Every once in a while a game comes along that defies the traditional age group stratification. Chess, Tetris, and Super Mario Bros. are all examples of games that can be mastered and enjoyed by players from both ends of the ontogenetic spectrum.
Realistically, however, the vast majority of games are iterative rather than revolutionary. These games tend, by virtue of either their mechanics or their storyline, to appeal only to a specific age range. Scant development resources and the limits of human ingenuity simply do not permit the bottling of lightning. However, if we rein in our expectations a little, there are ways to incrementally increase a game's target age radius, and one of these methods is Piggybacking.
Within the confines of this
article, Piggybacking refers to a technique that simultaneously entertains
both a child player and an adult spectator, if there is one, on wholly
different levels. It allows the spectator to elevate themselves from
audience member to bit player by acknowledging their existence and occasionally
playing to them, as well as allowing them to play back.
If we get pedantic, the specific style of game I'm talking about is really a reverse Piggyback, one where the parent rides along in a vehicle designed first and foremost for the child. The problem with this terminology becomes apparent with a Google search, so let's just leave it at Piggybacking.
Piggybacking is an art that cartoons and movies have arguably mastered. A good example is SpongeBob SquarePants. Here is a cartoon that appeals to the very young and the post-adolescent crowd for entirely different reasons.
It has the visual appeal and wackiness to draw in the younger viewers, but it also has darker themes and adult-oriented humor to keep college kids and parents from dying of boredom.
Probably the single biggest reason there hasn't
been a SpongeBob backlash on the order of, say, Barney, is that a parent
can watch an episode of SpongeBob without afterwards feeling like part
of their brain squooged out of their nose.
We aren't really talking about the difference between highbrow and lowbrow here -- it's all pretty much lowbrow. For instance -- in a moment taken from a SpongeBob episode -- Patrick (the dim-witted starfish) says something intelligent for once. SpongeBob gapes in amazement and exclaims, "Patrick! Your genius is showing!" Patrick, misunderstanding, turns beet red in shame and attempts to cover himself.
Granted, humor based on misunderstandings and/or nudity is hardly nuanced, but if Fawlty Towers can do it then it's probably fair to say the target audience includes those out of their teens.
Going back further, many classic cartoons often exhibited the hallmarks of Piggybacking, almost to a fault. Watching Bugs Bunny (and, to a lesser extent, Road Runner) episodes it's hard not to notice the fact that they often ooze sarcasm and spite. It's almost as if these writers and animators preferred to play to the adults, and if the kids thought it was funny, that was just a bonus.
As with most literary devices, Piggybacking is at its best when the seams do not show, which in turn can complicate classification. An almost perfect expression of this distinction in otherwise similar shows is displayed by Jim Henson and Co. The Muppet Show Piggybacks (literally), Sesame Street1 does not, and Fraggle Rock vacillates between the two.