Escalation of moral maturity from game to game

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.

Designed freedom

Free roaming game design has been with us for a long, long time. PC RPGs tended to give the player whatever way they chose to approach a quest or a task in order to give an illusion of  that the player can do whatever he wants. Whatever came afterwards was tied to events, and sometimes the way the player approached these tasks decided where the game went.

Arcade games were different. Their strength always was in the strong design that kept the gameplay together and required to master the gameplay elements as intended. There was relatively little freedom of choice, if any.

Console games could take the best of both worlds, as with Legend of Zelda. While you were free to tackle the game in whatever way you wanted like PC RPG, it was tightly tied to the design of the game and progress structure, just like an arcade game. Hence it being an Action RPG.

With sandbox games like Grand Theft Auto and Sleeping Dogs being examples of relatively free approach in games. Sometimes it is advertised that you are completely free to play the game the way you want, but this isn’t really the case. For example, Metal Gear Solid V has a strict ranking system that essentially makes the player to play the game in few selected ways rather than truly appreciating the way the player would like to approach the missions.

Would a free roaming game that emphasizes on the player’s own approach even have a need for a some sort of ranking system? For challenge missions and such yes, but outside that the system would need to be reward the way the player plays. It is supposed to be a free system after all.

The problem is a dynamic ranking system would be how to rank the different approaches. In a stealth game like Metal Gear it would make sense to give a penalty to the player for killing enemy soldiers, but with MGSV you’re the Big Boss and you call the shots. If you want to go in guns blazing, then you do that. It’s a valid method and was even demonstrated in Konami’s presentation. In this approach, shouldn’t the system rate the accuracy, speed and lack of collateral damage?

A problem with a dynamic rating system is how it would recognize the way its being played, but essentially there is no game that actually allows any sort of approach to the game. Ultima Online was the closest thing we’ve got. This is due to games being products that are always designed with a core idea. For a stealth game its stealth, even if would allow whatever approach. The game design would always push the player towards the designed method of playing. To go in guns blazing fits more Grand Theft Auto.

The solid nature of games is another thing that essentially prevents the player to do whatever they want. Games have a definitive beginning and end, and you can’t branch off those even with games with multiple different ends. While games may be interactive, they are not dynamic. What is coded in there won’t change. In Zelda you can’t side with Ganon. In Sleeping Dogs you can’t jump the ship and join the criminals.

It’s marketing speech when you hear that you are free to do approach the missions whatever way you want. You can do it, but don’t expect a high rank unless you manage to get around the system. A player who understands how he is ranked and how the system works can abuse it to their heart’s content as much as they want, thou most customers don’t give much weight or even care enough to put enough time into the game. Tool Assisted Speedruns are an example where understanding the game has taken to an absolute maximum. DS Brain Age’s TAS is an example how understanding how the game functions underneath allows player to essentially whatever they want.

No game allows you to approach itself the way you want to. The ways the game can be approached has been designed already and the templates are already in there. There can only be personal variations how these templates are then put into use. A game may have been designed to support multiple approaches with modifications and large amounts of options to choose from, but it may also have a core design that simply invalidates some of those approaches. The only game that’s completely dynamic in its approach are children’s games and traditional pen & paper games, where the participants give direct feedback to each other and change as the situation needs. This possibly ever-changing nature is something that electronic games can’t do without having a system that can allow such change or react to it. After all, neither computer or video games are reactive, that part is left to the player.

To compare with other media, movies are completely inert in their interactivity. What’s there can’t be changed and it can only repeated the exact same way. With games scenarios are often this way as well with the player giving them the dynamics to change with slight variations. Some games may emphasize on random elements with procedurally produced worlds or random placement of items and characters. It’s something, but far from actually changing or adapting to what the player is doing.

Long story short, if a game wants to allow the player to approach missions and task however they want to, and actually stick with this sentence, the games would need to be as reactive and mould themselves around those selections. Designing and programming such a game would be nightmare. Then again, most people seem to prefer the more tightly designed games, like the 2D Mario ones.

Family friendly does not mean low quality

With Christmas knocking on our doorsteps next week, let’s take a small break and remember that not all games out there are for children.

Last year I wrote a post how to pick a proper game for younger people as a present. To sum it up, it’s the parents duty in the end to keep up what their children are playing and whether or not they allow such content to be consumed. The recent Grand Theft Auto V withdrawals are pretty much the stupidest thing I’ve seen in few weeks, as they were not products with content for children to be consumed. The +18 marking is there for a reason.

I have seen too many times a mother buying her kid +18 rated game. Few times I have been asked whether or not a game X would be a great gift for their child, I’ve glanced at the cover and simply asked whether or not the child was already at the age of 18. With experience I can say that parents barely can distinguish a game from another, but goddamn if they’re not like hawks when it comes to movies, television shows or similar. And with toys. God forbid a four year older child to have a toy that has a recommendation label for 5+.

This is why any I have hard time understanding anyone who wishes to pull a properly labelled game from the store under the pretence of this game hurting our children or affecting their growth negatively. I was once part of a conversation few years back where parents were complaining how games were too violent and bloody, full of sexual imaginary and so on. One of the mothers said I wish my boy wouldn’t play those games. Even better if they didn’t make such games at all, to which I simply snapped back with a question why the hell was she letting her son play the game? Her reply was something like I can’t dictate what my son does, which surprised me to no end. A parent needs to know where to set limits to their children, especially with material that they deem harmful.

We have movies, books and music that we almost instinctively can say if it is something a child or an adolescent should have access to. No parent would let their ten year old watch the first two Alien movies without first knowing whether or not their child could handle it. I was four when I saw Aliens, and I did see nightmares and there were certain scenes that still strike extremely powerful with me. I’m sure no parent would read one of those Harlequin novels filled with sex to their children either, less so giving them access to straight pornography. I admit, I saw porn way too early at the age of four and there are things that certainly have spun off from that little experience, but some have said that’s not necessarily a negative point. I’ve never been into music, but that’s mostly because both of my brothers were very keen into music during my youth, and one of the still play in a band. There were few times I remember my old man grabbing a C-cassette out from the player because the language in the song was very foul and the message in the song wasn’t the nicest one.

However, in my youth most of the adult games, so to speak, existed on the PCs. Certainly Atari had its handful of porn and adult oriented games, but the vast majority of the products on the system were family friendly games anyone could pick up and play. The same continued with the NES to a large extent, and even the SNES was very family friendly while having the few odd games here and there that aimed for more adult and gruesome images, like Mortal Kombat. SEGA marketed towards the more adult market, and while I can’t draw direct comparison in between the success of the console and its games to how family oriented they have been, it should be noted that the most successful consoles in the gaming history have always been about god quality games, which then have been for all in the family. Super Mario Bros. is a prime example of a game that anyone in the family could pick up and play. Consoles that aimed for a smaller market than the family tend to do worse. Then again, with PlayStation entering the fray family orientation was pushed in the back until Nintendo began to expand the market again with the NDS and the Wii.

With a wild guess, let’s assume that the image of consoles as a family friendly box is because the most culturally iconic of consoles and characters were just that. In modern era this doesn’t really apply anymore, but the general consensus has not caught up that yet. At least not with the older generations. I have no doubts that the generation that grew up in the 80’s and 90’s is far better equipped to tackle the challenges of then-modern forms of media and reject all the new ones that may be spawned within the next few decades.

Then again, people could just read the damn labels and we’d get rid of all these bullshit events about games corrupting the youth they were never meant for.

Let’s put this in mecha terms; you would allow your kid to watch and read Mazinger Z for sure, but the Mazinkaiser OVA would require this kid to grow up a little. You wouldn’t let this kid read (USA) Mazinger until a bit later on due to its contents. Similarly, GaoGaiGar is clearly something a five year old and up can enjoy pretty damn well, but Betterman requires a teen or older to fully even comprehend the story. GaoGaiGar Final on the other falls somewhere between, but the upped fanservice gives out the main target audience. Then again, Shinkon Gattai Godannar is not for kids for any reason.

To pull Mega Man back into the fray, let’s revise the origins on Mega Man. The game series was inspired by the childhood TV and comics the developers watched and read in their younger days. These titles included the shows like Casshern, which had a main character who hunted down evil robots with his robotic dog Friender. Mega Man itself can be mirrored to Testuwan Atom as a boy robot with a golden heart. X series continues with this sort of thing, but with the 90’s it has more mature storyline consisting of racial war, genocide, brainwash and other similar matters. Mega Man Legends on the other hand is very much a saturday morning cartoon through and through, and I would love to play the game with a clock on the upper corner, which is how Battle Mania Daiginjou actually starts. Same with Mega Man Battle Network, which is probably one of the reasons the series was so divisive but nevertheless successful. The Zero series on the hand is the first proper series aimed at the older, more core audience without a doubt with its post-apocalyptic storyline, former hero as the villain and blood spatters everywhere. The ZX series toned this down, but with the Ryusei no Rockman, it didn’t stand up against the its older brethren. I would almost argue that the moment Mega Man series decided to go full blown dark with Zero series, it had lost touch what made it great in the first place. Mega Man 9 and 10 were nostalgia catering stuff, and as with Super Mario that never works twice.

I would argue that we are in need of games that anyone could enjoy without forced agendas looming in the background, the likes of games that people enjoyed on the Atari and on the NES. It’s not about nostalgia, but about further success and expanding the market, two things that have always been successful in the electronic gaming industry.