The War Play Dilemma

This is a review and comments on this excellent book:
    "The War Play Dilemma: What Every Parent And Teacher Needs to Know"
    by Diane E. Levin (Author), Nancy Carlsson-Paige

From the editorial review:

As violence in the media and media-linked toys increases, parents and teachers are also seeing an increase in children's war play. The authors have revised this popular text to provide more practical guidance for working with children to promote creative play, and for positively influencing the lessons about violence children are learning.

Using a developmental and sociopolitical viewpoint, the authors examine five possible strategies for resolving the war play dilemma and show which best satisfy both points of view: banning war play; taking a laissez-faire approach; allowing war play with specified limits; actively facilitating war play; and limiting war play while providing alternative ways to work on the issues. New for the Second Edition:
* More anecdotal material about adults' and children's experiences with war play, including examples from both home and school settings.
* Greater emphasis on the impact of media and commercialization on children's war play, including recent trends in media, programming, marketing, and war toys.
* Expanded discussion about the importance of the distinction between imitative and creative war play.
* Summary boxes of key points directed at teachers or parents.
* New information about violent video games, media cross feeding, and gender development and sex-role stereotyping.
* A more extensive list of resources and further reading for adults and children.

Here is a short pdf article by one of the authors on some of these themes:
    "Beyond Banning War and Superhero Play"

A few key ideas from the book:

The deregulation of children's media during the early 1980s (Reagan administration) led to an alliance of media companies and toy companies and other companies (like food companies); the result of this is an immersion for many children in an interlinked experience of seeing media about violence, purchasing related action figures and toys and video games, and having these items promoted every place they go (whether to buy fast-food or just in other kid's homes). This is a big change from the media environment from the 1960s and 1970s that many of today's parents grew up in.

The authors point out that the behaviors promoted by this alliance tend to be very sex-role stereotypical, as in boys need to be fighters and girls need to be princesses. For many children, the authors suggest they can get locked into a pattern of endless cycling through stereotyped behaviors. While it is true that knights and princesses have long been important parts of many children's play (so this is not intended to dismiss that), what has changed for some children is the tone and extremeness of those experience because of the high degree of continual interrelated media/toy/game/food saturation. Rather than children being able to express themselves building on those knight/princess themes in their own unique ways, because of the integrated marketing, for many children there becomes only one way to be a knight or a princess (as defined by some media and accompanying purchased toys to be used in only very precise and narrow ways). The book focuses mainly on the boy part of this equation. One of the authors has writings on the female stereotyping aspect of media and other issues, described here:

The "dilemma" is about a fundamental conflict parents face when dealing with war play. On the one hand, most parents want children to grow and develop by working through developmental issues (like learning to deal with conflict, learning self-control, and learning respect for themselves and others through play, including play involving conflicts as hands-on-learning). On the other hand, most parents want to convey social values related to their beliefs about violence and war as ways to solve social conflicts. The authors clearly do not say all war play is bad, and they also point out that even a cracker can be turned into a gun with one bite. The authors say there are no easy general answers to this dilemma in all situations, but provide a range of options.

They suggest younger kids have trouble distinguishing between fantasy and reality, and when children are getting hurt, they suggest pointing out to the children what is obvious to any adult, that some other child is just pretending to be a "bad guy" and they are not really a "bad guy". (It can also helps to try to break out of the bad guy / good guy mindset entirely, to talk about "bad actions" instead of "bad people".)

There are a variety of things one can say and do for children who have gotten locked into a repetitive cycle of war play. They give examples of questions to ask to try to help children broaden their behavioral options in regard to war play. These range from asking how the weapons are supposed to work, asking what if the weapon did some other thing (like sprayed foam instead of bullets), to asking what the "bad guy" does when he is not fighting.

As an example of expanding behavioral possibilities, perhaps an interest in, say, light sabers might eventually lead to an interest in math and physics. Here are some funny related web pages:

Have you ever wondered how these remarkable weapons work? Where does the energy come from, and how are they able to contain that energy in a rod-like column of glowing power? In this article, you will have a chance to look inside a lightsaber and discover the source of its incredible characteristics. Let's get started!"

And an interest in light sabers might lead to imagining other non-stereotyped uses for one, also from that site:

If you are lucky enough to acquire a lightsaber, you are probably purchasing it for personal defense purposes. A lightsaber completely blows away a can of pepper spray as a deterrent in muggings or robberies. However, many new owners are pleasantly surprised by the many domestic uses of a lightsaber around the home or office. Let's examine a few of the more common applications here, and then you can use your imagination to come up with others."

One example there is how a lightsaber can both cut and toast a bagel at the same time. :-)

From the table of contents, here is the list of topics in their "Guidelines for Resolving the War Play Dilemma" (each topic has a few pages of explanation and suggestions):

* Guideline 1: Limit Children's Exposure to Violence
* Guideline 2: Help Children Engage in Creative and Meaningful Dramatic Play
* Guideline 3: Learn as Much as You Can [about the media scenes kids view]
* Guideline 4: In Children's War Play, Address the Issues
* Guideline 5: Work to Counteract the Lessons About Violence and Stereotyping
* Guideline 6: Make Keeping the Play Safe You Highest Priority
* Guideline 7: Limit the Use of Highly Structured Violent Toys
* Guideline 8: Work to Counteract Highly Stereotyped and Limiting Gender Roles
* Guideline 9: Create an Ongoing Dialog Between Educators and Parents

In my own life, I grew up being taught in public school that I lived in a modern day Athens. As I've grow older, and paid more attention to politics and where taxes go, it feels more to me more like I live in a modern day Sparta. :-( Here is a long list of where many of our tax dollars have gone:
I was surprised to learn how long that list is, regardless of how one feels about the value of any specific event.

I've come to agree with the late Major General Smedley D. Butler (USMC Retired), based on his decades of combat experience, that "War is a Racket":

Major General Butler talks about what war means for adults in our society in his essay. He starts:

War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people. Only a small "inside" group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes. ..."

And it seems that, even while "The War Play Dilemma" book does not address that sort of global issue, a related profit motive seems to have seeped down over the past couple of decades into the media and toy environment that shapes part of our children's lives (even against our wishes). It seems a few people are making a lot of money at the expense of our children's balanced lives, to the degree war play has changed over the past few decades to become more and more commercially driven in all pervasive integrated ways (as documented in "The War Play Dilemma"). So, sadly, I'd suggest "War Play is a Racket", too. :-(

And it is easy to say "Well, if you don't believe in war play, just say no", but the fact is that just saying "no" is difficult in a culture saturated both in real war and in war play (without total isolation). The book talks about that difficulty. Even just going to a local "5 & 10" store near where we live, about half the prominently displayed toys are war-themed action figures or weapons of various sorts -- an entire wall of them. Also, many types of media may start off non-violent or less-violent but turn more violent over time (whether Harry Potter as the series progresses or the Wall-e video game which about a third of the way through starts requiring intentionally killing other robots to make progress, unlike the movie). And then there is the fact that what may be tolerable for older kids may not be so good for younger kids, so any family with two children of different ages faces another set of difficulties. Also, just saying "no" ignores the dilemma -- the fact that children do need to learn how to deal with conflict, and many do need to physically work through various issues in their growing lives in some way.

The "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" concept was one of the first big profitable ventures in integrating violent-themed media with toy sales and other sales:
That theme has made over a billion dollars for some, as described on that page:

Much of the Turtles' mainstream success is owed to a licensing agent, Mark Freedman, who sought out Eastman and Laird to propose wider merchandising opportunities for the offbeat property. In 1986, Dark Horse Miniatures produced a set of 15 mm lead figurines. In January 1988, they visited the offices of Playmates Toys Inc, a small California toy company who wished to expand into the action figure market. Accompanied by the popular Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 1987 TV series, and the subsequent action figure line, the TMNT were soon catapulted into pop culture history. At the height of the frenzy, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Turtles' likenesses could be found on a wide range of children's merchandise, from PEZ dispensers to skateboards, breakfast cereal, toothpaste, video games, school supplies and cameras."

How can you avoid something when it is in all those places?

Again from Wikipedia: "For many parents in the late 1980s, the Ninja Turtles phenomenon represented the latest in a series of shrewd cartoon-toy marketing strategies, a trend that had proven very profitable with Masters of the Universe, Transformers, and a host of other "good vs. evil" action-adventure franchises. Parents often found themselves at odds with children who demanded scads of toys and accessories after being subjected to so-called "30 minute commercials" delivered via after-school television."

That Turtle concept is one of the obvious "successes" which has fueled a huge child-focused industry trying to repeat that financial gain by inventing the next violent characters with weapon merchandising tie-ins. Star Wars is another franchise which has been a similar "success" marketing to kids, in part because, while George Lucas signed away the distribution rights to the first Star Wars movie, he managed to retain the marketing rights to related products (in part because no one thought Star Wars would be very valuable as a media property). See:

Growing up, I saw Superman, Spiderman, Batman, Star Trek, and so on on TV, and Star Wars several times in theaters, but the level of integrated marketing was much lower then, and there were many other shows for kids as well that were slower paced and generally resolved conflicts non-violently (Mr. Ed, Green Acres, Sealab 2020, the Andy Griffith Show, etc.). Even Lego now has ties to violent media. And also it was not easy to see the same episode more that once, so there was less channeling of behavior into repetitive acts. I'm not saying getting lost in violent play did not happen to some kids, just that is was harder back then to be that immersed in a violent media world continuously, especially as a pre-teen (not impossible, just harder). The book explains why is a more difficult situation to deal with these days. Reading that book gave me some more perspective on the situation as a parent, and why it is so hard to come up with useful approaches, especially given the tension between a desire to help children learn by working through conflicts and a desire to pass on social values.

Some other related resources I've found useful:

A book:
    "No Contest: The Case Against Competition" by Alfie Kohn

He persuasively demonstrates how the ingrained American myth that competition is the only normal and desirable way of life -- from Little Leagues to the presidency -- is counterproductive, personally and for the national economy, and how psychologically it poisons relationships, fosters anxiety and takes the fun out of work and play. He charges that competition is a learned phenomenon and denies that it builds character and self-esteem. Kohn's measures to encourage cooperation in lieu of competition include promoting noncompetitive games, eliminating scholastic grades and substitution of mutual security for national security."

Here is a small family run company that sells non-competitive games:
It amazes me it took me forty plus years before playing a board game where you help each other instead of try to virtually hurt each other.

Here is another related book to understand the seductiveness of war play, both for adults and children:

The communal march against an enemy generates a warm, unfamiliar bond with our neighbors, our community, our nation, wiping out unsettling undercurrents of alienation and dislocation," writes Chris Hedges, a foreign correspondent for the New York Times. In War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, Hedges draws on his experiences covering conflicts in Bosnia, El Salvador and Israel as well as works of literature from the Iliad to Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism to look at what makes war so intoxicating for soldiers, politicians and ordinary citizens."

That seductiveness in one reason that selling violent media about "good versus evil" is such a profitable thing in our culture. It is seductive to think all of life's problem would go away if we could identify all the "bad people" responsible for making trouble and then kill them all(*) but that unfortunately all too often leads to genocide:
    "The Eight Stages of Genocide"

All cultures have categories to distinguish people into "us and them" by ethnicity, race, religion, or nationality: German and Jew, Hutu and Tutsi. Bipolar societies that lack mixed categories, such as Rwanda and Burundi, are the most likely to have genocide. The main preventive measure at this early stage is to develop universalistic institutions that transcend ethnic or racial divisions, that actively promote tolerance and understanding, and that promote classifications that transcend the divisions. The Catholic church could have played this role in Rwanda, had it not been riven by the same ethnic cleavages as Rwandan society. Promotion of a common language in countries like Tanzania or Cote d'Ivoire has also promoted transcendent national identity. This search for common ground is vital to early prevention of genocide."

And an alternative view on "infinite game" playing from one of my wife's favorite books by James P. Carse:

In short, a finite game is played with the purpose of winning (thus ending the game), while an infinite game is played with the purpose of continuing the play.

And of course, there is Mister Rogers:
    "What do you do? (with the Mad That You Feel)"

Anyway, whatever one may think about the political necessity of past or current US wars, the fact is that even for the most dedicated military families, having their own children learn diplomatic options for resolving conflicts is important, as is learning how to contain the expression of violence to whatever is deemed socially appropriate for the situation (including the difficulty of coming home after being in a war zone). While it is true that a big part of military basic training involves desensitizing people to killing other people, another big part of military training involves learning to only kill on command according to "rules of engagement". For many kids playing at war, even being able to learn "rules of engagement" like "don't shoot unarmed civilians" would be an improvement.

Even the top military brass advocate alternatives to violence:
    "U.S. Military Chief Urges More Diplomacy"

The top U.S. military officer cautioned against ever-growing militarization of U.S. foreign policy, urging greater support for civilian approaches to the world's problems. "I believe we should be more willing to break this cycle and say when armed forces may not always be the best choice to take the lead," Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said late Monday. Mullen's comments, in a speech prepared for delivery at the Nixon Center, echoed U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates' views that U.S. neglect of diplomacy and other civilian instruments of power has hurt Washington's standing in the world. It comes at the end of an administration that is fighting two wars and a global campaign against terrorism that has stretched the military to the breaking point. Mullen explained that the military, whose budget has grown to around $650 billion in 2009 compared to some $11.5 billion for the State Department, has been used so much because it is "flexible, well-funded, designed to take risk."

So, whether you are a dove or a hawk, a progressive or a conservative, I would hope there is at least some common ground on concern about excessive (and often dysfunctional) war-themed play being promoted by an alliance of media companies, toy companies, game companies, and food companies for their mutual profit. Still, this is just one more set of difficult issues to navigate while parenting. Some families do better on some issues, some do better on others. Again, as Diane E. Levin and Nancy Carlsson-Paige say in "The War Play Dilemma", there are no easy answers for every situation or every family -- otherwise it would not be such a "dilemma".

--Paul Fernhout

(*) Or instead of killing "bad people", it is also seductive to thinking locking all the "bad people" up will solve the problems if we think that way but are squeamish or have ethical concerns about killing people. From:

The United States has 5% of the world's population and 25% of the world's incarcerated population. ... According to the U.S. Department of Justice, as of June 30, 2007, American prisons and jails held 2,299,116 inmates. One in every 31 American adults, that's 7.3 million Americans, is in prison, on parole or probation. Approximately one in every 18 men in the United States is behind bars or being monitored. A significantly greater percentage of the American population is in some form of correctional control even though crime rates have declined by about 25 percent from 1988-2008."

I don't know how much of that rise in incarceration is also from the "War Play" dilemma, but I suspect at least some of it is.

March 8, 2009