I don’t have children, but I hope to one day. Sometimes when I’m playing a new game, such as this year’s delightful Kirby and the Forgotten Land, I think: “This, this is the game I’ll use to introduce my child to the world of gaming.”
The question occupies me because the games we play as children hold a special place in our consciousness and often we remain as emotionally welded to them as the favourite albums of adolescence. Children have the wonderful, ephemeral gift of entering wholly into a game’s fiction and, despite the fact that the average age of a gamer today is 33, much of society still associates games with kids.
This is partly a cultural hangover — it is only within the past decade that games have matured narratively — but also because games are a pure form of play, which is, unfortunately for adults, considered the domain of children. Given these strong associations, I was surprised to see recent research published in the journal Games Studies that said games very rarely feature child characters. Why should this be?
The obvious reason is that game developers don’t want to deal with the possibility of players murdering kids. Games are often spaces that allow casual violence with few moral repercussions, which raises an obvious issue: if there were children in Grand Theft Auto, would you be allowed to run them over with your sports car? When game writers allow children to be hurt or killed, they need to handle it delicately. The superlative example of this is the poignant loss of a child in the opening scene of The Last of Us, a moment that is given the weight it deserves by becoming the inciting incident that haunts the game’s emotional arc.
The Last of Us points to the most common reason that children are included in modern games — to explore fatherhood thematically. This has been called the great “daddening” of games (gaming has still offered vanishingly few complex mothers, a symptom of the industry’s enduring sexism). Father figures have become the hallmark of mature narrative gaming, particularly flawed dads Joel in The Last of Us and Kratos in God of War. This trend is indicative of today’s ageing game designers and players, who are now old enough to be parents and want to reflect their experiences.
When parent-child relationships are presented with nuance, they can be both emotive and instructive. The recent God of War games show a broken relationship between a father and son being repaired slowly and deliberately. Titles such as The Witcher 3 and Dishonored explore the ways parents influence their children as your player-actions determine the kind of person your daughter (or surrogate daughter) becomes. Meanwhile, in a thoughtful touch of wartime civilian simulator This War of Mine, you must prioritise not just young survivors’ need for food and shelter, but also for play and laughter.
Games often place these relationships at their narrative core because they provide an easy shortcut to make the player invest emotionally. By asking the player to protect someone who is helpless, the game seeks to awaken something primal within them, to encourage them to become the hero they need to be. The generic objectives of gaining power or points are eschewed in favour of protecting, caring and building trust.
The dynamic also serves to humanise gaming protagonists, who are often so violent that they could easily be seen as callous monsters. Seeing them care for a child softens them. They’re no longer killing for sport, they’re just doing what they must to protect their family. This care is often portrayed as a redemption for a flawed character and, by extension, a fallen world. Thematically, parent-child relationships often dwell on the tensions that emerge when autonomy is transferred to the next generation, which entails an acceptance of change, mortality and the passage of time.
Playing God of War and The Last of Us, I’ve watched children grow and change. I’ve learnt that sometimes you need to guide them, to get them where they need to be. And then, at some point, you simply have to let them go. Maybe, when it comes to it, I’ll let my kid choose their own games after all.