Adults, not so much. Once you’ve gotten past your childhood, that’s it, so society seems to say. Adults playing? That’s juvenile, infantile, immature.

But of course that’s an oversimplified view. Play implies game, and game covers a huge range of activities. Poker, football, chess, pool, soccer, cricket, tennis, rugby, snooker, darts — the list goes on. In addition, is the word play necessarily limited to childish activities? What about theatre? "I’m going to see a play at the Nottingham Playhouse." "The police are arresting my neighbours, let’s watch how things play out." "Want to watch a DVD? Press play!" And what about foreplay? That’s something completely different…

Ok, so perhaps it’s not solely down to word usage and preconceptions. That leads us on to:

2. Reality Disconnect

We’ve already stated that children are encouraged to play, to imagine, and to embrace the fantastical. Watch pretty much any kids TV program to see just how weird things can get sometimes. Our society is crazy protective of children; they don’t have to live in the real world yet, because the real world can be a bit crappy. Us grown-ups, on the other hand, are expected to face up to all manner of tedium — bills, traffic, other people, etc. Games are a way of escaping into fantasy, and that is often seen as a negative thing. Not real, a waste of time, not contributing anything… I’m sure we’ve all heard these and more.

The thing is, though, that games as entertainment are no different from any other medium. Books, film, TV, theatre, sports — all help to lift us away from the daily grind. So could there be a legitimate argument that games go too far? After all, most games are set in some fantastical environment, are otherwise totally unrealistic, and/or don’t communicate anything of note. Of course, that’s not fair. Look at Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, or Utopia by Thomas More, for two very early examples of fantastic literature. As for film, look at everything by Terry Gilliam or Guillermo del Toro. Does the setting negate the message? Of course not. Games are more than capable of describing something important or relevant to take back to real life. Fahrenheit, Mass Effect, Braid — these are just a few of the titles I’ve been playing recently, and all of them leave some lasting impression.

So if it’s not the language or the setting, is it the content that makes games childish?

3. Immature and Puerile

Superman 64. Not a good game, even for kids.Repetitive, derivative, boring, bad, tired stories, violent imagery, gore. I can think of hundreds of games that fulfil some or all of these tags. But does that make them suitable only for children? Once again, nope! Crap entertainment does not equal children’s entertainment, and many games, good or bad, aren’t suitable for children at all — here in the UK they’re rated by the BBFC, the film classification people. So an 18-rated game is about as kid-friendly as Lars von Trier’s Antichrist. Many games deal with other, seemingly very grown-up themes, without necessarily resorting to the adolescent favourite, quantities of gore. Think SimCity, (or Sim-anything, remember SimAnt?) Ico, SotC, and even Animal Crossing. The ‘other’ MMOG, EVE Online, employs it’s own economist because the in game economy is so complex.

From what we’ve seen so far, shouldn’t games have long ago been embraced as valuable additions to our culture? Maybe, but this leads me to…

4. NESManiac Mansion. Great game for all the family.

Now, this might be my age here, but it seems to me that the NES was targeted solely at children in the West. Search for NES adverts, and almost all the video results will feature some wild-eyed kid having an intense experience. It’s like, rad. This drives home the message to parents and other adults: featured product is not for you. I couldn’t help smiling when at the end of an advert for Zelda we’re told, "your parents help you hook it up." It seems that this is a view shared by NoA themselves, with their controversial ‘family’ policy. It’s told best by those who were there — Doug Crockford tells of his having to sanitize Maniac Mansion including the removal of a classical nude (curiously, you can still microwave the hamster). This message from the Big N — nothing controversial — forces games designers to shy away from significant content, and feeds back into the problems with boring content.

It wasn’t always thus. The Japanese NES, the Famicom, or Family Computer, was designed from the ground up to be an all-inclusive entertainment device. Now try searching for Famicom adverts — sure, the kids are still there some of the time, but the focus is much broader; see the number of Disk System adverts that seem to appeal more to the tech/gadget focused crowd. Why should this be the case? A difference in culture? Marketing?

Whatever it should prove to be, I hope you’ll agree that the NES, with record breaking sales figures and the single-handed reanimation of the home console market, started a trend towards consoles as kids’ toys. It’s a trend that has persisted for 20 years, and has only started to be reversed with the lifestyle marketing of the Wii. Perhaps Nintendo decided to return to their core mission, to provide a truly family computer…


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Author: GamerNode Staff View all posts by

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