14 February 2015

Playing child characters

So I’ve stumbled onto a discussion regarding playing child characters, and as usual, I’ve some thoughts on the matter.  And it’s been a couple weeks since I’ve had a good rant, so ...

There are obviously gamers who hate the concept like poison, and they’ve some ammunition.  Some have – or claim to have, anyway – encountered players who insist on baby-voices suitable for a barely articulate two-year-old.  Some profess incredulity that children could make viable adventurers.  Some profess deep personal discomfort in portraying children, and some mutter darkly about pedophilia.  So let’s take the objections piecemeal:

* First, let’s examine whether this dings our suspension of disbelief.   The notion that 11- or 12-year-olds are somehow completely incapable is very much an artifact of Western culture of the last century.  Before child labor and compulsory education laws took hold, children that young routinely worked on farms, in factories, hours as long and hard as any adult.  Were they as physically capable as adults?  Of course not ... but they worked to the extent of their skill and strength.  Indeed, the impetus of child labor laws in America came from factory owners preferring to hire such youngsters for clearing jams and making repairs on equipment in crevices and crannies into which larger adults couldn’t squeeze – tasks which sometimes resulted in those children being maimed or killed.

For other things?  How about marriage?  I just cracked open my 1946 almanac – decades into the “kids can’t do anything” haze.  In 1945, there was not a state in the United States where a sixteen year old girl couldn’t get married at will.  In twelve states, boys under 16 could get married.  In nine states, children under 14 could get married.

But on the battlefield?  As it happens, children as young as eight served as “volunteers” on European navies through the very end of the Age of Sail, and 12-year-old midshipmen were officers in the chain of command who as a matter of course led grown men in battle.  The last living combat veteran of World War I, Claude Choules, enlisted at 14 and saw action at 15.  At age 14, the great future shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu led his first army at the Siege of Terabe.  The youngest Hero of the Soviet Union, partisan Zinaida Portnova, was 17.  The youngest Medal of Honor winner, drummer boy Willie Johnson, was 11 at the battle for which he won his award.  In more recent times?  Heck, Wikipedia even has an article on the subject of child soldiers.

Obviously the concepts of labor, the military and marriage in previous times revolved around "Can you do the job?" rather than around an arbitrary age minimum.

But okay, okay, This Is Fantasy, right?  You know, the trump card response that’s supposed to signify that it's okay to ignore real life?

Fair enough.  So let’s talk about fantasy.  Shall we start with Disney?  If I started firing off the top of my head on Disney movies alone featuring pre-teens in high-impact adventures, I think I could go twenty deep without pausing to breathe. Heck, does as little as a third of Disney's entire live action output feature young protagonists?  My wife, who’s on a multi-year quest to see every feature length film Disney ever produced, thinks that’s seriously lowballing it.  She thinks it’s as much as half.

And that ignores the dinosaur rampaging all over the premises.  The best selling literary series of all time – it’s only been outsold by the Bible – begins by focusing its attention on the exploits of pre-teen adventurers in a world where magic is real.  Many millions more than will ever hear of D&D have cheerfully bought in to the concept that Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, Ron Weasley and friends are not only credible fantasy adventurers, not only routinely outsmart the grownups, but can compete in battle against adult Bad Guys ... and win.  To claim that the concept is inconceivable is, well, moronic.

* How about a couple other points?  That people use baby talk in playing kids?  Sheesh.  You know, I’ve seen a lot of people who roleplayed paladins as dimwitted thugs-in-plate.  I’ve seen a lot of people who roleplayed dwarfs as nothing beyond dumb and greedy.  I’ve seen idiot fighters, supercilious elves, cowardly mages and every other poorly played stereotype under the sun.  Somehow our games still include these roles, however much some folks suck at roleplaying.

That being said, I don't imagine the children most people want to play are four-year-olds. I imagine they're more often preteens, who are quite capable of tying their shoes and feeding themselves without mommy's supervision.

That some folks are very uncomfortable with the thought of playing children?  Great: then don’t play one.  (Oh, it’s that you’re uncomfortable with me playing a child?  Back to the "Special Snowflake" nonsense that anything you don't care for is something no one should ever play?  Too.  Damn.  Bad.  I don’t recall giving you a veto.  I'm going to play whatever I feel like playing, and I'm sure as hell not going to ask your permission before I do.)

* The pedophilia thing?  Deep breath time.

It's one of the great cognitive dissonances of the roleplaying world that it's considered acceptable to fulfill your fantasies about being a mass serial killer, a torturer, a batterer, a Satan worshiper and seventeen kinds of racial supremacist around a gaming table, but pretty much anything having to do with sexual matters is completely out of bounds. Don't get it. Never have gotten it.

Never mind that, though ... let's be serious. How many of you have EVER seen a campaign, EVER, in which ANY player has sought to indulge in screwing eight year olds? I've been doing this for 35 years now, played tabletop, online, freeform, LARPs, MMORPGs, and I've not only never seen it, I've never had a credible report from someone I trusted of the same.

Now I agree that in today's hyperparanoid environment, in which "OMG Something Might Happen!!!!!" is SOP, and in which a mother of my acquaintance bragged -- bragged! -- to my face that she'd never yet left her five-year-old alone with her husband, the kid's father – because, of course, of that sickening and depraved fallacy of What All Men Want Do To Kids – there are idiots who'd jump to that conclusion.  But c'mon. Aren't we all grownups here? Don't we have some measure of common sense?  What forces us to cater to the unbalanced paranoids among us?

To wrap up this long rant ... so, yes: if your campaign is set in the Western world in the 21st century, full-time child adventurers might be a reasonable suspension of disbelief issue.  (Although no one, I expect, seems to have told the fans of Spy Kids, The Sarah Jane Adventures, The Incredibles ...)  If it's set in any other venue, time period or milieu, it's no more reasonable than to freak out that a campaign has slavery, pandemic plagues, human sacrifice, genocide, institutionalized racism, or any such element that the West has seen off within its own borders.

Of course these roles aren't for everyone; I doubt they'd be for many people.  So what?

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