Riot police, body scanners and social breakdown in toy town

An array of childhood playthings are normalizing the concepts of surveillance and state control for the youngest of minds

At a high-security facility in an unidentified city, heavily armed police are interrogating what appears to be an anti-fascist protestor, dressed in red and black. They take fingerprints, record his confession on camera and add his details to a database. In the control tower, cutting-edge surveillance tech oversees and records a high-walled perimeter. Officers armed with assault rifles look out. Across town, their black-clad colleagues in the riot squad are driving an armored van, sirens blaring, to a scene of unrest. They jump out, visors down, rifles loaded, shields ready. Another division has set up roadblocks at key strategic points, dogs straining at their leashes, spikes laid out across the road.

It could almost be a scene from “24” or a Hollywood action movie, but one thing doesn’t sit quite right. The cast is made up of Playmobil toys, aimed at children between four and ten years old. Today, we are all more closely tracked and monitored than ever before, and kids are no exception. As AI and internet-enabled “smart” devices expand their reach into the nursery — complete with networked teddy bears and Barbies with inbuilt video cameras — a new generation of playthings has emerged that reflects the very grown-up themes of law and order, surveillance and defense policy.

Taken together, these toys can be seen to normalize the coercive powers of both technology and the state, preparing young minds for a life of near constant tracking, monitoring and control by both government agencies and commercial entities.

As with so many things, in order to fully understand where we are now, it is necessary to look to the past. The intrusion of authoritarianism and violence on the ostensibly innocent world of childhood play is not a new phenomenon. Military figurines, for example, have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs and toys have long provided telling markers of contemporary norms. As the historian Michael Paris has observed, this has been visible in Britain since the Crimean War of 1853-56, when patriotic passions reached fevered extremes.

During World War I, children often played with model soldiers that they would pretend to kill and maim. In the late 1940s, an American handheld game invited players to guide a small metal ball to the targets of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — Japanese cities where U.S. forces had earlier dropped nuclear bombs, killing an estimated 135,000 and 64,000 people respectively. 

In the 20th century, as a never-ending stream of colonial conflicts — including two world wars, the Cold War and its numerous proxy battles — unfurled, toys dedicated to such themes were a perfectly normal thing to give to a child. After World War II, materials such as paper, plastics and metals also became more readily available. Many of them were turned into army-themed comics, board games, Airfix model kits and GI Joe figures, where they were eagerly embraced by the Baby Boomer generation and those beyond.

Towards the end of the century, technology changed the nature of conflict, and toy manufacturers were quick to adapt. In 1991, the French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard noted that continuous television news reporting and the use of “smart” ballistic missiles during the first Gulf War made the violence reminiscent of a video game. Since then, war-themed games have become an established and highly lucrative industry, with the Call of Duty series alone making over $27 billion since 2003.

With the arrival of the War on Terror at the start of the 21st century, toys began to reflect the changing nature of western military and security priorities. After the end of the Cold War, the U.S Department of Defense and the security services of western governments were increasingly focused on the idea that “war had come home” — and, with the 9/11 attacks on New York City, it had. Under President George W. Bush in the U.S. and Prime Minister Tony Blair in the U.K., an explosion of urban surveillance and advanced security tech took place, accompanied by paranoia about clandestine terrorist cells and widespread hostility toward Muslims. This invisible threat turned western cities into potential conflict zones, particularly their public spaces and transport hubs. 

The War on Terror also allowed for the establishment of what the Italian philosopher Georgio Agamben has termed a “state of exception” — a moment of crisis during which unprecedented and often legally dubious legislation is passed or enacted in the interests of public safety and national security. This idea is exhibited most starkly in the extradition, detention and torture of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, and covert tactics such as extraordinary rendition. Perhaps its most insidious manifestation is to be found in the intensifying levels of state surveillance to which citizens of nations across the world are now subject. 

Implicit in the state of exception is the idea that once the moment of crisis has passed, the supposedly temporary alterations to laws and societal norms will persist, and that life will never return to the way it once was. In the U.K. — a country where, only a few years before, armed law enforcement officers were a rare sight — this has led to the normalization of militarized policing and a steady ratcheting up of surveillance technology.

The sense that “war has come home” to the urban environment is clear in a large number of playthings produced by two of the world’s biggest toy companies. With their respective City Action and City ranges, Playmobil and Lego have both created an array of playthings dedicated to these themes. 

The toys described above include the Playmobil Police Station with Prison, Police Van with Lights and Sound, and the Police Roadblock set. Of particular note is the sheer weight of weaponry and surveillance tech replicated in each set. The most expensive — yours, or your child’s, for $120 — has six guns, two batons, three different computers, video cameras, aerials and a panopticon-style control tower. One of its miniature computer screens appears to show a Google Maps-inspired layout of an unnamed urban center. Even the most basic Playmobil police play set ($7) includes CCTV cameras on top of a tiny police station and a mugshot displayed on a laptop. 

Surveillance and data accumulation is inextricably bound up in modern policing and, accordingly, the representation to children of law enforcement agencies. While the Lego City universe comes without Playmobil’s bulging arsenal of deadly weapons, its little plastic people are equipped with a similar range of high-tech surveillance tools. 

There are other unnerving products in these ranges. For instance, the Lego City Tire Escape set looks like a border patrol operation, with an extravagantly mustachioed character attempting to row to freedom, away from a police speedboat. (In fairness, Lego’s narrative is that he is an escaped prisoner, rather than a man risking his life to cross the Rio Grande and secure a better life in the United States.)

Then there is the striking example of the Playmobil Airport security check-in set, which consists of two personnel, a body scanner, a luggage scanner and a handheld metal detector. This miniature representation of a common 21st-century inconvenience proves just how deeply embedded such experiences are in our day-to-day lives. No longer is the idea of air travel associated with the glamour and lipgloss of Barbie flight attendants and handsome pilot Ken dolls. Now, the specter of terrorism looms over any sense of joy and adventure.

The historian Graham Dawson has described the 20th-century nexus of military conflict and play as a “pleasure culture of war.” Now, we might begin to think of the 2000s as the era in which — to combine Dawson’s and Agamben’s ideas — a “pleasure culture of the state of exception” came into being.

The British-Canadian author and journalist Leigh Phillips identified this trend back in 2013, launching a Tumblr collecting what he referred to as “Agamben Toys.” While his site has now all but disappeared from the internet — here’s a glimpse, courtesy of Wayback Machine — at the time, it struck a dissonant chord. 

“It was a fun little project,” Phillips told us. “For a while, I was getting all sorts of emails from people with examples of similar toys. To some extent, soldiers and guns have always been a part of the pantheon of toys, from Action Man and GI Joe to cap and water guns. But it was the normalization of riot police and post-9/11 airport security as concepts for play that I just thought suggested something was not quite right.”

Beyond the big names of Lego and Playmobil, the Agamben Toys blog highlighted sophisticated Predator drone and Hellfire missile model kits — the kind of weaponry used by U.S. forces to bomb a wedding in Yemen in 2014. The Sluban brand — basically, knock-off Lego — made toys specifically branded as Riot Police. Dressed in head-to-toe black, heavily armed and driving armoured patrol vehicles, the Sluban universe is one of total social breakdown, marketed as suitable for children from the age of six and upwards. More recently, we found the less widely distributed Police Zapper Toy: a “baby taser,” seemingly invented by a serving police officer.

Given the time that has passed since World War II — a conflict long romanticized and sanitized for childhood consumption — the failures of numerous subsequent Western military adventures and the changing nature of conflict, it is perhaps unsurprising that “traditional” war-themed toys, with an emphasis on hand-to-hand combat, have now broadly fallen out of favour. To illustrate this changing of the guard, Hasbro discontinued its U.K.-based range of posable Action Man military figures in 2006, after more than 30 years in production. 

However, a new generation of — apparently more wholesome — internet-enabled playthings poses a different and, arguably, more troubling set of problems. Commonly referred to as smart toys, they are generally intended to equip young people with the skills necessary to thrive in a device-driven, digital world. However, their inbuilt connectivity, cameras and microphones have been repeatedly found to be susceptible to hacking and privacy violations — very much the flipside of the tech-utopian dream. 

In 2018, the toy company VTech was fined $650,000 by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission over its Kid Connect app, which was embedded in a variety of  electronic gadgets for children: the Kidizoom Smart Watch and the Kidizoom Selfie Cam, for example. The FTC found that the company had been collecting user data — including children’s names, dates of birth and gender — without parental consent, or explaining how that information could be used. While the company trumpeted the child-safe web browsers included on toys such as the KidiBuzz imitation smartphone, the FTC also found them to be vulnerable to hacking.

In 2016, the internet-enabled Fisher-Price Smart Bear, which contained a tiny camera on its nose, was found by researchers to be similarly compromised. One year later, German authorities warned that the Vivid Toy Group’s My Friend Cayla smart doll was susceptible too, featuring a Bluetooth device sufficiently insecure that strangers could listen and talk to children through it. 

Smart toys are at an early stage in their development and such discoveries are generally cleared up quickly or dismissed as overheated or unduly paranoid. However, as the technological possibilities of smart and AI-enabled devices is likely to undergo an exponential rise in years to come, it doesn’t seem hysterical to wonder about playthings that don’t just mimic round-the-clock surveillance, but actually employ it on their users.

One question we discussed on a recent episode of our podcast, Cursed Objects, was why, exactly, adults find these toys so disturbing, so wrong. The answer can probably be summed up as follows: they normalize the idea of being subject to state control long before children have had a chance to form any contrary expectations. In doing so, they lay the groundwork for ever more invasive steps. 

A more difficult question is whether this is an over-reaction, and whether anxieties about the world we are “leaving for the next generation” are simply us, the grown-ups, projecting our fears onto children who are playing happily, and will soon grow to understand that reality is rarely a binary experience, populated by easily categorized goodies (the watchers) and baddies (the watched). 

Perhaps children are also smarter than we give them credit for, uniquely able to creatively upturn the authoritarian narratives being handed to them by some toy companies. After all, anyone who has spent time with a group of kids would not be surprised to find them mounting a spontaneous rescue mission, in which a unicorn and a cowboy free Playmobil’s anti-fascist prisoner from an alien spaceship.

Artwork by Dave Stelfox and Katia Patin.

The story you just read is a small piece of a complex and an ever-changing storyline that Coda covers relentlessly and with singular focus. But we can’t do it without your help. Show your support for journalism that stays on the story by becoming a member today. Coda Story is a 501(c)3 U.S. non-profit. Your contribution to Coda Story is tax deductible.

Support Coda

Dan Hancox

Dan Hancox is a journalist from London and the author of Inner City Pressure and The Village Against The World.

@danhancox
Kasia Tomasiewicz

Dr Kasia Tomasiewicz is a historian working on museums, war and material culture.

@KasiaTee