Posted by: Jess Riley | March 4, 2009

Playing Children

I’ve touched on the subject of roleplaying ages you don’t have experience with before, while talking about gender, and how long-lived some of the races are, but I feel as though it bears touching on again. You see, there’s a problem that seems to occur sometimes when people roleplay characters – when it comes to things that they have no immediate experience with, and can’t apply logical, straight-forward lore knowledge to, they assume, to greater or lesser extent, that they are like themselves.

Sometimes it’s not even that logical; it could be simply that they intend to write a character who is very old and therefore calm, mature and wise, but simply can’t carry that off well in roleplay – something happens, and their instinctive reaction is more personal than character-driven.

Of course, not everyone does this – but that’s not something that just comes to an individual naturally. Those people who are able to effectively roleplay a character of a significantly different age to themselves are almost without exception practiced and skilled, and have a history of getting it wrong themselves. It’s also not limited to any one age group of people – there are teenagers ineffectively roleplaying middle-aged folk, middle-aged folk ineffectively roleplaying children, and so on.

I could just talk about this for a while longer, but instead I thought I’d compile a few points and show where people go wrong with different age groups and how it ought to be. This post will be about children, and how to roleplay them effectively.

(Note: in doing this, I don’t mean to say that I would actually be any better at roleplaying them than anyone who is reading this. This indicates that I think that I know the theory; not necessarily that the theory is correct, or that I would be able to effectively apply this in game. With that said, however, let’s move on.)

‘Childhood’ encompasses such a vast range of years that I could easily write a whole series of posts, each on on how to roleplay children of different ages and developmental levels. However, I won’t: I’ll try to keep it concise.

There seem to be two problems that come up when adults try to roleplay children. Either they play the children as though they are much more worldly, wise and mature than anyone has a right to be at age ten, or they over-exaggerate in the opposite direction and play the child as though they are a lisping four year old, despite ostensibly being neurotypical ten year olds.

It goes without saying, I think, that the best answer is somewhere between the two extremes here. Ten year olds aren’t worldly, nor mature. Many of them still cry when they’re having a tough time or they’re in pain. They get homesick. They don’t have a lot of life experience to draw from and have a much less broad range of experiences to guide them – they make bad decisions when left to their own devices, they’re naive, and they probably default to adult opinion a lot of the time.

On the other hand, it’s an atypical ten year old who doesn’t grasp at least the basics of sex (in our society, at least) and other such ‘adult’ topics. They push the line and try to find out what they can get away with. By this point, most of them will have outgrown comfort objects like blankeys (or at least, no longer be insisting that the object accompany them everywhere). Recall, in our society, ten year olds are in their sixth year of school – they’re capable of a lot more than lisping and whimpering.

Of course, none of this holds if your child character has had an atypical childhood. If they’re not neurotypical, or if they’ve experienced trauma that helps them to age beyond their years, that will have an effect on how mature they seem. On Azeroth, this latter point is going to be the case a lot of the time – a character who would normally be about the equivalent of a ten year old may have had to grow up fast because of the war and experiences that they’ve already had to live through. Remember that in other societies in the world, and throughout history, it was not uncommon for children to have to experience great responsibility very young – the obvious citation here would be twelve year olds getting married and eight year olds being crowned monarch.

Obviously, this means that it’s going to be quite context dependent. A ten year old (or equivalent) who has experienced a lot of things is going to tend towards the cynical, mature end of the scale and far, far from the lisping child end, but a ten year old who has experienced these things is still a far cry from a thirty year old who has experienced these things, and then some. Keep that in mind as you play – a cynical, world-weary, mature ten year old is still not a small adult, however much they are expected to act like one, or do act like one. Their phsyical and psychological development says otherwise.



  1. I would have thought that in WoW, the biggest problem with playing a child is the physicality issue: The models are adult.

    Teenagers, however, are another kettle of fish. Are there unique issues when it comes to them?

  2. Now, the matter of the model issue is just left up to ‘pretend it’s not’. I can’t really respond to that in any other way.

    In terms of teenagers, though – yes, teenagers are different, and yes, I will cover that in the future. Stay tuned!

  3. I have four in-game friends that RP children. Three of them do a fantastic job with their 15 year old, 12 year old, and 10 year old respectively. The characters are believable, fun to interact with, and in all three cases are the “children” of other characters in game, allowing something of a family dynamic to come through.

    The fourth drives me absolutely nuts with his 4 and 6 year old children, who speak in grammatically perfect, complex sentences, never are loud, never cause trouble, are perfectly behaved, and use big words and extreme politeness ALL THE TIME.

    I’ve started to suspect that part of this problem is that the fourth person is the youngest in his family, and has no immediate experience with children aged 4 and 6 – while the others either have kids of their own, or have closely related family at that age. (I also suspect that the fourth person is “playing out his/her inner child” through the adopted children of her/his character, but still idealizes them significantly and can use them to manipulate other characters).

    It makes interaction somewhat difficult sometimes, because not all characters get along well with children – even fun loving characters – especially if the children are so perfect, amazing, wonderful, smart, and over-developed that it makes me (the player) uncomfortable.

  4. Wonderful post! When I used to RP my main, she was a child of the developmental equivalent of an 8 year old. It was fun and interesting. She certainly got herself into some trouble and tested boundraries like nobody’s business.

    I actually played a lot off the demons… she had the power to call them forth, but did not have the discipline to fully understand this or to control them effectively.

    I did happen to run into the character model issue of creepy types insisting on hitting on her despite her childish mannerisms and even politely telling them OOCly in whispers that she was a child. They would just say “she doesn’t look that young and she’s hawt.” Ugh. Of course, she would act weirded out and threaten to tell her mama on them. 😉

  5. Syrana, sounds like my good friend; she roleplays a similar character (level 12) who drank demon blood and doesn’t /quite/ understand the whole “warlock” thing.

    And yes, models be damned; my old orc should be… well, like an old shaman. Not buff and possibly on steroids!

  6. … *facepalm* Age, not level…

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