By: Chris Hodges, editor-in-chief
I have a 10 year old at home, and she loves video games. If she isn’t watching Adventure Time, she’s most likely playing a game of some sort. For Christmas each year, we buy gifts for “the family” that are aimed at the kids but that we, the parents, are interested in playing ourselves. One such family Christmas gift this year was Yoshi’s Wooly World for Wii U. Our daughter loved Kirby’s Epic Yarn, and Wooly World is basically both the spiritual successor to that as well as the standalone Kirby series, so we figured she’d really enjoy it. So one day, when she had a friend over, we told them they should play Wooly World together (it’s co-op), and after no more than 10 minutes, the Wii U was off and they were playing on their Kindles.
“What happened,” I asked. “Didn’t you like it?”
“Not really,” she replied grimly. “There are too many rules.”
So what were her and her friend playing instead? Well Minecraft, of course. The game that is the very antithesis of rules and structure. And it gave me a moment of both realization and disappointment that her and the kids of her generation, growing up playing Minecraft and other free-form, open-ended games like it, have made traditional games with any sort of structure at all seem too shallow and limiting.
Full disclosure: I myself am not a huge fan of Minecraft, as I have stated here in the past. But that in and of itself isn’t my only reason for having a problem with how popular it is among children. You quickly learn that as a parent, your kids are going to play a lot of games that you hate or just think are boring and stupid. Which is fine – while there are plenty of great all-ages games, there are also going to be games that are specifically geared for children without also being appealing to adults. And there should be; not every single game that our kids play should be a blast for us, too. I’ll never understand how our daughter can sit there for an hour with Talking Angela, day after day, doing mundane things like brushing Angela’s teeth and curling her eyebrows. But it’s not for me to understand. The point is, I’m not bothered by every seemingly pointless game she plays; chalk it up to the same generation gap that makes me roll my eyes at some of the music she likes, which my parents also did to my music, and their parents to theirs, and so on.
My worries about her love of Minecraft go much deeper than that. I definitely can get behind open-world games where she treats them almost like a set of Legos or a digital playground to just mess around in. Games like Minecraft do inspire and nurture a certain level of creativity that you don’t find in most games, which every parent should encourage. However, speaking purely as a fan of games and of someone who wants my kids, my kids’ kids, and so on to be gamers, it troubles me that the open structure of games of that ilk have left younger gamers with the inability to appreciate a well-designed, directed gaming experience. I shudder at the thought of my kids playing a game with brilliantly-designed levels and really novel mechanics and only looking at all of that as “too many rules” or wondering why they can’t explore more or do whatever they want. And it’s not just Minecraft that is causing this problem – even actual supposed “platform games” that are made these days often have randomly-generated levels rather than levels that are built piece-by-piece for a well-polished, compelling experience. I worry that an entire generation of gamers won’t even know what a “designed level” is, which is sad because for me, the common thread through the majority of my favorite games is that they have really expertly-crafted levels.
The first game that all of us gamers really sunk our teeth into and fell in love with shaped the rest of our lives as gamers in some fashion. It set the tone for what gaming is and what we hoped it would continue to be. For the young gamers who say that game is Minecraft for them, I truly hope that they aren’t so oblivious to what a directed, crafted (irony of that word notwithstanding) gaming experience is that they see any game that doesn’t let them do whatever they want, go where ever they want, and make it into any type of a game that they want as a boring, limited experience with “too many rules.” Making your own fun is for when you’re playing outside on a cold January afternoon or when you’re stuck at that one grandma’s house who doesn’t have cable or anything kid-friendly to do. It’s not supposed to be for video games; video game designers are supposed to actually design a fun, directed experience for us to have, and we’re supposed to trust them and allow them to do that. Now it’s just a matter of getting our kids to allow that, too.