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More than Child’s Play? The Case for War Toys

Do war toys encourage violent behaviour and make conflict more acceptable? Or do they offer genuine insight into military history? Philip Kirby, Sean Carter and Tara Woodyer examine the evidence.

A writer all but forgotten today, E.J. Hawley, published a short story in 1902, The Toy Soldier: A Children’s Peace Story. In the tale, an aunt comes across her nephew, Bertie, playing with a toy British soldier and an enemy Boer. Bertie delights in imagining the former killing the latter, reflecting a patriotism that had reached its zenith with the mass celebration following the Relief of Mafeking two years earlier. That victory in the Boer War, which challenged perceptions of Britain’s status as the world’s most powerful country, had made a hero of Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scout movement. In the story Bertie creates his own imperial hero, valiantly protecting the British Empire from its foes. To complete the scene, Bertie insists on burying the fallen Boer. His aunt agrees to play along, but only if she can appear as ‘pastor’ at the funeral. Bertie agrees and his aunt eulogises, reminding her nephew of the Boer’s humanity by providing the latter with a touching back story:

This man, whom we have just buried, lived in a farmhouse on the veldt. He was a very good husband and father. All his children loved him very much. When he went away to the war his little girl threw her arms around his neck and hugged him tight, and said she hated war because it took father away. Then her mother cried, and said she hoped father would come back again for, if not, who was to see to the farm, and get food for the children to eat? The eldest boy, who was named Bertie, after an English man who had been kind to the farmer, stood very quiet and still, and when his turn came to say ‘good-bye’, he clenched his little hand and vowed that if ever he became a man he would not let people fight. 

Later that evening, Bertie, profoundly affected by his aunt’s words, asks whether the Boer can be brought back to life and returned to his loving family. And, because this is a game, he can.

Just over a decade later, in 1914, and with another, far more catastrophic conflict on the horizon, the National Peace Council published a letter in a London morning newspaper. Quoted in Antonia Fraser’s A History of Toys (1966), the Council argued that ‘there are grave objections to presenting our boys with regiments of fighting men, batteries of guns, and squadrons of Dreadnoughts [battleships]’. To counter this: 

At the Children’s Welfare Exhibition [held in London’s Olympia Exhibition Hall], the Peace Council will make an alternative suggestion to parents in the shape of an exhibition of ‘peace toys’. In front of a specially-painted representation of the Peace Palace at the Hague will be grouped, not miniature soldiers but miniature civilians, not guns but ploughs and the tools of industry … Boys, the Council admits, naturally love fighting and all the panoply of war … but that is no reason for encouraging, and perhaps giving permanent form to, their primitive instincts.

There is little record today of how contemporary readers reacted to either Hawley’s story or the Council’s request, but a few years later the latter was mocked in a short story by the English satirist, Saki (H.H. Munro). In his story, The Toys of Peace (1919), an uncle presents his nephews with miniature models of the utilitarian philosopher and reformer John Stuart Mill, municipal dustbins and the Manchester branch of the Young Women’s Christian Association, all in an effort to instil civic, rather than military virtues. Left to their own devices, however, the children soon circumvent their uncle’s noble intentions. The dustbins are punctured to accommodate cannon, Mill becomes Maurice de Saxe – the 18th century marshal general of France, whom the children have recently learnt about at school – and the Young Women’s Christian Association is the scene of a bloodbath, in which a hundred of the women are killed and the rest enslaved by Louis XIV. The experiment has failed, bemoans the uncle to his sister: ‘We have begun too late.’

Saki’s satire, though, was tragically ironic. By the time of its publication, the author was dead: having refused a commission, he served in the ranks and was killed by a sniper at the Somme in 1916. The debate between Saki and the Peace Council, however, endured. It was, in many ways, the first episode in a series of moral panics that have defined the ‘war play’ debate for the last hundred years. At various intervals, from the First World War to Vietnam to the War on Terror, questions have been asked of the effect that violent games have on the minds of (most frequently) young boys. Does violent play prefigure violent lives? Do toy guns eventually become real guns? Perhaps less drastically, does war play teach children military history in particular kinds of ways?


One way to approach this history, at least that of the latter part of the 20th century, is through GI Joe, the action figure known in the UK as Action Man and one of the most successful toys of all time. Introduced in the US in 1964 and in the UK two years later, its history mirrors that of mid-to-late 20th century western military conflicts. At first, both versions were based upon Second World War troops; GI Joe represented the four branches of the US armed forces – the army, airforce, navy and marines – and Action Man appeared in regular army-cut denim. Later, other uniforms were introduced, as US and UK forces engaged in differing conflicts around the globe. Perhaps the most clear-cut link to a contemporary military operation was Action Man’s SAS outfit, introduced just four months after the 1980 Iranian Embassy Siege, when the Special Air Service shifted from the shadows into the full glare of publicity. John Newsinger, the author of Dangerous Men: The SAS and Popular Culture (1997), has traced the contribution of the mainstream media in forming the widespread image of the SAS. The Action Man incarnation, for children especially, was part of this process.

Bob Brechin, the chief designer at Palitoy (the makers of Action Man), has also spoken of the intersection between his product and contemporary geopolitics. Brechin suggests that one of the reasons why the Falklands War of 1982 never featured in Action Man’s final years was because of the recentness of that conflict and the well-publicised deaths of British servicemen in the campaign. In this way, the SAS was a safer commercial bet, because its exploits at the Iranian Embassy had been extremely successful and had resulted in no (British) deaths. The same was true of the Second World War, the ‘good war’, which continually provided Action Man with commercially successful outfits and paraphernalia. In Brechin’s opinion, at least part of the popularity of this range came from the fact that the Second World War has been sustained in the popular consciousness
in a variety of ways: from films, to television series, to books. It provides a set of durable stories from which producers of such media can draw, knowing that their productions will find a receptive audience.


There is also evidence that Action Man taught young boys about war in particular ways. Men who later joined the British army have reflected that one of the ways in which they were introduced to this career path was through play with Action Man. The detail of the early models is also one of the reasons that they are so popular among collectors today; they depicted accurately everything from uniforms, to medals, to the exact weapons that soldiers, during particular eras, would have carried. It is well established that one of the earliest ways children come to understand the world is through play and in this way toys like Action Man are crucial in developing knowledge of war, nationalism and the military. From personal experience, Airfix models have served as introductions to topics as diverse as the Korean War (MIG fighter-jet), the Tudors (the Mary Rose) and, especially, the Second World War (an assortment of soldiers and planes). Playing with British- and US-themed Action Man models also taught much about who the ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ of international politics were (and they were always ‘guys’ not ‘girls’). 

Across the Atlantic, GI Joe was also seeing a shift in his military credentials around the same time as Action Man was being re-evaluated in the wake of the Iranian Embassy siege. The large and vociferous anti-Vietnam peace movement had adversely affected GI Joe’s sales during the 1970s, as much of the US became disillusioned with conflict and its devastating effect on young lives. To combat this ennui, the designers of GI Joe introduced a more action-orientated range, which dispensed with the figure’s military characteristics in favour of a new ‘Adventure-Team’ approach. This included, among other outfits, a scuba costume, with which the more pacifistic figurine could explore the oceans, harming no one in the process (except the occasional shark). The message was clear: there were plenty of ways to keep young boys entertained, ways that did not require violence.

The Adventure-Team range, though, was a commercial failure and within a few years Hasbro, GI Joe’s makers, had reintroduced more militaristic qualities to the toys, including new uniforms and weapons. Perhaps, as Saki said, they had started too late; children were already accustomed to the more militaristic version of GI Joe. And G. Wayne Miller, in Toy Wars: The Epic Struggle Between GI Joe, Barbie and the Companies that Make Them (1998), has mapped this shift onto the presidential administrations of the time. For him, the figure was altered in direct response to the Reagan era, losing the pacific qualities it possessed under the less belligerent policies of Jimmy Carter and becoming more bellicose as Reagan dramatically expanded Cold War military programmes, such as the ‘Star Wars’ missile defence system. We might recall here, too, Reagan’s stated ambition to rid the US of its ‘Vietnam Syndrome’, a broad, public malaise toward future wars, triggered by the massive unpopularity of that previous conflict. GI Joe and other military toys were one way in which the syndrome played out.


There is an interesting comparison to be made here with perhaps the most famous children’s toy of all  – and certainly one of the most commercially successful – Lego. Founded in Denmark in 1932 by Ole Kirk Kristiansen, Lego has always attempted to adhere to the principles of pacifism. To this day Lego refuses to produce models of contemporary military hardware. Unlike the GI Joe and Action Man ranges, there are no Lego tanks, warplanes or modern weapons and one of the earliest incarnations of the toy even attempted to teach children about traffic safety. In recent years this rule has been somewhat relaxed and Lego ranges related to cinema tie-ins such as Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and the Lone Ranger have all been released. Toys in these ranges come replete with blasters, swords and revolvers, respectively, but these are fantasy and/or historical weapons, rather than contemporary armaments. The Lego policeman, for example, despite being modelled on US officers (who are armed), carries no weapon; rather, he possesses only an identification badge and a pair of handcuffs.

Perhaps sensing an opportunity in the market, the British-based toy designer, Character Group, has recently introduced a Lego-compatible range of toys of their own. Designed in conjunction with Her Majesty’s Armed Forces (HMAF), these include miniature rocket launchers, combat vehicles and artillery and are modelled on actual soldiers and materiel employed in the theatres of Afghanistan and Iraq. Some of the controversies that have surrounded this range, though, perhaps explain one of the reasons why Lego have been reticent to replicate existing military hardware in its product lines. In 2012 Character introduced the ‘RAF Reaper Aircraft & Remote Pilot’, which consists of a Reaper drone and ground-control station. We might recall here, too, Airfix’s model of a ruined ‘Afghan Single Storey Dwelling’ (presumably wrecked by Coalition bombardment). It is perhaps an oversimplification to suggest that, because these toys are inspired by these wars, they necessarily naturalise the same for children. Such an assertion ignores the fact that children do not necessarily play with toys as intended. While children may militarise non-military toys, as Saki suggested, the reverse is also true. In this way, future research might approach children’s ‘war’ play ethnographically, to understand not just some of the messages that are being relayed by certain toys, but how children actually play with them.

Building upon the historical success of Action Man, Character has also introduced an action figure based upon serving British soldiers. These can be bought in a variety of uniforms, from standard infantryman, to commando, to paratrooper. A selection of vehicles can be acquired, too, including an attack helicopter, fast-pursuit battle tank and 105mm field gun. Again, given the reticence of Action Man’s designers to engage with contemporary conflicts such as the Falklands, it is perhaps surprising that this range has been released (and to some commercial success). But what does this trend mean? Has militarism expanded in Britain in recent years? Perhaps, as the ‘Help for Heroes’ charity and the widespread media coverage of Royal Wootton Bassett repatriation ceremonies attest. Perhaps, too, realistic conflict has simply become more accepted in children’s culture. Contemporary video games contain a graphic and immersive realisation of war previously unattainable.


The Labour MP Keith Vaz sponsored an Early Day Motion in the UK Parliament in 2012 to ‘provide for closer scrutiny of aggressive first-person shooter video games’. He was reacting, in part, to the claims of Anders Breivik, the far-right fanatic who murdered 77 of his fellow Norwegians in 2011. Breivik claimed that, before his killing spree, he had trained on the computer game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, using the game to, in his words, ‘develop target acquisition’. This instalment in the Call of Duty series was also controversial for other reasons, featuring, as it did, a mission that necessitated the player murdering several hostages, an action that maintained, for the purposes of the game, the cover of a double agent. While the mission could be skipped without penalty, there was no way for the mission itself to be completed without killing the civilians.

Games, of course, have always, intentionally or otherwise, promoted war and violence. Chess is an abstract representation of a battlefield that has been used to teach military strategy for centuries. Originating in India around the sixth century, chess was based upon an earlier game of strategy called chaturanga, a Sanskrit word for battle formation first mentioned in the Indian epic poem, Mahabharata

From its beginning chess was entwined with martial practice, being both a form of entertainment and a didactic tool for teaching battle tactics (centuries later Peter the Great would take chess sets on his military campaigns). More recently, the game has been entwined with conflict in other ways. During the Cold War, in 1972, the ‘match of the century’, which took place in the Icelandic capital Reykjavik between the Soviet Union’s Boris Spassky and the United States’ Bobby Fischer, served as a proxy for the wider ideological clash between the superpowers. Fischer triumphed, having been persuaded to compete by, among others, US National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger. 


Computer games have perhaps a particular ability to educate indirectly on matters of war and geopolitics. This is because their ‘universes’ can be extremely detailed; unlike traditional toy soldiers, they leave little to the imagination. More than with any other medium, computer games provide the player with the feeling of actually ‘being there’. One of the most popular Second World War-themed games, Medal of Honor (which runs to 12 instalments), allows players to cycle through a myriad of different weapons – from Browning rifles, to Thompson submachine guns, to Webley revolvers – and campaigns – from Pearl Harbor, to D-Day, to the Battle of the Bulge – with a level of detail impossible for all but the most ardent collector of material toy soldiers and weapons-enthusiasts of the Second World War. Moreover, special attention is paid to ensuring that the weapons not only look, but also sound exactly as they would have done during the 1940s. It is this immersive quality that perhaps inculcates war more deeply in the minds of those that play such games. While they are mostly targeted at teenagers and young adults (the Call of Duty series is rated for 16-year-olds and above), younger children often play such games. 

This aspect of the debate over the interface between virtual and actual warfare was crystallised by one of the more famous soldiers of recent years: Prince Harry of Wales. Returning from a three month deployment in Afghanistan in late January, 2013, the prince was asked for his reflections upon his experiences as an Apache helicopter pilot. In a series of interviews he spoke of his satisfaction at being on active duty. In particular he cited his ability to play computer games as an advantage in the fighting that he had undertaken: ‘I’m one of those people who loves playing PlayStation and Xbox, so with my thumbs [on the trigger] I like to think that I’m probably quite useful.’ He then continued to say that, if the Taliban were a threat to him or his comrades, he would have no hesitation in taking them ‘out of the game’.

The prince’s reference was hardly novel; the British army itself has endorsed the kind of connection that he made. In 2009 it introduced a recruiting campaign called ‘Start Thinking Soldier’, which involved playing through a set of virtual missions to see whether one had the ‘right stuff’ to enlist in the armed forces. This followed a similar approach in the US, where the military introduced a recruitment tool, ‘America’s Army’, which required comparable actions from its users. The principle demographic targeted by military recruiters is also, of course, the leading consumer of computer games, which makes this strategy logical. That the controls of Apache helicopters and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are broadly similar to those of, among other consoles, the PlayStation (indeed, the former are often designed with this in mind), only makes this overlap more useful to western militaries.


Compared to games like chess, though, what is notable about virtual games is how they create hyper-realistic worlds. As the geographer Derek Gregory has suggested: ‘Video games do not stage violence as passive spectacle; they are profoundly immersive, drawing players in to their virtual worlds.’ Apache helicopters, such as Prince Harry’s, recreate just such an experience, with a zoomed video display of the target and controls akin to a games console. The prince’s comparison of war with computer games, then, might be read less as a suggestion that western soldiers are becoming increasingly divorced from fighting (although this may be true, too) and more as evidence that the experience of computer games is perhaps being replicated by militaries to facilitate easier and simpler killing of increasingly distanced enemies.

We have come a long way from E.J. Hawley and the attempt to humanise the little toy Boer, but the subject of war toys is no less emotive. With the advent of digital games, the issues addressed here will continue to increase in complexity.

Philip Kirby is Associate Research Fellow in Geography at the University of Exeter, where Sean Carter is Senior Lecturer in Geography. Tara Woodyer is Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Portsmouth.

More than Child’s Play? The Case for War Toys

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