Why play as kids?

Children are trapped in a set of rules they can't understand or control.

"Why do we have to move? All my friends are here." Well, because dad needs to switch jobs, because the company's downsizing, because profits are down, because the economy's fucked up, because the intricate invisible system that controls us all is shuddering and breaking.

Adults don't have much more knowledge or control, but we're tied into systems that we trust to understand things for us. We don't actually understand any of the crucial gadgets and systems that our lives depend on, but we can rely on the news, ads, other people to tell us that they're working fine. We can trust that everyone isn't lying to us.

Kids do not have this luxury.

Kids aren't smart enough to understand the Global Financial Crisis, but they are smart enough to know that you're lying to them about it. Inevitably, you'll lie to them. The truth is too complicated and terrible to explain, so you give them simple, clean lies until you think they've grown up. We teach them that 0 is the lowest number possible, then we reveal a hidden series of doppleganger numbers lurking underneath the system they thought was everything. A million small betrayals like this teach children that they are not being told the real rules.

So: Children don't understand the rules, can't control them, and they know everybody's lying to them about what the rules actually are. This creates a very specific and interesting mindset. Making a world that's a literal expression of an interesting mindset is a recipe for greatness. For instance, spy fiction has always presented a literal manifestation of a paranoid person's fantasies, a world where everyone really is out to get you.

In a million fairy tales, people are thrust into a world that works according to an intricate set of strange, often malevolent rules that are never clearly explained. This is the world kids live in every day, fishbowled around a child's perspective in the same way that spy fiction is fishbowled around paranoia. In the fairy tale, kids come to understand the rules, navigate them, and exploit them to their own ends. This is the heroic fantasy all children aspire to: attaining control and understanding over their lives.

Pan's labyrinth deliberately exploits the link to reality: The fairy-tale rules Ofelia has to follow directly symbolize the rigid laws of fascist Spain. In the real world her evil stepfather lectures on austerity measures. In the fairy tale world she is told not to take the food under any circumstances, for fear of the monster at the head of the table.

Here's a classic example, Vasilisa the Beautiful. Vasilisa finds something that works in a strange way: Skulls that glow with inner light. Like the badass she is, she rips off a skull and uses it to light her way through the forest. She has come into contact with a creepy rule, understood it, and used it to achieve her goals.

Of course, she still doesn't know what makes the skull glow. A kid may not be able to understand why their parents are fighting, but they can learn the patterns it runs by; what signs lead up to it, how to avoid it, and what usually happens afterward. In the mind of a kid, there's little difference between these rules and fairy-tale commandments like "Don't look behind you".

In comparison, Scooby-doo is the purest wish-fulfillment. Not only do you come to fully understand the hidden and terrible forces behind the world, you kick them into the light to be humiliated and destroyed. It's like punching the GFC in the face. Even here, though, there's some melancholy. There are no vampires, werewolves or ghosts. There's never any real magic or forces of evil. In the end, it's always just a bunch of assholes trying to make a quick buck.