Tuesday, December 23, 2008

You know, for kids!

Wii Fit was being raffled off at the Christmas party at work, and I overheard some of the single mothers joking that they might have to come to blows over the coveted prize. I'm always somewhat curious about the place of video games in the lives of normals, but, as the conversation developed, it became clear that they were interested in it only insofar as they thought their kids would want it. The discussion gradually drifted over to include my neighbor, who then erroneously pointed out that I used to "do that stuff," at which point one of the single mothers asked me if I knew of any good games for kids, specifically for boys under ten. Dumbstruck as always when put on the spot, I couldn't think of anything, so I simply answered that I hadn't been in the industry in years. They moved on then, disappointed, as were we all.

As the day wore on, however, the question continued to nag at me. Even given time to think, I could not come up with anything better than "the latest Sonic game, whatever that may be," because, I was pretty sure, Sonic was eternally hip with the kids.

Going through my personal library, it occurs to me that my collection trends toward titles full of graphic violence. To be sure, gaming has almost always been driven by conflict and violence, and recent generations have merely offered greater graphical fidelity to make us better aware of what horrible pleasures we indulge in. But a part of me feels sorry that games like Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden, which I see as the modern equivalents of the games that my generation grew up playing--heck, Ninja Gaiden even was one of those games back then--are far too grotesque for me, as a responsible adult, to comfortably recommend to parents. What would I share with today's kids in place of these experiences?

Looking up the E-rated titles on PS3 and 360, I find that the overwhelming majority are sports and racing titles, along with the occasional license-based game. Titles like LittleBigPlanet and Viva Piñata are the rare exceptions. Including the E10+ range opens things up a bit, adding to the mix mascot-based action-platformers like Banjo and Ratchet, the Traveller's Tales LEGO titles, and the slightly more violent license-based games like Kung Fu Panda. Still, all told, these are pretty horrible lineups.

It has come as rather a shock to me that the PS3 and 360, the "core" gaming machines of today, have very little to offer what was once the most core audience. There is, among game enthusiasts, a half-joking notion that the Wii owes its success to a previously untapped casual market of senior citizens, but the reality is that it succeeds mainly because it caters to that audience that originally drove gaming, but which the other platforms have lost. Or, rather, those consoles have tried to grow up alongside the fans who were kids ten or twenty years ago and are still gaming as adults. I myself fall into that category, and, so far, it's been nice not having to outgrow my favorite pastime. But, while others may question how long the Wii can keep the casual audience interested, I have to wonder how long Sony and Microsoft can expect to keep relying on the hardcore players of my generation. Like it or not, gaming needs the Wii if for no other reason than to replenish the meat.

Of course, I may be entirely off on my assessment of the PS360's suitability for kids. Children, being less knowledgeable about games would, therefore, be less discriminating. And a single Kung Fu Panda might also entertain a child for far longer than it would an adult. Keep in mind, I'm not even talking teenagers here. In the mother's own words, this is "the sort of kid who watches Horton Hears a Who! all the way to the end, then presses 'play' and starts over."

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