A criticism often aimed at videogames is that they’re childish. This description is a ball of contempt flung at the industry as a whole by those who know little of it, and understand even less. It’s also a common criticism within certain areas of the videogames fanbase, with some games – Super Mario titles, for example – often dismissed with a sneer and an assertion that they are ‘for kids’. Rather than attack this attitude as unfair and inaccurate, I want to approach the issue from another angle entirely. I intend to argue that the rapidly beating heart of every videogame experience you’ve ever enjoyed is childhood.
Does life get you down? If it never does then, to be honest, you’re sleepwalking through the world. When the blinkers of youth are lifted and you’re forced to grip the reality of life with both hands, all of a sudden there’s an awful lot to get depressed about. Your day to day life becomes a microcosm of the world at large, whether you realise it or not; uplifting victories sit side by side with crushing disappointments. Injustices are seen on a regular basis, and often you’re powerless to do anything about them. When you’re not powerless, you look away. You curse yourself for doing so, then do exactly the same thing at the next available opportunity.
Anger at world events stems from reflections you see in your own experiences. You work a job you hate – if you can find one at all – for money that never lasts. Those above you do less and earn more, and show nothing but contempt for you and your friends. So then you switch on the TV, and see the people whose callous actions left the world’s economy in ruins awarded six figure bonuses for another year. Meanwhile, people who sit in peaceful protest at this injustice are arrested and beaten by the police force who, moments before, checked one last time that there are no TV cameras to be seen.
As a young child you know nothing of this; could never even imagine it. A policeman is to be trusted, and that is the beginning and the end of it. Every day there is something new to learn, and there is always time to play. Life is full of mysteries too beautiful to be solved, and so your imagination fills in the gaps with creative wonder. You believe in Santa Claus and the tooth fairy because your parents tell you they exist, and so it must be so; besides, there is no other possible explanation for the wonderful gifts given to you during the secret night.
The world is full of good guys and bad guys, with no inbetween. Your entire life is lived in an impenetrable armour of safety, security, and no consideration for the future. You love the grown-ups who look after you unconditionally, and so you seek their praise and approval on a daily basis. You draw; you read; you learn; you invite them to join in your games. One of the final words to learn on the road to adulthood is ‘responsibility’.
The point is, we all lose something happy and powerful when we realise we are no longer children. This transition is necessary to survive in the world however, and brings with it many positives. With our childhood behind us, we are gifted with the capacity for wisdom and a greater understanding and appreciation of love. Realisations of reluctant complicity and injustice can be worrying and saddening, but they can also spur us on to try to change the world for the better, no matter how small a change that may be. This matured intelligence is necessary to fully enjoy and appreciate most games on your shelf or hard drive, but even more important is the memory of childhood which glows with energy at the core of every single one of them.
It takes only a cursory glance at several genres and themes to see how a childlike mindset – during both development and play – is present. On the most basic of levels, many videogames recreate make-believe play or innocently determined declarations of ‘When I grow up…’. Driving fast cars, fighting aliens, playing soldiers, wandering a magical fantasy world, playing in a world-famous sports team, singing songs into a microphone… need I go on? Then there is also the customisation aspect that more and more games feature nowadays, which certainly has its roots in dressing yourself and your toys in a variety of costumes. For longer than you have perhaps realised, you want to stamp your mark on what you own, what you make, and the ‘you’ that people see – and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.
Gleefully holding a picture up to your parents for approval as a child is indicative of a wider desire to garner praise in general, for acknowledgement for your efforts. This is a desire that never leaves us and, later in life, leans towards a need to be praised above all others. This, I think, is what is behind the phenomenal success of the Xbox 360’s Achievements and, later, PS3 trophies.
To a large extent, this is analogous to the classroom. A large number of people have been set the same task, which they then do their best to accomplish. Upon completion they are rewarded with something to prove their success; a sticker or certificate… or trophy or achievement. Many of these trophies and achievements require great skill and/or many hours to earn, meaning that the majority of players will never receive them. These are the ones that, for many, are the most sought after. For similar reasons, being near the top of the scoreboard in online matches is never enough for many people. They want – need – to be at the top, showing that they are above everybody else.
It may seem hard to reconcile the idea of games relying on childhood experiences with the success of certain titles, specifically horror games. Even ignoring the fact that many games which bloom from childrens’ imaginations feature monsters and peril of various kinds, however, there is good reason to claim that the horror genre connects with what we enjoyed as children as much as any other.
In my opinion, Roald Dahl was possibly the greatest children’s author who ever lived. The man who gave the world Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Twits, Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, and much more (including some powerful stories for adults) had his books so loved by so many children for several reasons. He was of course an incredibly gifted writer, but it was what he did with this skill that gave his stories their magic. He spoke to children as a child, seeing the world through young eyes in a way that virtually none of us can as adults. He knew exactly what children wanted in their stories. He gave them wonder, magic, heroism – and horror.
Dahl wasn’t afraid to remind children in his books, on a regular basis, that not all adults are to be trusted; that some adults are in fact downright nasty. In his world grown-ups, while sometimes protectors and heroes, are at other times villains and monsters. His most famous tales are an explosive fusion of wonderment and horror, a sense of menace always ready to leap from behind a mask of laughter. Similarly, though for a progressively older audience, look at J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter stories. Immensely successful, and populated with complicated – and often dangerous – characters and situations. Rowling and Dahl are both responsible, ultimately, for children’s horror. Just look at how the world’s children reacted.
It is said (though less often nowadays) that there is something called ‘Nintendo Magic’ which powers the best of that company’s games, a certain ineffable something which makes certain titles unique in a truly captivating way. I think I’ve finally cracked it; that ‘Nintendo Magic’ is understanding what it’s like to be a child, and pumping a videogame full of it in its purest form. Therefore Super Mario games are bright and colourful, with a mostly cheery soundtrack, and simple controls. Yes this appeals to children, and yes it is certainly intentional. That’s not what makes a Super Mario title childlike, though; not entirely.
Character and level designs have always been similarly bold and simple, deceptively so. The introduction of 3D graphics allowed Mario games to become what they had always tried to be with Super Mario 64, and even more so with the Galaxy games. Start a new level, and adjusting the camera slightly will afford you a view of a huge chunk of the landscape. Seeing a level for the first time is exciting. You see new enemies, blocks that hold who knows what, strange buildings or land formations in the distance. You feel like… like a child in their very own toy shop, the frustrating rules of time and space stopping him or her from trying everything all at once. Similar feelings of wonder and a desire to explore are present in the 3D Zelda games, combined with a knowledge that there is a wealth of incidental content in there – and you want to find it all.
This is not to say that Mario, Zelda, or any other Nintendo game is by default ‘better’ than all other games. In terms of games design, in titles such as these, Nintendo wears its heart on its sleeve. There is no shame in the childlike wonder of bright, engrossing games; no desire to dress up the fun and wonder in ‘mature’ greys and browns. It’s an attitude that, outside of Nintendo, is nowadays usually reserved for indie developers. So if you are wont to laugh and jeer at games such as these, think twice before you do. Think long and hard about just how far removed these games are from your ‘proper’ games. After all, if you didn’t enjoy being a child again from time to time, you wouldn’t play anything at all.