Games for the ages

On YouTube, there’s a video with over 19 million views. It can’t compete with Despacito’s 5.78 billion views, of course, and it’s never going to get featured in articles about how to make your YouTube video go viral. Nevertheless, the number of views is somewhat remarkable because it has none of the hallmarks of viral videos: it’s not clever or funny, it’s not a music video or a brilliant TED talk, and it’s not filled with beautiful people.

It’s a video of a kindly older woman patiently explaining and demonstrating how to fold a fitted sheet.

The games industry is still, by and large, populated by the young. (I know exactly one dev who’s actually retired.) But as the twenty-somethings of the 1990s and early 2000s FPS boom have moved on to the next stage of their lives, we’ve seen the games they make shift focus. The Dishonored, God of War, and BioShock franchises have turned their eyes to fatherhood.

(It would be nice to see more games on motherhood, and the BioShock and Dishonored universes have gotten more interested in what happens when Daddy’s Little MacGuffin grows up and gets her own story, but those are different opinion columns.)

Parents are present and increasingly taking starring roles in triple-A games. And I’m glad to see it. But what I want is more grandparents. Maybe it’s because I’m an older millennial - supposedly millennials’ worldview and values are most consonant with those of the Greatest Generation, not those of our Boomer parents, and the Greatest Generation is almost gone - that I’m longing for more elders in my games. Maybe it’s because I and most of my social circles are transplants, living far from our families, stuck figuring out adulthood without much of a connection to past generations, and feeling a little bit like Wendy and the Lost Boys.

I want elders in my games. I want genuine elders, not just old kung fu masters or characters who happen to have grey hair but are otherwise indistinguishable from younger characters. (Sindel from Mortal Kombat is an especially egregious example.)

They exist, certainly. Flemeth from Dragon Age and Sully from Uncharted are perpetual favourites of mine. But I want more Gandalfs who have something significant to impart to us, not just quest-givers and exposition-droppers. I want characters who have some genuine wisdom to share that extends beyond the borders of fictional worlds, and for that to be authentic, I think it needs to come from real-world experience, not merely from our imaginings of what it’s like to be old.

What I’m saying, I guess, is that I wish more games would turn to actual elderly people for stories and dialogue and character building. They’re about wish fulfilment, after all, and sometimes you want to save the world, but sometimes you just want your grandpa to take you for a walk and point out what’s changed and what’s stayed the same in the vistas you’re surveying, or your grandma to teach you a recipe and talk through a thorny moral dilemma. Opportunities to spend time with older people are usually presented as being for their benefit – it’s hell to get old, they’re lonely, they have nothing to do all day. But as anyone who spends significant time with elders can tell you, the benefits go both ways. And that’s true in terms of who’s telling our stories as well.

Life and the stories in which we practice navigating it are lonely roads to walk when there’s never anyone ahead of you to break the trail. Let’s bring in more people who’ve lived in worlds now vanished to share their wisdom while it’s still available to us.

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