The fraught world of buying a game for an 11 year old
Somehow, in gaming's fourth decade, we're still endlessly confronted by the peculiar mainstream misconception that video games are meant for children. The peculiarity that this myth maintains is outright ludicrous at this point, because gaming itself is now mainstream. Sure, in the early '90s you could forgive a confused aunt for not realising that cartoony console games like Mario and Sonic had broad appeal, and we're the totality of the medium. Now? Now it's a bit odd. Not least because it's still not that simple to find a good new game for children.
My own son is soon to turn 3, so I'm not in the least bit bothered that gaming isn't yet for him. He's perfectly happy brmmming cars on the windowsill, and not interested in the obscurity of indirect controls. He's often keen to sit on my lap if the game I'm reviewing is kid-friendly, and watch, usually after three minutes demanding I play Trials Fusion instead ("The bike game! I want the bike game!"). However, my nephew is just turning 11 this month, and wow is that a complicated age to be gaming.
His mum, my sister, is sensibly strict about what he plays. He's not allowed to play 12+ or 16+ games unless Uncle John has verified that the rating is excessive (which is pretty rare for 16s - PEGI are pretty sensible about these things). Now, that doesn't leave him with a paucity of games - for his birthday (don't worry, he doesn't have a subscription) I've got him Rayman Legends for the PS4 he got for Christmas, and that's a 7. I'm also sending him over the latest Ratchet & Clank, and I picked up Burnout 3: Takedown and Spider-Man 2 for his PS2, to fill in some important gaps where he'd foolishly forgotten to be born yet. Of all those, bizarrely it's only Spider-Man 2 that gets a 12, while the surely more concerning car-crash-athon of Burnout 3 is, extraordinarily, rated 3+. Good grief, my boy would never get in a car again if he saw it. But this is more because he's on the cusp of teenage years, where the broader range of games are becoming interesting. Before now, it's been so very difficult to find him anything without "Lego" in the title. (Although I did pick up the 3+ Rocket League for him for Christmas, which has proven an epic hit, even nudging the 7+ Minecraft into second place.)
And that's before you factor in friends. Because of course he has the friends whose parents let them play anything. Everyone did, right? So he's regularly playing the 16+ Destiny when he's not at home. If he's played GTA he's not confessed it to me, but that'd be the house in which it would happen.
He's a sensible kid, he doesn't especially want to be bathed in gaming blood, but when your chum is playing... it's hard not to want to. So I see my role as partly to provide him with gaming greats that make it not such a big deal. Hence the four heading there way down there this week.
I've gone back and forth on Horizon: Zero Dawn. I really, really want to lend him my copy, as it's absolutely my favourite game this year, and I'll be surprised if anything tops it. It's landed as a 16, despite my coming away sure it should have been a 12. The given reasons are,
"Realistic looking violence - Realistic looking violence towards non human looking characters - Non realistic looking violence towards human characters - Violence causing minor injury only"
And violence is definitely what my sister wants to avoid, albeit somewhat futile in the face of friends. But it's also a beautiful story, one of huge scope that I think he'd love (he's so into the lore of things, knowing ridiculous amounts about Zelda and the like), and more than anything, have the best female lead in any game I've played. That on its own seems more important than some unrealistic violence toward human characters. But then again, I can't remember what my brain was like at 11, and my nephew's is far too precious to gamble on.
I'm sure many will read that and say, "Oh PSHAH, Walker! I played [insert gruesome 90s game] when I was 11 and it didn't do me any harm!" Me too! But when it's your sister's kid, it all feels a lot more fraught. Not least when there's the 9 year old niece thrown in.
Still though, I think I'll score some good Uncle Points when he discovers Rayman Legends for the first time, and then I think an awful lot more of them when he discovers Burnout 3's crashing game.