Museum of Childhood Open daily 10.00 to 17.45 Admission free Menu

25 May 2013 – 9 March 2014

War Games explores the fascinating relationship between conflict and children’s play, providing an insight into the ways toys have been influenced by warfare from 1800 to the present day.

With toys and games including Risk, GI Joe and classic Britain’s toy soldiers, as well as photographs and archive documents, War Games represents differing sides of conflicts from around the world. This thought-provoking exhibition reveals the sometimes surprising links between play and wider attitudes towards warfare, and delves into the secret history of toys as tools of propaganda and espionage.

War Games is touring the UK until June 2016. Find out where you can next see the exhibition.

The exhibition examines war play in four themed sections:

Playing at War

Generals, 1985 © John Heywood

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

War play is an enduring aspect of children’s imaginative play. It can be physical, or children can use strategy to beat an opponent.

War play is controversial. It is actively discouraged by many parents and teachers, as it is thought to encourage aggression. But aggressive play, a type of active play, is not the same as real aggression, in which a child intends to harm.

Research questioning whether war play and aggression are linked is inconclusive. Fears that they are may come from personal beliefs and assumptions influenced by the pacifist and feminist movements of the last fifty years. War play can also bring benefits. It can help children to distinguish good from bad and right from wrong. And it can help them to explore their feelings and understanding of an often violent adult world.

Like real wars, many see war play as being highly gendered, and revealing differences between boys and girls. But to what extent is this true? And what is the role of biology and the influence of society in this?

On the Battlefield

Airfix Spitfire © Victoria and Albert Museum

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Toys have mirrored the developments of weapons technology, the geographies of new war zones and the creation of new armies for emerging nations.

Changing attitudes to warfare have mirrored a varying appetite for war toys. In more militaristic periods, like the lead up to the First World War, war toys were viewed positively as a part of a child’s broader education. But during conflicts such as Vietnam, widespread anti-war sentiment led to a decline in realistic war toys.

During the 19th century, toy manufacturers used printed images from illustrated news reports to quickly and accurately portray contemporary battles with tin and paper soldiers. 20th century manufacturers such as Corgi dealt directly with the military to produce accurately scaled toy military vehicles.

But war toys carry stronger messages beyond that of accuracy, and can communicate changes in social and political beliefs. Ideas of militarism, nationalism, imperialism and patriotism have all been instilled through toys, games, books and comics.

From Reality to Fantasy

Red astronaut, Cragstan © Victoria and Albert Museum

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Ideas of futuristic weapons and machinery date back to the 19th century with writers such as HG Wells and Jules Verne. But it was from 1945, in a new atomic age, that science fiction reached a new height in popularity within the material culture of childhood.

Despite growing opposition to the use of nuclear weapons, toy makers and comic publishers harnessed the public’s fascination and fear of the atomic age and the space race. Superheroes, aliens and monsters replaced human soldiers to fight in fantastical battles of good against evil. These were produced for a largely Western market and often strongly alluded to the Cold War.

Protests against the brutal war in Vietnam also saw toy companies shift their attentions away from representing current conflicts. Instead they looked back in time for inspiration to historic wars and battles that were seen as more palatable.

In this period, many toys were made that glorified events as recent as the Second World War, or as far back as those fought by medieval knights on horseback.

Secret Weapons

Although toys are often thought of as innocent playthings for children, this is not necessarily the case. Toys have been used in warfare in secret, shocking and surprising ways – to train and to influence, to comfort, to heal and even to aid escape.

V&A Museum of Childhood
Bethnal Green

The Museum is open daily from 10.00 to 17.45 in Bethnal Green, London.

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