Editor: Bracken Lee-Rudolph
There are a few contentious issues in video games currently, the amount of graphic violence believed, wrongly, to be the sole influence of violence amongst youth, the depiction of females in videogames, as female characters are often victimised or misrepresented by the games in which they are featured and so on. However, these are well documented issues, organisations like Feminist Frequency attempt to deal with the latter issue, which is a topic for conversation all on its own and most news outlets have had some input on the belief of videogames inducing violence in our youth, whether factual or sensationalised.
However, a demographic which is often overlooked in the maelstrom of issues which the gaming industry faces is that of children themselves and how they are depicted in videogames; whether we protect them, try to avoid featuring them or depict them in similar roles to what we do older or more experienced characters. Several games approach children in vastly different ways, and the next few paragraphs will contain spoilers from certain video games, so if you haven’t played them and don’t wish for certain events throughout to be spoiled for you, I would avoid reading on.
The below paragraphs contain spoilers from: Dragon Age: Origins, Dragon Age 2, Fallout 3, The Last of Us and Red Dead Redemption
The first, and most strongly protective approach in defending children would be to disallow their murder or attacking them altogether. Games like Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas allow you to cut a swathe through the ranks of bandits, mutants and wildlife that inhabit the wastelands of Washington and Nevada respectively, but when you encounter a child, they cannot take damage from you and often run away. In cases of settlements like Little Lamplight in Fallout 3, if you shot at one of the number of heavily armed children, they would not take damage and would most likely reduce the Lone Wanderer into a red mist strewn across the walls of the caverns in which they dwelled. This did get irritating when you pressed the incorrect button and ended up stealing an ashtray or similarly insignificant item and the entire town descended on you with everything from 9mm pistols to a miniaturised nuclear bomb launcher (not an exaggeration).
This is a very effective way to discourage violence against children in games, but can lead to frustrated gamers, as often these children would have toxic personalities or would spew insults at you, and the only thing you would want to do is start distributing bullets in a fair, but violent manner. Which leads to the second approach that video games take – allowing violence against children or allowing the player character to attack them themselves.
The latter form of this approach is seen in Dragon’s Dogma, where a misfired area effecting spell killed several civilians in my second playthrough in a fiery blaze, including a child. This caught me by surprise, but besides warranting a short, quizzical look, I hadn’t given it much more thought until after the inevitable incarceration for mass murder. Although you obviously were not supposed to kill the civilians, Dragon’s Dogma, unlike titles like Fallout and Skyrim, didn’t restrict who out of the civilians you could kill, meaning that, children included, everyone was expendable, down to the last man, woman or child. It got me thinking about how often we hear in the news about children and teenagers who have been shot or been in accidents and either grievously injured or killed, and how very few games seem to depict this, least of all games like Fallout and Skyrim, which had otherwise been full of grim societal commentaries or morally grey situations.
Once again, I must cite The Last of Us, which depicts three children as relevant characters throughout the title, as well as the death of two of them, and the infection of one. The first child you are introduced to in The Last of Us is Joel’s daughter, Sara, who dies within the first 15 minutes of the game, the second is Ellie, who I will get back to, and the third is Sam, the brother of Henry, who is Infected and later dies when he attacks Ellie. All three of these children are depicted as characters with a semblance of depth and specifically for Sara, we feel as though we’ve only been shown what is necessary for progression in the story, not their full personalities. Sam is shown as a child full of fear, not incapable, but with very little confidence in his ability against the infected hordes, which in the end becomes his downfall, as he is infected and shot as he attacks Ellie, with whom he was good friends by the end of their short stint together.
Ellie is altogether a different example of a child character. Being immune to the infection, she exhibits notable bravado throughout the title in terms of helping Joel, as she helps him against several Hunters, the odd Infected and even has the entirety of the Winter segment of the title alone, as Joel had previously been seriously injured at the university. Throughout the title, she develops from a rebellious and hardy teenager to a hardened and capable survivalist and is a prime example of how children in games should be treated – not as bit-part characters with one or two lines of speech, but as full, dynamic characters, who can find themselves in positions of mortal peril and either develop or die because of it.
However, death is not the only ill fate that can befall a child in a videogame and to me, not the most harsh. In Red Dead Redemption, John Marston’s son and wife are taken from him as federal agents blackmail him into hunting down his old gang partners across the Southern United States of America and Northern Mexico. When they return from this unwilling vacation, Jack is visibly scarred. He feels a sense of abandonment, as his father hadn’t been around for a significant period of time, and he isn’t sure how to treat his father as a result of this, as can be seen through his unsure actions around his patriarchal figure. The mental taxation that befalls Jack Marston as a child would probably have severe repercussions on the adult, although as players we don’t get to see that, as the story ends when Jack kills his father’s murderer in Mexico – a side mission in itself.
The other specific incident worth discussing would be demonic possession, as shown in both Dragon Age titles and multiple characters – namely, Connor, the Arl of Redcliffe’s son, who is possessed by a desire demon while he tries to keep his father alive, Amalia, who is nearly possessed by Kitty – a desire demon trapped in an old mage’s laboratory and Feynriel in Dragon Age 2, a young elven mage who is nearly possessed by 3 different demons, all who would want him for his budding power as a mage. Although in all 3 cases, the child can either escape or be possessed (at the behest of the player), it baffles me how death of children in videogames is considered taboo in many cases while demonic possession – the twisting of the child’s will and morals at the whim of an immoral spirit – is considered acceptable, seeing as the child’s soul in all of these cases resides within their body as they are tormented.
I personally believe that in the case of how children should be depicted, many titles should take a page out of The Last of Us’s books. Through 3 different children, Naughty Dog projected 3 significantly differing personalities in Sam, Ellie and Sara, showing differing levels of character development and making them important characters within the campaign. Instead of showing them as insignificant, or inferior, The Last of Us showed children as equally as important – if not as experienced as their older counterparts. Just as in reality, children were relevant – as they should be.
Have an opinion on the treatment of children in videogames? Let us know in the comments below!