While the potential advantages or disadvantages of children playing video games receive a great deal of attention, little attention is paid to the place of children in video games themselves. However, the portrayal of children in the media can tell us a lot about how they are perceived by society, as well as about the rules, beliefs and social systems that shape contemporary children’s place in the world.
My recent research looked at the portrayal of children in over 500 commercially successful and critically acclaimed video games released between 2009 and 2019. These included games aimed at both adults and children.
I discovered that there were many places in the game worlds where children were simply not welcome, and that representations of children followed particular patterns in terms of gender and race.
Although video games are often considered children’s media, I found that of the 506 video games I reviewed, 331 did not contain any child characters. In the remaining titles that featured a child character, less than half were major characters. Child characters simply did not exist in the majority of game worlds, reflecting the exclusion of children from many areas of society.
Making certain gaming environments “adults-only” can protect virtual children from aspects of gaming that involve taboo activities such as violence. But virtual children can never be placed in virtual danger. This suggests that the concern for digital children is perhaps best understood as a need to champion an imagined and idealized version of ‘the child’.
The way “the child” is treated in media like video games is a reflection of the morals of society at large. If a game treats children badly without explicitly condemning that treatment, it violates those mores.
This explains the absence of child characters in controversial open-world games such as those in the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series, which primarily challenge players to steal cars, shoot people, and evade the police.
GTA games are often accused of being deliberately immoral and offensive, as they encourage players to explore the limits of both what is possible and what is allowed. However, the game’s designers chose to systematically exclude children from the otherwise detailed and comprehensive simulated cities of GTA.
Children were also absent from games that are not particularly violent. Child characters did not appear in the majority of sports games and racing games. They did not appear in workout games or fitness games, and music games such as Guitar Hero, SingStar, SongPop, Rockband, and the Just Dance series all depicted on-screen performers as adults.
In many of these games, the player’s progress is tracked as if they were climbing a career ladder in a real-world industry. Sports games in particular often pay homage to professional leagues and athletes. Because the majority of children are excluded from the world of work, games that simulate aspects of real industries represent virtual environments that are populated only by adults.
The imaginary child
Child characters in video games can also tell us how society views the figure of the child. Research has shown that adult characters in video games are more likely to be white and male. I found this same pattern in my research on child characters.
I found that where playable child characters were given a gender, 25 were male and six were female. The lack of playable female characters reinforces the idea that boys are at the center of the action and girls only exist on the fringes.
I discovered that 18 child player characters were white and only three child player characters were non-white. Because they were animals, fantastical creatures, or automatons, 15 child player characters had no race. One child player character had a customizable race, and 9 child player characters were categorized as “Mukokuseki”, a Japanese term generally used for characters rendered in an anime style that could be understood as white or Japanese.
This echoes a problem in Western children’s literature. Research has found that non-human characters appear less frequently than white child protagonists, but significantly outnumber child protagonists of all other races.
Western video games seem to equate childhood with whiteness. This has real parallels to how non-white children are often treated as older than they are, a phenomenon known as “adultification.”
Current conceptions of childhood still tend to regard it as a natural, timeless and universal phenomenon. Examining the digital children who populate virtual game worlds is a great way to show that the way societies view “the child” is often narrow and exclusive.
Emma Joy Reay, Lecturer in Game Studies and Game Design, Anglia Ruskin University
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.