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What's with the name?

Allow us to explain.

Essay

I Am An Adult Who Likes Kid Stuff. And That’s Okay.


I had a disquieting thought while gaming the other night. I had started to play Secret of Mana, a Christmas gift from a friend determined to catch me up on old-school cartridge classics (I was a PC kid). Secret of Mana is not an easy game, but the story is kid-friendly fare, and the cutesy, cartoonish monsters wouldn’t be out of place in a Pokémon lineup. I was digging it — hard — but after I gleefully called to my partner that the game world used a cannon-based transportation system, the thought appeared. See, for months, I’ve been immersed in commentary on why games have yet to gain mainstream recognition as an important, culturally relevant, adult medium. Yet there I sat, bloodlessly whacking chubby yellow bunnies with my pixelated sword.

And I wondered: do I need to grow up?

It’s a question I’ve never seriously asked myself, but it’s a familiar one to geeks of all stripes. Into comics? You need to grow up. Collect action figures? You need to grow up. Like cartoons or Disney movies? You need to grow up. This is perhaps the most persistent criticism we receive from those who don’t share our interests, and we argue against it by pointing out that games and comics are just forms of media, and that an awful lot of the material created therein isn’t meant for kids at all. If I were to compile a rough list of my favorite games, I wouldn’t let anybody under sixteen play most of them. The comics on my shelf are definitely not for the juice-box-and-little-league crowd. These are not stories I would’ve appreciated as a child. Many would have scared me, or worse, bored me. But my life is more complex now, and that means I need stories to match.

So then why do I still like the kid stuff so much? If adult-oriented stories satisfy my needs more completely (as they often do), then why am I as excited for the next season of The Legend of Korra as I am for Game of Thrones? Why does my Steam wishlist include Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed alongside DLC packs for Skyrim and Dishonored? The easy response would be to say that these things are fun, and so long as my bills are paid and my home is clean and my vegetables are eaten, then how I enjoy my free time has no bearing on my right to claim adulthood. But as I sat there in front of the TV, the joy of my monster-slaying adventures somewhat dimmed by that moment of insecurity, I felt the need to sort it out.

As I’ve said before, I play games for two primary reasons: to undergo a challenge, and to experience a story. In the context of challenge, it becomes obvious that there are two different types of kids’ games. There are games designed specifically for kids, and there are games that kids can play. In the former camp, you’ve got things like the educational games of my grade school years — Word Munchers, Reader Rabbit, Math Blaster. These are games meant to help kids acquire elementary skills. There’s no appeal for me to play them now, because they’re too easy. Secret of Mana, on the other hand, is not for the faint of heart. Right out the gate, you’re faced with monsters that can poison you, or knock you out, or casually do away with a third of your HP in a single hit. You can’t spam attacks, because the effectiveness of your weapon depends how long you’ve spent charging it up. This means that every fight becomes a delicate matter of timing and patience. Death is swift, and unforgiving. This game may have been wrapped in a bright, non-threatening package, but it’s a satisfying challenge for folks of any age.

Taking part in that seems like a rather ordinary sort of behavior. Kids and adults have been sharing games for thousands of years. We wouldn’t accuse adults of being childlike for continuing to play chess, or charades, or soccer, even though these are games that we usually learn as kids. Human beings have been critical of emergent media ever since media emerged in the first place, so it’s no surprise that our society has yet to fully equate games on a screen with those on a table or a field. That said, it’s important to remember that video games tap into the exact same need for challenge that we exercise elsewhere. It’s just a new way for us to do so.

I’d be a liar if I said the only reason I was enjoying Secret of Mana was because of the gameplay. I’m a sucker for adventure stories, no matter how simple. I know this is why I also enjoy cartoons and the occasional YA novel. What can I say? I like heroes and monsters. But though this affinity has remained unchanged for me since childhood, my approach to these stories is fundamentally different than when I was a kid. Kids need make-believe in the same way that they need real-life role models. Playing out fantasies is a vital part of what helps kids develop a healthy understanding of how reality works. Without testing the boundaries, they never learn what their limits are. They also have to learn basic morality and cultural rules, which fairy tales and adventure stories provide in ample supply.

Adults are expected to know these things by heart, and rightly so. An adult who doesn’t understand social norms, or who can’t differentiate between fantasy and reality, is a potential danger. In that, I can understand why some might look at the stories that teach these things and assume that any adults enjoying them are stuck in some earlier developmental stage. That we are, in the most literal sense, immature.

But that assumption wrongly implies that social and cognitive development are the only benefits to a children’s story. At the core, those stories do the same things that adult stories do. They share ideas, fuel imagination, and provide perspective. They reassert the most essential principles needed for getting through life successfully, the same messages that adult stories tell us as well. Be brave. Be kind. Be clever. Make friends. Face your monsters. Don’t give up. Do we ever need to stop hearing those things? Are those messages less valid if they come from a big-eyed animation, rather than something scarred and photo-realistic? If we laugh or cry over a story that doesn’t include sex, death, violence, or deep moral quandaries, does it count for less?

Here’s what it comes down to: The world is a scary, confusing, difficult place, no matter what age you are. Sometimes we need to face it head on, but sometimes it’s just as useful to explore it within the more manageable realm of fiction. And when we’re seeking fictional inspiration or guidance, we don’t always know where we’ll find it. By opening ourselves up to all stories, to all challenges, we’re acknowledging that life is complicated, and that in order to get through it, we need to nurture as many facets as ourselves as possible. Of course, you don’t have to consume kid-friendly media to be a well-rounded individual. But there’s no harm in it, either. In my experience, sometimes it’s exactly what I need.

As I continued through Secret of Mana, I said to myself, “I would’ve loved this when I was a kid.” In hindsight, I know that sentiment was more introspective than nostalgic. I was remembering how I saw the world when I was younger. I was thinking of how I’ve changed since then, and wondering how I’ll change down the road. I was getting to know myself a little better. I was contemplating, quietly, all the ways in which I’ve grown up.

Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. She blogs over at Other Scribbles and can always be found on Twitter.

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  • http://twitter.com/EmberDione Kim Pittman

    What I hate is when people tell me I need to grow up because I play games and then turn around and watch Jersey Shore.

    Yeah. I need to grow up.

    I also get the “Get a ‘real’ job” quite often because I *make* video games. The best part is, this is usually said to me by people who make less than I do and hate their jobs. I *LOVE* my job. It’s the very best. Especially since it means I can play any game and when someone tells me to grow up I can say, “Just doing some research for work, so yeah, totally being responsible now piss off.”

  • Nadya Repin

    I adore Secret of Mana. I adored it as a kid when I played it for the first time. I was devastated when i lent it to a friend and it was stolen. It became available a few years ago on the Wii and I downloaded it and started playing and didn’t come out for days! Totally sucked in again…not really sure what about the game does it for me, as i’ve found the follow-up titles on the DS to be meh.

  • http://www.facebook.com/don.hiles Don Hiles

    Submitted this story to Penny Arcade Report. This sums up my own feelings quite nicely. Imagination and the ability to play will solve many problems…

  • Anonymous

    I will certainly grow old but I refuse to grow up.

    I’m a Onlie, not a Grup.

  • Robin Zalek

    Every time I see something like this I think of one of my favourite quotes, from C. S. Lewis:

    “Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

    The last sentence is the kicker, what I’d use in speech, the rest is context.

    Also, Secret of Mana still ranks as one of my favourite games of all time, a position it battles for only with Shenmue (Ocarina of Time, Mario 64, and Deus Ex hold a status almost as high)

  • http://melodieturori.com Melodie

    Yes, exactly! I’ve always thought the ability to enjoy a good story, regardless of who the story was aimed at (read: kids), is one of the marks of a well-rounded person.

    Or at least a person I want to be friends with.

  • http://twitter.com/sara_smile Sara

    I feel the same way sometimes, most of the things I got for christmas were “geek” related. My mom use to think that I needed to grow up, but has gotten to the point in seeing that its just the stuff I enjoy and its not going to be changing. What’s the difference between collecting say…Marvel Legos or action figures to that of baseball/other sport memorabilia? Its not like we play with the ‘toys’ and such that we get, at least for me I just like setting it out as a decorative item.

  • http://www.facebook.com/andrew.macdonald.984 Andrew MacDonald

    Wonderful article, thank you.

  • http://twitter.com/amusedmuse Rachel

    I love that the impetus to this epiphany was playing “Secret of Mana,” a game which I adored as a kid and have recently been replaying. Thanks for the reference, and thanks for an insight that many, if not all, Mary Sue readers can identify with.

  • http://twitter.com/Rockybalboa211 Louis Gonzales

    We can stay young at heart by truly immersing ourselves in the spirit of childhood.

  • Anonymous

    You hit the nail on the head.

  • http://twitter.com/LazerEm Emily (Lazer)

    First of all, just gotta say how much I ADORE Secret of Mana. It was the first Square game I ever played, and even as an adult it’s one of my favorites.
    I’ve definitely gotten the “You need to grow up” speech quite a bit, as a 21-year-old who actively plays, fan-arts, cosplays, collects, etc in the Pokemon fandom. But the way I see it, is sure I enjoy this thing that is targeted at kids, but I’m able to do well in college and hold down a job just like any responsible adult.
    I think the My Little Pony rebooter, Lauren Faust, put it best when she said that good stories for kids will also be able to entertain adults by appealing to their kid-at-heart.

  • http://twitter.com/LazerEm Emily (Lazer)

    I haven’t played them yet, but I’ve heard the sequel (titled Seiken Densetsu 3 and unfortunately only playable in English through emulation/fan translation) which is also an SNES game, and the PSX follow-up Legend of Mana are good.
    I played Children of Mana on the DS and it’s a decent hack-and-slash but nowhere near as good as SoM. And I haven’t played Heroes of Mana but I heard the controls are a pain so I’m afraid to try it. :/

  • Anonymous

    90′s games are “old” school now? Yikes! I must be from the ancient school now, Fairchild Channel F, Atari, Intellivision, Colecovision.

  • Travis Fischer

    The first sign that you’ve reached adulthood is when you realize that there is no rule book. There’s not a pre-defined “right way” of doing things. As a kid you think that the grown-ups have gotten this life thing all figured out. Once you join their ranks you realize that we’re all just making this stuff up as we go.

    I like kid things. I’m also an adult. I know this because I’ve long since disregarded any notion that anybody else’s opinion about what I like matters in any significant way.

  • http://twitter.com/Super_Widget Joanna

    It’s funny, people think you have to be miserable to be a grown up.

  • http://twitter.com/ChannelDiza Chanel Diaz

    Everyone needs an escape, in this kind of world (“Have you seen what kind of world this world is?”). As long as people are willing to take ‘responsibility’ for their actions, they ARE ‘adults.’ I don’t blame people who aren’t ashamed of their imaginations, I blame people whose imaginations’ are either limited or corrosive.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Grahame-Turner/1804093 Grahame Turner

    As Arcade Fire put it, “They heard me singing and they told me to stopQuit these pretentious things and just punch the clock”

    I’ll stop being a hipster now.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Grahame-Turner/1804093 Grahame Turner

    I have long said, “you have to get older, you have to become more mature, but you never have to grow up.”

    I have thoroughly enjoyed these pieces. Well-phrased discourses on things common to my interests.

  • http://twitter.com/LanceBravestar1 Lance Bravestar

    Great essay! I was more of a Legend of Mana kid, though.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sam.bottoms.1 Sam Bottoms

    I’m very appreciative that you used Secret of Mana to illustrate your point, it is one of my favorite games of all time as well, I grew up playing it with friends and to this day I’ll pull out my SNES and boot it back up because I loved the story and characters and its gameplay still holds up.

    I can’t help but me moved by stories like Secret of Mana; a coming of age story and a struggle of good against evil. It may be cheezy and romantic but honestly those are my favorite kinds of stories and I find nothing wrong with that. If it is childish to like such things then I’m obviously in good company as shown by the many wonderful comments here.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sherrie.ricketts Sherrie Ricketts

    I see nothing wrong with quality fun entertainment, no matter what age range it’s intended for. Sometimes I like some of the “kids” shows on PBS. Sesame Street still puts out some awesome sketches, and who doesn’t like the Muppets? I went back and read a few of the award-winning kids books I missed while growing up (partly out of spite, since my teachers thought the books were ‘too old’ for me and wouldn’t let me check them out, even though I was reading four grade levels ahead of my grade). They were fun to read. Light, easy entertainment. I watch cartoons, too. Not everything has to be crunchy and full of meaning. Heck, I even play make-believe (LARP) with several dozen well-adjusted adults on a regular basis. If we can’t do the things we enjoy, what’s the point of being grown up?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=743085760 Jennifer Vetere

    First things first, I love Secret of Mana. I played it as a kid and I still love it to this day.

    I, too, love kid things and the best part about being a mom, so far, is getting to share my love of “childish” things with my kiddos. Batman: The Animated Series? My kids love it — my 2-year-old daughter walks around the house quoting Harley Quinn. Animaniacs? They *adore* the Animaniacs, and I think my 7-year-old son is trying to learn Yakko’s World (though I’ve tried explaining to him that many of the countries are out of date). I can still remember the excitement I felt when I sat my son down, turned off all the lights and watched A New Hope with him. I buy comics for my kids to read and I, ostensibly for “screening purposes,” read them first. I watch Phineas and Ferb even when my kids aren’t there. I guess that, maybe, some people might be of the opinion that I never really grew up… of which, I’m ok with, as I’m happy with the person I turned out to be.

    The point is… in this world we live in… full of violence, danger and endless people screaming at us to buy this, don’t buy that, watch this, etc…. it’s good to like “childish” things. It keeps us grounded and sane. It helps us remember the way we were when we were kids — optimistic, hopeful, full of happiness and joy — and it helps us bond with our children through the shared, mutual, love of certain things (I think my husband almost cried when my son, who loves the original series of Star Trek, asked for help in making a ‘doomsday machine’ out of a bucket, flash light and foil). I know it keeps me sane.

    PS: I loved system and PC games — I’m a huge believer in the power of a good storyline…. which is why I loved King’s Quest, Final Fantasy, Myst, and Seventh Guest as a kid :)

  • Anonymous

    I spent many, many hours playing Secret of Mana with my sister as a kid. It was one of the few two player RPGs!
    Also, when you’re talking about educational games, you don’t mean Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? or Oregon Trail?

  • http://twitter.com/pedestrienne Danielle McCarney

    A shame every lovely person in this conversation didn’t find the free online game ‘Glitch’ before its closure! A non-violent world of beauty and humour, the graphics were simultaneously cute and grown-up, avatars could be as gender-neutral as you liked, the wood trees flirted dirtily and the spice trees flirted spicily… and it was almost impossible to explain to people who didn’t *get it* why something that looked so childish from the outside was hosting one of the funnest, silliest, most mature online communities I’ve ever encountered.

  • http://www.facebook.com/marcderrick.chuayap Marc Derrick Chua Yap

    great article. As an extension of people asking our geeky past time why we still watch/play/enjoy childish past times, i’ve also been accused of watching/playing childish games/shows, particularly any and every game that’s not rated T or above. Failing to realize that just because a game is rated E, doesn’t mean it isn’t challenging or mature (in terms of the level of thinking it requires). I’m looking at you yoshi’s island… frustratingly hard…

  • http://twitter.com/Paraveina Caitlin

    It sounds to me that you like universally appealing games whether they’re covered with an adult skin or a child skin.

  • Luspear Soram

    Thanks for the encouragement. I enjoy things aimed at kids too. I heard that it was disturbing one member of my family. But it doesn’t disturb me. I did outgrow the PBS kid shows, because they are educational for low grades. I still hang onto much of the rest. If I look at them the right way, I can still find them deliciously thought-provoking. Even though I am an adult with a mature mindset, I can still figure things out. I can have insights that a kid might miss. This is not a matter of having crude jokes under the radar. Here are three examples.
    I grew up on Disney. I still like the watch the movies. They are family oriented, and the adults can get into the creativity and artistry. A new one is Frozen. I am absolutely crazy about it. There are so many awesome elements to it: the plot, the characters, the animation, the music. I’m a sucker for fantasy. It is rare for something in this genre to be done so well. I get so much inspiration and learning from this particular movie.
    I am a fan of My Little Pony. At least there is a sizable adult fan base. I find the TV show very enjoyable. It is fun to see the adventures and character development of the ponies. I am a big fan of zoology and designing fictional creatures. So the way the ponies are stylized from real horses is fascinating to me. It is very refreshing to view the show from a feminist perspective. The female characters are incredibly abundant and diverse. My favorite episodes are the epic action-packed ones at the beginning and ending of seasons. They still satisfy my taste for fantasy. The show is obviously and overtly feminine. Yet the relatively intense action sequences make it seem more gender-neutral, and it is a nice balance.
    I am also a fan of Pokémon. That fueled my interest in creature design more than anything else. I have played some of the games. They are actually a challenge, even for an adult. As a gamer you would understand. There are a ton of rules and strategies in the gameplay. I really get involved and enjoy the challenge the system. Some kids may have difficulty with the elemental rock-paper-scissors for example. But I exploit it like there is no tomorrow. The mechanics behind competitive gameplay is so intense, even an adult may find it daunting. I just avoid that hardcore stuff.
    You did bring up something that I use as a justification. If an adult is intelligent and capable enough to fill their mature responsibilities, that is close enough. If they like kid stuff, it shouldn’t interfere with that. At least kid stuff isn’t illegal or dangerous. Come to think of it, I stayed at college for a few years. I played a lot of Pokémon and watched a lot of episodes of My Little Pony. Yet I was still able to kick academic butt, and earn a Bachelors’ degree. That is good enough, no matter what I do with my free time. Afterwards, I am struggling to get into the workforce. My entertainment tastes have nothing to do with this difficulty.