Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of Nintendo's most successful franchises, famously recounted how the inspiration for The Legend of Zelda came from his childhood adventures in the countryside near Kyoto: "I went hiking and found a lake. It was quite a surprise for me to stumble upon it. When I traveled around the country without a map, trying to find my way, stumbling on amazing things as I went, I realized how it felt to go on an adventure like this." In the same way, the firstborn of the entire adventure game family, Colossal Cave, was the product of creator Will Crowther's spelunking in Kentucky. In essence, players who grew up enjoying those games were experiencing the creators' real-life adventures, embellished by imagination and translated through the limitations of the game systems of the time. Miyamoto's childhood lives on, now in its 13th installment, and has become an integral part of the childhoods of millions.
The striking difference between growing up adventuring in the hills around Kyoto and growing up guiding Link through Hyrule is the former is an inherently creative, idiosyncratic act, while the latter is passive and uniform. We all got the same sword from the same old man, fought the same Octoroks and found the same silver arrow (tucked away in the same corner) to kill the same pig-demon, ending the adventure. It is not particularly significant that the plot was the same for everyone, because at bottom, childhood adventures are seldom defined by meaningful stories. What matters is the experience and the action were not controlled by the players - the way Miyamoto or Crowther created their own explorations and adventures - but instead were formed by some other author. Moreover, for all its thrill, Hyrule was profoundly cramped and constrained compared to unmapped hills or colossal caves.
Endogenous and Exogenous Influences
We can divide categories of creative endeavor at high levels (literature, games, movies, sculpture and so forth) or at relatively narrow levels (say, first-person cRPGs vs. isometric cRPGs). No matter how we define the categories, it is possible to talk about "endogenous" and "exogenous" influences. Endogenous influences come from within the group - the influence that Wizardry had on Might and Magic, for example. Exogenous influences, by contrast, come from outside, like how On Stranger Tides inspired Ron Gilbert's ideas for Monkey Island.
As should be obvious, non-gaming experiences like childhood make-believe or exploration are inherently exogenous to game design. As computer and videogames increase in prominence, they inevitably supplant other art-forms. For that reason, those who design games today will do so against a backdrop of having played them for much, if not all of their lives. The designers of the next generation of football videogames probably will have spent more time playing Madden than playing two-hand touch or watching the NFL.
Moreover, games have influenced other media, assuring the exogenous influences game designers experience will, in some sense, merely be an echo of games. Sometimes, this leads to strange loops like the game version of Street Fighter: The Movie, the comic books based on Freedom Force or rule sets based on cRPGs like Fallout.
For those of us who grew up in the current era, capturing the thrill of childhood adventures may mean rekindling the excitement of one's first videogame, not transforming something exogenous into game form.