Video Games

Roblox Brings Young People Joy and I Hate It

 In the era of limitless screen time, kids deserve a better online game platform.

A child adds a face mask to her character in Roblox.
Meh. Phil Noble/Reuters

If you get your stock tips from preteens, you likely know that as of Wednesday, Roblox is a public company. The online gaming platform is one of the pandemic’s success stories, having seen tremendous growth as adults worldwide relaxed screen-time restrictions on their stir-crazy kids. Now, after being privately valued at $29.5 billion in a recent fundraising round, Roblox is debuting on public markets through a direct listing (an alternative to a traditional initial public offering) and inspiring predictions that, like GME before it, RBLX could be yet another Reddit-pumped meme stock.

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But what is Roblox, really? Simply put: Roblox is the worst.

Although it is a widely beloved gaming platform that’s generally seen as unobjectionable, I say that Roblox is the worst with some confidence, having played many hours of it with my 9-year-old niece. When she got into Roblox, she naturally gravitated toward me, the gamer of the family. I’ve gone along with this—not just because I like the kid, but in the hopes of weaning her slowly onto better games.

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Roblox is not itself a video game but a platform where people (mostly children) can access a large and ever-growing number of games made using Roblox’s creator tools. While you need a computer to access these tools and build your own game, you can play Roblox games on tablets and smartphones as well as on a laptop or computer. This results in games that all have the same visual language and color palate (similar to Minecraft’s blocky aesthetic, but with some rounded off edges). Roblox uses an in-game currency called Robux, which you purchase with real money. Although some games cost Robux to purchase, more commonly games are free to play but include cosmetic or other upgrades that can only be purchased with Robux.

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Inside Roblox, I’ve played a very long platformer with extremely garish colors and only two moves—run and jump. I’ve played a game where you drive a giant hot dog into an enormous chomping mouth, slide down a twisty slide, and land in the toilet, only to teleport back up to the top, hop in a giant banana, and do it all again. I’ve even dipped into a genre of Roblox game in which you’re a bird/dragon/horse/wolf/fish and you fly/run/swim around the map role-playing with other players about the life of a bird/dragon/horse/wolf/fish, before inevitably devolving into arguments about who gets to be the baby and whether the baby bird/dragon/horse/wolf/fish is making too much trouble for the parents, or not enough. By dipped, I mean I can only take so much, because to enjoy those games even a little I really think you have to be a kid.

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I’ve played all these games and more, and every one of them has been very ugly, very simple, and very dumb. Each one tried to entice me to spend money for a pet, a costume, an accessory, or a new area of the map. A great many have been recognizable rip-offs of other, better games. Those I liked most—like the hot dog/car/mouth/toilet game—were silly jokes you could play for five minutes, then forget. The ones I liked least were, generously, a genuinely nice outlet for homebound kids who can’t play pretend in person with their friends due to the pandemic.

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When I was 9 years old myself, my favorite band was the Monkees, a television rip-off of the Beatles, marketed to children. Looking back at the repetitive plots where dreamboat Davy falls inconveniently in love with the girl of the week and hijinks ensue, I wish the TV show’s marketing had never worked on me. Whenever I hear a Monkees song, a jolt of pure nostalgia mixed with bottomless shame is delivered straight into the core of my being. Roblox is to video games what the Monkees was to the Beatles. (Yes, I am aware that some of the Monkees’ later work has its critical appreciators—that was not the music I listened to as a 9-year-old.) Roblox is every video game at once, but easier, uglier, and worse. The games are bundled together in a marketplace that entices kids by being free-to-play, while advertising at them constantly to get them to spend real money on ugly upgrades to its ugly environment

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The single game Roblox most resembles is Minecraft. Unlike Roblox, Minecraft has a rich base game with obstacles and achievements of its own. But like Roblox, Minecraft offers developers the opportunity to build worlds, adventures, experiences, and minigames that they can then offer to other players for a price. Like Roblox, Minecraft is seriously ugly: My niece says she prefers Roblox because in Minecraft everything is made of blocks, and she has got me there. However, the saving grace of Minecraft is that all the tools the developers use to create are right there in the game. Every kid who plays Minecraft is invited to tinker with, learn about, and explore these tools for themselves.

Roblox has removed this, the single best thing about Minecraft, and put a wall between the creator/developer tools and the experience a customer/player gets. My niece has no more idea of how to start building a Roblox game than she would about crafting her own cellphone from parts. Roblox doesn’t invite her into the creation process; her only role is to consume. It’s this barrier between creator and consumer that I hate most about Roblox, far more than the microtransactions (at least with those, you can argue she’s being more environmentally friendly than if she was using the money to buy real-world plastic toys).

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Video games encompass multitudes, which means there’s a lot of divergence in what people mean when they say a game is good or bad. Someone who values engaging tests of hand-eye coordination will like a completely different style of game than someone who cares about Games as Art, and neither of those people will agree with someone for whom a competitive and well-balanced multiplayer experience is key.

I submit that no one who likes good games could find anything to love in Roblox. It fails on the level of art, on the level of novelty, on the level of complexity, on the level of creativity, and on the level of teaching young minds—of being an entry-level portal into gaming. There is no axis, other than popularity and the ability to strip children of their allowance, on which Roblox succeeds. I see my young niece staring at the screen for hour upon hour every day, and it makes me wish her entry into gaming was something more beautiful, more challenging, less cynical and cheap and exploitative. Why, why must she love this schlock when actually good things exist right beside it in her world? Why not begin a lifetime of gaming with, if not my beloved Mario, at least a defensible current multiplayer craze like Fall Guys or Among Us?

But then I remember the Monkees, and how sad it made me when a big kid told me that they sucked. I remember that I grew to appreciate the Beatles in my own time. I wish she could skip past Roblox, but I know that she’ll discover the games that lift her imagination and challenge her limits in time. Until then, I guess we’ll take one more hot dog slide together, while she chatters about the in-app purchases she’ll make once she gets her allowance.

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