Clementine in The Walking Dead game hits a zombie in the face with a machete while looking pretty cool.

Where Are the Kids in Gaming?

For a medium with a large youth player base, one must wonder why there are so few juvenile protagonists.

I’ve been gaming since I was a little kid. Five or six, playing on my brother’s Super Nintendo. Didn’t really think about it then, but it’s kind of strange how few characters in games are actually kids. I have to wonder why that is, though. There are a few notable examples that take that premise and roll with it, though, so it’s curious more haven’t followed in their footsteps.

I feel like it’s a common thing for kids to want to grow up quicker. We make it seem like all the fun is to be had when one is an adult and that’s really unfortunate. There’s a lot of stuff going on with kids and their lives, and kids are devaluing them because, frankly, kids in media tend to be boring.

Thing is, you read stories about amazing feats done by children all the time and kids just don’t know they can do these things until they’re in the situation, which is understandable, or unless they see it happening. So why not show them?

Walking Dead game protagonist Lee teaches deuteragonist Clementine to shoot in the first season.
Even before she could shoot a gun she was made of iron.

Clementine from The Walking Dead game from Telltale Games is my go-to for kid protagonists because she’s, to be very honest, super rad. In Season One she’s a resourceful survivor who learns and grows into a very capable preteen fighting for her life and others.

Now, I’ve heard and seen said some stuff about how it’s unreasonable for a child (let alone a giiiiiiirl, but we’ll ignore that misogynistic mess for the sake of brevity) to survive the things Clem has gone through in the game. “She’s harder core than me!” they say. And this is true. She is harder core than you, your family, and everyone. But that doesn’t mean she’s unrealistic.

Likewise, we get to play as Ellie during the Winter in The Last of Us and fully in The Last of Us: Left Behind. She suffers through so much but she’s also extremely strong and resilient, in no small part thanks to her sense of humor in tense situations. She bounces back because she has to. And she survives.

Riley and Ellie sit next to each other looking worn out in The Last of Us: Left Behind
A game that focuses on two kids? Girls, at that? One’s a person of color? And they’re gay? Why wasn’t this the actual game?

The DLC deals with childhood friendship and childhood love in horrific situations and how that can all change at the drop of a hat. Things kids also deal with. Maybe not in the same way, but no matter how it happens, kids deal with those things, and it’s nice that we get to see it. Frankly, I’d have liked a story about her life and struggle instead of Joel’s manpain because it’s way more fresh and compelling to hear her tale. But again, “unrealistic.”

Real life is full of examples of kids who become extremely proficient at surviving horrific situations. Kids are strong, smart, and resilient if they’re forced into it. They have to be to survive and if there’s one thing humans are good at (besides wanton destruction and making babies) it’s surviving. From womb to tomb.

Kids aren’t just in horrific situations, though. School makes up a substantial portion of many kids lives, but we don’t see that many school sims. The biggest ones I can think of are Bully and the Harry Potter games. These both involve pre-teens, too, when I suppose the rebellious stage kicks in because rebels are fun and cool.

Jimmy, the main character of Bully, is accosted by a bully.
Unless you’re a monster, you probably sided with the downtrodden. I hope!

Bully attempts to broach a caricatured version of schooling where bullying is rife. Bullying being everywhere isn’t the caricature necessarily because it is so prevalent but how it’s presented tends to be. Well, typically. The main antagonist of the game is an extremely nasty bully. While the game might have you think from going in that you’d be the bully, it establishes over time that you don’t in fact like that and plan to stick up for people. Unless of course you play it as a bullying simulator, I guess. Why would anyone do that?

That, to me, is what makes it amazing. Kids can see generalized versions of the kind of bullying they’ve dealt with and they get to, if not fully solve it in real life, have some resolution in a game where at least in fantasy the bullies get theirs and the downtrodden can go their own way.

The Harry Potter series of games, like the books and movies, attempts to portray a relative fish out of water struggling with bullies and dark prophecies and omnicidal wizards, as we all were at that age. But seriously, it manages to be a tale about coming of age while being heavily fantastical.

Sota, the main character of Attack of the Friday Monsters, inspects a kaiju footprint near a couple of bullies.
When it looks like monsters are duking it out in your town, your imagination can’t run wild.

For the more realistic and imaginative, there’s Attack of the Friday Monsters on the 3DS eShop. It takes place in the seventies in a small town in Japan where kaiju movies are filmed, though all of the children are convinced that there are real giant monsters fighting in the town.

The imagination of a child makes everything real, and it’s so adorable and fun and refreshing. We’re not fighting zombies or anything like that. Just dealing with being a kid with a big imagination in a town with bullies and friends and family and everything kids will find familiar. It resonates with me even though I haven’t been that age for a long time now.

So why, if we have several good examples of gaming doing kids right, where they reflect our youths (and the youths of today), do games choose to favor adults so much?

One could argue that the subject matter of many games isn’t suitable for child protagonists. War, for example. This is silly to me, though, because children survive war. They don’t go around shooting up all the racist stereotypes, sure, but they make it through. And that would make for a great and horrifying and soul punchingly amazing game. Something like Valiant Hearts, a game following the lives of several people trying to survive World War One, but with kids instead of adults (and a dog).

It’s also been said that people don’t like watching bad things happen to children, which I’m not sure is true given how many MURDER CHILDREN mods there are for games like Skyrim. Now, maybe don’t make a game about playing as a child soldier, but like I’ve said to people about games before, the rabid insistence on making almost every game one about committing violence upon people does not make for a fun experience.

And, I guess one could argue from a marketing standpoint that it’s better to sell generic products to the core of gamers (the average age) but that doesn’t seem to matter with regards to selling to women, so if the gaming industry can pick and choose how it wants to shoot itself in the foot, then it can totally just stop doing that and market to lots of consumers. Kids. People who are nostalgic for childhood. People who want to experience things from a new, lower than typical lens.

Gaming shouldn’t just be about grown up cisgender, heterosexual white dudes. I know they’re really popular for some reason but variety isn’t just the spice of life. It is life. And ignoring it hurts people, the industry, and the medium as an art form. So please, don’t grow up too fast. Be childish, live a little. It’s worth your while.

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  • Unrealistic? In games about walking corpses eating people? Yeah, I’m super-concerned about young women being able to fend for themselves breaking the illusion of realism there. Seems like a lot of JRPG’s center around kids and adolescents, so there’s that.

    I wish bullying in real life was more like it was in Bully. Where’s the walking back to school from lunch while people in cars throw their orange sodas at you and you have to either get in trouble for ditching or attend class in a soda-stained shirt level? Or the one where a knife-brandishing gangbanger steals your pencil right before the test and the teacher yells at you in front of the whole class for not having a pencil and you choose between failing the test or possibly getting stabbed for narcing? Or when the football team steals your calculator in class and sells it TO THE TEACHER, who calls you a liar when you ask for it back? Not situations where punching people is going to solve the problem. Sorry, Bully.

    • I came to also mention JRPG’s. They usually have a couple of youngsters in the party, or at least teenagers.The Persona and Final Fantasy series come to mind.

  • There aren’t a lot of kids in gaming because a lot of people keep their underwear on when they have sex.