The Child in Games: From the Meek, to the Mighty, to the Monstrous


Drawing across game studies, childhood studies, and children’s literature studies, this thesis catalogues and critiques the representation of children in contemporary video games. It poses two questions: 1) How are children represented in contemporary video games? 2) In what ways do the representations of children in video games affirm or challenge dominant Western beliefs about the figure of the child? To answer these questions, I combine a large-scale content analysis of over 500 games published between 2009 and 2019 with a series of autoethnographic close readings. My content analysis is designed to provide a quantitative snapshot of the representation of children in games. I use statistical analysis to assemble data points as meaningful constellations. I use the axes of race, gender, and age, as well as genre, age-rating, and publication year, to identify patterns in representation. I distil my findings as a set of seven archetypes: The Blithe Child, The Heroic Child, The Human Becoming, The Child Sacrifice, The Side Kid, The Waif, and The Little Monster. This typology is not intended to work against the granular detail of the information recorded in the dataset, but to draw attention to patterns of coherence and divergence that occur between particular examples, as well as to intersections with representational tropes about children identified in other media. I select four of these seven archetypes to structure my autoethnographic close readings. While content analysis is a useful tool for documenting the presence, absence, and dominant function of child-characters in games, close reading allows for a more intersectional approach that can attend to the nuances of representation across identity markers, creating opportunities to examine internal contradictions, ironies, and the polysemy generated through interpretive gaps. I develop my own close reading method building on the autoethnographic approaches of Carr (2019), Vossen (2020), McArthur (2018), and Jennings (2021), which I call critical ekphrasis. Chapter one argues that the Blithe Child triangulates ‘children’, ‘toys’, and ‘paidia’. It suggests that both childhood and play can be conceptualised as a ‘magic circle’, and that the immateriality of the Blithe Child implies childhood can be a mode of being unconnected to anatomical markers or chronological age. Chapter two explores how the Heroic Child challenges the apparent affinity between video games and traditional hero 2 narratives. It argues that the dependence of the childly protagonist undermines dualistic thinking and instead celebrates cooperation, compromise, and connection. Chapter three compares the Child Sacrifice to the woman-in-the-refrigerator trope, arguing that it functions to justify aggressive, hypermasculine, militarised violence. The final chapter compares the Little Monster and the Waif to examine how the uncanny child raises metareferential questions about autonomy in interactive media and agency in intergenerational relationships. My research project concludes by suggesting that virtual children in simulated worlds point to the active construction and delimitation of ‘the child’ in society and can reveal that much of what is assumed to be natural, obvious, and universal about the figure of ‘the child’ is in fact ideological. It hints at the possibility that just as virtual children are used as rhetorical figures to explain and justify the rules, mechanics, and moral systems of a digital game, so too is the figure of ‘the child’ used to routinise and vindicate the rules, workings, and moral systems of Euro-American culture.AHR

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