'Playing them false'
by Bob Dixon
concerned with the well-being of our young.
Trentham Books first published 1990
(ISBN 0 948080 - 31 - 0)
PART ONE: TOYS
CHAPTER 1: INTRODUCTION
CHAPTER 2: TOYSFOR VERY YOUNG CHILDREN
CHAPTER 3:THE HOUSEWIFE AND MOTHER
CHAPTER 4:THE SEX OBJECT
CHAPTER 5:THE HANDYMAN AND BREAD WINNER
CHAPTER 6:THE FIGHTER
PART TWO: GAMES AND PUZZLES
CHAPTER 7: INTRODUCTION
CHAPTER 8:GAMES AND PUZZLES FOR VERY YOUNG CHILDREN 171
CHAPTER 9: WHAT'S THE GAME? 187
CHAPTER 10: THE GREAT ESCAPE 207
CHAPTER 11: PLAYING WAR
CHAPTER 12: CONCLUSION 261
Select Bibliography 283
'Playing them false' by Bob Dixon
Excerpts from: Chapter - 6 THE FIGHTER
I am reading this book in an Aberdeen park. My favourite corner for a picnic lunch is ideal for hide and seek and games of vivid imagination - grass both long and short, trees, paths and a rocky outcrop dramatic enough to suggest the Himalayas. Here, within a mile or two of several schools and in the middle of the summer holidays, there is no one out to play.
Meanwhile at home my son, Kieran, eleven going on fifteen, sits indoors glued to the TV screen. Unlike his older brothers and sisters at the same age, however, he is not gripped by Ghoslbusters or idly watchingNeighbours - he is playing a computer game. And Kieran is really hooked on computer games. Who Dares Win 2, says the blurb, is a different type of "shoot 'em up". This game's got "grenades and cannons ... if you're a shoot'em up fan, this will stand out in your collection."
Of course, it's the parent who buys (bottom of the range at £2.99) while pondering the relative aggression quotients of "shoot 'em up" and "beat 'em up". Kieran says the games make him feel good and that you can do things that you couldn't do in real life.
It was Peter and Iona Opie who introduced me to the idea that traditional children's games, while not usually competitive, require to be viable in terms of rules and maintain the interest of a varied group of players. The new technology has brought viable games indoors, under the quality control ofSinclair User: "Graphics 53%, Sound 63%, Playability (controls, joystick or keyboard) 66%, Lastability 58% - Overall 63%" is the verdict of Judge Dredd, one of the very questionable family of law and order heroes which links in with another branch of the mass media - "In the comic the current Judge Dredd is an old and embittered warrior who has begun to question the totalitarianism of the system he works to uphold (sounds interesting - must check it out!) but in this game we're back to the food old days where he shot first and filled in the charge sheets afterwards.
The very title of Dixon's book tells you that he is negative on the toy industry and all its works, from My Little Pony through toDungeons and Dragons (with computer games somewhere in the middle). In this he is following on from his earlier Catching Them Young (two 1973 volumes on stereotypes in children's fiction) itself an elaboration on the point made first by George Orwell half a century ago - that adults are unaware of the messages being conveyed to the young-by items on sale in the children's department of the commercial world.
In Orwell's example it was comics that indoctrinated the young in conservative and imperialist values. But comics, books, toys, computer games - it's all the same argument. Ten years ago I was inclined to be sceptical, believing there was enough vigour in children's own play culture towithstand the assault of big business. After all every new medium of mass entertainment has been accused of causing juvenile delinquency, apathy, or both.
Yet here I sit in a silent Aberdeen park reading about "the cultural ideological implications of building bricks," their edges and planes make a subtle anti-curve statement. Dixon advances this as a possibility, based on someone else's observations about native Americans and circles. If we are looking at hitherto unrecognised influences then building bricks are relevant. Friedrich Froebel created a nineteenth century industry in educational toys based on the contrastedsphere and cube - reconciled through
Hegelian dialectic in the cylinder. I myself have been attracted by the idea that the planes and right angles of the tenement encouraged ball bouncing and other street games.
What strikes me about the sexism and violence themes which run through this book is, first, that male/female roles seem to be receiving dramatic emphasis through toys, to a degree experienced by no previous generation - this at a time when no adult male, even in Scotland, would feel wholly comfortable saying that a woman's place is in the home. Second, that boys (left with no games of street and playground but football, poor things, unlike the girls) are growing up in a toy culture of war, while defence budgets crumble, relieving the armed services of their vain search for recruits.
So if Victorian children's games reflected an adult society bound by ranks and roles, how can children's play expressed through toys and games remain thus far out of contact with adult reality as we move towards the twenty first century'
Playing Them False documents the complex financial transactions, involving mergers and multinationals, behind the friendly face at the counter of your local toy shop. Dixon's cultural interpretations are impressive. Under the unexpectedly fresh heading of "Handyman and Breadwinner" (war toys and sex object dolls having become such cliché targets) he draws attention to the implications of cars as further incitements to aggression; to the commercial on behalf of private enterprise which is implicit in the glamorisation of "trucking" as compared to the time-honoured model railway representing boring old publicly owned BR.
There are curious omissions like Subuteo, which has gone latent in our house since the World Cup, but which provides as good a parable on children's moral development as Piaget's marbles used to do in the days when marbles were in every schoolboy's pocket - there's another article in that, editor! But this is a very intelligent and comprehensive book.
Later in the park four boys on bikes are rough-riding down the Himalyas to reality - quite definitely out to play. The world will go on a while yet. My grandchildren (if I should be so lucky) will be playful - and therefore human - indoors with dubious toys and in front of screens, outdoors in summer holidays at least. But Bob Dixon is right. Let's keep an eye on what's going on down there.
Taylor - Education
All those who have ever bought a toy or a game for children either as a parent or as a professional responsible for the ordering of resources should read this book. Teachers, intending teachers and those who work with children should also read it. Perhaps most importantly it should be sent to every manufacturer of children's toys and games for it raises issues of enormous import. Bob Dixon has put together a persuasive and powerful argument for examining more closely the items we give children for their leisure hours. His book is a densely packed text. At first glance the typeface may make it look unwelcoming but persevere for this is a rare book in that it presents a very important and meticulously researched inquiry in a most accessible style. Throughout the book the reasonable voice of the author can be heard and his argument is
all the more effective because it is presented with quiet conviction and absolute sincerity. This is not the only stylistic attribute of the book that deserves attention. The author has also allowed the reader access to the research process and explains the difficulties of obtaining some information from manufacturers. This only serves to underline the seriousness of the toy manufacturing business.
Playing them False examines the underlying messages of tovs, games and puzzles in relation to a central theme of how children are socialised by their playthings into certain views of the world. Ideas about race, gender and class are instilled insidiously by toys which harp on how important it is to own an endless succession of material goods and, as Bob Dixon points out, the evolution of collectable sets such as My Little Pony encourages children to believe that more is better and that accumulation is necessary. The tone of the author is wry in several analyses of the values perpetuated by toys. Here he muses on Barbie, a glamour doll produced with an endless range of clothes and accessories.
The gender issue in toy manufacturing is dealt with very sensitively and the author points out how far removed from the reality of many women's lives the toy provision for little girls is. He also makes clear how poor the provision is for black children and how few images of themselves they find in toys and games. He is right to point up this lack of resources. When buying dolls for my own school I ended up buying a black doll that was simply a white doll coloured black The features were European. It might be argued that this is not important but the necessity for all children to receive strong, positive messages about black people was borne out for me when recently a group of young people working on an African folktale produced a beautiful collage of the story in which every character was portrayed as white. They were unable to move beyond their own image - hardly surprising in a society which so reinforces white dominance.
There is an excellent chapter on war games which demonstrates the frightening hold these games take on some lives. As we all suffer from the influx of Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles into children's lives this chapter makes compelling reading. As the conclusion states
Children in Britain, and male children in particular, are brought up in a war culture. This is part of a general atmosphere of aggression, which is closely based on the masculine gender role. 1 he aggression in turn grows out of a system of competition which shows itself in every corner of society.
Playing them False is an important book. As teachers struggle to cope with all the implications and ramifications of the National Curriculum it could be all too easy to forget those vital cross-curricular issues which Bob Dixon explores so sensitively and with such commitment. Reading it may serve to remind teachers of the grave and challenging responsibilities which every choice they make about equipment lays on them. It may also help those readers who are parents to see how important it is to resist the blandishments of toy advertising, no matter how often children beg for the latest collectable delight. As the book makes clear, children have a culture of their own which needs to resist debasement by the interests of business.
Senior Lecturer in Primary Education and Drama, Thames Polytechnic
Education Today Vol 41 No 2