The Coastal Post - April, 1996

Teaching Kids To Kill—San Rafael Merchant Makes Killing Selling War Toys


The business of making-killing-fun is not a new one. From toy soldiers and guns to computer war games, deadly play has always claimed a comfortable niche in the corporate marketplace.

Not to miss out on a corporate trend, Marin County's Independent Journal recently ran a promotional piece, giving non-critical publicity to Gamescape, a San Rafael game store that is making record profits with its newest game, "Warhammer 40,000." Warhammer, manufactured by Games Workshop Ltd., a company based in Nottingham, England, successfully markets toys and games that teach children, not to be creative, but to destroy, not to "resolve conflict," but to win. Not to think, but to kill.

Gamescape manager Alex Taylor, told IJ reporter Betsy Bozdech that sales of games like Warhammer 40K are up throughout the Bay Area. Gamescape's sales for the period from September to December 1995 rose an impressive 280 percent from the same period in 1994.

What's Wrong With This Picture (Window)?

Through strategic use of the store's display windows, Gamescape's theme of war-as-high-fashion-chic is graphically apparent even before potential customers enter the store. Warhammer is trendy right now, but through the window, shoppers can view other games. Titles like "Nuclear War" and "Necromunda (In the Grim Darkness of the Far Future, there is only War)" serve as sure eye-catchers to the consumer. These games are displayed alongside less malevolent games like "Scrabble," "Mousetrap" and "Chess."

By interspersing the innocent with the not-so-innocent and the ominous with the less ominous, this clever bit of camouflage marketing serves to bait consumers by appealing to the carefully cultivated and now internalized concept of war-as-hobby. By promoting intellectuality, family fun and killing as if they were all equal parts in the quest for family values, it is not difficult to comprehend how even the most peaceful parent might find themselves irresistibly targeted.

"Enter The Dark Worlds Of The Future Where Mankind Stands On The Brink Of Destruction..."

In the words of their brochure, "Warhammer 40,000" is the tabletop game of futuristic battles... (wherein) you must outmaneuver your opponent in a carnage-filled test of wits and tactics."

Warhammer 40K, as true devotees call it, puts a new twist on the old paint-by-numbers theme. By allowing children to paint their own figurines and scenery, blood and all, the concept of "creativity" is introduced into the art of destruction.

When 15-year-old John Donahue of San Rafael, told IJ reporter Betsy Bozdech, "You have to use your mind... (to play Warhammer)" and, "It really keeps you thinking," Bozdech apparently never thought to ask, "to what end?"

The value of "making kids think" or, "honing interactive skills"—as promotional literature for any violent video game will tell you—is indisputable. The era of the high-tech information revolution would be hard-pressed to find a parent or teacher who fails to recognize the importance of computer literacy, eye-hand coordination and "readiness."

But concepts of "readiness," and even "quick thinking" in the context of a war-based economy, warrant a closer look. Games that teach children to think, respond and act like soldiers, should at the very least, be viewed with skepticism.

Be All You Can't Be...

The appeal of Warhammer is primitive. By playing on children's (and parents') deep emotional need for simple solutions to a troublesome and complex world, Warhammer and other kill-games understandably generate a kind of primal nostalgia. Warhammer's array of highly imaginative plastic miniatures, exotic war gear and realistic scenery are all quite compelling. It is easy to see how the potential hours of imaginative (and perhaps) even quiet play could prove irresistibly attractive to an overworked parent.

The phone at Gamescape rings incessantly. More often than not the caller is a customer checking to make sure that Warhammer is still in stock. Yuppie-type parents who lust, on behalf of their kids, after anything "new," patronize Gamescape on a daily basis, re-enforcing market theory that yesterday's rebels are today's consumers. Heavy metal wannabes, presumably in the mistaken belief that they are making a non-conformist statement, seem also to have a bad case of the be-the-first-one-on-your-block syndrome. All that conformity under the guise of non-conformity translates into big bucks for kill-toy manufacturers.

What is significant and disturbing about the rush on Warhammer is not so much its visceral and widespread appeal as what that appeal represents. Warhammer's popularity typifies the conformist spirit of consumerism, without which the corporate-military economy could not survive.

So far, Warhammer seems not to have made big gains among the working poor. It's baseline selling price is approximately $70, a figure that may be a little pricey for the not-so-privileged.

Hell Is For Children—The Culture Of Contradiction

Psychologist Erik Erikson believes children's play offers, "a micro-reality in which the child can use toys in order to... anticipate future roles and events with the spontaneity and repetitiveness which characterizes all creative ritualization." That children learn through modeling is as fundamental to human emotional development as good nutrition is to physical development. Children learn through listening and watching, then imitating and doing—or acting out.

This theory is so basic that it has served as the cornerstone for countless studies performed by anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists and philosophers. The preponderance of evidence yielded by their research has lead scientists to accept the concept of role-modeling as academic.

So integral, so obvious in fact, that it seems hardly worthy of debate. Why then do parents—who are otherwise responsible, loving people—tolerate the acting out of brutal killing games by their (mostly male) children? May we assume that those same parents would display a similarly tolerant attitude if their child requested "The Child Abuse Game," "The Stealing Game," or how about "Wife-beater Action Figures"—for Christmas maybe?

Kill Toys 'R Us

Allowing children to play games like those listed above—that give points for immoral or socially destructive behaviors—would almost certainly be considered untenable by parents and professionals. They would contend that such games are antithetical to the most basic human values.

Nonetheless, Sonoma County clinical psychologist Ofer Zur recently caused quite a stir with his claim that pretending to kill is, "a healthy outlet for aggression." New evidence, Zur told the San Francisco Chronicle, suggests just that. Zur and other academics not only buy into the "kill-toys-are-friendly" theory but are busy spreading the word to concerned parents everywhere.

The lack of creativity in Zur's uninspired line of logic typlifies the mentality that has brought us to this critical point in history. The tragedy of parents ignoring their own intuition and deferring to "expert witnesses" like Zur cannot be overstated.

Assuming for the moment that Zur's "psycho-logic" (that pretending to kill serves the purpose of exorcising anger and aggression that might otherwise turn ugly) makes sense to him, presumably he would have no problem with that "Stealing Game." And no doubt, the concept of a "Child Abuse Game" (Barbie becomes Mommy Dearest), would be a big hit with "Zurists."

The Courage To Create...

Social, economic and political institutions that consciously embody the same values they preach are essential to societal and cultural integrity. To raise small children on a diet of Sesame Street and Mister Rogers (where they learn to share and cooperate), then present them with a game of Mortal Kombat or Warhammer 40K on their seventh or eighth birthday is a prescription for disintegration.

We have placed an impossible burden on our children. From circumcision to war, we tolerate, even admire, institutional ruthlessness, aggression, greed, violence, environmental destructiveness and killing. By routinely sanctioning massive organized violation of our own ethics and laws, while discouraging and forbidding the same behavior in individuals, we have become a society of contradiction and hypocrisy.

But hypocrisy is quickly perceived by the young, who are not so ideologically entrenched nor economically invested in the dogma of its purveyors. The confusion displayed by their elders when these same young people become disinterested, rebellious and even contemptuous of adult society represents a classic manifestation of the problem.

Traditional Values—Killing As Institution

While Warhammer's popularity in the Bay area seems to reflect disproportionately high sales among the middle class, that is not to say that poor and non-white kids aren't exposed to violent games. They are. Even the inner city has video stores and most are well-stocked with "action-packed" video games. There are precious few children who have not played a game of "Mortal Kombat."

Unfortunately the growing national disparity between the haves and have-nots provide working and lower-middle class parents with plenty of reason to look the other way when their sons and daughters engage in interactive kill-games. Those who struggle daily in the brutal work force of the nineties are acutely aware that the games their children play today may serve as the only real job-training they will ever receive. They are training for one of the only secure remaining job markets—the armed forces.

War as an institution is a time-honored tradition. In the U.S., war toys are as much a part of everyday life as church, school and apple pie. The same children who learned conflict resolution in grammar school are, in their teen years, introduced to ROTC or even military school. That boys seem to prefer to model their play after war heroes makes perfect sense in a world rooted culturally and historically in war and killing.

It is no coincidence that the recycling and successful marketing of war games comes on the heels of the Gulf War. Like its fantasy counterparts, the Gulf War was perceived in the U.S. as something of a fashion statement, a tidy, bloodless little war—one that even ex-hippies-turned-yuppies could get behind. That so many were so mislead by so few, with such relative ease, says sad volumes about the state of real literacy in this computer-crazed nation.

The conventional wink-and-nod attitude toward war games makes sense in the broader nationalistic scheme of things. Government-sponsored killing, we are told, is a duty, a responsibility. Conflict resolution is for cowards, communists and criminals. In a nation where otherwise intelligent people accept without criticism the blatant contradictions inherent in our institutions and pass them on to their children without question, the premise that pretending to kill is, "just what boys do," seems almost logical.

In a time of "Conflict Resolution" classes and the"V-Chip," a time when parent, teachers and child psychologists—anyone involved with young people on any level—readily lament the fact that the most troublesome problem faced by society today is violence, the business of selling kill-toys to children presents a uniquely twisted symbol of all that is wrong with the world. The cultural double standard is sordid enough to demoralize the most enlightened child, disillusion the most idealistic and break the heart and spirit of the most sensitive.

We Have Met The Enemy...

It is rare that an opportunity for meaningful grassroots direct action presents itself in such an obvious manifestation as Gamescape and its local promotion of Warhammer. Confronting those who market products that promote outdated and destructive cultural mythology under the auspices of "children's entertainment," is an important first step toward confronting our own fears and prejudices.

Organizing a massive boycott of war-game manufacturers and-or picketing their retail outlets like Gamescape would draw attention to an important symptom of a serious societal sickness. But to lay blame for the pervasive sociological and spiritual issues that plague our society on toy manufacturers and their retail outlets is to miss the point completely.

Poet Benjamin Disraeli once correctly asserted that it is "institutions alone that can create a nation." If there is hope to be found, it will be in the willingness of a few creative and courageous individuals to confront and challenge those institutions, along with the underlying assumptions that allow war and other forms of institutionally-sanctioned violence to continue at the peril of our children.

Sandy Leon is a freelance journalist and producer in the news department at radio station KPFA. She is currently writing a book on the topic of institutionalized violence, entitled, "Teaching Kids To Kill."