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The Kids’ Shows Of Video Games

“Triple-A games are the kids’ shows of the industry.”

That a fairly startling comparison someone imparted on me recently. It was somewhat out of the blue, so that had something to do with it, but also because I wasn’t entirely sure it made a whole lot of sense. Somewhere deep down inside, some part of me instinctively wanted to agree, but on what grounds? If I couldn’t articulate what made this a good metaphor, then surely that made it a bad one.

Or I’m just an idiot, which you can tell me repeatedly in the comments if you so choose.

Either way, let’s explore this together, and let’s start by breaking that statement into its component parts: triple-A games and kids’ shows. Children’s television programming has a long, storied history in American broadcasting. It goes all the way back to the nascent days of the entire medium, starting with Cap’n Tugg and Captain Kangaroo to Scooby-Doo and Bananas in Pyjamas.

You’ll notice, though, that this opens up more questions that need clarification before we proceed, such as which kind of children’s show are we talking about here; Mister Rogers and Yu-Gi-Oh are two vastly different creatures. For my part, though, when I hear the phrase “children’s programming,” I think of things like Power Rangers and Digimon. A little bit of VeggieTales, sure, but for the most part, it’s the mindless action stuff of Saturday mornings.

That’s not to put those down, though, as I know I sure watched the hell out of those when I was younger (and probably still would if I had it in me to wake up before 3pm on the weekend), but let’s face it: those are engineered experiences. They are warm up front but coldly calculating behind the scenes. They are the lowest common denominator. There are very few eight-year-old boys that wouldn’t want to watch giant robots fight giant space creatures.

In fact, there are few people of any age that wouldn’t want to see that, but that kind of proves my point in that shows like Bobby’s World and Animaniacs are specifically designed to appeal to the widest range of people and ages. If they can stretch it, producers will make sure each episode and every show will touch on what four-year-olds to eight-year-olds and even 12-year-olds want while watching TV and eating Fruity Pebbles.

Of course, that is just how network television works; they make beaucoup bucks. But the difference comes in the fact that children’s shows sow the seeds of inanity and still manage to harvest crops from ravaged fields. Your so-called “grownup” television at least makes attempts at complexity and growth. Or, at least they did until everyone realized reality television was a cash cow that never runs dry, but that’s beside the point.

Perhaps the bit about appealing to the widest set of consumers isn’t the part of the comparison that works. Most video games, after all, are picked up to be financed and published precisely because they are likely to be bought by the core of the American people. Mainstream games are focus tested and tweaked until they are the pill most easily swallowed. There are several factors that need to be a certain percentage of acceptance, and once they hit those numbers, they are out the door and onto shelves because, being that they are consumer products, they are made to be sold.

Then maybe it’s the mindlessness. This is not inherently a bad thing, but it is most definitely a thing. You’ll notice the first episode of Pokémon was fairly dramatic. It raised numerous questions of ethics and interpersonal relationships that, as a younger child, few picked up on. For instance, it seemed to point the show towards wanting to explore what it meant to use your freedom to exert control over another’s will. It wanted to talk to kids about what it meant to finally achieve your goals and grounding them before they got out of hand. It seemed to want to stretch a wide breadth of topics and go in-depth on all of them.

Then Team Rocket started blowing up at the end of each episode and Brock turned into a caricature of Looney Toons womanization. And Pokémon exploded into Worldwide Phenomenon status. Mindlessness.

Compare that to the annual gold mine that is Call of Duty. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare blew critical minds by killing the main character. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 sparked global controversy and asked everyone to reflect on what it means to be good or bad with No Russian. Call of Duty: Black Ops II had actually one of the most competently reactive player-controlled narratives of 2012. But did any of that matter when the majority of players put the disc in solely to play online multiplayer? Not as much as it should have.

So the oafishness might be it, but both of those are sweeping generalizations that blatantly turn a blind eye towards the counterexamples. The aforementioned Call of Duty moments aside, look at last year’s Spec Ops: The Line. It housed one of the most amazing and complex and subverting stories in video games in such a long time and it was most definitely a triple-A game. Then look at Saturday morning cartoons like Batman: The Animated Series and realize that it was a dark, macabre, and twisted look at what it’s like to be an emotionally isolated hero in a corrupt city.

Maybe it isn’t that. But what then? It’s not the polish; big title releases have a sheen of dusted tops and sanded corners that unapologetically green screened kids’ shows lack completely. It might be that both have unwieldy productions, turning both endeavors into ships too big to steer, but that is making a huge assumption about something we can’t possibly know.

In the end, truly and honestly, I’m not sure what makes the metaphor work for me, so maybe I am an idiot; I just know that I instinctively agree with it. Or maybe I was right all along and things like Spec Ops: The Line and Batman: The Animated Series are simply exceptions to the rule (they probably are, but even if they were, proving a tangentially related point doesn’t provide evidence upstream). Regardless, I think this is still a question worth discussing.

What do you think? Are triple-A games the kids’ shows of video games?

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