RPG Evolution - True Tales from Stranger Things: Kids on Bikes

Stranger Things tells a tale of inter-dimensional entities battling kids in the 80s. To get around, the kids use their bikes, a genre that launched its own RPG. And yes, kids really did have that much freedom then.

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

It's Not for Everybody​

It's worth noting that despite the reputation of the Kids on Bikes genre taking place in the Midwest, my experience was in the Long Island suburbs. There are a few elements required for a Stranger Things-style of gaming, so being a kid on bike was potentially feasible anywhere :
  • A lot of kids of similar age within biking distance. I grew up surrounded by kids all the same age. We all walked to school, and later took the bus, together. Two of the kids were my next door neighbors, and one a little further (we're still Facebook friends). The rest were from the surrounding area and could bike to meet up.
  • Stay-at-home parents. Most kids didn't understand this at the time but parents trusted that if there was one stay-at-home parent (almost always a mom), then that was the default parent to talk to if there were issues. My mom didn't work until I was in high school, so it was usually her.
  • A place to game. Not every house was suitable for this: some were too small, some were too raucous, some had siblings that wouldn't let you play in peace for hours at a time. That was usually my house.
  • Kids have free time. None of our families could afford to send us to camp, go on vacations for long periods of time, or otherwise keep us occupied. We filled that time with Dungeons & Dragons.

Did Parents Really Let Their Kids Do That?​

Yes, or at least my parents did.

My best friend was a few blocks over, and I would ride my bike to visit and vice versa. We did this just about every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and practically every day during the summer. We would also sleep over each other's houses for as long as we were able, sometimes several days in a row.

How Did Parents Keep Track?​

Because we played Dungeons & Dragons, our parents were collectively happy with the assumption that all of us were easy to find at one house. This expanded to playing Laser Tag at certain houses where we could range freely (this was one case where my house wasn't suitable but two of my friends' houses near open land were perfect for).

During the day, when we were playing outside (which we did often, usually street hockey), our parents would simply open the door and shout out our names. My one friend's dad could whistle a high-pitched whistle that was unmistakable and could be heard at a distance.

You also knew generally when you had to be home. Mostly, we woke up, had breakfast, watched cartoons, ate lunch, and then left to play whatever until dinner time.

What If You Got Lost?​

With no cell phones and no maps, this rarely happened. But it did happen at least once, when we tried to go to a new friend's house on our bikes, and my one friend peeled off in one direction while I was looking the other way. I got so lost I had to bike home.

There were a few times where I miscalculated how far away my house was from other places and attempted to walk home, including wrong bus stops. You only have to make that mistake once to learn the hard way the geography of your home town.

In short, it wasn't much of an issue because everyone was within walking distance and if things really got confusing, you just went back to where you started which was home (or home base, if you knew a friend's house nearby).

Add this all up and it was fertile ground for tabletop gaming, with a large enough group that we never lacked players for a good five years, from seventh grade to graduation.

You Turn: Were you a kid on a bike?
 
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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

My dad invited my brother and I to watch Poltergeist with him at age 6. It was terrifying. Ghost stories still creep me out, to be honest. We watched a ton of horror movies with him when we were too young to do so. But he at least drew the line at the original Night of the Living Dead. We were told that VHS tape was off-limits.
 

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kunadam

Adventurer
Across the Iron Curtain things were pretty much the same. I lived (I still do) in the suburbs of Budapest, the capital of Hungary. It is a mix of concrete residential blocks and village style parts. Biking and going about to see who was available to play/chat was a thing. Movies that was not for our age bracket less so. With only 2 TV channels and some pirated VHS movies there was not much we could watch. Better for us.
AD&D could be obtained in the late '80 and especially in the '90s. So during my high-school years we did play every week. We mostly played at the high-school on Friday afternoons. High-schools are rarely close to home, at least in Budapest, and they serve students from all over the city. So going to friends by bike became impossible. We managed to go to each other by public transportation (public transport in Hungary in the capital is good, frequent and safe).

We as a generation while long for the freedom of our childhood still raise our kids to be afraid on the street. It is in many ways irrational, but we still do it. Probably it is the media that only show the dark side of society, and so we think the outside world is not much safe.
 

Cruentus

Adventurer
Major US city in the 70s/80s growing up:

1) bike with friends every day - check
2) knock on friends doors every day to see who could come out and play - check
3) summers spent outside from after breakfast till the street lights came on - check
4) biked to nearby shopping center, ball fields, friends houses - check
5) spent lots of time sequestered in friends basement playing DnD (sometimes for the entire weekend) - check
6) stay at home mom? Nope. Both folks worked, we were latchkey kids.
7) my parents knew where we were, who we were with, and could find us easily

I was shocked many years ago when I was talking with a co-worker and he said his kids did none of that. Now, my son is in the same boat - no kids his age in the neighborhood, no free form playing outside, unless it’s with me. Hangs out with his school friends at school, and rarely otherwise (everyone lives in different parts of the city), etc. Times have changed.
 

Bupp

Adventurer
Right there along side many of you roaming my hometown 1 hour north of Pittsburgh, PA. To this day, it still has a Main St. USA vibe to it. I had biked/walked/skated every square foot of that town, including the abandoned hoarder's house in the woods and the storm drains that ran under most of town (navigated by laying on skateboards and rolling though them). The gone but not forgotten Pizza and Sub Shop that sold pizza by the slice and toasted subs. They had the only pinball machine in town that wasn't in a bar, and only the finest off-brand video games. D&D ran through all of it as well.
 

Jacob Vardy

Explorer
I was a kid on a bike. And i think it lasted a bit longer than people realise, at least here in Sydney NSW. I was hooning around on bikes with friends in the mid 90s. Younger siblings and friends report it was a thing up to the 2000s. And i still see a lot of kids on bikes when i am cycling myself, although that might be an observation bias.
I'm pretty sure we had the same "stranger danger" panics that the Yankees did. Even though the biggest potential danger to a child is a close relative.
One thing i have heard, from friends with teen kids, is worry about being reported to child services for letting their kids roam free. And vaguely recall a couple of news stories about it happening.
 

I admit I’ve never watched an episode of Stranger Things. A friend recommended it, and I started to watch the first episode, but it was visually intense. And my friends and I in the 1980s, at that age, did not curse like that and use such crude language. I don’t especially enjoy watching child-actors getting paid to speak like that. I felt that was pandering to an R-rated audience. So I turned off. And played some real D&D.
 

wellis

Explorer
Honestly I kind of wonder if a problem with a lot of these 1980s-setting shows and movies, is that producers reference them more compared to the actual 1980s or anything.

Like you think say, colleges in the 1980s were all frat parties or something because you watched a ton of 1980s movies instead of actually looking at 1980s stuff.

I remember Miyazake once made a critiicsm about modern anime in that sense, that producers were just referencing each other instead of going outside their bubbles for experience and references.
 

Driving through some small towns, yeah, it's like stepping through a time machine. You can see faded signs that have been there for decades, grocery stores that look the same as they did in the 70s or 80s, save for the different branding on the labels, the same mom & pop pizza shop that's been in the spot for ages.

Right there along side many of you roaming my hometown 1 hour north of Pittsburgh, PA. To this day, it still has a Main St. USA vibe to it. I had biked/walked/skated every square foot of that town, including the abandoned hoarder's house in the woods and the storm drains that ran under most of town (navigated by laying on skateboards and rolling though them). The gone but not forgotten Pizza and Sub Shop that sold pizza by the slice and toasted subs. They had the only pinball machine in town that wasn't in a bar, and only the finest off-brand video games. D&D ran through all of it as well.
 

Ace

Adventurer
Honestly I kind of wonder if a problem with a lot of these 1980s-setting shows and movies, is that producers reference them more compared to the actual 1980s or anything.

Like you think say, colleges in the 1980s were all frat parties or something because you watched a ton of 1980s movies instead of actually looking at 1980s stuff.

I remember Miyazake once made a critiicsm about modern anime in that sense, that producers were just referencing each other instead of going outside their bubbles for experience and references.

Having lived in that period, given the limitations of media they mostly get stuff right. Heck the Breakfast Club was highly relatable to us in High School . There are things that are obvious "media tropes" but doing the "70's or 80's" right is easy mode. It get harder as things go farther backwards though the 60's is a pretty alien place even to a Gen X like me

Why they might seem off is US cities are utterly different now . L.A. for example is predominately Latino whereas in the 70's and early 80's it was the among the Whitest large cities in the US, think Portland demographically these changes along with the Internet have made tremendous differences in the US cultural fabric

Also this is just opinion, fertility rates in the US have been low for 5 decades. The Gen X cohort was the last one who usually had siblings and or a lot of kids in the neighborhood . Since 1972 or so the fertility rate has decline which means Millennials would have increasingly fewer multi sibling households and increasingly smaller, subject to where they lived close by friends.

Big schools, spread out kids , cultural fears and the Internet mean for many the Kids on Bikes is a fanciful distant past .
 

Ace

Adventurer
I was a kid on a bike. And i think it lasted a bit longer than people realise, at least here in Sydney NSW. I was hooning around on bikes with friends in the mid 90s. Younger siblings and friends report it was a thing up to the 2000s. And i still see a lot of kids on bikes when i am cycling myself, although that might be an observation bias.
I'm pretty sure we had the same "stranger danger" panics that the Yankees did. Even though the biggest potential danger to a child is a close relative.
One thing i have heard, from friends with teen kids, is worry about being reported to child services for letting their kids roam free. And vaguely recall a couple of news stories about it happening.

Interesting. Always curious about Oz.

No one where I lived would do anything about kids since we had basically no cops. no stores and no social services.

On the other hand I was not a Kid on a Bike, not that many kids and you needed an expensive unaffordable mountain bike on our roads. We walked although parents would not have a issue with letting us take off and do whatever. No one out there plus a basic safety education and common sense were enough .

Cities however did seem to get more dangerous as time went on , the overall US crime rates in the 1990's were nuts and this effected kids too. In at least one case I know stranger danger was quite real though happily the kid being hella smart and trained by military parents escaped unharmed.
 


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