Wednesday 9 January 2013

Are children intuitive railroaders?

A couple of years ago, I was reading an article which discussed the tendency of children to ascribe purpose to everything and pondered if this effectively hardwired them to a theistic view of the universe. Whilst that is in itself a very interesting article and worth a look, it’s not what I want to discuss today, although I have purloined and slightly altered the title.

The recent account of the Christmas dungeon run by Junior Grognard will have shown just how railroady it was, although this is not to take anything away from his achievement in writing it and running it. All I’m saying is that there was a specific goal, a pre-determined path and no substantial deviation had been planned for.

This surprised me at the time, since he and his friends have been playing a very sandbox, player-agency driven campaign for a number of years and I had thought that this playing style might have rubbed off on him to a certain extent. The reasons why it hadn’t intrigued me.

It may be that since birth, children are exposed to story, either in the written format or in the televised version. The stories they encounter in this fashion are very linear; A leads to B, leads to C, concludes at D. There’s no concept of the possibility of alternative outcomes; the text is inviolable, created by an unseen source, presented as a given. When children begin to write or otherwise create their own stories, they often adhere to the beginning-middle-end format, not necessarily examining motivations but letting actions fuel their narratives. Indeed, to change anything about the narrative alters the end and this is not something that children find easy to contemplate unless alternative resolutions are addressed by a specific exercise. 

Since the emergent story is often hard to discern from the pre-planned, pre-existing version whilst running dungeons, particularly if the DM is skilled in making random events mesh seamlessly into a coherent and unfolding experience, the existence of other ways of creating stories may not even be apparent to child players. That the party was ultimately victorious against the giants in the fire chasms seems to them a logical outcome, their destiny fulfilled. Something that was always meant to be. Returning to the nexus points where specific decisions turned an entire adventure onto another (and unexpected) track can show how player agency affects outcomes but it seems not to sink into the child mind.

Another possibility is that sandbox is by its very nature formless, unpredictable and places a large amount of responsibility onto the players for their own fates. I don’t know about your family but in my experience, a childhood is not often the place where there is a lack of predictability, a feeling that anything could happen (good or bad) and a whole shed load of personal responsibility dumped on a child (well, not until they get into their teenage years.)  Junior Grognard gets up at a particular time, goes to school at a particular time, eats what I buy and cook, goes to bed at a particular time, takes holidays we choose, has specific areas where he enjoys freedom and others where he knows not to venture (often involving hot, fragile or sharp things). That might seem controlling but he’s only nine and he’s the only one we’ve got. Asking him to suddenly take on the responsibility for the choices, actions and fate of a character, even a fictional one is a big leap. It’s possibly why players become more adventurous in their teenage years as they begin to realise that what they do affects what happens to them and they are allowed to do more. A campaign where there are few choices, things are set up so that they know where they are going and the outcome is predetermined does give a fair degree of security.

There’s also the possibility that the child’s mind as it grows is just not equipped to handle the kinds of uncertainty and choice that sandbox presents. It’s documented that the frontal lobes don’t fully integrate into the brain as a whole until the early twenties. These are the parts of the brain that deal with outcomes, judgements and controls a person’s impulses and emotions. Being able to make informed choices from a range of options and to estimate the consequences of those choices is much harder without fully formed and integrated frontal lobes.  However, whilst the frontal lobes are the parts of the brain that take longest to develop, the nucleus accumbens is a part of the brain that plays an important role in reward and pleasure. Children are biologically prone to seeking out experiences and activities that give the most reward for the least amount of effort; one reason why child RPG players are very easy to hook with shiny magic items and piles of treasure, leading to XP!

So, given the preceding, is it worth running sandbox games with kids?  Should we just switch to adventure paths where the amount of player input is minimalised?  I’d say no; my players, as I’ve said have been adventuring in a world where, unbeknownst to them, events are being driven by the choices and actions that they take. That they don’t entirely realise the mechanics behind the world in which they are playing is immaterial; the philosophy of choice, player agency and lack of constrictive DMing is seeping into their still-forming minds and come the day when they can handle the concepts that underlie sandbox in its purest form, they will be ready for it, rather than addicted to the quick fix and the easy option.

That’s my take on the issue; I’d be interested to know if other DMs who play with kids in their groups have encountered the same things or if other evidence is going to blow my hypothesis out of the water.


  1. I say no as well. Show them how we adults roll, no pun intended, when it comes to variant storytelling methods. Sure, kids are learning the most basic structure of story when they are young, just as you said. They start life out with the basic linear way, and then as they grow they can get into non-linear and other methods. They can learn from our example about emergent story, shared storytelling, whatever. Good post!

  2. I would agree with your idea that children are more likely to railroad a game. As you know, children are not too happy when things don't go their way. When they write a story/campaign they have worked hard at something, and they think it's really cool (and it is), so they don't want it fluctuating.
    I was not at all surprised when JG said "the lake is too big to go around." I would be happier with that response then with "you just can't," which is what I was expecting. A response like that shows he is at least thinking on his feet which is important for a sandbox game.
    One more thing. I would add to your comment, that the linear story is all JG has grown up knowing, and say that this isn't simply because of his routine, but also because of the stories he has so far been exposed to. Going back to the response "the lake is too big to go around," sound like something taken right out of one of my children books from when I was younger.
    A very intriguing post! I am a big fan of your blog. Cheers.

  3. My experience with kids 8-12 in my afterschool Adventurer Conqueror King class is that, when asked to run an adventure, they inevitably design it to have a start, middle, and end with only one path between each. Needless to say they are then frustrated when no one does the "right" thing to move the story forward. I think this is because all their experience of narrative is linear - not just stories but also video games (which in other ways give them tons of game design skills). Learning to run a sandbox requires more experience of being a player and chafing at restrictions than most of them have, and most of the sandbox video games are too mature for them - with the notable exception of Minecraft, which they all love and is a major inspiration for their fascination with making King-level characters and building castles.

    My co-teacher and I have really started pushing random event tables, wandering monsters, and dynamic situations as ways to enable kid-GMs to get past the railroad assumptions.

  4. I found these arguments very interesting. While it seems that kids do prefer to create simpler linear adventures, I think it comes down to the desire for instant reward that so many kids exhibit. Sandboxes and multiple adventure paths require more work, and so gratification takes more time.
    I still think it's worth putting kids through a sandbox though. As Tavis says, most forms of narrative entertainment kids are exposed to these days are linear. It's important they know and understand that there are other, better options out there.