'Playing them false' 

by Bob Dixon


Book contents list

Excerpts from Chapter 6 - The Fighter


The first-ever examination of children's playthings, by the author of Catching them Young. Essential reading for parents, educators and all concerned with the well-being of our young.

  • Explores the underlying attitudes to race, gender and class which are implicit in some popular toys.'- Child Education.
  • All those who have ever brought 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.'- Education Today.
  •  'Much that is valuable in this book..."If Playing them False helps create a more critical attitude towards the most offensive games and toys on offer now it will have done a good job.'- Times Educational Supplement.
  • 'Bob Dixon's right. Lets keep an eye on what's going on down there - Scottish Child
  • '......a useful reference book for anyone setting up playgroups'. -                The Friend.(A Quaker Weekly
  • 'Highly recommended for anyone concerned with selecting playthings for young children and interested in the ways in which young children are influenced by negative messages.'   Holistic Teaching.
  • should be read by anyone concerned with the cultural environment of children.'Journal of the institute of Health Education

Trentham Books first  published 1990

(ISBN  0 948080 - 31 - 0)




































Select Bibliography 283








'Playing them false' by Bob Dixon


Excerpts from: Chapter - 6  THE FIGHTER



Now, we're going to separate the men from the boys - as overgrown boys, who are concerned about this sort of thing, keep saying. As usual, language gives a good guide to a society's gender roles. There are words for males who fall short of the expected gender role of fighter, such as `softy' and, mainly in the USA, `Milquetoast'. `Sissy' which also originated in the USA and comes from the word sister', reminds us that males are expected to distinguish their behaviour from that of females. If they don't, they often actually get called by the names of girls which makes the point clearly. 'Nelly' and `Nancy' or 'nancy-boy' are all terms of abuse for males, which carry, in these cases, strong overtones of homosexuality. ' Margery', however, a term from London slang of the second half of the last century, seems only to have meant effeminate. On the other hand, the expected masculine gender role here can also be exceeded in ways not acceptable to society in general, so we get words like `lout', `yob' and `thug'. Thugs in uniform are all right, though, and then cease to be called thugs. Their behaviour hasn't changed. It's just that their violence has been sanctioned.



.....With dangerous ideologies in mind, and before leaving the historical background of this section altogether, we should take account of the large output of Nazi figures from the firm of Hausser between the mid and the late 1930s. These were marketed under the trade name of Elastolin which referred to the composition - basically sawdust and glue - they were made from. The SA (Sturmabteilung - Storm Detachment) which can be seen as the equivalent, in Nazi Germany, of the modem British SPG, were well represented in this output as were the SS (Schutzstaffel - Defence Squadron), all with Nazi insignia, giving fascist salutes and so on. Kurt Hausser, in a recent disclaimer from the firm about its Nazi period, has said, `We were a commercial company trying to do business'. This is a particularly clear illustration of a point which underlies this whole book: profits and principles seldom mix.

Although it does seem that toy figures of the traditional, standard size are losing around to the more recent, and larger figures, there are still a surprising number around. A look at some of Britains' ranges in 1982 shows the variety. There were series portraying historical adversaries, such as the American Civil War series and the Knights and Turks series, with the Knights in shining armour and the Turks clad mainly in black. British, German and US troops, mainly from the second world war it seems, were also featured, along with military vehicles and field guns with plastic shells. In the fictional future, there was a range of space models and figures in two groups, the Stargards and the Aliens, these last in black with red helmets.

Promotion and packaging are, as always, important. Britains send to children who write to them a round, fabric badge with a Union Jack design and the words 'Collectors' Award' on it, together with the company's name and its symbol, a guardsman. Matchbox, in 1979-80, were producing toy soldiers from the second world war in two sizes. The smaller ones, about 25mm tall, were in a world armies' range and the boxes of these, probably because of the size of the figures, showed groups of soldiers in combat. The other figures, which were about twice as big, were also in boxes showing battle scenes but this time the pictures on the boxes emphasized individual soldiers, in close-up, their faces grimly determined or twisted by snarls.

It's important to note the connections between historical events and toys, and the way in which they interrelate. Following their emergence into the light of publicity in recent times, it isn't surprising to note that the SAS have, by now, established a considerable bridge-head in the toy market...........



This hectic atmosphere, offensive in both senses of the word, continued into 1984. `How did the S.A.S get behind the lines in the Falklands?' the catalogue asks us again, and answers as before, while another reference to the SAS describes them as `unsung heroes of the Falklands war'. The Parachute Regiment is also mentioned in connection with the Falklands/Malvinas campaign. It just shows, again, that war is good for this sort of business. I believe that the reverse is also true: this sort of business promotes war.

I've often heard it said, in tones of approval, that Action Man is a doll boys can feel free to play with and the speakers have usually gone on to mention the changing of outfits as being important. I think this attitude shows a terrible misunderstanding. Action Man, although more versatile, belongs in every way to the tradition of toy soldiers. Also, the best and most important feature about dolls (though not fashion dolls) is that they encourage caring for others. This is totally absent from the Action Man concept which is not about caring but all about killing.

Before leaving the Action Man juggernaut, I'll make a few points about promotion. sales and manufacture.

The identity disc dodge has already been mentioned. Another ruse, to keep the customers on the hook, was the poster which came with certain of the Action Man wares. This shows, on one side, a lot of the products in the range and there are little boxes to tick when you've collected them. The other side shows a violent medley of war machines and the usual heavily armed figures with grim or contorted faces. 'Join my team in military exploits both at home and abroad', Action man tells us. I wonder what exploits he has in mind at home. One corner of the poster advertises the star scheme which had been going since 1980, at least. The idea was to collect stars from the packets of Action Man outfits and accessories. You then stuck these m a card, answered certain questions to help Palitoy's production planning and sent it off. enclosing postage, to obtain a `gift'. Twenty-one stars would get you an Action Man basic figure, for example. These gifts were, it says on the card, 'rewards for distinguished conduct in the field with Action Man'. The explanation of this scheme begins with the words, 'Good news, men' and ends, Thanks men. You've done well'.


In view of the change, in the USA, to the smaller GI Joe figure, it's interesting to note the arrival of Palitoy's Action Force in August 1982. These figures were called a`mini Action Man range' in the catalogue of that year. They're articulated  in a different way from the present GI Joe figures but, at about 1 lcm tall, they're  of a similar size. To begin with, there were nine military figures, three other figures - (two of them military) with accessories, and two convertible military vehicles. Palitoy claim to have sold nearly a million of these figures in less than six months. For 1983, five new `teams' of figures, together with vehicles, were introduced. We should note, in view of the link with fiction which I've pointed to from time to time, that Palitoy talk of a strong theme storyline' behind Action Force. We'll see this emerging, as we go on. One of the five teams is called, simply, The Enemy and is described as `a fiendish team of characters dedicated to overthrowing the world by using brilliant and strange sciences'. (It sounds like the present government of the USA.) Elsewhere in the 1983 catalogue, they're described as `the deadly and feared enemy of the world' and we're told that `only Action Force [here, that means the rest of Action Force] stands in the path of their aim of world domination'. It's important to note that the figures and vehicles in this Enemy group are largely redand that, although they have the skull and crossbones as their emblem, they carry several letters from the Cyrillic alphabet (the one used for Russian) on their vehicles. In a world threatened with nuclear devastation, this can only be seen as both dangerous and deliberate irresponsibility on the part of Palitoy. Another team, S.A.S. Force, includes several figures and vehicles, as follows: S.A.S. Boat Patrol, which is an Assault Boat with a commando figure; S.A.S. Para Attack, which is a parachutist with working parachute; the S.A.S. Panther, which is an Attack Jeep, together with a figure; and the S.A.S. Mobile Missile System. .................


.......................The overall impression is one of unending menace,  from every quarter, which can only be stopped by totally ruthless forces using the deadliest of military technology, (And the market is swamped with toys which present this view of the world, or universe. There's no room for fun, or anything else.





The toy industry has already decided what children will be clamouring for this Christmas. So perhaps this is just the time for discerning purchasers to read Playing Them False-a study of children's toys, games and puzzles.

This book is an expose of the industry's singleminded pursuit of profit. It is a detailed work describing the full range of toys and games available in the last ten years in a very easy-to-read and entertaining way. Bob Dixon is unequivocal in his view that many toy companies are perpetuating gender and racial stereotypes and promoting aggression and competition. He takes every opportunity to praise companies and organisations, like the Quaker-founded `Play for Life', which try to redress the balance. He does not mince his words when describing the various ways in which bigcompanies market their products, the pound signs flashing in their eyes while they promote their goods as providing `hours of fun for boys and girls'.

Bob Dixon draws to our attention the way toys are marketed-in pastel (for girls) or bold colours (for boys) or with images on the boxes or in advertisements. Identical toys presented in different ways can have different images-the `scrambler net' sold by one firm is friendlier than the `commanldo net' sold by a different company. A playhouse is for everyone whereas a Wendy-House implies it is for girls only.

His opinions are strongly held and quite clear from the outset of the book. He acknowledges that many people will disagree with him. The book makes entertaining reading and I found myself laughing out loud at his description of a range of Spanish baby-dolls with ever more realistic `bodily functions'. It could well.provide a useful reference book for anyone setting up playgroups or children's meeting and concerned about the implicit messages they are conveying in the play environment.

Sue Collins




Alasdair Roberts

(Scottish Child Oct/Nov 1990)

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 watching Neighbours - 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 of Sinclair 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 to Dungeons 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 to withstand 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.




 Pamela Taylor - Education Today

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.

You might think this is a life of idle pleasure, a life turned in upon itself, self-absorbed and indulgent. You might wonder why she isn't interested in work, for example, or even interested in other people to any extent, least of all in their hopes, or sorrows or sufferings. How could she be? She hasn't got the outfits or equipment for that sort of thing.

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.

Pamela Taylor

Senior Lecturer in Primary Education and Drama, Thames Polytechnic

Education Today Vol 41 No 2