The New York Times
The Gift of Mayhem
November 28, 2002
By BOB HERBERT
Toys for tots.
Forward Command Post is one of the weirder toys being marketed for kids this holiday season. It's essentially a bombed-out doll house, complete with smashed furniture, broken railings and bullet holes in the walls. This twisted variation on a traditional childhood theme is manufactured by a company called Ever Sparkle Industrial Toys and is sold by mainstream retailers, including Toys "R" Us and J. C. Penney. It's being recommended for children 5 years old and up.
Forward Command Post is at the top of this year's "Dirty Dozen" list, an annual compilation of "toys to avoid" that is put out by the Lion & Lamb Project, a group in Bethesda, Md., that opposes the marketing of violent toys to children. The group noted that the Forward Command Post playhouse "comes with dozens of 'accessories,' including a machine gun, rocket launcher, magazine belt and explosives."
Also on the list is a video game called "Burnout 2: Point of Impact." This is an auto racing game - rated appropriate for 6-year-olds - that features spectacularly gruesome crashes. An ad showed a man's head smashing through a windshield. "The last thing to go through your mind," the ad says, "will be your [behind]."
Someone needs to get a grip here, and I don't mean the kids with their hands on the joysticks. Any adult who thinks this stuff is appropriate for a 5- or 6-year-old is a lunatic.
In terms of their approach to the world, a 5-year-old playing with a traditional doll house and a 5-year-old playing with the ruins of the Forward Command Post are at two fundamentally different starting places.
The biggest-selling video game over the last couple of years has been a PlayStation 2 game called Grand Theft Auto III. It actually carries a voluntary "M" rating, which means it's not recommended for kids under 17. But teens have no problem buying "M"-rated games, and they love the various incarnations of Grand Theft Auto.
This is a game in which all boundaries of civilized behavior have vanished. You get to shoot whomever you want, including cops. You get to beat women to death with baseball bats. You get to have sex with prostitutes and then kill them. (And get your money back.) The game is a phenomenal seller. At close to $50 each, millions of copies are sold annually. The latest version, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, is expected to be one of the biggest sellers this Christmas.
I don't for a moment think these games should be banned. But I do think that millions of American adults have lost all sense of what are appropriate forms of play for children and teenagers. And the country as a whole behaves as though there is no real-world price to pay for a culture that has so thoroughly desensitized us to violence that it takes a terror attack or a series of suburban sniper killings to really get our attention.
ockstar Games, which created the Grand Theft Auto series, has come out with another extraordinarily violent game called State of Emergency. It's got rioting in the streets, looting, individual acts of extreme sadism and, of course, endless gory murders. The player gets to be part of it all, killing and maiming at will.
One online enthusiast said, "You could run down the escalator, then wait at the bottom . . . and watch as you blast some guy or gal's head off, watch them stagger about a bit before they collapse, then pick up their severed head and beat them up with it some more."
A reviewer on Amazon.com called the game "an enjoyable cacophony of senseless violence."
State of Emergency will no doubt be a hot gift item for youngsters this year.
Reading about State of Emergency reminded me of the riots in Los Angeles 10 years ago, an explosion of violence and inhumanity that did not strike me at the time as the raw material for fun and games. It still doesn't.
Even now the murderous violence in parts of Los Angeles is so intense that decent residents often feel imprisoned in their homes. Killers have been running amok in the streets. The murder rate is rising. It's not a video game. And it's not fun.
The building blocks of violent behavior are dehumanization and desensitization. The lessons begin at a very early age.
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9 December 2002.