Friday, 5 April 2013

The Art of Transgression

Long-time readers will know that I like to play the odd video game, and we’ve recently bought one called Need for Speed: Most Wanted. Unlike most games, it has no real plot, characters or story. It simply dumps you into a high-powered supercar and invites you to drive around a beautifully-realised American city, crashing into other vehicles, accelerating past speed cameras, evading the police and taking part in illegal street races. Its whole raison d’être is to provide the player with endless opportunities for transgression, and it’s hardly surprising that my kids love it.

The game features no bad language or sex, and any violence is confined to vehicles crashing, crunching and rolling over. There are no pedestrians to be seen and the drivers of the various cars are rarely glimpsed (and never injured, even after the worst accident). So it’s a game with a 7+ rating that I’m happy for my children to play, but clearly not everyone feels the same way. My daughter was breathlessly describing the gameplay to another member of our family the other week, and he was visibly disturbed by what she was saying. He kept interrupting her with questions such as: "But you wouldn’t do that in real life, right?" He seemed to need assurance that she wasn't going to run out into the street, steal a Porsche and smash it into the nearest police van. I should mention at this point that she’s only nine!

In my experience, we are all fascinated by transgression, but none more so than children. Through video games, films and books they're keen to explore the boundaries of society, to enjoy the thrill that comes from breaking the rules, but without the danger of doing it for real. From chapter books upwards, child protagonists find themselves sneaking out, keeping secrets, breaking rules and generally going against the wishes of adults. Transgression and the associated risk of punishment are key mechanisms for raising tension in children’s writing.

But sometimes, well-meaning adults will try to restrict children’s ability to explore transgression, believing that exposing them to such things increases the risk that they will actually carry them out. This leads to the seemingly endless debates about the influence of violent video games and arguments about sex, drugs, self-harm etc. in YA fiction. Personally, I think children are a lot cleverer than we give them credit for and are able to play-act from an early age, clearly distinguishing fantasy from reality. I also think it’s my responsibility as a parent to vet what my children read, watch or play. I welcome consumer advice on films, games and even books (such as what Hot Key provide), but it’s ultimately there to help me and the kids select what’s appropriate for their age and emotional development.

Exploring transgression can be educational and, more importantly, a whole lot of fun. What writer doesn’t enjoy crafting those parts of the story where someone does something very very bad? Without the risk of transgression, our world would be a safe and boring place indeed. So please excuse me, because I’m off to crash a few more hundred-thousand-dollar cars.



  1. Love this post! And I agree heartily. What else can give a child that breathless excitement when reading a story but a little bit of danger. And then knowing that they can close the book and that the world around them is a safe place, where none of those scary things are likely to happen.

  2. I would go so far as saying that preventing them from exploring what's it's like to transgress in their imagination through books and imaginative play and yes 'Need for Speed' could increase the likelihood of them trying it out (as soon as they're able) in real life.

  3. Before video games, children would have crashed their toy cars / trains into each other, or been the drivers of imaginary cars / riders of imaginary horses - how different is it to make it happen on a screen? Maybe not so different?
    Transgression in children's fiction is a really interesting topic. My impression is that it has been used to teach a moral code: the transgressor usually came off worst, and might go through some kind of transformation as a result (Eustace, in Narnia). But a certain amount of creative transgression is seen as fun or even necessary (Harry Potter sneaks into Hogsmeade)and the consequences are not too profound. But there are always consequences. In more serious fictional situations, involving survival, rule breaking is portrayed as positive - abiding by 'the rules' in the fictional world may be unhelpful, especially when they're created by an oppressive regime.