October 12, 2011

Gaming With Kids: Appropriate Theme

Apparently, ostriches don't bury their heads in the sand!  Which is news to me.  I mean, if you can't trust the Looney Tunes that you grew up on, what sort of solid foundation exists at all in this world?!  When the ostrich senses danger it runs!  And with its long legs, it can run fast - like 31 mph!  Supposedly, if it can't run away, it simply "plays dead" and flops on the ground.  Since the color of its head and neck blend in with the sand, it only appears like the body is sticking up, hence the myth.

Despite my admittedly conservative views, I don't pretend I live in a bubble or think I have my head stuck in the sand.  I cannot filter everything my kids see or hear.  I cannot keep them by my side 24/7, nor would I think that even healthy!  But obviously as a parent, I concern myself with what they watch and listen to.  Prime time television is just not family oriented with shows like Desperate Housewives, Modern Family, Two and a Half Men, and the nauseating litany of cop, lawyer, and doctor dramas which all try to "push the envelope" and one-up each other with steamy or gritty content.  In video gaming, we pass on the completely overt and pointlessly violent titles.  In music we avoid the Top 40 Pop radio stations because half the songs are about drinking, partying, sex, and objectifying women.

To bring it back on-topic, I have lately started thinking in terms of appropriate themes in gaming as I read more and more about the hobby.  Several months before I started this blog, there was an excellent podcast at Dice Hate Me that addressed some of these issues.  That discussion focused more on how the inclusion of mature artwork (nudity, sensual imagery, or drugs) should impact a game's recommended age rating.

Artwork can certainly be a concern, especially when some more questionable imagery is included in an otherwise kid-appropriate game.  As an example on the Dice Hate Me podcast, the original age recommendation for the game Olympos is 10+ which is fine regarding mechanics, rules complexity, and theme.  However, the artwork is not appropriate for a 10 year old.  American distributors are recommending 13+ and perhaps some high school boys might handle it maturely; but even in that I'm not really confident.  Nevertheless, what is most disappointing is that the game doesn't even need such artwork.  It would play just as well with imagery appropriate to all ages.  I say this realizing that there is probably a European-American viewpoint disconnect somewhere in all this.

Then there are some games generally, all-around appropriate for children, but yet include only one piece of questionable content, again usually unnecessary and unimportant to game play.  We own and enjoy Dust, but the rulebook stays in the box as much as possible.  I don't make a big deal about it, but there is no need drawing attention to an illustration that merely exists to prominently display some woman's "features."  At least to my 8-year old boys.  Many other titles venture into this same area, usually with a risque illustration, such as 7 Wonders, Sylla, Castle, and many more.  These are fairly easily dealt with for the most part.

Tanto Cuore/Courtesy of Raiko Puust (binraix on BGG)
Beyond artwork, I am also careful about a game's theme as I consider purchasing it or not.  Some mature games are appropriately rated 18+ such as Stoner Fluxx and Wench.  Others should carry the same rating but don't, including 7 (15+) and Spanc (14+).  But I've no desire to buy or play those titles even with adults.  One recent and popular title that I did briefly consider is Tanto Cuore.  Game play sounds like an interesting twist on Dominion.  But in the end, my kids are too young for the anime theme.  In fact, I'm not sure I agree with the recommended age of 13 and up.  While the artwork is not explicit, it is highly suggestive.  I just really prefer my kids not get started in anime and manga.  While the genre certainly can be completely innocent and appropriate, it is also famous in depicting explicit material and I see Tanto Cuore flirting with that connection.  There are plenty of other deck-building games we can play, instead.

Regarding war games, I see no issue with children playing.  They are not gratuitous and can actually be educational if historically themed.  Even if existing in a fantasy or alternate world, it will usually be abstracted enough to be suitable.  However, I'm not saying violence is never an issue.  On one side, if the theme is over-the-top and lighthearted, it can be Python-esque.  You can read my review on why I believe Lifeboat is suitable for children despite the fact that you're trying to make your opponents into fish food.  There are other games in the same vein.

Chaos Demonette.
However, sometimes a game's violent theme will give me pause.  Take, for example, a couple of games that I recently considered for my wishlist that are also popular titles, Nightfall and Chaos in the Old World.  While I generally consider fighting and war games suitable, these two titles have much darker themes.  In Chaos, you play one of four evil gods in the Warhammer universe tyring to corrupt and destory humanity.  On top of that, the board is made to look like stretched human skin and the miniatures are just creepy!  I also get a forboding and brooding feel when reading the rules to Nightfall, a deck-builder pitting humans against vampires, werewolves and other forces of evil.  I'm not saying these titles will scar children for life or cause nightmares.  I also realize their recommended ages are older than my own kids.  But ratings really seem to be geared more towards complexity, not theme appropriateness, and most of our games are rated older than my children - yet we still enjoy them.  However even as young teens, I'm going to pass on these darker games because there are numerous other titles with the same mechanics that are not as intense.
Nightfall card/Alderac Entertainment Group

I understand not all will agree with these views.  As I mentioned, there is a dynamic of European vs. American cultural norms on top of just personal opinion regarding the issue.  Realizing that, I don't feel as if I'm and ostrich with my head in the sand.  Assuredly, my Christian faith forms much of my sentiments on raising children.  So I will continue to filter the board games we purchase and play.  Call me old-fashioned, but the less they are desensitized by such content now, the better served they will be as adolescents and young adults and beyond.


  1. Thanks for your consideration of this topic! I've run into a similar problem with two games I really enjoy, The Resistance and Wits & Wagers. A bit of context: I'm a deacon in my church, and the church young adult group meets at my house. I see nothing wrong at least with Wits & Wagers--yes, it's a betting game, but it's a betting game with no money at stake. In the game's context, it seems more about risk management than betting, but some members of the group jokingly referred to it as gambling. While I don't think any of them are offended by it, this thought did give me pause. I don't want to offend or lead people in the group astray.

    Similarly, we played The Resistance one night. Granted, this group has also played Bang!, Mafia, and other games that involve misdirection, but The Resistance is a pure dialogue game, and the whole game is based on misdirection and misleading. In the games I played on the night in question, I was cast as the spy in several of them, and I was a very successful spy in misdirecting the group. I didn't outright "lie" (I try to avoid that), but I certainly didn't tell the truth. After the game, on one hand I was commended for being a good player (liar), but my deacon status was mentioned in the next breath. Should this game be played with my group when it calls into question truth and lies in other contexts? If I can so easily mislead and misdirect in a game context, how do those who look up to me in another context know I'm telling the truth? Complicating matters is that one of the players in the group really was leading a double life, and he was one of the "good liars."

    All this to say, thank you for your post. I don't have children yet, but theme is certainly something that matters to me, even with adults.

  2. Nice points. I had thought about making this a series of articles, because there is quite a bit to questionable content, I think. Lying and betting are two other characteristics I didn’t even touch upon. To my example of Lifeboat, lying would be a consideration because many play the game so cutthroat that they go back on their promises – kind of like a mini-Diplomacy in a boat! We do not tend to play like that, mainly because I’ve warned the kids that once they lose their trust with another, they may not earn it back – and it can carry over to other games, too!

    Generally, we do a good job of divorcing game play with how we act in real life – as I suspect most people do. Like the grog drinking in Red November (though that’s easy to use as an object lesson since it can make you die in the game!) Still, some themes are just really intense or too suggestive. I know those games are not aimed toward my kids right now, but even as younger teens (which are recommended ages for those games), I will probably pass. And I agree with you, as a board member at my own church, I too would be careful about which games were brought out in any gathering in that context.

  3. Fascinating post and commentary. We discussed topics very much along these lines during the Ethics in Gaming seminar at the World Boardgaming Championships last summer.

    I agree that art is part of the game experience, and that a parent's responsibility is to manage a child's experience in growing up to the extent that we have the control to do so. I was given a game called "Zombies!" which is actually a fun game to play, but the art on some of the cards is simply disturbing. (Some people find it funny, but parents need to set their own standards for their families.) I've seriously considered re-doing the entire deck myself just so that the game is playable with children without giving them nightmares.

    The good news is that there is quite a spectrum of game options in the marketplace, so parents can usually find something appropriate to their standards for home entertainment.

  4. Thanks for the comments! This is true - we are driven by a free market economy and we have plenty of choices. While I think it disappointing that games like Tanto and Chaos are not rated 17+, I'm not screaming 'till blue in the face because I know I can just buy other games I feel are more appropriate for my kids.

    I like your blog, btw - meant to leave a comment, but my Google account was giving me fits earlier!