War Games

A new V&A Museum of Childhood exhibition is taking a radical look at children’s war play. MHM Editor Neil Faulkner has just visited with two of his children.

Playing with toy guns and watching war movies encourages children to be violent. Or do they?

Many parents think it wrong to give their children military-themed toys, or to allow them to play military-themed computer games. They assume it encourages children to be aggressive and militaristic. But does it?

Savile Lumley’s famous poster (c. 1914-1915) for the British Parliamentary Recruiting Committee.

One of the best things about this splendid little exhibition is that it challenges some simplistic assumptions. War is so deep-rooted in human culture that children are bound to come into contact with all manner of references to it. It is also an exceptionally dramatic and exciting form of experience, which subjects people to extremes of discomfort, endurance, and danger, evoking from them corresponding extremes of physical and psychological response. It is difficult for many adults to avoid becoming fascinated. It seems hopeless to expect children not to be.

Playing at War

This issue is tackled head-on in the first of the exhibition’s four themed parts. We are reminded that children’s play is always essentially imitative. Children imitate that which they see around them, and also that which is depicted in pictures, books, films, TV programmes, and computer simulations. Toys are designed to provide the necessary props. Those that are not supplied commercially – or which are denied by grown-ups – can always be improvised. The War Games exhibition features a stick rifle, a stick hand-gun, and a lego hand-gun.

Generals by John Heywood (1985). Does such war play foster aggression and violence? The hard research is inconclusive.

The academic research about the affects of this is inconclusive. The ‘responsible’ parents and teachers who discourage war play feel instinctively that it must foster aggression. Concerns have been heightened by the strength of liberal, feminist, and pacifist sentiment since the Second World War. But there is no hard evidence to support a link between war play and personal aggression. Children from a very early age know the difference between play and reality; they know that in play you should not cause actual harm – indeed, that if you do, play will cease and trouble ensue!

Red astronaut robot ‘Cragstan’ of the 1950s. Science fiction as a significant genre dates from the late 19th century, but it was not until the post-war period that it gathered real momentum and in due course became the basis of numerous varieties of mass-produced toys.

War play may actually be beneficial. It may be cathartic and educative, allowing children to explore their emotions and learn how to manage them. It may also help them understand an otherwise frighteningly violent adult world. And, like other imaginative play, it may foster a range of generic skills.

What is the alternative? Children will find ways to imitate war whatever adults do. And is not the acting out of conflict necessary both to engender an awareness of the consequences of violence and to frame a growing understanding of right and wrong? (My son routinely asks: ‘Who are the goodies and who are the baddies?’ Not always an easy question to answer.)

Is not war play a route into military history? And what serious student of military history can regard war as anything other than tragedy?

A detachment of cardboard Prussian cuirassiers from the time of the Franco-Prussian War.

On the Battlefield

The exhibition aims to explore the role of warfare in children’s play from 1800 to the present-day, and the second themed section charts chronological changes in toys, relating these to the evolving social context.

Toys have mirrored the development of weapons technology, the geography of theatres of war, and the identity and character of armies. That they should do this seems obvious. Yet the closeness of the correspondence between toys and contemporary reality has varied over time.

Colonial Wars

Toy soldier set, 17th Lancers, made by Britains Ltd, England, 1900.
Toy soldier set, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, made by Britains Ltd, England, 1900.

In the heyday of imperialism before the First World War, there is no doubt that war toys encouraged identification with European armies engaged in colonial subjugation. A detachment of miniature lead 17th Lancers, and another of the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, both dating from 1900, are surely meant to be deployed against hordes of fanatical Dervishes or Pathans.

The Great War was reflected in toys replicating the growing range of military hardware being deployed by the great powers – like the German clockwork torpedo-boat on display – and by war games that invited participants to take on the role of commanders – such as ‘Aviation: the aerial tactics game of attack and defence’, produced in the 1920s.

The fascination with contemporary conflict continued through the interwar period and into the Second World War. A Nazi-era toy on display represents a German military field-hospital. At the time, of course, Hitler’s regime was concerned both to build up the Wehrmacht in defiance of Versailles Treaty restrictions and to restore the standing of the military in German public consciousness.

The Second World War remained a focus of toy-makers in Britain – though not in Germany – long after 1945. I remember that my own and my friends’ Action Men in the 1960s could be kitted out as WW2-vintage British, Australian, American, Russian, or German soldiers – even as ‘French Resistance fighters’.

Toy-makers often liaised with military suppliers to ensure the accuracy of their own products. But the deeper significance of all these toys was the way in which they encouraged identification with the nation-state’s armed forces and therefore with associated ideas of militarism, imperialism, nationalism, and patriotism.

Post-war colonial campaigns, on the other hand, proved uninspiring for toy-makers, and the Vietnam War, having engendered global revulsion and resistance, triggered a major shift – into a fantasy world.

The Great War

A German clockwork torpedo-boat of c. 1912; a British wartime game ‘Get Rid of Huns’ produced in 1916.
A British boardgame, ‘Aviation: the aerial tactics game of attack and defence’, based on WWI experience, produced by H P Gibson & Sons Ltd in England in the 1920s.

Reality to Fantasy

The science fiction of late 19th-century writers like Jules Verne and H G Wells had conjured images of futuristic weaponry. Wells had imagined fleets of German airships creating a firestorm in New York, and armies of Martians landing in Sussex and emerging from their spaceship mounted on metallic tripods and equipped with ray-guns. He had also, as it happens, been an early advocate of formal war-gaming, publishing a set of rules in 1913 under the title Little Wars (the thoroughly non-PC full title was Little Wars: a game for boys from twelve years of age to one hundred and fifty and for that more intelligent sort of girl who likes boys’ games and books). A copy is on display.

But the great majority of war toys mimicked reality until the 1960s. Then, anti-war sentiment seems to have produced a strong negative reaction – and a partial retreat into a fantasy world on the part of toy-makers. The Cold War was the context for this. There was no all-out war, and the numerous proxy wars that did take place were controversial ‘dirty wars’. On the other hand, nuclear power and the space race gave impetus to all kinds of science fiction.

Superheroes, aliens, and monsters replaced soldiers in fighting fantastical battles between good and evil. Henceforward, Dr Who, Star Trek, and Star Wars were as likely to provide the framework for children’s war-play as anything from real-life. And if not a retreat into fantasy, then there was a retreat into a more distant past: the plastic figures in the toy box in the 1970s were quite likely to be medieval knights, Civil War infantry, or ‘cowboys and indians’.

The Second World War

Toy soldier set, German Army medical service, produced by O M Hausser and A G Lineol, c. 1936.
A model Spitfire produced by Mettoy in England in the 1940s.
A card game, ‘England Expects: the great naval card game’, produced by the Chad Valley Co. Ltd. in England in c. 1940.
A plastic tank produced by Palitoy in England in the 1960s.
A plastic WWII Spitfire produced by Airfix in the 1970s.
A plastic WWII Lockheed Lightning produced by Airfix in the 1970s.

Secret Weapons

I was fascinated by a shiny metallic model from 1930s Germany of an SS staff car bearing none other than the Führer himself. When I pointed the figure out, there was instant recognition from both 12-year-old daughter and nine-year-old son.

The object is one of many to remind us that toys are multi-layered, multi-dimensional objects, and not the least of their capacities is that of transmitting ideological messages to those who are not yet equipped to read them critically – though in this case, at least, my children knew well enough that this particular toy depicted a monster.

The V&A Museum of Childhood is on Cambridge Heath Road in London, E2 9PA – just five minutes from Bethnal Green tube. It is housed in an architecturally superb example of a Victorian civic building. It comprises a single massive open-plan interior space, divided between a cavernous central hall, and side galleries arranged on two floors. The roof structure is supported on a framework of elegant iron pillars and arches. The place is filled with natural light. Admission is free (including the War Games exhibition) and the museum is open 10am to 5.30pm daily. War Games is scheduled to run from 25 May 2012 to 9 March 2014.
All images: © V&A.