Post­cards From The Clip­ping Plane

Kids say the fun­ni­est things – or at least they do to James Leach

EDGE - - CONTENTS - JAMES LEACH James Leach is a BAFTA Award-win­ning free­lance writer whose work fea­tures in games and on tele­vi­sion and ra­dio

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

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