When Michael reviewed MySims Agents, I knew I had to get it for my daughter for Christmas, and my hopes for the game weren’t misplaced: it looks both fun and charming, she loved it, my wife blazed right through it, and I’ll give it a spin as soon as I’m done with Mass Effect 2.
But it’s also thrown me for a bit of a loop, because it’s undeniably a juvenile game, in the same way that, to pick a random example, Comet in Moominland is a juvenile book. Which is absolutely fine, even delightful—I read ten books by Madeline L’Engle during the last month alone, so I’m certainly not one to shy away from books intended more for my daughter than myself! But I’ve studiously avoided thinking about video games in those terms, avoided trying to distinguish between games intended for kids and games (e.g. Wii Sports) that are accessible to a wide audience but not targeted specifically at kids.
The main reason why I’ve avoided classifying games in that fashion is because I see that classification made far too often around me, in the context of polemics that I disagree with; it’s usually used to support claims that I consider both wrong and boring, leading me to head in the other direction when I run across such discussions. But given the existence of MySims Agents and the usefulness I find in the distinction for books, it’s time for me to take another look at the idea of juvenile games.
For example: are the Mario games juvenile games? What about the Zelda games? Honestly, I’m at a bit of a loss here. The Mario games certainly have something in common with juvenile literature, in that they’re quite happy to not locate themselves in the real world—see the aforementioned Moomintroll series for a delightful literary example. I’m loath to make too much of this particular distinction, though: aside from the existence of many many fantasy and science fiction novels for adults, I tend to think that the insistence of the importance of the fantastic/realist distinction in adult literature is more of a bug than a feature, and a bug that’s localized to my particular location in space and time at that.
And juvenile novels are written in a language that kids can read, and frequently features child protagonists. But I’m loath to make too much of those distinctions, either: we don’t have to use fancy words to prove how adult we are, and surely we can all enjoy books that feature protagonists that differ from us in one way or another? So, while I can come up with ways to tell that a books isn’t juvenile literature (because of the style of language, because of sex, because of certain other topics), I found it surprisingly difficult to come up with a positive and non-banal description of what it means for a book to be juvenile literature. And that carries over to video games as well: to return to my examples above, I still don’t know if the Mario games are juvenile games or not. (And I am apparently not alone; though, if I had to come down one way or another, I suppose my gut would agree with Stephen Totilo’s in labeling the series as juvenile. It’s less clear to me than MySims Agents, though: in the latter, having kids acting out adult roles in a non-realistic context is a marker.)
The other series I mentioned, though, is a different case: the Zelda games are, at their core, adolescent games. Not in the sense that adults or children wouldn’t enjoy them, but in the sense that they’re about boys growing up (literally, in the case of Ocarina), forced to be men a little earlier than they’d like to, but rising to the occasion, finding out who they really are, finding unexpected depths inside themselves. As with juvenile books, I want to emphasize: this is in no sense a criticism, I love bildungsromans enough to have copies of most of Herman Hesse’s books on my shelf in both German and English. (And one could claim that I’m still trying to figure out what it is that I want to be when I grow up!) But a coming of age story is, to me, a strong indicator of adolescent literature.
And it’s one that you’ll find all over the place in video games, present in a deep structural sense. In every role-playing game, your character starts out weak, but becomes more and more competent over the course of the game, with his or her capabilities consciously guided through your choices. And these elements are popular enough to have gotten grafted onto other genres—BioShock, for example takes RPG elements and melds then with an FPS core foundation.
And, of course, BioShock is an adolescent game in other ways—its core conflict comes down to, basically, “Son, do this. No, dad, you can’t tell me what to do! Yes, son, I can! No, dad, you can’t!” This is repeated with a second father figure, just in case you didn’t get it the first time; if that’s not a sign of a game about adolescence, I don’t know what is.
Actually, BioShock grabs me in this context for a second reason: Andrew Ryan’s “these are my toys, and if you don’t like that, I’m going to take my forest and go home” speech. I was going to say that that’s not just adolescent, it brings us back to our “juvenile games” theme, but, actually, most kids I know wouldn’t behave that way, either; it’s using the term “childish” instead in the sense of an anti-child prejudice that adults bring out when discussing aspects of their own behavior that they’d prefer to ignore.
Which brings me, in turn, to another context in which the word “adolescent” has come up recently in video game criticism, namely Heather Chaplin’s GDC 2009 rant. I didn’t attend it in person, but I have listened to the audio, and in general I think she’s spot on. She’s not using the term adolescent in the positive sense of growth, of figuring out who we are: instead, her complaints are with game designers and players who are childish in the sense of my previous paragraph, who refuse to grow up and take on real responsibilities, who are instead mired in “guy culture” despite being grown men, who “fear responsibility, introspection, intimacy, and intellectual discovery”. And, as she continues, “when you’re talking about culture makers, this is a problem.” Indeed.
(And, just in case you might think that her concerns about the omnipresence of guy culture in game design are overblown: the very next speaker in the rant, when needing to fill some time while fiddling with his computer, decides to joke about blow jobs. And yes, I realize that the GDC rant panels are situations where one might reasonably say things that you wouldn’t say in the more polite sessions in the conference, but he wasn’t doing this for any sort of polemical or oratorical reason, he just thought that such joking was a great way to spend time in a professional conference; and the next two voices we heard after him, both also male, thought that this was a good enough idea that they both took the joke and ran with it. Really, guys, what the fuck?)
Returning to my previous themes: while I have a hard time carving out distinguishing characteristics of juvenile literature, I have an easier time carving out distinguishing characteristics of adult literature. Heather’s list of guy culture fears gives some candidates; parenting is one candidate that I’ll nominate from my own life, as is moving beyond romance and the initial falling in love and instead making a life with your partner through thick and thin, through excitement and banality. And these are, in general, sorely absent in video games, or present only in a distorted form. (I just finished Yakuza 2, and the one bit of hands-on parenting in that game rang horribly false.)
There are, perhaps, glimmers, of hope—I hear that Dragon Age: Origins handles relationships in a more nuanced fashion, and there’s always Jason Rohrer to give me hope. (In that same GDC rant panel, Clint Hocking warned that AAA game makers were having their butts kicked by indie game makers, which is all to the good.) But there’s an awful lot of adolescent guy culture to make our way out of, first.
And of course, as with my discussion of the term “childish”: the examples that Heather gave of responsibility, introspection, intimacy, and intellectual discovery aren’t things that real adolescents avoid in general, or even that children avoid in general. They struggle with the weight of those terms, as we all do, but frequently that struggle is done positively, rather than by running away from them, or hollowing out a facade behind them. (As we see in every game that blows up a bildungsroman plot into a chosen hero saving the world; I love the Zelda series to pieces, but it bears little relation to the way responsibility plays out in my own life.)
In fact, in juvenile and adolescent literature, these concepts (especially responsibility and intellectual discovery) are often front and center. So maybe that’s a more positive way to look at the appearance of overtly juvenile games? Maybe overtly juvenile games will have a harder time pretending that they’re grown up because they have a big hero who can order other people around or kill them if those others don’t obey, and will instead have to confront responsibility in a more honest fashion? Maybe (I write just after having learned that our neighbors of six and a half years, who are closer to Miranda than anybody outside of her mother and myself, are moving to Cyprus in a week) replacing the romance subplot of your favorite RPG with the poignancy of your neighbor moving away in Animal Crossing is the first step towards a real treatment of intimacy?
Something to hope for; something to open my eyes and look for.
This post has not been revised since publication.