One of the great advances of the 1990s was the launch, by the British Toy and Hobby Association, of the Lion Mark as a symbol of toy safety. The European toy safety directive was adopted by the British government in July 1989 and the Toys Regulations came into effect in January 1990. The toy industry was becoming increasingly aware of the need for environmental and ecological concerns to be taken into account, and awareness of the effects of globalisation on developing economies was elevating the profile of ethical toy production. Concern over child labour abuses prompted the International Council of Toy Industries to address the issue of lawful, safe and healthy work and environments and practices within the toy industry.

The sale of compact discs, computers and computer games expanded dramatically in the 1980s and 1990s. Children were hypnotically drawn to these, happily spending many hours in their own company, and by the end of the century over half of toys sold were video games. The market for video games in Britain was by now the largest in Europe and the third largest in the world after the US and Japan. One major player was Nintendo’s Game Boy, introduced in the US in 1991.

Children were becoming extremely sophisticated in their toy requirements. They became acquainted with technology at a very early age, and the impact of global markets began to give them a much wider choice of products to spend their pocket money on, including mobile telephones, sportswear and music CDs: toys and games were just part of a long list. The global shift towards video games was no doubt also strengthened by an upsurge of interest from adults, particularly young men.

While this was great news for the video games market, there were strong warnings from the medical profession that children were spending too much time in front of the computer or playing with hand held consoles. Parents were warned that children were running the risk of becoming reclusive, of not being able to bond with other children, of becoming unhealthy and obese. Issues such as these remain largely unresolved, but it has not deterred children and the popularity of computer games continues to grow.

Buzz Lightyear, Thinkway Toys, New York, 1997 copyright Victoria and Albert Museum

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

One of the factors contributing to the popularity of computer games could be the lack of innovation in the toy industry at the time they became prominent, with few new toys becoming crazes at this time. The situation changed, however, with the film Toy Story. First shown in 1996, this was the first film to be released for both conventional and e-projection use. It triggered a huge demand for the Buzz Lightyear figure and, ironically, reawakened a nostalgic interest in toys that were no longer trendy such as Mr Potato Head, Etch-a-Sketch and Slinky dog. Other old favourites made a comeback in a somewhat updated form, including the Thunderbirds’ Tracy Island and Twister. Many manufacturers reintroduced lines based on popular 1980s cartoons, such as Mattel’s He-Man and Play Along’s Care Bears and My Little Pony.

Beanie Baby teddy bear, Ty Inc, China, 1997 copyright Victoria and Albert Museum

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Among the new crazes, ‘caring’ toys became popular, small and portable, especially Tamagotchi, cute Beanie Babies and Polly Pocket’s worlds in miniature. Children’s need to imagine themselves in caring roles had not changed; what had changed was the shape and form of the object of affection, which no longer had to be doll or teddy bear shaped. The Teletubbies caused a sensation when they appeared, winning the Toy of the Year award in 1996 and triggering fights in toy shops among parents desperate to buy them for their children. In contrast, the computer game Tomb Raider, featuring Lara Croft in hotpants and a tank top, became a cultural icon discussed by academics, the media and adolescent boys alike.

Also among the new crazes was Pokemon, the creation of Japanese games inventor Satoshi Tajiri, who had a love of insects and films about monsters. Originally devised for Nintendo’s Game Boy in the early 1990s, the purpose of the games was to train, collect and fight monsters. Pokemon moved to television and then to trading cards, a seemingly harmless pastime that caused many a riot amongst children building up their card collections and had to be banned from several school playgrounds.

K'nex, USA, 1995 copyright Victoria and Albert Museum

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Old style favourites such as building kits were still in evidence. New construction kit K’nex was introduced, giving children a choice of options and a flexibility that allowed them to build things other kits could not, thereby offering a challenge to long-established makes such as Meccano and Lego.