War Toys and Their Effect on Children
Jason Keator
NCSU, Class of 2002

The question of whether war toys effects children and their understanding of violence has not been studied completely. However, many parents believe that these toys do have an effect on children because of their violence and adult themes. The G.I Joe toy, which Hasbro created during the Vietnam War, exemplifies such fears that many parents have. It takes on the basic war theme of men engaged in conflict with military weaponry. As the toy grew in popularity Sunbow Productions (1983) and later Dic Animations created a television cartoon. But, as its popularity rose, so did parents' protest. They not only protested their children playing with G.I Joe, they now had to prevent them from watching it on television. This cartoon brought the action of war and violence to "life" and this worried parents. Seemingly Hasbro, Sunbow Productions, and Dic Animations presented an attractive product with little or no regards to the effects it may have on children. This type of war toys marketing has a negative invlence on children.

War toys gained a big market during the Vietnam war, and with the increase came protest. Disapproval from "parents and educators, advertising fell to earlier levels by 1967" (Smith 67). Because of the looser restrictions on what broadcasters allow on television,  war toys make a comeback in the 1980s.  Accrodingto Peter Smith,

The deregulation of television in the United States in the 1980s, the loosening of restrictions in the United Kingdom, and the coming of satellite and cable television, together with the development of program-length commercials and the associated marketing of war toys, have reawakened fears of many parents and teachers about this kind of play. ( 67)
Hasbro profited very well with their G.I Joe line, and with the increase in toy sales, manufacturers created cartoons, Marvel comic , and even movies. G.I Joe made a huge impact on children's play scene. G.I Joe took on the title of "A Real American Hero," and the slogan helped push these toys ahead of all competition. As a result of the comeback, protests form parents also reemerged.

People who would object that war toys and cartoons do not effect children would argue that the good G.I Joe characters project a positive image. They would state G.I Joe heroes, which happen to be G.I Joe themselves, take on more of a positive quality. The G.I Joes "fight for freedom and liberty, make world safe for democracy, use violence only as self-defense" (Hesse and Mack 142). With these characteristics, children would view them as good. They also would associate the heroes in the G.I Joe cartoon/toy with Americans and America values. For example, G.I Joes would represent equality among all men and women. Psychologists studying the long-term effects that war toys have on children stated, "The G.I Joe's look like a cross-section of the American population. Most of them are white, some look Irish, some are black, and others are Hispanic" (Hesse and Mack 142). This equality could teach children that all races and genders can work together. The G.I Joe's themselves have good qualities and they teach children good ideas.

Even though G.I Joe heroes possess good qualities, they still share the basic war theme that parents do not want their children watching. Parents fear that their children will view these cartoons and toys as make believe and see real war as pretend. They believe that these type of toys encourage violence among their children. Psychologists Peter Smith says, "Opponents of war play argue that such forms of play impoverish the child's imagination and encourage aggressive behavior" (68). Parents argue that the distinction between pretend and reality is not absolute, and that the steady incorporation of war toys and violence into play may in fact make violent behavior more common later.

In addition to concerns about violence, psychologists discovered problems with the characteristics and themes of the war cartoons such as G.I Joe. In many children cartoons and toys, the enemy takes on characteristics of "animal or beast, as barbarian, as evil thorough and through, as Satan, death, or torturer" (Hesse and Mack 132). Taking the G.I Joe characters as an example, one sees the leader of the "enemy" taking qualities of a dictator. Hesse and Mack  say, "Cobra Commander, the enemy of the G.I Joe's, is the most Hitleresque of all the enemies shown on children's television" (138). Cobra Commander's qualities also show an aggressive violent person who will stop at nothing to get what he wants, even if that includes destroying the world.  According to Hesse and Mack,  "Cobra Commander takes on qualities of aggression and violence, foreign enjoys violence against individuals, rules to terrorize, Nazi-Soviet, selfish, and emotionally out of control" (138). These qualities and characteristics do nothing but place fear in children's minds. They also view the enemy as a force that will hurt them and will only stop with violent actions, such as war.

Even though the protagonists in G.I Joe represent good qualities, could these qualities not be better expressed in ways other than vioncence. Petra Hesse and John Mack found that, "in view of the facts that children's cartoon shows are more violent than any other program on television, children's tendency to engage in aggressive behavior in short and long term can be expected to be increased by watching these shows" (147). Children may appear to enjoy the aggression that the hero commits, but they do not understand the effects as damaging. Even though play fighting has gone on for many decades among young boys, the mimicking of television program fighting could lead to serious injuries. Full of scenes filled with hand-to-hand combat and gun fights, G.I Joe leads to many dangerous scenarios for children.

Though studies of war toys and war cartoons have not had any evidence on the long term effects, theories have been drawn. Obsession with war toys and violence does show a conflicting issue and can cause long term problems. The war theme in the G.I Joe toys and cartoon line crosses the line between play and enjoyment. War and violence do not have a "fun" theme, and if one would ask an actual soldier if s/he likes war and thinks it is fun, s/he would probably disagree.  Furthermore children who constantly watch and play with toys such as G.I Joe may become desensitized to real life issues. Psychologists say, "Many scene on G.I Joe give children false information about nuclear weapons, nuclear war, and radiation sickness. They suggest that nuclear weapons are harmless, and that radiation sickness can be cured with herb tea" (Hesse and Mack 149). This falsehood again does not benefit children. If anything, it gives them a false blanket of security and makes them unaware.

These cartoons also show children the world as a "dangerous place, and that the world "is populated with evil" (Hesse and Mack 147). They also teach children that the world "is divided between good and evil. Good people tend to be American, and evil people are usually from foreign countries" ( Hesse and Mack 147). Again the problem being the aggressive nature a child may take towards a child from another country or even another child with whom they have a conflict of interest. Toy makers and cartoonists should not take on the major responsibility of bringing real life issues to children.

The responsibility of what children should and should not watch does not lie marketers and advertisers of toys like G.I Joe. As Hesse and Mack state, "Ultimately parents, teachers, pediatricians, psychologists, psychiatrists, and others concerned with how children grow up must decide what is acceptable fare for children's television" (151). Also parents should watch their child play and make sure that play fighting does not exceed an acceptable manner. Even though a parent cannot watch their child all the time, they should instill in them what they view as right and wrong. A toy and a cartoon such as G.I Joe does not influence children as much as a parent does.  But, even toy manufactures share a certain moral responsibilities towards their advertisements of their toys, and should seriously examine the possible effects their products may have on children.

In closing, war toys and war cartoons do not meet the best requirements for teaching children life issues. G.I Joe does not promote anything worth-while for a child to gain knowledge. Death and war do not belong in a child's experience and war toys have no place in a child's hands. As the times change and school violence becomes a major issue, violence on television and in the toy stores do nothing to cure this problem. War toys only harm our children; in a violent society, promoting violence only adds more "fuel on the fire." Also Hesse and Mack argue, " It is the responsibility of the society as a whole to determine whether these programs are acceptable educational materials for our children" (151).


Related WWW links

G.I. Joe Collector's site

Works Cited