One of those toy mega-stores opened in our Manhattan neighborhood recently, the kind with miles of aisles and inventory stacked to the rafters. Since I make my living by writing about foreign affairs and American culture, I was curious to see what the industry would be telling my 18-month-old son in the years to come about the United States' relationship to the world beyond its borders. The news is not encouraging.
My informal survey turned up just one toy that presented a benign or neutral image of the outside world. This was an electronic Discovery Globe made by Fisher-Price, which dominates the under-5 market. A viewer in the globe offers 120 illuminated images, from the ruins of Mayan pyramids to the Great Wall of China, from the Slavs ("As you can see, like the U.S., the Soviet Union is something of a melting pot,") to the Japanese ("great lovers of beauty").
The uglier stuff began in the next aisle, with a board game called Fortress America. This comes with a detailed booklet outlining the political background to the play. Terrorists have detonated a crude nuclear device in the Persian Gulf and the United States has secretly deployed Star Wars technology to solve the resulting energy crisis. Now America, crippled by cuts in its defense budget, is under attack by three armies--the Euro-Socialist Pact, the Asian People's Alliance and the Central American Federation. Aim of the game: Save the country.
Board games are somewhat passe, of course. For younger kids, particularly boys 8 to 12, the market is dominated by Nintendo-type video games, which now account for 20% of all U.S. toy sales. Nintendo's Operation Wolf is typical of the games with a foreign-policy theme. Again, there's a little handbook to set the scene: "Location: South American jungle. Situation: Terrorists have taken American embassy officials as prisoners . . . The time has come for someone to teach the terrorists what terror is all about."
Nintendo's competitors offer a similar menu. In Turbo Grafx's Bloody Wolf, the President has been kidnapped by "terrorist guerrillas." Sega gives us Thunder Blade, in which "rebel forces aim to take over America and and install their cruel and brutal dictator." In other games, the player (an elite commando, or sometimes a mercenary) must rescue his buddies from gangs of swarthy, bearded, Cuban-style guerrillas or from unseen captors in the jungle prisons of Southeast Asia.
If old neuroses about Cuba and Vietnam are never far from the surface of these games, the racially charged imagery that ripples out from those foreign-policy defeats is especially troubling. These games invariably involve white heroes in combat with pitiless and devious yellow- or olive-skinned adversaries. The same is true of the innumerable games on ninja and martial-arts themes, in which the player fights to the death with a succession of wily Orientals, from Chinese wrestlers to Thai kick-boxers.
The irony here is that the toys that help form our children's images of the world are increasingly made by the same yellow- and brown-skinned people they portray so viciously. U.S. toy companies, in search of cheaper labor, are looking more and more toward Latin America and Asia (China being a particularly favored location these days). Fisher-Price, for example, says that roughly one-third of its toys are now made in Asia, and another third in Mexico.
This high-tech children's universe is rife with fears of a world full of enemies. "We're intent on making a good game and not interested in portraying reality," says a spokesperson for Milton Bradley, which makes Fortress America. That seems disingenuous, for this new crop of toys bears the clear political stamp of the more paranoid fringes of the far right, those whose world view prospered during what one might call the age of high Reaganism--say, between the invasion of Grenada in October, 1983, and the eruption of the Iran-Contra affair in 1986.
Of course, war toys have always used grotesque enemy stereotypes. But as a friend points out perceptively, the new technology breeds its own forms of paranoia. The point of traditional games was to keep playing until you won; with Nintendo and its ilk, the program demands that you play until you are destroyed.
Across town, in the affluent boutiques of Manhattan's Upper East Side, parents are shopping this week for enlightened toys like Hug-a-Planet. No such luck for middle- and working-class parents. Their sons and daughters are the ones who will go off to fight our future wars, having first encountered the face of the enemy on the shelves of Child World and Toys "R" Us.