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Please, think of the children: The importance of "kiddy" games


Outside of a small yet extremely vocal minority, we have come to recognize video games as a medium that can and does appeal to adult tastes and desires. This is fantastic. Most of you reading are from the Atari and NES eras and can appreciate how the hobby has grown alongside the aging market. This maturing audience enjoys gritty shooters, sweeping crime dramas, strategic military campaigns, and exploits into the human psyche. We should congratulate ourselves and the industry for coming this far. So why do I feel so disappointed?

While gaming has opened up in order to satisfy both the young and old, far more attention is paid towards the latter, leaving younger gamers in an environment that typically recognizes them as customers that have to be distracted long enough until they can purchase games from the "big leagues." Among developers, game media, and average gamers, it feels as though mature titles are seen as legitimate whereas titles for the younger set are downplayed as inadequate. This attitude has been brewing for so long that it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby most "kiddy" games are written off as nonessential for good reason, but this is to the disadvantage of those few games that do strive for something a little more substantial.

This is not an issue of sales because despite the extra attention awarded to more adult titles, mature games account for a small fraction of total sales in any given year. Take a look at this ESRB ratings breakdown for 2003 through 2007 (data for 2008 hasn't been released as far as I know):

Well over half the games released are child/family-friendly and account for the bulk of yearly sales. Nonetheless, it is often the upper end of the spectrum that receives the most media exposure and the greatest developer investment in terms of budget, time, and overall quality.

Before I continue, I'd like to clarify some things. First, this is NOT a child-protection argument nor is this an indictment against high-profile adult games. Adults have as much right to play games tailored to their interests as anyone else, and applying pressure on developers by playing the "you are desensitizing children" card is unfair to them as well as to the intended audience. There is nothing wrong with these games, they just aren't appropriate for a younger audience.

Second, this is NOT a stealth console wars argument. You are probably thinking to yourselves, "Well, the 360 and PS3 are more adult machines, but the Wii is perfect for the kids!" The HD consoles skew towards the older set, true, but I'm not letting the Wii off the hook either. What passes for a family-friendly gaming on the machine lately is more often than not an afterthought meant to capitalize on a market that is assumed to be too ignorant to discriminate software.

Lastly, when I talk about adult games I'm not only talking about mature-rated titles but also the higher end of teen-rated titles. The lower end of the teen rating, what I like to call "soft teens," encompasses those games that just missed earning an E or E10+ because of some element that pushed it over the edge but is relatively harmless for child consumption. For example, Guitar Hero and Rock Band are two franchises that maintain the teen rating because of questionable song lyrics, yet you'd be hard-pressed to find parents who'd consider them inappropriate for their eight-year-old. Another example would be the Ratchet and Clank series which features an animal mascot engaging in mild, unrealistic gunplay. The series was teen-rated up until the ESRB's introduction of E10+, whereafter the sequels where awarded the more appropriate rating.

This spectrum of content, from sugar-coated romps to action-packed, Saturday-morning-cartoon fare, ensures that any child should have his or her needs satisfied. There are also games (like Guitar Hero and Rock Band) that while not developed specifically with children in mind are safe enough for the whole family to enjoy. This was the landscape back in the days of our youth. Aside from extreme but uncommon cases such as Mortal Kombat or Atari porn software of limited availability, the majority of games of this earlier age were tame enough for anyone. Though we look back at Nintendo's censorship policy with disdain, it ensured our parents could trust that what we were playing wasn't going to warp our minds in terms of foul content (concerns over addiction were another story). Yes, there were concerns over video game violence back then, but because of technological limitations as well as the self-censorship of developers, games were no more a violence concern than shows like G.I. Joe and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Before the PlayStation, the home console scene was undeniably "kiddy," but those of us who grew up then didn't mind because we were knee-deep in all this wonderful content tailored especially for us. Even some adults found themselves with controllers in hand, fascinated that the games their children played could spark interest in them as well. It is that ability to cross generations that fascinates me so much about many "kiddy" games; it's for this same reason that the majority of my television time is spent watching Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon. Developers of this brand of software would love nothing more than to be able to enjoy the games their children enjoy, and so they impart enough of themselves into their projects so that the end result can be absorbed on multiple levels. The best games are like Pixar films, immediately accessible to children but with enough hidden wit and depth to draw in the older crowd.

There is this assumption that children don't know better, that they will swallow anything with lots of bright colors or attached to a popular license without regard to relative quality. I can't agree with that because I doubt the children of today are much different than the children of yesterday. What about us? Weren't we discriminating consumers? Didn't we hate it when adults looked down on us, assuming that we were incapable? No one likes being patronized, especially children. They can grasp more than what we give them credit for. I mean, we were video game children! We would play these games, adopt complex strategies, and speak with this gamer lingo that sounded like Greek to out parents. How many families do you know where the kid has a better understanding of the computer, the iPod, and all other electronics in the house than the adults? Children are information sponges and can adapt to just about anything that catches their attention, a skill that should not be undermined.

Of course, that doesn't mean they won't buy into those less-than-stellar games from time to time. Pixar still trusts THQ with its license after all. But honestly, we did the same thing when we were young! We all played some pretty terrible games way back when and we loved them to death! How many of those Angry Video Game Nerd reviews were for titles in your library? Now that we are older and have taken the nostalgia glasses off, we realize how much we put up with just for the sake of play. Rather than look at that as a lack of discerning taste, I see that as evidence that children are more willing to look past flaws no matter how glaring and see the value underneath. In that respect, us older, jaded gamers could learn a thing or two from the new generation.

Kids want quality just as much as we do. The proof is in the success of Nintendo Power. Today, the magazine has become a shadow of its former self, but in its heyday it found its way into millions of gamers' hands. It treated them like royalty! It was a magazine for kids that sparked excitement over the latest game strategies and upcoming releases. A reader poll would list the most popular games while reviewers recommended the finest new titles hitting store shelves. Those popular games, those highly rated games, those are what kids wanted. They wanted the best. There is some truth that Nintendo Power was a huge marketing tool to direct mind share towards only the games Nintendo wanted dominating sales charts, but the entire strategy hinged on the truth that kids have discriminating tastes and gauge quality just like any older consumer.

While Nintendo Power was a children's magazine, today's magazines target the older gamer. Only the grittiest games grace the covers. The high-profile adult projects from the biggest developers are more likely to receive exclusive monthly coverage over anything seen as too childish. Why would the editors spotlight anything other than what their core readership is immersed in? It only makes sense, right? So in the interest of keeping the balance, where are kids crowned champion? Other than the fading Nintendo Power, what can kids turn to? Where is their exposure? Huh? A two-page spread in the back of Nickelodeon Magazine?

But what am I saying? No one reads print media anymore! It's all about the Internet now! So where can the kids turn to, hmm? Think about the major gaming media sites and blogs. Which ones dedicate enough attention to child-friendly software so as appear somewhat interested in the advancement of family-friendly gaming? Sure, as gaming enthusiasts, we may show some interest in, say, Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure, Viva Piņata, or de Blob, usually squeezed between Epic interviews and previews of the latest gunfest or western RPG. In fact, even though we are the most attuned to the gaming pulse, we are genuinely surprised when some of these games display any measure of success.

Take Boom Blox, for example, which was at first marked for death following an opening month of 60,000 units. When news popped up that the game hit close to half a million sales in the US alone, the media outlets and blogosphere were shocked! This game that received such little attention from anyone managed to reach such impressive numbers? I wonder if many processed the news much less became aware of it because some continue to say that the game failed at retail. These colorful, happy-looking games don't seem interesting to the average net dweller so any critical and financial success they may garner is downplayed or outright ignored.

So in light of the fact that games like Dead Space, Mass Effect, and Killzone 2 right down to less high-profile but still well-hyped titles like Army of Two are ubiquitous, why wouldn't developers continue to devote their best skills and talents to improving them? Even though there is a sizeable preteen consumer base, they remain quiet about their desires, seemingly content to buy the latest minigame fest or declining franchise cash-in (I'm looking at cats like Sonic, Crash, and Spyro). They don't make themselves heard, so obviously they have no objections to their second-rate status.

Okay, I'll concede that there are still a number of studios willing to place not only the development muscle but also the marketing might behind kids' projects they have faith in. I just mentioned Ratchet and Clank before which continues to be a strong pillar in the house of Sony, and of course there is LittleBigPlanet which despite not meeting some backseat analysts astronomical predictions has sold tremendously and has earned well-deserved critical acclaim. I would hope that more studios take note of these games and feel inspired to emulate their quality in family-friendly fare of their own.

Then there is the 800-pound gorilla in the room, Nintendo, and its vast stable of all-ages gaming. Nintendo is perhaps the only developer totally invested in family entertainment that holds their releases to the same level of prominence as other studios with their adult titles. Sure, not all of Nintendo's games are raised up on the same platform, but you rarely see the kind of high-quality kids' games in their portfolio as marquee players for other developers. Even software like Wii Fit, regardless of your personal opinion of it, was developed with care and thoroughness that copycats fail to employ, and that's why those guys are accused of making shovelware and Nintendo is not.

Yet despite these success stories, few studios or publishers are willing to inject new blood into the children's market with any real enthusiasm. Soul Bubbles is a game that was sent to die by becoming a Toys "R" Us exclusive and then never advertised. 5TH Cell, maker of critically acclaimed Drawn to Life and Lock's Quest, is quite underappreciated. Sure, sites may give it props now and then, but don't sit there and tell me it doesn't get glossed over when discussing strong movers in the industry or cast aside when bigger, more bombastic studios show off their latest tech showpieces. What studio is willing to risk anything when even the developers themselves act as if they would rather make games for their buddies than reaching out to the wider audience?

But why should YOU guys care? You aren't kids anymore. What reasons have I given you that more attention in this industry should be turned towards the younger crowd? For one, those kids will grow up to become the adult gamers of tomorrow. The more engaging the game experience today, the more likely they'll support the hobby in the future. Trust should be fostered from a young age. If the NES library had consisted almost entirely of Back to the Futures and Yo! Noids, do you think you'd still be playing games today, or would you have lost interest in a hobby that treats kids (and their parents by extension) like cash cows amused only by recognizable characters and activities without regard for solid gameplay?

Must "kiddy" be such a naughty word? Handhelds already get the shaft because they are unfairly compared to their home console brethren, but we can agree that the DS has become a haven for a wide variety of quality games and has done so by appealing to the widest audience possible. A literal handful of games for the platform carry a mature rating, but the remainder of the library is every bit as tame and accessible as the NES games of the past. However, because Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars didn't immediately sell a million copies, "hardcore" gaming on the platform is in trouble. Yes, ignore the breadth of available content because an adult game has tripped out the gate and now "questions must be asked."

Here's a question that should be asked: What is wrong with making "kiddy" games? They aren't intrinsically less deep than adult games. I dare anyone to call Viva Piņata or Boom Blox shallow. If the concern is lack of powerful story, remember that kids are no stranger to difficult thematic elements. Disney films deal with death, redemption, etc. on a regular basis yet remain light-hearted affairs overall. Then there is the very nature of games that the whole family can enjoy, a certain whimsy about them that you can't find in adult games that take themselves way too seriously.

For developers out there, think of better ways to position you catalog of child-friendly titles. Try to create something new and fresh, and be PROUD of it, for the love of God! Let people know what you are doing! Demand the same media attention given to the BioShocks and the Gears of Wars. Can you revive the animal mascot? How about an open-world sandbox for the younger crowd? For the media, play up those cute but fascinating upcoming titles some more. No one's manhood is at stake here. Gamers will appreciate the extra attention awarded to strong titles that they might have overlooked otherwise. And gamers? Just because a game may look like it will give you cavities doesn't mean it can't be a hallmark experience.

Little gamers, I've got your back. This is your hobby too.
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About Tony Ponceone of us since 12:40 AM on 09.09.2007

(Decommissioned) Super Fighting Robot