This article originally appeared in Pyramid #6
"I hate you,- Anonymous
You hate me,
Let's throw Barney in the sea . . ."
Few cultural icons have inspired the venomous hatred that Barney has. The cuddly purple dinosaur is loved by millions of pre-schoolers as a symbol of wholesome goodness, blessed by millions of parents as a video babysitter par excellence, and adored by toymakers, video publishers, television programmers and retailers as a Jurassic-era cash cow worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Yet millions also hate this guy with a purple passion. Nothing so popular with one segment of American culture has been hated by another segment with this much intensity since, oh, disco.
On David Letterman's show last Halloween, he did a comedy routine with little kids coming out in the latest costumes. The biggest ovation of the night was for the tyke dressed as "Barney Run Over By An 18-Wheeler." Two months later, in a Jay Leno sketch about new cable channels, the biggest ovation was for the "Fireplace Full of Barneys" channel. Even "Weird" Al Yankovic has taken his shot, showing Barney having his little purple head bitten off by an irate T. Rex in his "Jurassic Park" video.
And as if the ol' Barnster wasn't in enough trouble, he's started taking hits from the far right radio preacher fundamentalist-types, who claim his message of love and acceptance is just "feel-good New Age-ism" in disguise, a subtle come-on to the kids to reject "traditional" morality and embrace "godless" secular humanism -- in other words, Barney is a tool of the devil.
Makes a lot of sense to me
Barney's no devil -- but he's no angel, either. He's Valium on video for parents who are desperate to find something, anything, that will make a screaming two-year-old sit still and shut up for 30 minutes. At this, Barney excels. And his basic messages -- to care for each other, to accept those who are different, to share -- they all make sense, don't they?
So what's the problem? Well, aside from the overly-saccharine presentation, the sappy songs (Barney's theme song is just a slowed-down ripoff of the old nursery-school classic, "This Old Man," anyway) and the oh-so politically correct group of urchins who dance around him, Barney is too nice. Unbelievably nice. Impossibly nice. Unrealistically nice.
The world Barney presents is not real; in fact, it's so far removed from the real world of even the most common children's playground (not to mention the school, the mall, the street or the ghetto) as to be ludicrous. When Barney's little charges enter that real world, they will be totally unprepared for what they will find. Now I'm not saying we should go around beating up little kids so that they'll learn what to expect from life, but it seems to me that an approach this unremittingly sugary can lead to more than just cavities.
So what does this have to do with gaming? Good question. The gaming audience is (theoretically) more mature and sophisticated than Barney's, and shouldn't have to put up with the "Barneyzation" of their favorite products. Every time it's been tried, it hasn't worked.
There was the old Star Trek Roleplaying Game, licensed to FASA from Paramount, in which the best solution to any conflict presented in an adventure had to be a non-violent one. There was TSR's Indiana Jones Roleplaying Game, in which Indy could not die. No, he wasn't given some sort of immortality power in the game. It was just made clear by the licensor that no matter what peril the game scenarios put Indy in, he would always escape.
Where's the peril? Where's the drama? If you know Indy will get away, then he's not really in any danger, is he? "Ho hum, Indy will go ahead and jump off the 1,000-foot cliff into the piranha-infested whirlpool of boiling sulfuric acid. He'll get out of it somehow."
I have to wonder if the extremely "dark" nature of some of the games published in the last couple of years isn't a backlash of sorts against the Barney factor in our society. Games like Kult, Underground, and even Night Trap might not have gone as far as they did if they weren't trying to break down some barriers put there by the Barney-izers of this world.
And thus the polarization of the world continues. The Barney-izers cite games like Night Trap as part of their continuing struggle to make the world a nicer place by changing the media reflection of it. And the game designers, movie makers, TV producers, rappers, rockers and writers of the world will continue to push the boundaries of respectability and decorum, almost as a challenge to the Barney-izers. Go ahead, make my day.
Barneyzation in gaming is still around. Some companies are being very careful these days to make the distinction between players and player characters. Promotional copy can't say, "You will enter a world of incredible adventure" -- it has to say, "Your character will enter a world of incredible adventure." Ugh.
The appeal of roleplaying, at least to me, is the opportunity to "lose yourself" for a brief time into another world, another character. That's the same reason we read books and go to movies. But now, companies are scared that someone will "lose himself" a little too much, and they don't want to risk the bad publicity, the lawsuits, the whatever. But publishing -- good, creative publishing -- is risk. If you're not interested in risk, go publish cookbooks and Garfield collections.
Now, I'm no radical -- personally, I couldn't have even thought of the world of Kult, much less written it -- but I'm glad those games are out there. And I'm glad to be bringing you coverage of those games in Pyramid. Here's to the revolution!
- Scott Haring
Article publication date: April 1, 1994
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