War Toys On the March
Originally printed in Newsweek in July 1985.

Note: We read this article at BotCon '98 and it was an utter hoot. Re-reading it now, in a society overshadowed by the specters of terrorism, natural disasters and economic collapse, this article seems all the more naive. Yet it stands as a mile marker in the evolution of the post-modern world...

All Kate Hanlin had in mind was a quiet afternoon out with her son, Max. And what could be quieter than "The Sound of Music"? Everything was going nicely until the armed Nazis walked onstage. That's when Max really got engaged with the show. "COBRA!" the 5 1/2 year-old shouted, invoking the name of the bad guys from his favorite set of playthings, the G.I. Joe toys. "I couldn't believe it," Mrs. Hanlin says. "My son was identifying with Nazis."

It was a sobering moment for Max's mother, who describes herself as "an old 60's liberal." But incidents like it may be happening all over. G.I. Joe is back from his exile on the toy heap of history, and he's got company: Transformers. Go-Bots. Voltron. Masters of the Universe. These are five of the six hottest toys in America; last year action figures sold 214 million units. They are backed by heavy market research, and cross-promoted by cartoon shows aimed at young children. Toy-industry sources like to refer to the items as "action figures". Parents and kids simply call them "war toys".

Steamy Fantasy: War toys aren't new--the first toy soldiers were manufactured near the end of the 19th century, and even Robert Louis Stevenson and H. G. Wells wrote tactical plans for them. Toy bombers and cap pistols captivated subsequent generations of kids. Today's war toys, though, are a different breed. Most are set in a dark, steamy fantasy world that may or may not be postnuclear. Earlier generations enjoyed the strategic excitement of war toys: "Here is the premeditation, the thrill, the strain of accumulating victory or disaster..." Wells wrote in 1913's "Little Wars." Today's war toys push the idea that obliteration, not conflict, is the point. Kids read about "Peace through tyranny" on one of the Transformers packages. Another bears the motto of a toy called Bonecrusher: "Hit it till it stands no taller than dust."

Nightmares: In the Year of Rambo, such talk isn't really surprising. And needless to say, kids love it. Even some parents think there's a valuable lesson to be learned from it. "You have to tell your child what good represents," says Jane Farrell of Atlanta, mother of a four-year-old boy. "You can say, 'Here's a good guy; here's a bad guy who wants to take over your camp. You can't let somebody push you around'." The toy companies say that the toys and the cartoons are harmless--and, in fact, part of a long tradition. "As a kid I grew up with the Three Stooges and the Road Runner," says Lois Hanrahan, director of character development and merchandising at Tonka Corp., which manufactures GoBots. "They were always beating up on each other, but I can't see that my generation is any more violent. These cartoons don't breed violence. They're just entertaining."

But do kids who already wake up screaming with nuclear nightmares need quite this much encouragement--and is anybody well served by learning to think that good and evil are absolute forces, and always easily distinguishable? "The toys heighten a superficial conception of the world," says William Beardslee, a Boston child psychologist. "They give us the good guys and the bad guys, but it's not that simple." And by any measure the cartoons that promote the toys are extraordinarily violent. The National Coalition on Television Violence counts 83 violent acts per hour in the Transformers show alone.

War-toy manufacturers like to raise the "catharsis argument"--that playacting aggression helps to diffuse it. But the argument has lost ground lately among psychologists: studies indicate that toys and shows that feature aggressive behavior are likely to encourage such actions. NCTV points to 28 such studies involving about 4,300 children and links 40 deaths to the fantasy game Dungeons and Dragons, popular among teenagers. "Children learn behavior," says NCTV chairman Dr. Thomas Radecki. "These games and cartoons teach them that aggression solves problems. Eventually they act out these solutions in real life." This is precisely what worries some parents. Kate Hanlin says that Max's bedroom "looks like a bunker." Another pair of San Francisco parents, Mickey Pfleger and Melissa Steele-Pfleger, allow their six-year-old son, Taiowa, to have certain war toys, but draw the line at G.I. Joe. They also dislike Masters of the Universe because it's "sexist and racist". (Making a kind of progress, Mattel, Inc. recently introduced She-Ra, an action doll for young girls.)

Awesome: The toymakers aren't unaware of the furor. Tonka and cartoon producer Hanna-Barbera decided that nobody will die in the GoBots cartoons to be launched this fall. (This, of course, may lead some kids to believe that lasers like the ones the GoBots fire are harmless, like squirt guns.) But in general the manufacturers dismiss the notion that their fantastical armies are teaching a generation to love violence. Says Stephen Schwartz, a senior vice president of Hasbro, Inc., home of Transformers and G.I. Joe, "Tin soldiers at the turn of the century, G.I. Joe today. It's as old as the toy business." But this is a new day: tin soldiers didn't shoot lasers or boast about their "nuclear-powered punch." They didn't bring their awesome armaments into the home five days a week. Tin soldiers took prisoners. GoBots don't. Alas, "The marketplace talks," says Schwartz. "With $200 million in sales of Transformers, that's a lot of talking." Maybe so. But maybe it's time for the marketplace, and the toy industry that feeds it, to quiet down.

BILL BAROL with JERRY BUCKLEY in Boston,
SHAWN DOHERTY in Chicago and
RICHARD SANDZA in San Francisco

Back to Voices Of Cybertron