Cuddly Kittens and Chainsaw Bayonets: Where Do Kids Fit into Today’s Video Game Landscape?

Curator's Note

At this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), Microsoft opened their press event by showing off a Cold War-era military shooter with guns galore and massive explosions, a Japanese action game fetishizing slow-motion body-slicing, and an alien-shooter where the guns come with attached chainsaws. After previewing several other video games tailored exclusively for adults and showing some new console features, Microsoft then brought a young girl out on stage to cuddle with a virtual tiger-kitten. Huh? 

This demo of Kinectimals was one of the Expo’s very few high-profile moments when a game was promoted as specifically “for kids,” which is surprising considering how closely video games and children are tied in the broader cultural consciousness (a lingering perception of who primarily plays games from the medium’s early ties with the toy industry). Today, however, video games have much less to do with Toys-R-Us than with media conglomerates like Sony, Time Warner, Viacom, and Vivendi, which all have major game production holdings.  As the percentage of child gamers shrinks (around 25%, which is slightly less than those aged 50+!), the industry has increasingly pushed children’s gaming into the background and focused on expanding the market upwards (often by explicitly disavowing the medium’s adolescent reputation). 

This has not only contributed to grisly mature material but also the family gaming trend popularized by Nintendo’s “anyone can play” approach with the Wii that removes kids’ individual preferences and lumps them in with mom, dad, grandma, and grandpa. Even Kinectimals, the gaming equivalent of a stuffed animal, is shown in its’ promotional advertisement being enjoyed not only by two young girls, but also by a female adult. In fact, this E3 demo was only a small part of Microsoft’s larger attempt to capitalize on this lucrative “family” market with the motion-controlled Kinect (see also Sony’s PlayStation Move).  Even those games like Nintendo’s new Zelda title that in the past would likely have been considered children’s entertainment are probably much more exciting to twenty- and thirty-year-olds due to nostalgia than to today’s youth.  While we should applaud the involvement of parents in their children’s play time and the ability of games to bring people of different ages together, is there a real danger of something getting lost in the process?  For the time being, it isn’t that games for kids aren’t popular or profitable, the industry just seems ashamed to admit it.

Comments

Jeremy Groskopf's picture

The Market Crossing Animal

Great post, Steven.

What I find really interesting about this - and it was unspoken but present in Benjamin’s post as well - is that this is, as you say, yet another iteration of the virtual pet.  (I also like your notion that virtual pets are basically just a programmed version of stuffed animals.)

There’s something very intriguing about the fact that these items that are being marketed to both children and adults (even when, as here, that marketing is gendered) are often based around animals.  No matter how common animal metaphors may be in life, most media come nowhere near ‘family’ media’s ubiquity of animal references.

Allison Butler's picture

fetishizing youth & gender

 once again, it seems that industry fetishizes both youth & gender.  in this case, as you point out steven, the adult woman cuddles the tiger kitten. my guess is that this is thought by those in the gaming industry (or, more likely, those in the corporate conglomerates that own the gaming industry) to be the most financially lucrative - without consulting any actual young people.  traditional tropes of gender are reinforced in 21st century gaming - and further reinforced in 21st century development and marketing.

while i agree with that the involvement of parents in their children’s play time is important, i think it equally important that children have their own play - either -time or -toy - as a way of developing their personal and social narrative.  

thanks for a thought-provoking piece.  

Morgan Blue's picture

Interesting clip

Interesting clip and comments!

I’d like to echo Allison’s mention of the fetishization of the young girl in this clip. The girl’s performance is a bit disturbing as she plays with the tiger cub, cooing and giggling and reassuring the virtual pet when it trips or falls—mothering it in a way. The game seems to involve less creativity or play than practice for fulfilling conventional gender expectations. Of course such pretending and practice constitutes a lot of children’s play and fun…. I’d be curious about the parameters of activity available to players in this game and how the pet reacts to different behaviors.

 

Steven Boyer's picture

Gender Conventions

Morgan, I’m with you (and many people are) in finding the girl’s performance a little creepy. For me personally, the disembodied hands onscreen that mimic the girl’s actual hand movements just serve to reinforce the lack of any real tactile interaction here. If this were a girl playing with a real cat, this would be much less unsettling because the feeling of cat fur is pleasant, but this experience which the game so focuses on is one that a video game just cannot replicate.

Also, with regard to your comment about "mothering" and gender conventions, it is not uncommon for this type of approach to games for girls todays. Kinectimals is in the same vein as Ubisoft’s girl-targeted Petz series that includes games like Dogz, Catz, Hamsterz, Bunnyz, and Tigerz. This "z" branding is Ubisoft’s way to mark girl products, and extends to the Imagine series, which conforms very strongly to the instructional gender tropes you bring up. The Imagine games include Imagine Babyz, which is the most obvious "mothering" simulator, but also a number of other titles that in some ways train girls for very gendered occupations (a few: Imagine Fashion Designer, Imagine Makeup Artist, Imagine Ballet Dancer, Imagine Wedding Designer, and my favorite, Imagine Figure Skater). While there are a few titles that are less obviously gendered (Imagine Detective, Imagine Zookeeper) these are few and far between.  As far as I know there is no obvious equivalent for boys…

Philip Nel's picture

Disembodied Child, Sad Tiger, & a Whole Lot of "Huh?"

"Huh?" indeed.  Although (because?) this performance is supposed to be cute, there’s something unsettling about the little girl’s disembodied forearms cuddling the 3-D kitty. As you say, "the disembodied hands onscreen that mimic the girl’s actual hand movements just serve to reinforce the lack of any real tactile interaction here." That the cat has the size and markings of a tiger (rather than of a house cat) also undermines any intended cuteness: were this cat real, it could do the child some real harm.  When the girl hides, tears begin to pool in the animated tiger-cat’s eyes, simulating real distress — suddenly, these do not seem to be the eyes of a cat enjoying a little game of hide-and-go-seek, but of a cat who has been abandoned.  Were the faux animal a dog, this display of emotion would seem (to me, at least) less troubling.  As it is, though, yeah, "Huh?" is certainly one response.

Interesting that this sort of disconnect parallels the gap between the actual age of most gamers and the perceived age of most gamers.  I didn’t realize that children only account for 25% of the gaming market.  I note that the "gamer demographics" does not distinguish between children and young adult (children are defined as under 18).  So, presumably, an even smaller percentage of people under 9 are gamers.  (I’m using 9 because the WHO uses 10 as the age at which adolescence begins.)

 

Sean Geoghegan's picture

Child centric?

Normal 0 0 1 224 1282 BSUC 10 2 1574 11.512 0 0 0 Normal 0 0 1 224 1282 BSUC 10 2 1574 11.512 0 0 0

Is there a sense here that the uses of the kinect model and the promotion of gaming as a whole as being child orientated & family play intentionally operates so as to hide the real statistics? It follows that as long as gaming (3D) continues to be presented largely - with high production values and pride of place marketing -  as ‘family orientated fun’ it can with parental and societal approbation continue to deliver also to its actual market. Those hard core gamers of Gears of War 3 whose guns come with attacking chainsaws.

 

Leaving the perrenial effects argument to the side and looking at this just in terms of political economy: if the real profit streams of this technology also lie elsewhere in the market place then this too would appear to be just a distraction before the real campaign begins. The Industry will certainly already have plans to exploit the huge revenue sources and additional untapped opportunities that this technology offers. Not just in slash and burn horror but also within the ‘adult’ entertainment market. This will in time be but a small techno leap from those skin flicks being shot in 3D.

 

The technology, its implications and the clear extensions may offer also some possible interpretation as to the nature of our own reactions. How ‘disturbing’ we find some of the cuddly 3 dimensional tactical images that are currently being offered us. Images that are disagreeably gender specific. But can we imagine young boys or older men’s hands fondling 3 dimensional fluffy creatures and commanding viral objects? The marketing techniques that involve young girls and attractive Mums is certainly creepy but not as much as the potential of this hardware and the software implications that are implicit in it.

 

Steven Boyer's picture

Child Markets, "Real' Markets, Creepy Boys

 Philip, you bring up another interesting point concerning the wide age variation that, in the ESA document, are all lumped together as simply being under 18 years old. Children in this demographic certainly vary wildly in terms of purchasing power, game preference, gameplay habits, and almost any other aspect imaginable. Does this, then, lead to more complications for marketers who may already see the children’s market as dwindling in size, yet now have to further segment this group into ever smaller demographic slivers?

Sean, I think what we are seeing with Kinect is an often contradictory marketing campaign that is at once both reversing and maintaining gamer stereotypes. At the most basic level, it is a complete reversal of the longstanding concept of the "early adopter," those "hardcore" gamers who must have every new gadget first, drive initial sales, spread hype via word of mouth to their friends, and who are almost always characterized as being young males. For the most part, in the past it has been this "hardcore" early adopter market that justify heavy expenditures in new technology that will eventually be picked up by the "real" market of less serious gamers down the road. Microsoft has suggested that they still believe "hardcore" gamers will buy Kinect early on, but the device is clearly being pitched to families in an attempt to capitalize on the success of the Wii.  

If video games have traditionally been associated with children and adolescent teens, the last several years have seen a concerted effort to acknowledge the fact that gamers are getting older and that games are for adults, too. Now that adult game blockbusters like the Call of Duty franchise have emerged, however, the industry is rapidly altering this position to appeal to families, due primarily to the Wii’s astronomical success. In the most clear economic terms, take a look at page 8 of the previously cited ESA report which lists the top selling games of 2009. Seven of the top ten bestselling video games are exclusively found on Nintendo platforms (six of these on the Wii). Similarly, on the previous page a graph shows that over 60% of games sold are rated either E (Everyone) or E10+ (Everyone 10+). These figures suggest that the "actual" market, or the most profitable market, is not the adults buying shooters, but the families who pick up every game with "Wii" in the title or with Mario on the box.

While the market for mature and truly adult titles is enormous and still holds room for expansion, Microsoft’s current focus on Kinect and Sony’s similar approach to the PlayStation Move (as well as Nintendo’s 2009 E3 Press Conference) indicate that the true gold mine is the untapped market that does not yet play games, but will if someone can convince them to do so. Perhaps the popularity of Zynga’s Facebook titles (Farmville, Mafia Wars, etc) is yet another example of the profitability of new markets which the major, adult-focused platform holders have been struggling to reach.

In terms of truly "adult" content on consoles, if this is the eventual intended goal of the industry, it is certainly a ways off. The medium’s historical ties to children’s entertainment continue to get the industry into hot water (or should I say, hot coffee) over sexual content in games, at the moment most notable in the impending Supreme Court case concerning regulation of adult video game material. Console owners (and many of the major retailers) do not even support/sell content rated Adults Only, which exists almost solely to marginalize overtly sexual PC titles. Sony also recently rejected a bid to put Vivid Video content on its service. Are the ties to children’s entertainment still too strong to stave off adult material, and if so, how long will it last? 

Finally, to point out yet another "creepy" Kinect interaction that works in a much different way, Peter Molyneux’s "Milo & Kate" demo, which he has given a few times now. If the prospect of young boys playing with a virtual tiger are disturbing, this pales in comparison to the potential deviance that could arise when someone interacts with a virtual young boy. This is a case where the increasingly broad range of technical possibilities present in the medium may provide more opportunities than we may want to admit.

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