"For Real Life?":
War Toys in the Peace-Loving Household

Karen Hall

It's not just the news these days that is full of war talk. As the holiday gift-buying season approaches, the largest season for toy sales, commercials displaying the newest in combat simulation video games and realistic toy soldiers are flooding the airwaves. If you have children in the house, they are bound to ask for a war toy this season, or, if they are too wise to ask their peace-loving parent for the latest in toy weaponry, it's highly possible they are secretly desiring toys they know you won't buy for them.

Dealing with war toys and children's desires leaves parents and caregivers four options: ban war play, take a laissez-faire approach to war play, allow war play with limits, or actively facilitate war play. Like many specialists who work with children and their issues, I recognize that war play is a necessary place for children to work through their fears, concerns and developing attitudes toward war, power, force and conflict. For this reason, I feel war toys can have a place in a peace-loving household.

The problem with war toys, as Michael Moore so persuasively and entertainingly argues in his newest movie, Bowling for Columbine, is not that they turn children into soldiers or train them to kill. It takes more than the presence of weapons and images to create and sustain the level of militarism and violence existent in the US today.

War toys, like violent entertainment of any kind, are clearly problematic, and I would never argue that caregivers could afford a laissez-faire attitude toward war play. Two early childhood educators, Nancy Carlsson-Paige and Diane E. Levin, and the two books they have written on children and war play, The War Play Dilemma and Who's Calling the Shots?, have influenced my own thinking on war toys and play, and I recommend their work to interested readers. These two authors and Marsha Kinder in her book, Playing with Power, focus on one of the core problems with war toys today: children are no longer in control of their toys or the way the toys are put into action.

My own studies of the mix between war culture and popular culture agrees with this finding. The way toys are marketed as tie-ins to television shows and movies and the increasing degree of realism are a large part of the problem of war toys today.

Marketing Trends

One of the first toys ever advertised on television became a huge nationwide bestseller after it appeared during The Mickey Mouse Club in 1955. Mattel's Burp Gun, a thoroughly realistic reproduction of the automatic machine gun many children's fathers had fired in WWII, was so popular that even President Eisenhower had difficulty finding one on store shelves, and had to write directly to the manufacturer so his grandson would have a Burp Gun under the tree at Christmas. With the advent of television advertising and film tie-ins, the face of the toy industry changed enormously. The leading toy producers no longer created products that reflected adult life and taught basic skills the way engineering sets, model trains and baby dolls of bygone eras had. Instead, the advent of new marketing strategies brought a flood of toys that, as toy historian Gary Cross describes it, "led children into a new world of play, one which simulates imitative activities more familiar in movies and television than at home or office."

These trends in toy marketing and production were further accelerated in 1984 when under the Reagan administration, the Federal Communication Commission eliminated its ban against product-based programming. This allowed program-length television shows aimed at the children's audience which were nothing more than commercials for toys. The 3¾ inch GI Joe action figures which were marketed through the GI Joe: Great American Hero cartoon is a perfect example of this phenomenon. Although the Children's Television Act of 1990 tempered the deregulation of the '80s, limiting advertising during children's programming to between 10½ and 12 minutes per hour, depending on the day of the week, marketing trends and toys as tie-ins had already become standards of the toy industry.

When television shows and movies "teach" children how to play with toys, play becomes increasingly imitative. Such play stifles the kind of creative problem solving and imaginative play that is most conducive to children's emotional, social and political development. Rather than working through their frustrations when playmates don't behave as they wish they would or role playing through something they overheard their parents discussing after the evening news, children reenact what they have seen in television and movies. Reproducing the children's culture that adults produce for them takes children out of control of their play and puts adults in charge _ adults whose main concern is selling more toys, not children's development and welfare.

Toy Realism

The realism of 1950s toy guns, which also make an appearance in Bowling for Columbine, has only increased over time. Brands like Hasbro's GI Joe, Dragon, and Blue Box Toys among many others fill the "boy aisle" of toy stores with war toys that would impress any military historian. Great attention is given to the authenticity of uniforms, weapons, and vehicles that these toy soldiers can be decked out with. And the attention to realistic detail is equally present in boy-sized guns and gear.

This toy realism creates a situation which video game players refer to as "functional fixedness." Children's toy boxes can be filled with plastic items that serve only one function. Rather than an array of blocks, non-descript cars and trucks, and miniature figures that can be used in multiple play scenarios, children are inundated with products meant to fill highly specific roles in pre-scripted imitative play. They are then encouraged to collect all the pieces of a play set so they can reenact the scenarios they have seen elsewhere. Manufacturers refer to this mode of selling as the razor blade theory, i.e. sell a customer a razor and they will come back repeatedly for replacement blades. By the same logic, sell a child an action figure and he or she will come back to get the command post, jeep, sand bags, machine guns, grenades, and enemy soldiers designed to fit the action figure and the world it inhabits.

This style of marketing encourages children to become collectors, not players. And they can easily be led to believe that they need to collect the whole set in order to play and have fun. If pieces are missing, then they are missing out on the fun advertised in the commercials. Open-ended, internally driven play will not necessarily direct children into the world of commodities. However, when play is defined by the ability to recreate authentic, media-produced narratives, children's desires and attentions are trained toward the market place, and the play space comes to rely on the market place for its creativity, authenticity, and fulfillment _ characteristics the market place can never provide. This marketing strategy is sadly ideal for educating children how to become consumers.

Equally as problematic as the functional fixedness of realistic war toys is the false sense of reality they construct. When playing with a small group of boys recently, they repeatedly asked me if the statements were "for real life," i.e. were they really true in real life. Toy packaging and commercials trumpet to children how truly real war toys are, but the reality they are selling is a tremendously shallow one. War toys and media representations of war come to us stripped of historical and physical context deep enough to allow us to understand individuals, issues, and circumstances in their three dimensional, visceral reality. Marketing a shallow version of reality _ one confined to technical details and visual elements almost entirely _ warps children's definition of realism and reality. The "real" ingredients of war are no longer complex diplomatic, social, economic, and political systems, but weapons, uniforms and machines designed with exacting authentic detail.

This brand of realism steers children away from material and political history. In a marketing focus group, Hasbro asked a group of eight- and nine-year-old boys when the Civil War was and who in their family may have fought in it. The boys responded that it was a few years ago and they thought their brothers fought in it. One boy disagreed and said it was longer ago as his grandmother was a young girl during the war. When asked what they knew about World War II, the boys only could respond that the US fought against Japan. When asked who in their family might have fought in this war, their best guess was maybe their uncles. If these boys are any indication of the norms, and Hasbro spent a good deal of money to ensure that they were, war toy realism isn't teaching children much about war.

Playing to Learn, Learning to Play

Few people would argue with the position that children should learn about war. But how to link war toys and history in a way that supports and promotes children's political development is no easy task. A few things do seem clear to me, however. Adults and children need to relearn to participate in play in ways that rejoin bodies and history. Children should have access to the reality that there is far more to war than the accoutrements, that war is about fear, boredom, pain and much more.

When I play war, I try to feel what militarism feels like in my body and our children deserve practice and discussion of this as well. Where and how does militarism hurt? Why does it feel like fun sometimes? What do we have to forget in order to experience fun and what are the risks of that forgetting? Is it possible to have fun and not forget the deep realities of war? Whether we facilitate children's war play and ask these questions during play time or we direct conversations after play time is over, children need to learn about war. If caregivers can use children's enthusiasm for war toys to launch their political development and foster open-ended play, there's no reason to reject these problematic products.

We can separate ourselves from US militarism. Every being exists in the web with the weapons and the warriors and the bureaucrats who will deploy them. Our play ought to be one place where we learn with our children how to feel the power and pain of living in a militarist empire.

Karen has been researching popular culture representations of war for a number of years and acknowledges that much as it is easier to think and write about war than to be forced to be actively involved in one, it is easier to think and write about children than to raise one.