written by Alastrom
I’ve recently seen a number of videos of younger children, in the age range of eight to twelve, performing the “Fortnite Dance” in public spaces. They’re not doing this in any small number either. We’re talking about hundreds of kids gathered in a single place, dancing in a way that makes anyone not “in the know” scratch their heads and wonder just what the hell is going on. Well, I consider myself to be someone in the know and even I’m beginning to wonder the same thing. It occurs to me that these kids aren’t doing anything that we didn’t do as kids. From pogs to pokemon cards and that weird “S” thing that everyone drew when they were bored, we all had these cultural fascinations that seemed to dominate our childlike landscape. The only difference is that no one was around holding a video camera 24/7 to let the world know it was happening. I could take the voice of the cynic and suggest that these things are leading our children down a path of moral bankruptcy, but I don’t believe that’s the case. I think kids are being kids in the only way they know how to in this day and age. Games were a huge part of my childhood and it may have been an oversight to assume they wouldn’t be an even bigger part of this generation’s youth. That leads me to the only logical conclusion one might draw. We need games that matter.
One of the first games I ever played was the Legend of Zelda on the NES. A short number of years later I’d go on to read the Lord of the Rings, the Chronicles of Narnia and continue to play games that fell into a similar scope. I never found myself in any “Stranger Things” styled Dungeons and Dragons games, but I suspect I would have fit into the crowd without a second thought. These things no doubt influenced by activities outside of the gaming world tremendously. My friends and I would often visit the undeveloped land behind our homes. Miles upon miles of empty space became our weekend adventures and I wonder sometimes if I wasn’t traveling to Hyrule every time I left my door. Those early days imparted on me a lifelong wanderlust that has invariably shaped the person I became to this day. If games like Zelda truly did play any role, then it’s safe to say that was a positive influence on me. Of course, Zelda was the classic retelling of The Hero’s Journey. It existed in a time where there were no major expectations on who the audience was. A child who experienced this game was getting the same message that an adult was, that’s the story of good versus evil and the triumphs and tribulations of the journey. It’s a good message. It was a message that mattered then and matters now.
We face a similar conundrum that the games that adults are enjoying are also enjoyed by kids, but I would argue these games are pushing towards a more adult narrative. There’s no problem with introducing kids to more mature themes, if it’s done in the right setting. Harry Potter comes to mind as a series that’s enjoyed the world around by audiences of all ages and it’s done in a way that keeps each of those audiences in mind. In the same way, Pixar films have never shied away from telling kids it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. But the themes found in Fortnite or PUBG don’t exactly deliver that balance simply because they use a bright color pallet or have funny dances in them. Where Zelda games have been about growing your character so you can take on the thing threatening the safety of the world, battle royal games are about collecting the strongest loot so you can win. What message does this send to a child? Even Minecraft, which I would argue teaches kids valuable lessons, is quickly corrupted by this same mentality depending on the setting it’s being played in. We’ve come a long way from Mario platforming his way to another castle. Unfortunately, now we’re just looking for ways to destroy the next castle using the highest caliber weapons we can get our hands on. It’s a change that can’t be understated and I don’t think it’s wrong to note the comparisons between this style of game play and the trap of short term meaningless goals that so many of us fall into.
Of course, earlier games had the advantage that they were all single player focused, at least for the majority of titles released. Single player games force the player to focus on themselves as they relate to the greater story. More importantly, a single player game must end the moment you want the company of those around you. It’s part of the reason why I was able to put down the controller and still play outside on the weekends. The average kid comes home from school and jumps on social media or online games. If they’re sociable, they meet with their friends in this online world. In an age of inter-connectivity, the internet is our new “outside.” You may think the solution is to just force the kids to go outside and play and many parents have attempted to do just that. But I’m not sure that’s the right answer. Our world is evolving to demand technology in every aspect of our life. The people that have their heads stuck in their phones today are the same people that had their heads stuck in a newspaper a hundred years ago. Removing children from this online interaction weakens their ability to perform in the future we’re rapidly moving towards. The problem isn’t in games like Fortnite dominating all of a child’s play time, it’s the lack of options these kids have. Instead of building games where kids are surrounded by hundreds of people they don’t know, the younger audience needs titles that they can be excited to play with their friends. If they don’t have friends, these games can provide the valuable tools needed to begin forming those bonds, much like schoolyard play did in days long past.
Simply put, the games we’re designing are made to seek the highest market share in an incredibly competitive setting. That’s an understandable goal and it makes sense in the scope of business. But I promise J.R.R. Tolkien didn’t set out to sell a million copies culminating in a movie deal, he set out to tell a story that mattered. There aren’t enough game designers who believe in the same noble ideal. Fewer still that believe they should do it for a younger audience. These games would hearken back to what it was like go on adventures with your friends. It would encourage kids to work together where they could and compete where they couldn’t. A “sandbox” for the modern era, if you would. It’s true, those games wouldn’t be as profitable as some of these major power houses we see streamed on Twitch all day. But perhaps they’d inspire the next generation of scientists or artists. Maybe we’d see a child play a healer in game and decide they want to become a doctor. Or perhaps they’d build the castles that their friends use in their adventures and they decide to become an architect. I know now how influenced I was by the games I played. I can only hope that the designers out there realize they have that same power as well.