At this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), Microsoft opened their press event by showing off a Cold War-era military shooter with guns galore and massive explosions, a Japanese action game fetishizing slow-motion body-slicing, and an alien-shooter where the guns come with attached chainsaws. After previewing several other video games tailored exclusively for adults and showing some new console features, Microsoft then brought a young girl out on stage to cuddle with a virtual tiger-kitten. Huh?
This demo of Kinectimals was one of the Expo’s very few high-profile moments when a game was promoted as specifically “for kids,” which is surprising considering how closely video games and children are tied in the broader cultural consciousness (a lingering perception of who primarily plays games from the medium’s early ties with the toy industry). Today, however, video games have much less to do with Toys-R-Us than with media conglomerates like Sony, Time Warner, Viacom, and Vivendi, which all have major game production holdings. As the percentage of child gamers shrinks (around 25%, which is slightly less than those aged 50+!), the industry has increasingly pushed children’s gaming into the background and focused on expanding the market upwards (often by explicitly disavowing the medium’s adolescent reputation).
This has not only contributed to grisly mature material but also the family gaming trend popularized by Nintendo’s “anyone can play” approach with the Wii that removes kids’ individual preferences and lumps them in with mom, dad, grandma, and grandpa. Even Kinectimals, the gaming equivalent of a stuffed animal, is shown in its’ promotional advertisement being enjoyed not only by two young girls, but also by a female adult. In fact, this E3 demo was only a small part of Microsoft’s larger attempt to capitalize on this lucrative “family” market with the motion-controlled Kinect (see also Sony’s PlayStation Move). Even those games like Nintendo’s new Zelda title that in the past would likely have been considered children’s entertainment are probably much more exciting to twenty- and thirty-year-olds due to nostalgia than to today’s youth. While we should applaud the involvement of parents in their children’s play time and the ability of games to bring people of different ages together, is there a real danger of something getting lost in the process? For the time being, it isn’t that games for kids aren’t popular or profitable, the industry just seems ashamed to admit it.