“Critics who treat ‘adult’ as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”
C.S. Lewis, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children” (1952)
“Think of the children” is an argument that is usually, and rightfully, mocked because it’s used in absurd situations. However, something used in an absurd context may still be valid in a more correct, reduced, or nuanced one. After all, thinking about the children’s future and present is a noble thing to do, and we’ll be in deep trouble if someday any concern about the children’s welfare is seen as inherently fallacious. Besides, if there is something our current culture attacks or doesn’t really care, that thing is childhood.
I’ve been thinking about these things for a long time. Many cultural mores have changed a lot in the last two decades, but one of the strongest worldwide cultural changes has been the death of fun, of joy or, even, of games. In other words, of adventure, discovery, and excitement. This is the world we live in:
–Some schools are banning tag and other chasing games:
–Some nurseries have banned superhero costumes, toy swords, and guns, claiming “they encourage aggression and violence.”
–A 5-year-old boy who brought a cap gun to school was sent to detention, interrogated for two hours, and then he wet himself:
-Toy guns are being removed from museums for being “controversial” (mentioned in this article from the Journal of Play):
-Kids are fat and obese (that one is obvious)
–Children have less imagination:
“Since 1990, children have become less able to produce unique and unusual ideas. They are also less humorous, less imaginative, and less able to elaborate on ideas.”
–There is less unstructured play, which is essential for the wellbeing of children.
–Kids are now more depressed and anxious than their fathers and grandfathers, the same ones who lived world wars or experienced the threat of nuclear annihilation.
These examples are from America, and although it seems to be mostly an Anglo-Saxon phenomenon, what happens in America doesn’t stay in America. Ideologies and cultural movements that begin there usually spill over to other countries sooner or later. In fact, I believe that has already happened.
I could go on, but I’m sure you are seeing the pattern: overprotection, lack of freedom, misplaced moralizing, adults who can’t understand the concept of fun or play, fear of children discovering things, etc. Children are denied agency and the possibility of learning from their own mistakes. Or, even, of learning about “problematic” things of our past. That’s child abuse by another name.
So, perhaps, someone should actually start “thinking of the children.” But for real this time.
These days, some children (especially the ones living in big cities) can’t experience a normal childhood since their lives are extremely regulated, and they hardly have any freedom. Playing outside, without constant supervision, is for many an unknown thing. Not surprisingly, if they can’t play outside, if they are not allowed to pretend they are pirates or warriors, and almost everything they do in real life is problematic, is it really that surprising if many have embraced, almost like addicts, the virtual fantasies of video games? If you are not allowed to run around in the forest and play some made up fantasy game with your friends, at least you can run around in a virtual forest and do something that looks similar (although it does not feel the same, and never will.)
However, as a fan of video games and similar entertainment products, I’ve seen the same overprotective trend in those games, although manifested in different ways. From hysterical moral panics about violence, misogyny, racism, homophobia or whatever in games, to dumbed down and stupefied games that are hardly any challenge and play more like glorified movies, the trend is similar: the loss of adventure, joy, challenge, discovery, danger, joy and, yes, fun.
Recently I found myself asking these questions: “Are video games for kids anymore (remember what C.S. Lewis said about things “for kids”)?” And, “are there still great games for young people who desire adventure, discovery, and challenge?” Finally, I asked myself if there are there any games of adventure anymore. By “Games for kids” I don’t mean non-violent games or childish games, I mean that kind of experience that can be enjoyed by a kid (but also by an adults,) by a kid who’s searching for a real challenge, for adventure and excitement, for a test to his skills, and even to some sort meaning in what he is reading or playing. I’m talking about that experience that Edgar R. Burroughs, creator of Tarzan, described so well:
“We wish to escape not alone the narrow confines of city streets for the freedom of the wilderness, but the restrictions of man-made laws, and the inhibitions that society has placed upon us. We like to picture ourselves as roaming free, the lords of ourselves and of our world; in other words, we would each like to be Tarzan. At least I would; I admit it.”
In other words, is popular culture still creating histories, games, and movies that transmit that feeling of “Roaming free?” I think not.
In a recent article in The Spectator about a related subject (the lack of fun in contemporary British society,) James Bartholomew wrote this:
“Have you seen Spectre, the latest Bond film? If not, the opening sequence is terrific. Lots of action and excitement. The whole film is full of stunts and thrills. But after watching it, I realised there was something missing: joy, or joie de vivre. Daniel Craig plays Bond like an android who has spent too much time muscle-building instead of having a good time.
Contrast Spectre with From Russia With Love, one of the early Bond films. The first scene in which we see Sean Connery as Bond, he is humorous and amorous as he snogs a beautiful woman in a punt moored at the side of a river. He lifts out a bottle of champagne which he has left cooling in the water, tied with a piece of string. He tests it to see if it is cool enough. He remarks, ‘Not quite’ before going back to canoodling.
I am tempted to think that the change in the Bond films reflects a change in the national psyche. British people have become less joyful and, in the old sense, gay.”
In fact, you could do that for almost everything from popular culture of the last 40 years, and you’d see a stark difference in tone, representation, and meaning. Adventure (even manliness,) fun, joy, real challenge (real ones, not Hollywood pseudo-challenges, like new Indiana Jones surviving a nuclear explosion,) and real imagination and fantasy have disappeared or been severely wounded.
Fun, lightheartedness, and humor are the ultimate sign of control over yourself and that which could scare you. They are also the logical consequences of the “roaming free” mindset because someone who is free is anxiety-free; he is joyful, proactive, and strong (of character.) And because fun and humor are so important for games and healthy childhood, the death of fun is the death of real adventure, and you can observe this change in the “(inter)national psyche” with almost scientific precision by studying video games and other entertainment products.
Those changes are very easy to detect if you focus on “reboots” and the new versions of older products (e.g., old Tomb Raider vs. New Tomb Raider,) and that’s what I’ll do in the next chapters.