One of the things one soon discovers if one is a parent is that guidelines of "age appropriateness" aren't the least bit reflective of the age range at which a toy, game, book, movie, or TV show is really aimed. In my decade of parenthood, I've discovered that my children, like most children, are (generally) more interested in things that are supposedly "above" their age category. That's why, for example, all the books my 10 year-old daughter reads have teenaged or young adult protagonists rather than those closer to her own age. Children have a very keen desire to grow up, or at least be older than they actually are, and one socially acceptable outlet for this desire is to take an interest in subjects or activities that are deemed the province of those older than themselves. By the same token, children also have a desire not to be viewed as "babies," "little kids," and so on. And while the appropriate age listed on toys and games may be a lie agreed upon by parents and manufacturers, children in my experience often take it deadly seriously. If a toy is listed as being ages 4 and up, many 6 year-olds will turn their noses up at it, considering it beneath someone of their clear sophistication.
Which brings me to Dungeons & Dragons. When I entered the hobby, the Basic Set I first acquired was the one edited by Dr. J. Eric Holmes, which carried on its cover the following blurb: "The Original Adult Fantasy Role Playing Game for 3 or More Players." My 10 year-old self took inordinate pride in this blurb, because, as it seemed to me, D&D was an adult game. Aside from my friends, the main people I knew who played it were actual adults and high school kids, which were close enough to adults to our way of thinking. The guys down at the hobby store were of similar ages, with a few other precocious kids like ourselves, but, by and large, the hobby was made up of people older than ourselves.
That was, I imagine, a big part of the appeal: playing with the Big Boys. That's why I regularly use the word "initiation" when I discuss my entry into the hobby in Fall of 1979, because that's what it felt like. It was as if I was being made a member of a secret, exclusive club and my friends and I were among those rare few who somehow bucked the odds and met the club's difficult entry requirements despite our youth and inexperience. That also probably explains why it was that we were so enthusiastic about conforming to the gaming culture we saw around us -- it was what the older guys were into, so of course we had to get into it as well.
Flash forward a couple of years to 1981 when the Moldvay-edited Basic Rulebook was released. It too was geared toward "adults" according to its cover, but it added a clarification: "Adults, Age 10 and Up." That struck us as odd. Since when were 10-year olds considered adults? By this time I was 12 and seeing a reference to 10 year-olds made me and my friends worry that perhaps these new rules were somehow for "little kids" and not "the real thing." Still, we bought the boxed set and used some of its rules, despite our initial misgivings, as they were admittedly clearer than either the Holmes set we started with or the AD&D books we all owned as well. And the Expert Rules, despite carrying the same recommended ages was something we all agreed was very useful.
Flash forward again to 1983 when the Mentzer-edited Basic set came out. They dropped all references to "adults," instead opting for the phrase "Ideal for 3 or more beginning to intermediate players, ages 10 and up." That small change in phrasing made a world of difference and, unlike Moldvay, we simply shied away from the new boxed sets. We were already deep into AD&D anyway -- "real" Dungeons & Dragons -- so we had no need for another intro game and we ignored Mentzer entirely, dubbing it "kiddie D&D," a term that stuck because we saw many more kids buying and playing it, most of whom were not only younger than we were but younger than we were when we were initiated into the hobby. (Interestingly, we either didn't notice or ignored the fact that even our beloved AD&D books were starting to include references to "ages 10 and up" on their covers)
This perception of "basic D&D" -- the boxed set descendants of the LBBs -- as a "game for kids" lingered for years. I avoided anything having to do with the game line, as it was beneath me, especially once I was now one of those high school kids who'd first impressed way back when. I realize now that I missed out on a number of excellent products during this period, but the perception I had was not mere prejudice; it was reinforced by the way these later boxed sets were presented and sold and by the ever-younger audience I saw buying them. This ties in somewhat with the post I made over the weekend about the TSR Code of Ethics. Clearly, TSR itself started to see D&D in all its forms as a game for children and adapted themselves to that reality. The older market seems to have become less important, which probably explains why, in the late 80s and throughout the 90s, most of the high school age and older gamers I knew -- the adults to whom the game had originally been pitched -- move on to other more "serious" games. I know I did.
All of the foregoing is a rambling way of saying that I think it was a mistake to try and sell Dungeons & Dragons to kids by making it more "friendly" to younger players, eliminating all the "adult" things that made it so attractive to us in the first place. The reality is that a product's real market is almost always younger than the one you perceive it to be. Kids have always wanted to be older than they are and they're very quick to see anything that's "age appropriate" as being for kids younger than themselves. D&D, in my view, came to be viewed as a child's game once TSR stopped explicitly pitching it as a game for adults. That view wasn't of course wholly correct but it didn't have to be. The fact that even people as well inclined toward D&D as myself saw the Mentzer sets as being for kids was probably enough to keep us from buying these products and precipitate further changes in the way the game was written, presented, and marketed, thereby making the perception reality, at least in part, and coloring the way many gamers would view the later history of the hobby for decades to come.