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Tyranny of Toys

by Ziauddin Sardar

Modern toys limit imagination,  

breed aggression and turn  children

into avid consumers.   


Christmas, the season of goodwill,

is also the season of tyranny. It is the season when little children blackmail their parents to buy the toy that is all

the rage this season. Toys are like drugs. Like drugs they function as artificial stimulants of children’s consciousness. They are addictive. Children just can’t have enough toys. And like drugs they turn our children into zombies, insatiable consumers who hunger forever for the latest craze, and thereby destroy their imagination and well-being.


So don’t buy any toys for the little blighters. Instead, wrap up a huge empty cardboard box and watch how much fun they have with it. When I did that last year, it became a ship that sailed across the ocean of our living-room carpet. Unfortunately, this will probably make you the most unpopular parent of the century. Children have been hypnotised by television advertisements and made into little demons whose desires must be fulfilled. When this is translated into peer group pressure it makes children hypersensitive to the number, sophistication and therefore the cost of the toys they receive. How could they hold up their heads in the school playground if they got an empty cardboard box for Christmas — even if it did provide them with hours of fun? Children and parents who cannot afford the latest craze feel inadequate and alienated. So parents are caught as much in the tyranny of toys as children are.

One of the most evocative places I know is the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood in London, an interesting title since it is a museum of toys. What is so evocative about this museum is the ease with which you can tell the social, military and economic history of Britain by looking at the toys. This phenomenon is not a function of childhood: it is a function of adults wanting to imprint their ideas, aspirations and ideals on children. In one sense passing on our culture to children is the job of every generation, the task of continuity. But there is something limited and limiting when toys are our agency of transmission. 

Today, toys are designed to slot children into the dominant role in affluent societies: consumption. The function of modern toys is to turn children into brainless consumers, the impulsive buyers of tomorrow. Toys are little ideological bundles that inculcate a totally materialistic understanding of desire and satisfaction, enjoyment and happiness. It is the task of children to get Mum and Dad to divert an extraordinary amount of their income into buying toys.

Conventionally, toys were a way of marking distance between children and adults. The principle used to be, "When I was a child I thought as a child … When I became an adult I put away childish things." Now children think through concepts constructed by marketing people and grow into childish addictions for adult ‘toys’ with no transition period or space to think for themselves. There is a continuous and seamless movement from ‘baby’s first toy’ to toys for toddlers, infants, juniors, adolescents and adults. Each toy, and each step, is an elaborate marketing scheme that demands follow-up buying. Once you have bought Barbie you need to buy a couple of wardrobes, not forgetting her boyfriend, Ken. Computer games require a computer, then the software, and then the purchase of several or more games, then add-ons or new versions of the game and so on. Both children and adults are locked into a feedback loop of ideas and experiences that lead nowhere but to more and more toys. Hence, the hype, the crazes, the hysteria over the toys that are sold out, with parents and grandparents flying across continents to queue for some ephemeral junk. Witness also the craze for ‘collectibles’, such as Beanie Babies or Cabbage Patch dolls that come complete with ‘adoption papers’, which made them the most sought-after toy of the 1980s. So toys have little to do with play, and everything to do with possession.

Toys also seriously limit the imagination of children. Most modern toys have one assigned function. A Teletubby, for example, is a Teletubby: a person that lives in Teletubbyland. Batman lives in Gotham City and all the details of his world are provided — nothing is left to the imagination. Dolls are no longer just dolls — bland, blank, sterile things used by little girls to create countless imaginative characters. Today’s dolls lay down the law. They are Cindies, Barbies, Cabbage Patch dolls or Bonnies. They are not toys but concepts; you cannot play with them in the conventional sense of using your imagination to create a world, since their world is created for you: all the details are already filled in. Children have little to do but follow the conceptual grid laid out for them.

The limitations placed on the imagination of children are not abstract. They always promote certain world-views, such as that of Hollywood, in the case of movie-based toys, or that of Western middle-class computer culture, in the case of Playstation and other computer toys. Consider, for example, the message projected by Barbie. If only you looked like Barbie, little girl, you could marry Ken and live happily ever after. Not surprisingly, boys are growing up expecting a Barbie-type body and compliance in every girl they meet. And their own toys reflect the most extreme manifestation of their gender — Action Man, He-man, GI Joe and other big and powerful, masculine, macho, well-built and violent figurines. Most toys for boys are based on the idea that war, mayhem, destruction and domination are all there is in the world.

Control, being the total master of your universe, is the basic ingredient of all electronic games. What matters is winning, ‘scoring’, how many points you put up on the board — every computer game has that running tally. You are up against every user who has played the game. All life becomes a contest. Domination is the name of the game — camaraderie or compassion is outlawed.

There is a direct and unbroken line, I would argue, between spending your childhood shooting, kicking, stabbing, slaying, punching, hitting and playing war games and the ability to manage aggression and testosterone in adolescence. From there the step to a full adult who is unable to control his rage is a short one.

Insofar as play is an opportunity to create, toys best serve play when they leave most room for imaginative creation. Creativity in turn fosters broad and multiple ideas about future possibilities. When toys belonged to the realm of crafts, they were shaped with one’s hand and were the product of one’s labour. Consequently toys took on a human dimension. Made of simple materials such as wood, clay and paper, they allowed for the greatest flexibility and the application of the player’s imagination. They were one way of resisting a mechanical view of the world. Craft toys demanded the involvement of children, and their very nature promoted socialisation and cooperation. They assisted children not just in becoming members of society in creative and flexible ways, but also in thinking about the future in a myriad of imaginative ways. Children saw the future as full of potential: the world need not be the way adults have shaped it. It could be improved; it could become a better place.

Today, toys embody the qualities of the automaton, the robot-like machine. They promote a monolithic notion of the future. The future has only one possibility — the continuation of the war-like present. There is no option for children to imagine alternative possibilities in the future. In other words, modern toys increasingly embody a reductionist, one-dimensional view of the world where exploitation is the norm and there is no place for improvement or socially enlightened developments.

Of course, it does not have to be that way. But breaking out of the tyranny of modern toys is not easy. A parent who cannot provide the toys demanded by his or her children is not a ‘good’ parent. None of us wants our children to think of us as miserly, killjoy mummies and daddies. We want them to think of us as friends. Which reminds me, since we all have been indoctrinated with the idea of being a friend to our kids, what happened to all those games you could play with them? What about running around the house, screaming with joy, hiding and seeking, building that snowman, climbing a tree, using our innate imagination and creativity to see things, interpret things and make things? Perhaps I will wrap up that cardboard box after all. I seem to remember I was required to be the engine room providing the motion across the carpet ocean. And we all laughed together.


The above is an extract from The A to Z of Postmodern Life 

(Vision, 2002).  

Reprinted by permission.


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