One aspect that’s been part of boys’ play culture for as long as we can go back in written history with records of children’s play is the moral play between good and evil. One of the modern classics that display an everyday battle between these two extremes would be Cops versus Robbers. As we grow up, the stark contrast between good and evil usually begins to dim to the point where we can accept that good and evil are subjective, at least on philosophical level. The contest between the perceived sides still persist into our adulthood, more often than not shaded to the point of the perceived evil being more justified than the opposing side.
The traditional pen and paper role playing games stem from the myths of antique and the knight plays. I don’t think there’s one child in the world who has no played a role of a knight in some play. The knight I’m referring here is more akin the idea of local protector, hence why black knights are the opposing, equal power. Perhaps an allegory for the fallen angel of sorts on some level. Nevertheless, the early computer RPGs were largely digitised forms of Dungeons & Dragons games these people used to have, with Ultima being an example of such. If you look in late 80’s and 1990’s Japanese fantasy light novels and series branched from them, like Slayers, they’re largely based on the author’s own D&D games. With the D&D crowd, at some point they stopped playing knights outside in the nature, and moved indoors. Of course, Live action role playing, or LARPing has become somewhat popular, and is effectively just people playing like kids with far more serious intent and costlier props.
The aforementioned paragraph may sound rather negative, though it’s more an argument of natural change. Whether or not theatrical plays predated children play acting is unknown, but the two have a linear connection between maturity and playing. Play acting became a profession, something done so good that it could be made money with. The adult life is strongly reflected in children’s plays, as playing is often the best form of education and learning for the future. Kids trading stones and sticks on the playfield essentially prepares for commerce. Pokémon TCG was largely panned by parents in its initial release years, but one thing they learned about it was how it taught children the value of goods and trading. Modern world simply allows certain aspects of immature play to be present more than with previous generations. The concept of something being childish and for children only has seen a silent paradigm shift.
Perhaps the example of this is electronic games. While computer games were seen somewhat more mature compared to console and arcade games in the 1970’s and 80’s, they’ve been accepted as a media for all ages since the late 1990’s, with some grudges here and there. It’s still not all that uncommon to see some parents from previous generations to describe game consoles and computers as toys, which often yields a rather negative response due to associated immature mental image it carries with it. While understandable, toys are means to play. Describing a game machine a toy in this sense isn’t wholly inaccurate, as all it exists for is to play.
However, electronic games and machines they run on prevent any creative forms of plays. They offer a statistic, controlled and extremely limited form of play, which is more akin to adult overseeing a children’s play. This is currently a technological issue, as we’ve yet to see completely dynamic world that allows the player to enact whatever possible they want. One can’t build a hut and live in there for the rest of the character’s natural life in a Final Fantasy game, because the game is not prepared for that. It’s limited to the story the game wants to tell. Playing often requires the player to follow the rules, after all. Not all toys allow all forms of play either, after all. While calling video and computer games as toys might sting your ear, the association with play is completely natural and such naming shouldn’t be deflected from the get go. After all, we have adult’s toys as well, which children shouldn’t have access to before they are mentally and physically mature enough.
The same applies to video games. Grand Theft Auto and Skyrim are both games we constantly see people of all ages playing, despite the age recommendations being there. Being a direct descendant of Cops VS Robbers and knight plays, both game simply take the basic core and expand on it. GTA may have you play as the Robber, but the moral hues you’re given are numerous. The same applies to Skyrim, where the player character is a figurative knight on his route to slay a dragon. The means and toys have just changed from a stick representing the baton or sword to a plastic controller and readily set digital world.
The question how much industrially prepared playing via toys has affected modern world’s play culture as a whole is a topic I’m not ready to touch on. However, some examples how things simply change drastically with a toy would be Barbie. The toy is not a doll for girls who play with it, it’s a Barbie. Singling out a toy like this outside all others has grown to the point of almost all toys have been made their own rather than for overall playing in general. Perhaps the largest reason for this change is the successful franchising, where the association with a toy and a character is made so much stronger. A child is not just buying a transforming robot toy, he’s buying Optimus Prime and all the mental images associated with the character.
While the contest between moral sides in boys’ games has escalated since the 1950’s, similar escalation has been lacing in electronic games. This is due to all the aforementioned; electronic games are just part of it. The age-old discussion about boys’ and girls’ games is valid, and while I’d argue that a well made game does cater to both sexes, the truth is that one has more interest towards certain kinds of games over the other. That is the nature of things. However, nothing exists in a vacuum, and games experience as much mixing of these two play cultures as real life does. The Sims is still the best example of girls’ play culture being completely accepted by both sexes (the game’s essentially playing Home), as is Super Mario. Super Mario just happens to be perceived more immature due to the design choices and lack moral greys over something like Halo, which is perceived a a “big boys game.”
This is a point, as not all games, electronic or not, are for all ages. It is up to the parents to decide whether or not Little Jimmy is ready to handle mature concepts like interrupted penetration, self-mutilation in the name of love, the absurdity of how pointless life is or the sheer sexual tension between a man and a machine. Something truly is for “big boys.” The core play doesn’t change with maturity, but the concepts and themes that frame the act do.