I remember an odd experience I had last year. Actually, it was a pair of related experiences. Several times during the winter, I visited the abode of a 4th year friend of mine who happened to be quite a gamer. I remember I wandered over to the place where the PS3 was kept and shuffled through the small crate of games next to it. The related experience came later during spring when I visited a dorm floor’s lounge (not mine) in search of a range to cook on. I happened to see a GameCube hooked up to the tv, and I wandered over to inspect the game collection kept nearby.
The differences were striking. I know some people are going to dislike me for what I’m about to say, but it sort of shows who I am. In the case of the PS3, I shifted disinterestedly through the black and gray covers of games like Dark Souls and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, slightly repelled by the aesthetics of the games there. In the case of the GameCube, I paused to absorb the brightly-colored covers of games like Pikmin, Pac-Man, and Lord of the Rings: The Third Age, before grabbing for the next one, curious as to what it would be. Now, my purpose here is not to say that the old games are better than the new ones (let’s be honest, LotR: The Third Age’s story, while fun, reads like trashy fanfic). It’s just that these collections exemplify a shift over time, one that I am personally not fond of. The GameCube and PS3 belonged to different (subsequent, in fact) eras of video gaming. Over time, many games have gone from trying to be colorful and exciting to attempting to look as grim, angry, and “realistic” as possible, a shift frequently described to parallel the growing average age of gamers over time.
While I personally am an advocate of the idea that games can handle any mature subject just as well as any other form of media (provided the creators treat said subject with care and respect, of course, just as with any other medium) I feel like the happiness has been driven out of a lot of our games. We have gone from riots of color to black, brown, blue, and gray. We have gone from heroic poses to threatening ones. From running/flying around at top speeds collecting shiny objects and friends to killing our characters on huge challenges over and over again. Humor has gone from puns and silly antics to absurdity in over-the-top violence. It feels like the only mercy or succor we can give another character anymore is a shot in the head.
Now I understand (and am extremely grateful) that the diversity and amount of games being produced right now is very large. Not everything is grim, gray and violent. (Antichamber comes to mind.) And I know that people don’t often actively dislike colorful and happy games, and quite to the contrary, actually do like them (the resurgence of Psychonauts is evidence enough for that). But I do feel like our drive toward maturity often blinds us to the value of the games we leave behind. And I know that games made for children, unless there is a nostalgia filter in play, are often looked down upon. Particularly one variety:
Learning games. Many a complaint have I heard that people don’t want to learn when they play, complaints about being beaten over the head with knowledge. But games can be fun whether they teach you things or not. The game pictured above was marketed way back when as teaching kids important math and logic skills, topics frequently deemed as antithetical to fun. And even if one can get past that, there’s the idea that a game designed for children cannot possibly be difficult enough to be interesting to an adult, not one based around knowledge. I’ve been playing Zoombinis with some friends for a couple of weeks, and I can tell you that both those ideas are completely wrong. It’s essentially just a puzzle game, and an entertaining one at that. We have a whole genre of games focused around puzzling. These games often feature one puzzling mechanic with a bunch of different challenges designed to it. Zoombinis has twelve completely different kinds of puzzles designed around its core mechanic, character creation. These games are not mechanically stagnant. Heck, this game had adaptable difficulty back in the ’90’s. And that difficulty ain’t easy, aside from its first level. I failed to fully complete puzzles and had to leave Zoombinis behind or start over with them on a repeated basis. Something else to think about: you want gorgeous art? This game has gorgeous art:
Of course, I’m not saying that this game, or other children’s games are perfect. No game is. (I have several things to quibble about in Zoombinis’ design.) And I love that modern games can and frequently do deal with serious topics in ways they couldn’t the more they were perceived as being for children. But I want to remember that being childish is not a bad thing. There is value in what we give to kids. Else, why would we give it to them?