Toying With War


Reprinted from The Non-Violent Activist with permission of the War Resisters League.

This article originally appeared in Issue# 39

Many young children in day-care centers around the country are regularly acting out fantasies from today's most popular cartoons and television dramas. It is not an uncommon experience to suddenly hear a young four-year-old from the opposite end of the playground yell, "I'm going to get you, sucker," run full speed across the yard, leap onto an unsuspecting child, grab him or her by the neck and throw the child to the ground. When questioned about such aggressive behavior, the offender looks up with that all-too-familiar innocent face and says, But teacher, I'm Mr. T," or "I'm He-Man, Master of the Universe."

Aggressive Behavior

Aggressive and violent behavior in children is common, accepted and even encouraged by many parents and care-givers. But society in general always seems shocked by the results of youth crime and alienation. Them are many and varied sources of this behavior, but one common thread is that such behavior is acceptable to much of American society. Violent behavior is not only tolerated but actively encouraged.

I see this behavior regularly in the work I do as a preschool teacher of children between three and six. I am convinced that the encouragement of aggressive and violent behavior in children will have lasting effects on our society. What these children observe, model themselves after and act out in play has a major effect on their later lives as adults and on what they will conceive of as reality.

Many children spend their unstructured time playing fantasy games from many of the TV and cartoon shows they watch at home. He-Man Masters of the Universe, Transformers, Voltron, Gobots, Superheroes, Care Bears, Rainbow Bright and are the most popular these days. The A-Team, Knight Rider, and Dukes of Hazzard are the favorite TV dramas.

These programs create a whole network of commercialized products that spin off each adventure. There are T-shirts, underwear, belts, coloring books and dolls. Even national fast-food chains like Pizza Hut and Burger King include character illustrations on the children's take-home meals. Children, if you haven't noticed, are Big Business!

Militarizing Toys

While it is difficult to get a good analytical history of the militarization of children's toys, it probably has been a constant feature of American society since independence from Great Britain. With the advent of television, however, the toy industry has become increasingly popular and influential.

The popularity of war toys comes and goes. During the Vietnam War, they almost went out of existence. G.I. Joe dolls virtually disappeared from the market. But now G.I. Joe is not only back but better-equipped for the '80s and '90s. lie comes with tank, attack vehicle, artillery laser, missile system and cannon. In fact, G.I. Joe is a wimp compared to his competition these days. The children at my center know him but they prefer HeMan, Transformers or the Gobots.

Transformers are a group of robot warriors that follow a television cartoon series of the same name. According to the National Coalition on Television Violence (NCTV), Transformer is currently the most violent cartoon on television, with an avenge of 83 acts of violence per hour. One character is the evil Megaton, whose package cover reads: "Peace through tyranny... combines brute strength, military cunning, ruthlessness and terror... out to destroy the earth..." Megatron comes as a revolver and transforms into an evil robot.

He-Man has been the most popular toy and cartoon show among the children I have worked with during the last several months. The children want to get picked up early by their parents so they can watch it on television during the late-afternoon showing of the program. The toy company, Mattel, designed the cartoon after its latest line of "action toys." It hired a Stanford psychologist to add pro-social elements and character to their extremely violent story line. He-Man, a tall, muscular, blond and handsome hero, comes on near the program's end to lecture the children on various social issues like pollution and the environment. He-Man's latest companion is She-Ra. The He-Man and She-Ra movie contained 59 acts of violence per hour with 33 attempted murders.

Startling Figures

The NCTV states that sales of war toys have increased 350 percent in the past two years (early 1985 statistics), with sales of $842 million. In 1984 alone, 214 million "action toys" were purchased. Of the top six toys sold in the United States, five are considered war toys. According to one toy-chain buyer, "This is definitely a case of the manufacturers going out and creating the market. The key to the category's success is the huge promotional support it is receiving, including the cartoon series and the TV specials, as well as tons of advertising."

My school has an active policy of no weapons or weapons play. We work hard at promoting a war- and violence-free zone. But it is very difficult. The clothes children wear, the food they eat and the games they play seem to go back to what they watch on television before and after school. Children are always bringing the pocket-sized Transformers in their coats and playing with them under the slide or in some quiet corner where they can't be seen. Even creative and constructive toys like Lego building blocks become guns, lasers and transformers.

Effects Studied

The effects of war toys on children seem obvious to anyone who spends time with them. The classroom or playground becomes a fantasy war zone. Dr. Thomas Radecki, M.D., and chairman of NCTV says, "The cartoon and violent toy studies show that these materials cause children to hit, kick, choke, push and hold down other children. They have found increases in selfishness, anxiety and the hurting of animals. Sharing and school performance have been found to decrease." I spend much of my day separating children in fights begun over fantasy play games that escalate into children getting hurt.

The average four-to-eight-year-old will see 250 war cartoons and 1,000 advertisements for war toys this year, the equivalent of 22 days of classroom instruction. War cartoons are now broadcast nationally 43 hours per week, up from only one and one-half in 1982. War toy sales have increased 70 percent in the same period.
- National Coalition on Television Violence

Other studies have produced similar results. Dr. Arnold Goldstein of the University of Syracuse states that "... playing with war toys legitimizes and makes violent behavior acceptable. It desensitizes children to the dangers and harm of violent behavior. Probably only a small number of children will commit heavy-duty violence, but a large number get desensitized and will pick up harmful behavior."

This fear is already being played out with the daily horror stories of increasing adolescent crime and violence. The fantasy role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, for example, has been linked to 45 murders and suicides. In one case early this year, two teen-age boys were arrested for making poisons and bombs and threatening to murder a fellow student Dungeons and Dragons-style during a lunch period.

Video Violence

These incidents are increasing among teenagers. The violent cartoons and toys they played with as younger children are supplemented with video games. Although there are many creative and interesting software games available, nuclear and conventional war themes remain popular and controversial. Atari, one of the largest manufacturers of video games, was asked by the Army to adapt its Battlezone game to train gunners for M-2 tanks. Of another computer game entitled "Theater Europe," Sanity, a magazine published in Great Britain, notes, "According to the procedure for 'going nuclear,' the player dials a number for the right code, and a recording of John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance" is played. Having given "Peace" thirty seconds or so, the player then goes on to obliterate most of Central Europe."

The situation surrounding war toys, violent cartoons and video games is worsening, particularly in the United States. Great Britain and the Soviet Union have a similar national obsession. Other countries like West Germany and some Scandinavian nations, because of their memories and experiences in World War II, have actually banned the sale of war toys.

We may not be able to follow their example. But, working together, parents, teachers and schools can help young children learn alternative forms of behavior and prevent war games and the attitudes they inculcate from becoming the center of children's existence. Our society's children spend a great deal of time with negative models. We can't start too early to counteract their effects and provide them with some positive models as well.

Author Bio: 

Craig Simpson is an early childhood educator, an infant/toddler teacher and President of the Boston Association for the Education of Young Children. He lives in Somerville, Mass.