Walking down the aisle of a toy store recently, I was reminded of a passage from Plato’s Laws. "If you control the way children play," the philosopher wrote, "…you’ll find that the conventions of adult life … are left in peace without alteration." Plato was referring to the way the games and objects of children’s play shape the conditions and expectations of adult life. Toys reveal one generation’s ideas about the way the world is and ought to be, even as they contribute to another’s.

What brought Plato’s observation to mind was the discovery that my own ideas about the representation of the human form in toys are hopelessly out of date. I was looking for a simple plaything for my three-year-old son – a little cowboy, circus clown, farmer in the dell, or something of the sort. What I found instead were "action figures" – odd composites, half man, half creature from outer space; superhuman warriors in the style of Rambo or GI Joe, with exaggerated muscles and weapons at the ready; and robots with mechanical and electronic protuberances.

In frustration, I asked a clerk, "Do you have any action figures that look more or less human?" He showed me a rack of toys in a far corner of the store, labeled "Discontinued Items—Marked Down." There I found a handsome plastic astronaut, the last remnant of a product line that had long since gone out of fashion.

My surprise at the appearance of the modern, high-tech gadgets led me to take a closer look. If, as Plato suggests, our playthings are harbingers of the future, what kind of world do today’s toys anticipate?




One distinguishing characteristic of contemporary toys is that nothing is ever quite what it seems. It used to be a truck was simply a truck, an airplane simply an airplane, a dinosaur simply a dinosaur. Well, you can forget that. Today’s toys are made of brightly colored, intricately molded plastic undergo rapid transformations. With several twists of the wrist an object becomes something entirely different from the item you held in your hand a moment ago—a space ship or robot warrior or a dragon from a distant planet.

Toys of this kind are a wonder to behold: clever in conception, elaborate in design, surprisingly durable given the large number of tiny joints and connections they contain. The most popular ones are Transformers, a line created by the Takara Corp. in Japan and sold by Hasbro-Bradley in the United States. Following a marketing strategy now common in the toy industry, Transformers are also the stars of a television cartoon series. Each Saturday morning, millions of children watch events unfold in a universe of rock and metal, populated by dozens of transforming robots in various shapes and sizes, and dramatic roles, all of them engaged in never-ceasing high-tech combat.

These cartoon characters and their toy-store replicas have names like Headmaster Skullcruncher, Pretenders Autobot Chainclaw, Decepticon Clone Pounce Wingspan, and the leader of the good guys—insofar as there are any good guys—Powermaster Autobot Leader Optimus Prime. Interestingly enough, each Transformer package carries a psychological profile describing the strengths and foibles of the robot inside. Monsterbot Repugnus, for instance, "has a personality as repellant as his looks—been kicked out of the Autobots many times for insubordination only to be asked back since he’s always willing to undertake missions too low-down and dirty for anyone else to consider. In robot mode, carries venom laser that slows cerebro impulses and paralyzes on impact."

Clearly, we’ve come a long way from The Little Engine That Could.


At one level, the violence of these toys and fantasies is not particularly distressing. As Psychoanalyst Bruno Bettleheim has noted, grotesque themes provide a way for kids to come to grips with many of the unconscious fears of childhood. Grimm’s Fairy Tales, for example, is full of monsters, blood and gore. In a similar way, the Transformers may allow children to confront and even have fun with important issues about growing up: power control, creation versus destruction, and the distinctions between love and hate, good and evil.

However, there are important ways in which today’s toys are not at all like traditional dolls and fairy stories. They do not give children a good way to handle the negative emotions they evoke. And they consistently portray modern technology in a disturbing role, emphasizing its most dangerous, destructive aspects. Is this the human future we want to present to our children?

For instance, the high-tech arms race is the sine qua non of the brave new world of toys, and everyone’s involvement in it is depicted as life’s highest calling. It is not only the atmosphere of violence that is distressing here; after all, imaginary violence is a familiar part of old-fashioned games like cowboys and Indians. But in current toys, violence has become linked to technological virtuosity—as if the only purpose of technical creativity were to destroy one’s enemies and dominate in conflict.

These toys also celebrate a completely automated, non-human world. The Transformers don’t just have technology; they are technology. And robots are regularly depicted as stronger, smarter, and more interesting than normal people. The tacit assumption seems to be that it is unnecessary to put up with deficiencies in human character and human relationships when the robot world can provide us will all our hearts desire.

Finally, this imagined world is, as the name "Transformers" suggests, a place where constant change is taken for granted. Individuals and entire species effortlessly transform themselves from one kind of thing into another at the drop of a hat. For a generation that will face important ethical decisions about the possibilities offered by gene splicing and other forms of biotechnology, that is a distressing model to consider.

Such images of violence, technological domination, and reckless change reflect much that is unsettling in our culture. But perhaps they now do even more than that. Is it possible that our playthings not only mirror current social obsessions but also nurture and sustain them? It makes one think twice about the slogan I first heard from a Silicon Valley engineer: "He who finishes with the most toys wins."