Postcards From The Clipping Plane
Kids say the funniest things – or at least they do to James Leach
Recently I asked a selection of 11-year-old children a question: “What do you hate about videogames?” Only one gave the answer I expected – that they were too hard to play. And, to be fair, he had thumbs like big toes. The rest provided a range of answers far wider than I was expecting. Apparently kiddiwinkies this young are well aware of the shortcuts developers employ to make life easier. And visual repetition is noted with disapproval. Don’t you dare use the same building twice in your sprawling cityscape, for they will know. And this goes times 50 for any barks or lines of dialogue that crop up. People, kids think, never say the same thing twice. And certainly not when you point a powerful laser at them.
But what about how the little tykes feel when they’re playing? It turns out that, from the small sample group I cornered and coerced into talking, games are simply divided into fun and not fun. They’re that mechanical about it. A character fleshed out to BAFTA-garnering levels doesn’t get under their skin any more than a bouncing ball with two eyes. At 11, they understand that they’re playing someone who displays feelings, frailties or other human traits, but this, at that age, is simply information they absorb with the knowledge that they’re going to need it later to advance in the game. The real world is a complex place for these youngsters and they simply aren’t equipped – or just don’t want – to relate to an adult human character whose motives are not utterly clear and simple. If there are to be adult characters, they should be empty ciphers driven by one desire. This explains why superheroes are so popular, I suppose. Even if they do have depth, it’s largely irrelevant or at least ignorable in the welter of action they immerse themselves in.
As interesting as I found all this, my group of little friends effortlessly put a stop to my tedious adult questioning and decided to invent, on paper, a game they’d like to play. At this point I debated heading to the pub, but technically I was in charge of them so there may have been repercussions. And I’m glad I stuck around. The first thing they did was think of a world. An alien planet with a big city on it was chosen. They named both the planet and the city Carl. Seriously. Yes, me neither.
Carl was riddled by crime, carried out by a sub-race of rapid, socially advanced snails. The thinking here was that snails have few independently moving parts and are thus easier to reproduce on a screen. Already the gang were thinking like developers. There was, of course, a boss snail, but you’d only get to meet him at the end, and to defeat him you’d need a special weapon. I suggested salt, but this was met with disgust and flashes of anger. No, it had to be a laser.
The player controlled a human who had been burgled by the snail clan, and, disappointed by the police response time and relatively low crime clear-up rate in Carl, had decided to turn vigilante and deal with the problem first-hand. Again, I asked about this character and what made him who he was. What was his background? How does he feel? What are his strengths and weaknesses? All this was shrugged off. Fair enough.
Our hero finds weapons in a linear order, each more powerful than the previous one. First is a spanner, then an axe, then a sword and so on, until he commands a tank with the vital laser mounted on top. Importantly, each snail had to be unique and to have its own set of dialogue and death throes. I unwisely mentioned Mortal Kombat at this point but to my relief I was met with blank looks. What I learned, though, from this statistically meaningless but nevertheless enjoyable exercise, was that kids love to experience, or indeed massacre, a wide range of different characters, but can’t be bothered with any more than the one element that makes them unique. Some snails were slow and grumpy, others simply said amusing things at the point of their demise. Some burst, others slumped or slimed their way into the next life. There was an attempt to give them all names, but the enormity of this task soon defeated the crew, apart from Thumb Boy, who patiently listed everyone in his class, surnames and all.
What can we learn from all this? Well, we now know why Minions are so popular. We also know that kids don’t have searing insights into videogames which we’ve all hitherto now missed. But at 11, they prefer variety over depth. And, gratifyingly, they all want to play the good guy, even though things will get gory. And we know that we’ve got two definite preorders for any game featuring a huge boss snail called Miss Bennett-Parker.
Only one gave the answer I expected – that games are too hard to play. And, to be fair, he had thumbs like big toes