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.