I was walking through a store that sells video games (you probably know the one), when I happened to overhear a conversation had between an employee and a mother looking to purchase something for her son. They discussed a few different games, eventually settling on a children's title that was pretty standard for the industry. A platformer, which for the sake of conversation will not be named. When the mother asked how the game was the employee responded that it was "˜alright'. A few more probing questions about the game and eventually the employee fumbled out the following sentence:
"It's meant to entertain, and he's probably get some decent use out of it, but there's really not so much to it."
There's something horribly wrong with that sentence but it's difficult to place what that is. In fact the entire scenario may be pointing at a bigger problem with our industry, though something only limited to the marketing and sales level. Children's games, unless they're made by a few select developers, are generally looked down on.
It's not without reason of course, most games that launch targeted at kids are usually dry and shallow affairs. Shovelware that tries to capitalize on a particular gimmick or trend in order to push a few sales. The Wii was a console infamous for this, with literally hundreds of games targeted for kids that were either riddled with control issues or filled with monotonous, repetitive mechanics. Reviewers are exasperated with such games and the gaming community otherwise may be unaware of their existence, and rightly so. Not every developer can draw up the millions of dollars that national advertising will demand, let alone all the other details that go into a global marketing campaign.
But to imply that kids are willing to grind their brain against shovelware simply because they are younger is to show a serious lack of comprehension on the subject of imagination.
When I was a child did I simply enjoy a Sonic game because it was there and something to do? Unlikely, considering how many different titles were available by the time. By the time I was eight in addition to Sonic the Hedgehog 3 there was Super Metroid, Sonic & Knuckles, Street Fighter, Earthworm Jim, and Donkey Kong Country. They were all available to me. More "˜adult' games (titles that would not be geared for an older audience) included Earthbound, Heretic (prequel to Hexen), Doom II, Final Fantasy VI, and Mortal Kombat 2 amongst others.
The sense of imagination that these titles captured is staggering to consider; and the rush of accomplishment that went hand-in-hand with a particularly unique challenge was what made these games so much fun. Early era gaming was still filled with rip-offs, broken, or poorly developed titles but the mood was different. It was one of exploration, one that wasn't afraid to encourage gamers of all ages to imagine an ever increasing spread of possibilities. Worlds left unexplored. Copycats rarely stood a chance, and often times attempts to mimic a character's success spawned entirely new branches of gameplay. Sonic and Mario are wonderful testaments to this.
Children's games today are different, but they shouldn't be. It should come as no surprise that kids want to invest so much time in games that are not suited for their age demographic, typically rife with violence that so many parents protest. Games intended for adults are filled to the brim with imagination, whether it be the next Halo or current Grand Theft Auto. Monumental levels of time and energy are put into creating worlds that provide unforgettable experiences, and why would we expect our children to settle for anything less? How could we?
Of course there are developers out there who do work hard to provide such levels of entertainment. Nintendo remains to be the largest, but franchises such as Skylanders, Rayman, or the Lego series do a wonderful job of providing worlds that encourage imagination while maintaining a great sense of humor and have earned their success through treating children as more than just above-average monkeys. They are far and few between, but their success proves that the market for intelligent and unique games for children is hardly a dying sector.
The fact of the matter is we need to do better. Reviewers need to be more critical of the games they play from a child's view, careful to make sure they're not blasting a game simply because they're an adult. Parents need to try a little harder to keep away from games that perpetuate this stereotype; that their progeny would ever settle for some lame attempt at development and half-hearted marketing ploy simply because they're small and impressionable. We all need to aspire to just a little more critical detail for our youth.
What I should have done that day was, ironically, ranted. I should have stopped the mother and informed her that their child deserved better, applauded them for taking so much interest in the development of their kid and directed them toward something that may genuinely stimulate some sort of creative love in their son or daughter. Maybe my limited knowledge of the genre wouldn't have been enough to solidify the correct choice, but it would have been a step better than "˜whatever'. Kids deserve better than such apathy.
The mother left with said platformer that day, only slightly convinced she had made the right decision. A look of uncertainty, of a best guess tossed forward, was etched across her face. It's difficult to imagine the child would be much happier.