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Operation Toy Box: Military-Themed Toys Under Fire By Karen Muller

Cap guns, G.I. Joe dolls, green plastic army men and other fake weapons: they are known as classic artifacts of the American childhood, but to some, they represent a potentially dangerous trend among children and the toy industry. These playtime staples were born out of a patriotic culture that holds its military with high regard, but today, these toys are under fire for the idea that they seem to glorify violence and are aimed at young children. Since the launch of the first gaming systems, violently themed video games such as Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto have been similarly criticized for their content, and entire court cases have sprung from the controversy. Still, some researchers argue in favor of the games, claiming that there are positive, cathartic benefits attached to occasionally playing such video games. As media, video games are regulated by the Entertainment Software Rating Board, which determines what content is appropriate for which age bracket. However, there is no concrete equivalent system for rating children’s toys, and according to many parent groups, violent and military-themed toys are not appropriate for any children. Regardless, such items have remained popular, and have been a mainstay in the toy industry for decades. In 1963, the first G.I. Joe (or Government-Issue Joe) doll was created without political or militaristic intentions in mind, but rather, as the male-toy counterpart to Mattel’s wildly successful Barbie doll, which had risen to popularity several years earlier. The male doll was a quick success, selling massive quantities of accessories, including various uniforms and miniature equipment. Soon, the character grew from a toy to a significant force in pop culture, as Joe’s presence extended into a series of comic books, movies, video games, and other variations of the original figurine. As children demonstrated fascination by purchasing the dolls, other toy companies began to notice and capitalize on the same idea. If young children were turning to war play to emulate their heroes—specifically, war heroes—then the industry was prepared to make it even easier for them, with new variations of war toys. Small army men, which were generally made out of metal or plastic, also reached the height of their popularity by the 60s. The 70s marked the true beginning of the military toy controversy; outrage over American involvement in the Vietnam War led to a decline in sales of warthemed items. G.I. Joe dolls were even recreated as peaceful astronauts and deep-sea divers, in an attempt to stay ahead of public opinion. Along with the anti-war movement, and Americans becoming less comfortable with symbols of war, parents began to show disapproval of violently-themed toys, ranging from tiny plastic soldiers to more realistic-looking toy weapons.

The trend became even more pronounced in the late 1980s, shortly after the FCC began to allow the advertisement of items linked to television shows, including ads for toys that were targeted toward children. Throughout the 80s, television content became increasingly violent, and related toys followed suit. At this point, concerned parents and teachers began speaking out. Joanne Sheehan, representative of the “Stop War Toys” Campaign, and parent of a son who grew up in a culture flooded with violent entertainment, acknowledges that there are challenges that arise when raising a child in a war toy-free household. “When my son Patrick was four… five of the top six selling toys were war toys. Most kids he played with [had] them and their parents didn’t see a problem with them. It can be a challenge to be different…Kids want things they aren’t supposed to have.” Sheehan explains that some parents believe that forbidding children to play with military toys seems to only increase their allure, but added that she hasn’t found this to be the case. Furthermore, she disagrees with such games that encourage children to experiment with the roles of “good guy” and “bad guy”, claiming that it is not a healthy way to teach children about identity or emotions. This sentiment is common today. Parents and protesters alike have developed the concern that playing with war toys desensitizes children to concepts of violence and loss. Similarly, the very idea that children simulate violent acts for fun can be disturbing. Another concern that has been voiced recently is that some military-themed toys may be used to indoctrinate young people, as a sly and ethically questionable recruitment technique. However, according to Nancy Carlsson-Paige, an author and expert on early childhood education, “war play”, or use of these military-themed toys, can actually prove valuable to a child’s development. According to her research, through playing the role of an army hero or superhero, children are able to experience a feeling of confidence and competence. Additionally, by participating in pretend fighting, children learn about boundaries, and which kinds of behavior are considered socially acceptable. The benefits that Carlsson-Paige expects from war play entirely contradict the message that non-violent toy proponents want to send. While the fear of desensitization is common among anti-war-play protestors, in an article that she wrote about war play, Carlsson-Paige claims that exposure to the reality of violence is exactly what children need: “Young children see and hear about violence in the world around them—in their homes and communities and in the media they see… War play can be a helpful vehicle for integrating and making sense of this violence. For example, a child might see soldiers fighting on television news, and bring this image into “war play” in an effort to understand it or make it less scary.” Still, this opinion is far from mainstream, and for every parent or group that supports this theory, there seem to be several others who hold directly opposing beliefs.

Promoting Cultures of Peace for Children, a Canada-based non-profit organization, has designed a creative solution to encourage children to embrace an environment of peace, rather than one of war play. Susan Ruzic, a representative of the organization, explains that the group’s major campaign, “Acts of Transformation: War Toys to Peace Art”, asks young children to surrender violently-themed toys. These toys are then used to create works of peace-themed art. The process of doing so gives the kids a feeling of direct involvement with the movement of turning violence into peace, as well as a chance for creative expression. As Ruzic explains, the message is generally well-received: “The children who surrender their toys to make peaceful transformations are very happy to do so, once they understand the connections that glorified violence on TV and in video games have to actual schoolyard bullying.” While asking children to turn in their toys sounds like it could be a difficult task, Ruzic says that the organization usually gets through to the kids, and can make a great impact on their outlook toward the need for peace in the world. “Children who have violent video games and toys at home, and whose parents often play those games at home with them, are usually surprised to hear that someone would want to surrender these toys to make something peaceful. But after mentioning to them that these toys are violent and do not help people to learn peaceful problem solving skills, they think about it and agree that they would like to have more peace in their lives.”

Operation Toy Box  

An article about attitudes toward military influence on toys, published in the March 2011 "Militarization" issue of Buzzsaw Magazine.