Monday, February 8, 2010

In Pursuit of Adolescent Genres

My appreciation and interest in Children's Literature was recently piqued by an article titled Juvenile and Adolescent Games by David Carlton of Malvasia Bianca. Sparked by his interest in MySims Agents, a admittedly "childish" game, David reexamines, among other things, the idea of juvenile games as they relate the literary genre. I highly recommend reading the very interesting original piece. As expected, defining and analyzing what makes a juvenile game is no easy task. Anything from Zelda to Bioshock can, in some ways, be considered adolescent. What follows is my own attempt to explore the genre of adolescent videogames.

To begin with, I want to abandon the term 'juvenile' as a genre title. Firstly, it carries too many negative connotations. Secondly, it abandons the existing genres of "children's literature" and "young adult fiction". I understand the idea of categorizing works of art is itself contentious. In a series on modernizing genre, I discussed this conflict extensively. To quickly summarize, I believe current videogame genres are largely useless. Genre itself is still useful however. Genres offer exploratory maps that foster cycles of interpretation, design, and analysis. This creates a valuable conversation across time between consumers and creators. With the use of mechanically descriptive sub-genres, videogames should embrace thematic genre classifications.

That being said, categorizing a 'young adult' game is particularly challenging. As David points out, books are similarly difficult to encapsulate with easily understood monikers. The Harry Potter books, for example, are more intellectually rigorous than many airport-available mystery novels. Likewise, while The Cement Garden features young protagonists, it is most certainly not a children's Novel. David states:

"So, while I can come up with ways to tell that a books isn’t juvenile literature (because of the style of language, because of sex, because of certain other topics), I found it surprisingly difficult to come up with a positive and non-banal description of what it means for a book to be juvenile literature. And that carries over to video games as well."

Videogames are burdened with another barrier to simple classification - gameplay. A children's book may be judged poorly if it includes excessively esoteric vocabulary or inappropriately adult themes. A narrative driven game built for children can also be criticized for including unnecessarily difficult or complex gameplay. This is not to say exactly how difficult a game should be, but these concerns should be taken into account while judging young adult and children's games.
There is no easy way to know what makes an adolescent videogame - which is part of the fun. Genres are not well defined outlines. A genre is a commonly recognized suite of thematic and structural decisions shaped by the creator's intentions. A skilled auteur may toy with conventions, including and abandoning them as she sees fit, responding to and building upon a genre, while commenting on society and culture along the way. As such, for some analysis, it may be useful to divorce game mechanics from narrative themes.

The mechanics of a children's game should be appropriate for its target audience. A younger audience may not have the educational or gaming experience to easily interpret and implement complex mechanics. Similar to literary reading levels, this does not preclude adult enjoyment. A game may have many mechanical layers, satisfying a young and old audience at the same time. Alternatively, simply mechanics can be implemented in robust ways by an older gaming audience, giving them complexity without confusing the younger players.

Similar to literature, young adult and children's games should share common thematic elements. We should see literary conventions repeat themselves within their videogame genre counterparts. As David points out, many kids books include young protagonists, often coming of age or having an adventure free of familial relationships. Again, this need not be the case. These are merely several, albeit very common, elements from a suite of options. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH is a notable literary exception from the young protagonist trope. It is a children's novel with an adult protagonist and themes of parenting. It does, however, use many genre conventions to its benefit. Children's games can achieve this same diversity while safely building upon an existing body of work.
The thematic elements of one genre can absolutely bleed into another. I have discussed the 'lack of family' trope in videogames once before. Similarly, the 'coming of age' tale shares storytelling characteristics with the common game structures that gradually empower players. So, while I agree with David that Bioshock has similar genre characteristics, its adult themes and mechanics firmly separate it from the young adult genre.

Zelda, on the other hand, is certainly a young adult game. I'm in agreement with David when he says "they're about boys growing up (literally, in the case of Ocarina), forced to be men a little earlier than they’d like to, but rising to the occasion, finding out who they really are, finding unexpected depths inside themselves." Zelda informs other young adult games, and can be analyzed alongside other young adult novels like A Wizard of Earthsea and Sabriel.
Accordingly, we can analyze and critique games with their genre in mind. Lucidity, for example, is thematically a perfect children's game. It's mechanics, however, are far too punishing for success amongst the appropriate demographic. Final Fantasy VIII is an excellent young adult story with a great deal to say about family, friends, school, and growing up. Like J.M. Barrie's novelization of Peter Pan however, some of the more adult themes may be inappropriate for younger audiences.

Genre boundaries are porous, videogame genres even more so. The relative age of the medium is such that no broad repertoire of masterful children's and young adult works exist. While there are plenty of childish games out there, few are considered classics. Children's games as they exist now, including MySims Agents, are largely discredited. Children's literature has overcome some of these prejudices and the videogame medium must do the same. Game's like Little King's Story, seek to break the mold, entertain multiple age groups, and contribute to a larger cultural conversation about growing up and the lessons that come with age. With genre in mind, games and games criticism only improve.


  1. Good post. One point I would raise though is the intersection between children's video games and children's traditional games (card and board, etc).

    Children's traditional games tend to be defined by randomness. Chutes and Ladders has really no skill basis. You just roll and move. As children grow up, their games take on more and more skill-based elements, and the randomness fades away. Randomness serves to equalize player skill (nobody is 'better' at Chutes and Ladders than anyone else), and it tends to give everybody a chance to shine.

    Randomness in video games is a little more complicated but similar. An all-ages game like New Super Mario Bros Wii has random elements, but they are usually 'positive randomness.' Random things happen, but they're good for you.

    On the other hand, a game with 'negative randomness,' i.e. randomly dying and having to start a level over, is incredibly frustrating, but perhaps less so for young gamers. After all, didn't we all, growing up, sink a lot of hours into brutally unfair games that we would never touch today?

    Adults tend to have very negative associations with randomness, and 'skill' is usually the hallmark of an adult game (mechanically speaking, that is). In fact, as far as board games or abstract games go, skill is the ONLY measure of a game's age-appropriateness. Chess is an "adult" game even though children can play it, because the skill ceiling in chess is so ridiculously high.

  2. @Grayson

    I think you raise a great point with the idea of skill and randomness in relation to how certain games appeal to certain age groups.

    That being said, allow me to be an insufferable Mario fanboy for a minute and pick at your example. ;-)

    I'd argue that NSMBW has very little of the kind of randomness found in a game like Chutes and Ladders. Every enemy and obstacle has a prescribed behavior and function. Every block, item, and platform is placed for a specific purpose and every failure is the player's inability to deal with the system. This rewards those with the skill to learn the very explicit, inflexible rules of the game. In fact, it seems like the only randomness in the game is derived from the multiplayer action. And even this is more "anarchy" than "randomness," as players tend to have their own prerogatives that give rise to unexpected gameplay (I think of it kind of like a fast-moving game of Chinese Checkers).

    I think many players tend to like games whose mechanics augment their skills with subtle handicaps for the AI. For example, FPS games would be quite difficult if the AI could shoot, move, and react as well as a humans. Despite my intellectual acknowledgment that I am playing against handicapped enemies, I feel a sense of accomplishment when I clear a stage in Halo.

    I've been thinking about the relationship between aesthetics, gameplay, and age appropriateness a lot recently, especially after playing Braid. If you've played it, what do you think about its appeal for different age groups?

  3. @Scott

    You're totally right about Mario. I think I didn't phrase myself well. What I mean is that Mario games tend to have certain random elements (like minigames that provide one ups, blocks that generate a random powerup, etc.), and these things tend to enhance the core gameplay by providing those random variables that help make the game fresh and interesting. Mario is fun by itself, but on top of that, those random events make it a little more fun - but I think we also tend to associate those random elements with the "younger" appeal of the game. If Mario was strictly a skill-based platformer, it would probably not have as broad an appeal.

    Trust me, I meant no disrespect towards NSMBW. It was one of my favorite games last year :)

    "I've been thinking about the relationship between aesthetics, gameplay, and age appropriateness a lot recently, especially after playing Braid. If you've played it, what do you think about its appeal for different age groups?"

    This is a good question. In the context of randomness, it's a very non-random game. IIRC, there are no random elements to it whatsoever. But it's not as if the game is beyond the grasp of younger audiences, as far as the difficulty of the puzzles go. And I think the game's aesthetics are pretty broadly appealing.

    Thematically, though, I imagine most younger players would be disinterested.

    So how do we judge the game's age-appropriateness? If we have three criteria (gameplay, aesthetics, and themes), and the game has broad appeal for two of those but narrow appeal for one, then what do we say the game is? Or do we constrain the game to it's most restrictive element? i.e. themes, in this case.

    I'm not really sure.

  4. To join the randomness v. skill conversation, I think we can safely pull the two apart a bit more. Randomness is hard to work with because there are so many counter-examples. D&D, for example, is incredibly complex despite relying on random rolls for pretty much everything (altered with modifiers of course). My point being, I think the maturity of a game depends more on the complex choices given to players to deal with randomness.

    Chutes & Ladders gives children nothing but randomness. Checkers, on the other hand, includes no randomness whatsoever. It is still a simple game many children enjoy because options are limited. There is some complexity, but not nearly as much as chess, a distinctly mature board game.

    While the randomness in Mario can certainly appeal to a younger audience, mature players interpret those random elements are have numerous ways to account for them, especially in NSMBW with four players involved.

    As for Braid, I would consider that an adult game. There is no "adult" genre outside of the erotic, so this doesn't mean younger audiences wouldn't enjoy it. Rather, its themes are mature and are enriched by a body of knowledge young audiences may not be familiar with. The gameplay, imo, is difficult enough to frustrate younger audiences also. Similar to the gameplay, even the aesthetics draw on pre-established gaming knowledge. I think Braid is one of the most mature indie games on the market.

  5. This is getting a little off topic, but this discussion reminded me of a essay about randomness so I thought I'd throw it out there.

    It's long, but a thorough treatment of how randomness is used in games.

  6. I really enjoyed reading this post; thanks for sticking in links to some related older posts, too, I appreciated having an excuse to reread those in this context.

    Your last paragraph makes me wonder - as you say, it's a young medium, which makes me wonder how the concept of works for children has developed in other media. I get the impression that, in literature, a lot of early works in what we now consider children's literature weren't marked as children's literature when they were first published. If that's the case, the Mario games are probably a pretty good parallel. I could be completely off base, though...