The Seven-Sided Die

Kids, roleplaying games, and the information revolution

Posted Monday September 15, 2008 at 08:23 PM

I'm reading Shirley R. Steinberg and Joe L. Kincheloe's Kinderculture, a book on the need for media literacy in the generations currently growing up in our new media-based information culture. The book focuses mostly on the implications that corporate control of media has on the enculturation of children, but the secondary message is that childhood today is very different from what most adults assume.

Although the central point of the book—that business has put a lot of money into learning how to instill values into children that are convenient for their profit margins, and that the cultural sheltering children from adult ideas actually makes them more vulnerable to corporate predation—is an important and alarming one, in this post I'm more interested in the secondary point:

Children are at the center of an information revolution—they understand it better than anyone else, they are connected to one another by it, and their self-images and view of their social role are altered by it.

As a new parent this is really relevant to my family. I span the cultural shift, with my childhood firmly in the realm of running around in parks on my own with the occasional bit of television and early 8-bit video games. Today my work and play is steeped in the culture created (still being created) by the information revolution, but I necessarily see it all through the eyes of someone who didn't grow up with it being a matter of course. My child will take computers, the Internet, and everything that grows within and around it for granted, and build the next version of society on top of it.

The difference that will make is both easy to dismiss, and incredibly profound.

In this context school becomes less an institution of information delivery and more a hermeneutical site—a place where meaning is made, understanding and interpretation are engendered.

Our job as parents will become less one of passing on culture and information, simply because our kids will be getting culture and information from the outside world at a much greater pace than familial conversations ever could. Steinberg and Kincheloe observe that, given there is no reasonable means to prevent children's exposure to information in this culture—short of a degree of sheltering that would rob them of their ability to function in the world they will inherit—the role of parents and educators must shift. We can give our children the skills to intelligently navigate and critically evaluate the messages and information they encounter. We must teach media and cultural literacy, and empower our kids to decide what to absorb and how to cope with diverse ideas.

What does all this have to do with roleplaying games, though? Roleplaying is a relatively new hobby on a generational scale, and the gamers who started playing in the 70s, 80s, and 90s either already have kids or are just starting families. Not coincidentally there has been a slow but steady development of roleplaying games designed with children in mind. And, with the post-Forge explosion of independently-created games and critical theory on how and what we play, nearly all of them have been made by indie publishers with more stake in empowering creative and thought-provoking play than in turning a buck.

Roleplaying games have come a long way from their orc and pie roots. Although I love me some pie, and the orcs that guard it will get what's coming to 'em, roleplaying games have the potential to engage kids with ideas so much more important than the cosmic battle over baked goods. In terms of design, too, modern roleplaying theory has given us some impressively elegant games, some of which wouldn't even be recognised as RPGs by the grognards of yore. It's worth noting too that, being indie games, they're generally cheap or available for free—not a small consideration for parents on a tight budget.

Zak Arntson's Shadows is my most recent discovery. It's an elegant set of rules that can be taught to kids (and adults) of any age "that can read and compare numbers". Players play themselves and each of them has a shadow, which is "an invisible person or monster who always wants you to get in trouble." The game starts simply with the kids being woken by a strange noise. As the players guide their characters and encounter challenges (such as being tempted by the fresh cookies cooling on the counter while investigating the strange noise), they decide what they want to do and what their shadow wants them to do. A roll of the dice determines which one happens, and interesting situations result. The moderator is cautioned not to plan out what the game will be about and let the children's natural creativity be the guide. The game is a short web page, so you can go read Shadows for yourself.

The Princes' Kingdom[1. The Princes' Kingdom has been the subject of much discussion regarding its treatment of gender. Although it explicitly says that it includes both boys and girls, in practice it takes the male as default in all examples and gendered nouns. This review aptly addresses the gender issues in TPK. Fortunately it's easy enough to amend this when presenting it to children, and there have been a number of actual play accounts that show that gender issues in TPK can be navigated successfully. Here's one such delightful actual play report. I think that TPK is a good game despite this flaw.] by Clinton R. Nixon is the game that introduced me to RPGs designed for children. Based on the system from Vincent Baker's indie classic Dogs in the Vineyard, the players guide royal children out into their kingdom of Islandia, meeting different people on each new island and dealing with their problems. The game is about responsibility, coping with problems with no single right answer, and learning to make choices with consequence. Being able to explore these things within the safety of a game is a wonderful opportunity for a parent and child. As one parent discovered in this actual play report, kids will bring issues from their life into the game where they can safely explore risks and new ideas.

Inuma is probably the oddest of the lot and doesn't even consider itself a roleplaying game. Not just a book, it's intended to be a physical box with treasures inside. It provides a set of guidelines for making up a place with interesting people in it, and then telling stories with those characters. It's such cutting-edge experimental indie stuff that it's still under development (and open-source as well!), but it's all online at those two links to be read and pondered. Even unfinished, it presents some interesting ideas for how to give kids just enough structure to focus and exercise their natural creativity, without telling them how to pretend.

Two other games have caught my eye, although I haven't yet read much about them. Dragon (by John Wick of L5R and 7th Sea fame) is a game about stomping around as the best kind of dragon out of fairytale. Vincent Baker wrote the short and sweet The Nighttime Animals Save the World, where the players are nighttime animals like raccoons, mice, and skunks, and they save the world from something dastardly (like a popsicle-thief who's making all the neighbourhood dogs mean). It's designed to be played while on a walk with a six-year-old and incorporates things that you pass into the story. I think that feature is ingenious, considering just how many walks parents of little children find themselves on.

Games for children aren't just aimed at little kids, either. In The Face of Angels "a story about inhuman powers and human relationships" is told, "like a cross between superhero comics and teen drama movies." The characters are high-schoolers suddently granted inhuman powers on graduation night. The story is about the human drama between the inhumanly-gifted friends as they are discovered by the world, try to change it, and have the world push back. Most adults would consider those to be heady themes even for teenagers, but the parallel with the liminal position of teenagers in the real world is inescapable.

And, no article about kids and roleplaying games is complete without a link to the instantly-classic Shadowfell with my seven-year-old thread at the Story Games forums. This is one of the best parts in an account full of great parts:

While I was setting up mini-figs on the cave map, D spotted the huge pile of treasure printed on the map. His eyes got very big. "Wow," he said, "That's a lot of treasure!" I nodded, knowingly: Well did I remember the intoxicating allure of imagined riches. I wasn't quite sure what he could buy with all that in this system, but I figured something would suggest itself.

"The people of Winterhaven sure will be glad to get that all back!" D continued.

And that's all I have for you right now. If you're looking for more, over at Role-Playing Games for Kids Edmund Metheny and Sophie Lagacé describe and link to dozens of games indented for kids, playable by all ages, or tweakable for young players. I'm certainly looking forward to playing some of these with my own kid.

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