Innocents and Violence: Kids in Games that are NOT For Children - Oni no Tenshi Blog - www.GameInformer.com
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Innocents and Violence: Kids in Games that are NOT For Children

They may look innocent and vulnerable, but that isn't always the case.

A few years ago, I attended a Spike and Mike's Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation.  In their 2 hour event, they showed a bunch of short animated films that ranged from the bizarre to the disgusting, and one of those videos was a crudely 3D animated short about "Evil Demon Babies, the FPS."  In this video, it featured an FPS demo where the person goes around shooting demon babies that have giant spiky fangs and red glowing eyes that attempt to rip your throat out.  The tagline for the game is "It's funny because they're babies.  It's ok because they're EVIL."    To my knowledge, this is not an actual game, and other than a brief showing of the film in the "Sick and Twisted" film festival, I've never heard of anything similar.  It serves as a stark reminder that in our society, a society that is obsessed with gratuitous violence, giant explosions and the unalienable right to bear arms (note: this is not a place to debate gun laws and stuff, so please kindly leave them out of your comments), we have basically two taboos- violence towards children and violence towards (visibly) pregnant women.  When someone murders a woman, it's bad, but when someone murders a HEAVILY PREGNANT WOMAN, suddenly everyone sees the murderer as the spawn of Satan.  The magnitude of wrongness seems to exponentially increase.  So too, do we often think of the idea of a child or baby being harmed or killed as being utterly unthinkable, even though it sadly happens every day.  

Children are a group of humans that are some of the most vulnerable (other than the elderly, severely physically disabled and the mentally ill, children are much more likely to be physically abused, sexually molested and killed than any other group of people), so it makes sense that those of us who are decent and caring would be utterly horrified to see anything bad happen to a child (even snot nosed brats who certainly deserve to have their toys taken away and possibly a smack on the butt don't deserve to be tortured or killed).  While I wish that we didn't live in a world where children were harmed on a regular basis, most games have a different take on how children fit into the world.

"Who are you calling a bunch of powerless kids?"

FIrst of all, most games will not allow you to harm child NPCs.  Many games leave underage NPCs out altogether, but if there are children present, you generally never have to worry about them being harmed by monsters, flamethrowers or the common stray bullet.  Of course, if you're playing a game where you start out as a child and then grow into an adult, any PREVIOUSLY CHILD CHARACTERS are generally fair game once they've been aged up appropriately (such as in games like Fallout 3, where you start out as a baby/child and interact with other young NPCs that eventually grow up to adulthood).

Secondly, most games that feature more "realistic" violence tend to have adult protagonists.  Obviously, there are plenty of games where children are the protagonists (the Pokemon series, child Link in Legend of Zelda, etc), but when you get into gritty games where people are getting riddled with bullets and heads are flying off, the world magically seems to be filled with a bunch of big burly dudes and maybe a couple scantily clad women and if you're lucky some scary monsters that explode in a gory mess, but no kids.  In some games, like Resident Evil 4, there are no children, and the lack of kids is somewhat explained in the ending credits (which creep me out).

Start the video around 3:35 if you want to get creepy goosebumps up your spine.

But for better or for worse, this seems to be changing somewhat.  Child characters are starting to be more widely used in games that are not for kids, and many of these games involve frightening or outright inappropriate violence.

This gives a whole other meaning to nightmare.

Recently, I was made aware of a "first person" video game that involves a toddler being trapped in a nightmarish world where you may or may not be subject to violence.  The name of the game is "Among the Sleep," and while the developers have not released any actual "action" scenes from the game, the snippets of gameplay they have videos for invokes a terrifying, Silent Hill sort of fear.  In most first player games, you have weapons, and even if you're in an atmospherically frightening situation, you tend to have some sort of offensive power.  In this game, you have tiny little hands and, according to the game designers, a little teddy bear, and that seems to be it.  And, while they didn't show us any monsters, we got to see a freaky shadow of a Gollum-looking character in a window and gravity started throwing the kitchen around.  Plus, it wasn't exactly enjoyable hearing child gasps and little screams coming from the character as scary things happened.  Apparently there is some parental outcry about this game, mainly just the fact that it involves such a young child even though the game is obviously made for a more mature audience.

Personally, I would have to say that while I am not disturbed that this game is scary and involves a toddler simply because it's NOT REAL, I am somewhat irritated that people are more interested in getting all annoyed at a game instead of trying to combat things that are hurting real children in reality.  Why should we freak out when a digital toddler screams but ignore the very real cries of the toddlers out there who are being abused or neglected?  What does it say about us as a society when we become more disturbed by a game representation of child suffering than the actual suffering of real children?

I will hold off more game-specific judgement until I see more of this game, but for now, I'm going to talk about a couple other "dark" games that involve child characters and talk about how they manifest, simply because I think it is important to involve a dialogue on how we perceive violence when it involves children and when it involves adults because it fascinates me how people will react completely differently to the same sort of violence when the target has been altered.

The Little Sisters from Bioshock

Speaking of a dark atmospheric game, Bioshock is up there in the freaky feels department.  The Little Sisters, to some extent, fall into the traditional areas of child NPCs- they get protected by the Big Daddies from any harm (unless you kill the Big Daddies, that is), and if you're playing a moral character, you can "cure" them and turn them back into normal children.  Of course, this still doesn't change the fact that when you turn them back, they still have to crawl back into the walls and stay there, perhaps indefinitely.  And you CAN choose to "drain" them of their power, which kills them but gives you more power.  Obviously, the glowing eyes doesn't exactly make them look all that human, but when you turn them back to normal, they basically become normal little people:

Seriously.  Are you REALLY going to kill some children just so you can have a little more power?  What kind of monster ARE you?

Perhaps I'm just easier to get a bit unsettled about this since I have two daughters who are little, but even in a game, it's pretty dang heartless to kill someone who has no power and pretty much doesn't even stand a chance or want to hurt you.

Limbo

At some point in this side-scrolling platforming adventure style game, you're going to die.  And when you do, you're going to see your tiny little corpse.  Apparently, there's a point where you use previous dead floating corpse versions of yourself to cross water, and if that's not disturbing enough, just look at that giant creepy spider.  The main character is obviously built like a child-his build reminds me a bit of Calvin from "Calvin and Hobbes" fame, so maybe 6 or 7 years old and everything is trying to MURDER HIM.  Sure, if you're successful, you might keep yourself from being crunched and eaten and cut into itty bitty bits, but generally, most of us are not good at playing a perfect game.  Which means that part of this game is watching your little inky main character being subjected to violent deaths.

Clementine- cutest reason to survive the zombie apocalypse?

One of the semi-controversial things about the Living Dead video game is the presence of Clementine- a character who basically exists so that you will protect her from the undead hordes.  She's 9 years old in the game and has obviously experienced a ton of horrific events, from watching zombies feed on the living to possibly killing infected people just to survive.  She obviously has a lot of wits about her to have survived before Lee finds her, but she generally is allowed to survive the entire game (although she does witness more death and violence, and is grabbed by zombies several times).  According to an article about the game, she CAN be killed in the game, but it results in a "Game Over," so rather than being truly exempt from having direct violence carried out on her, the game does not tolerate you to continue the game if she dies, but this entails that the game WILL let you see her die if you fail.  The implications here are horrifying- her death is little more than hinderance to getting to the next part of the game- your incentive to keep her alive as a player is not necessarily tied to emotionally wanting to protect her but rather to keep the game from ending and forcing you to try again.

Watch out- it looks like you've got a lantern on your face!

Even though Ni No Kuni isn't as horribly violent as the previous examples, there is a quality to Ghibli films and stories in general that lends itself to a darker aspect.  While Miyazaki is known as the "Disney of Japan," his films largely don't pull any punches when it comes to the darker elements therein.  Oliver, the main character of Ni No Kuni, loses his mother (which is incredibly traumatizing on a level that puts "Bambi" to shame) and retreats into a "second world" where he can use magic and goes on a big quest to save the world and possibly figure a way to save his mom.  While the story itself is somewhat whimsical, and the places and scenery have a truly enchanting quality to them, there is an underlying darkness to the story.  Even though he's in a magical world, enemies play for keeps- they don't put on kids gloves for the protagonist and his allies (and it shows- the boss fights are notoriously hard).  Out of all of these games, Ni No Kuni is actually one of the only games that is actually considered appropriate for children (even though they probably would require the easy setting to play successfully).  But even so, the game evokes a feeling of darkness that hides in the shadows of the bright and welcoming world.  It's that hint of darkness that makes the drama and story truly work instead of being a mere toothless fantasy romp.  To some extent, this is refreshing because struggles, even childhood struggles, should never be easy and without cost.  But at the same time, it also shows that there are ways to tastefully involve violence and darkness in a story with children without making into a gore-fest.

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So, in light of this topic, I have a couple questions for you, dear reader.

What are your thoughts of children in more violent "adult" titles, either as NPCs, main characters, or support characters?

Do you think that the "taboo" of hurting or killing children in games is a well-placed limit or simply an outdated mode of looking at things?

Are you a parent or a caregiver of a child?  Do you think that this has changed your outlook on media or real-life examples of violence towards children, or has it stayed the same?

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And finally, I would like to say that while I personally do not condone violence towards children (or really, anyone) in the real world, I can understand the double standard here.  Hurting adult men or adult women characters is just as bad as hurting a child, yet it is often glorified and considered "normal" in video games.  So if the violence is bad no matter who the victim is, then why is there a double standard?  Obviously, this could be largely because people don't want to play a game where they kill kids as part of the gameplay (and therefore, including it in your game would make your game sell badly), but I also think it's largely because we've so easily dehumanized adults in gaming situations from years of FPS and adventure games that involve killing adult human-shaped characters but there's still a taboo when it comes to kid characters because we simply don't have a huge number of those kinds of situations in the gaming environment, and therefore, it's extra shocking when it *does* happen.  I would prefer if we stopped killing children in games altogether, but more than that, I think it's more important that we start working hard to remove violence and abuse from the lives of children in the REAL WORLD, and to protect those who are innocent and suffering at the hands of those with more power.  

So even, if it's something little, like donating a dollar to a children's fund or just talking to a kid who seems upset and listening to their problems, I highly recommend doing something, no matter how little, to help a kid in YOUR life do just a little bit better and suffer just a little bit less.

After all, even though "children are our future" is kind of an overused epithet, it's also incredibly true.

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