“Games are for children”
“Games are for children”. No matter how wrong, or misguided we might find this claim, this single idea has shaped the past, present and future of games. In fact, I would argue it’s the most influential belief in their whole history. From the composition of the audience to the way violence is portrayed, it can all be drawn back to this bit of prejudice.
Play has always been associated with children. Despite being an integral part of the human experience, it has invariably been characterised as unserious. Maturity is related to labour, sex and other activities children cannot be involved with, associating play with the latter. While exceptions such as sports, card games and gambling exist, they are kept culturally separate.
When video games arose in the 1980s, it was kids and teenagers who spent the most time with them. Given this, it shouldn’t be a surprise that they became the original target audience. At least, some of them. Children’s toys are extremely gendered and video games, by extension, would end up being as well. Technology is firmly marketed as the exclusive interest of little men, which I suspect was the biggest contributor to the whole field being defined by them.
We can even get a glimpse on how old the audience is by what games are made. Most 8 and 16 bit classics, from Mario to Sonic the Hedgehog were designed for children. A bit later we start seeing games appealing to teenagers, like Grand Theft Auto 3. More recently, games like The Last of Us and God of War Ragnarok have started to feature surrogate sons and daughters, a clear sign that those in the industry now have families.
In other words, the evolution of games has mirrored the age of their audience. While adults may now make the majority of the market, the crossover into older audiences took decades. Rather, it’s those that grew up when video games were in its infancy that determine its fate today. For all the comparisons we might draw to literature or cinema, the fact they were oriented towards adults from the start and games weren’t remains a key difference.
The belief that games are for children not only has impacted who plays games, but also how we talk about them. It may not be immediately obvious, but much of the discussion is tinged with this belief, in one way or another. Its shade can be seen in the preconceptions we have about games, what they should be or aim for. While it would be reductive to claim it as the single driver of every debate, its influence can be seen everywhere.
Let’s start with a little one. Remember the Dark Souls difficulty debate? Of course you do, that thing has never gone away. One common argument for the inclusion of difficulty levels was that a high level of challenge was fine for children but not for busy adults. This way of framing the issue, as a matter of age, strikes me as rather peculiar. While I’ve never seen anyone describe a hard read or a long TV show in terms of adults versus children, it remains common in games.
Now, a bigger one: Nostalgia. For better or worse that’s the default lens through which gaming history is seen. Too often, while reading an article on the subject, we’ll come across the phrase “rose-tinted glasses” or a lengthy discussion about whether it “holds up”. Negative reviews in particular tend to make the argument that old titles were never great, but only appeared to be because we were too young back then to know otherwise.
Even the way gamers attack each other underscores how central this belief is to the art form. When the Xbox came into the picture, the go-to line argument Nintendo was “kiddie”. It wasn’t a console for adults, but for children. And when things get nasty, insults follow the same line. The gamer stereotype is that of an immature manchild, covered in acne and who lives in their mother’s basement. In other words, not an adult.
However, the art form has not only been shaped by the belief that games are for children, but also by the reactions of players, publishers and designers to it. The most telling example is the approach to violence. Video games are unusually violent compared to literature, music or movies. Unprovoked murder, “glory kills”, dismemberment and plenty of shooting are the bread and butter of the medium.
By featuring such extreme violence, titles such as Mortal Kombat or Rise of the Tomb Raider hope to distance themselves from children’s entertainment. The hope is that it will make them appear more adult, either to actual grown-ups or those that hope to become one. It’s a way to signal maturity, regardless of how immature such use of violence ends up being.
Interestingly, board games have taken the opposite approach. Graphic violence is actively avoided, as it’s considered either insensitive or unwelcoming. Rather, an adult appearance is achieved through historical settings and beige tones. Eurogames, the most influential artistic movement in the medium, as well as Avalon Hill’s bookcase series, which presented Diplomacy and Acquire in the style of a novel, may look completely unlike their video game brethren yet try to address the same problem.
Ironically, this drive to grow up is kind of childish. And yet, it’s desired because adults crave respect. Respect which is hard to come by when your life work is perceived as “children’s stuff”. While games may have exceeded cinema in business size, they are still far off from achieving the same cultural recognition, giving rise to a particular sense of insecurity.
Faced with prejudice, gamers, developers and publishers have tried to justify themselves. Afraid of not being taken seriously, we emulate television, double down on the importance of writing and jump on the latest social trends. Games are designed, not just to be, but also to appear important. Photorealistic graphics, orchestral soundtracks and our very own version of the Academy Awards answer, even if a little bit, to the fear of not being perceived as mature.
And yet, it remains. Deep down, we still fear that gaming will never be accepted on its own terms. That’s why we pen articles about how “Gaming has grown up” and how it’s “so much better now”. We are afraid to accept them as they are, as if their child-centred history was shameful. But the only way to break the cycle, to enjoy the art form completely, is to accept that fact.