Between the Lines

Between the Lines

Web page   This page appeared on the JC Penney website last year. The ad for a toy called "Forward Command Post" features an American soldier standing in a bombed-out house. It's an example of the growing collaboration, in recent years, between the entertainment industry and the U.S. military:

  • The military is using video games of violent conflict both to train soldiers and to recruit young boys by introducing them to the virtual experience of combat (see details below);
  • the Army has hired Hollywood movie technicians to design new equipment for urban combat. It paid $45 million to set up a combat think-tank called the Institute for Creative Technologies, where people who worked on Alien, Apocalypse Now, and Back to the Future use simulation and video game technology to develop new equipment and techniques for the soldiers of the future;
  • and combat play reaps big profits. Video games with themes of terrorism and war in Middle-Eastern settings are selling well. In the game "Conflict: Desert Storm" (Gotham Games), the object is to lead a commando squad on a series of missions culminating with the player personally killing a Saddam Hussein-like character. Other popular games include "SOCOM (Special Operations COMmand), U.S. Navy SEALS" (Sony); "Soldier of Fortune II: Double Helix" (Activision); and Tora Bora Ted.

Soldier   Toy soldiers are not what they were in the era of G.I. Joe figures deployed over imaginary battlefields. Today's war toys are increasingly explicit in defining the experience for the child. A toy gun called "Laser Challenge V2" comes with a hit-recording vest, inviting kids as young as eight to shoot each other in the chest.

House   Where is this house? It appeared on the JC Penney website right around the time talk of a U.S. invasion of Baghdad was heating up. The military noted that its smart weapons would enable it to avoid "collateral damage," but this house has been thoroughly trashed.

What They Love   Traditionally, boys' and girls' toys have often been contrasted as being "rough-and-tumble" versus "nurturing." But that distinction may be disappearing, not only for healthy reasons of waning gender stereotyping, but for more questionable reasons such as the growing tolerance of-or obliviousness to-aggression and hostility in play by both sexes. Burger King, for example, apparently saw nothing amiss in its recent "Kids Meals" promotion featuring a plush toy bird called "Silly Slammer Chirpy," which is accompanied by directions instructing the child to "slam" the bird to elicit a chirping response.

Ages 5 and up   Is a five-year-old mature enough to grasp the implications of a war in which people's houses are wrecked and commandeered by soldiers? Some psychologists are concerned, but children are frequent targets for violent entertainment-and for the military itself, which uses toys and games as a means of getting kids accustomed to the idea of killing. A U.S. Army website features a game called "America's Army: Operations," in which kids can experience virtual combat. The purpose is to facilitate eventual recruitment. "Some of the kids who play it are four years away from joining," says Col. Casey Wardynski. "We want to put the Army in the set of things they are thinking about."

In other toys for boys, a video game called "Burnout 2: Point of Impact" (Acclaim), which is advertised as appropriate for ages six and up, shows a man's head crashing through a windshield; and in the game Vice City (Rock Star Games), kids learn to win by attacking people without provocation and beating them to a bloody pulp.

Catalogs   This toy was also featured in JC Penney's 2002 Christmas catalog. Christmas toys once featured Middle-Eastern settings such as the stable sheltering a baby Jesus, or the scene of three wise men looking at the Star of Bethlehem. This toy shows a house where the family is presumably fleeing, wounded, or dead. It's a curious way to celebrate the spirit of Christmas, Hannukkah, or Ramadan.

Contact us   The activist group called JC Penney's head office (972-431-1000) to discuss its concerns about Forward Command Post, but calls were not returned. The address of Penney's corporate office is 6501 Legacy Drive, Plano, Texas 75024-3698.

World Peace Keepers Battle Station   An oxymoron? Steven Feldgaier, a University of Manitoba child psychologist who specializes in anxiety and stress among children, says toys like this "send the confusing message that peace is linked with the need to arm yourself."

Battle zone   Emphasis in today's play violence is increasingly on urban settings. "This is not just another war toy," says Eric Garris, webmaster of the California-based "It's a total paradigm shift in the war toy industry. It's setting up the young people for this new kind of war, where soldiers come into your house and take it over when they need to."

American flag   The idea of planting American flags in other countries has become routine. Currently there are U.S. military operations or bases in at least 52 countries.

Published in World Watch Magazine, May/June 2003, Volume 16, No. 3