The implements of aggressive play

Aggression is a reaction to fear, suppression, excitement or stress but can also be caused by unfamiliarity or arrogance. Aggressive games are play in which children practice mastering excitement, stress and drawing the limits between aggression and non-aggression.

In the texts describing play with toys, especially GI Joe, weapons and implements used for capturing/catching, there are examples of “reading the text of aggressive play” or “interpretation - translation”. The expressions children use in connection in particular with war play (the most explicit form of aggressive play) are regarded as imitation or copying real war situations. From a relativistic perspective, however, the interpretation of play as “as if” play doesn’t hold water. Although the theme of play is war, the play itself is often the opposite of aggression and violence.

Results of research into war and aggression toys, aggressive play and war games are to a certain extent dependent on the research method used. The researchers’ own personal psychological condition or attitude to aggression can present a more serious problem to the complexity of the research than the principal research objects: i.e. children-at-play’s play with aggression and war and the objects used in these games.

In the 4-10 year olds’ toy collections (Table 5.7.1. Steenhold (1993,d)) and in the following tables, the subgroup weapons is very small. This is not due to the fact that the children do not own many toy weapons but that children are apparently not generally very conscious of toy weapons. Wegener-Spöhring (1986:797-810) came to the same conclusion.

Directly and indirectly, certain specific dolls or figures, weapons and certain sports disciplines encourage aggressive play and war play. (Note: TV and video films are beyond the scope of this book.)

Within the Dolls category, there are two groups: guardian dolls and war dolls:

Guardian dolls are copies of or are motivated by the role of protector or guardian (either positive or negative). The guardian doll is normally part of a larger toy concept based on history, a story, a book or a film, e.g. Ninja Turtles or He Man from Masters of the Universe.

Dinoriders                             trolls

dolls’ animals                       Turtles

idol dolls                               guardian dolls

Masters                                guardian doll animals

robot                                     jack-in-the-box


War dolls are doll copies or figures which are inspired by warlike identification figures or persons who have taken part in war action. The action can be historical but is most often a story, fairy tale or science fiction, e.g. soldier, pirate, cowboys and Indians. Modern toys include:

Action Force (GI Joe)              war doll - man

Cowboys and Indians             soldiers

Karate Kid                                super hero

war doll - child                        tin solders

war doll - woman

Weapons and the implements of war (implements of capture) include toys which simulate catching quarry/prey from a distance or implements used in hand-to-hand combat (pistol, sword/shield, sabre, lance, modern armoured personnel carriers, etc.) - while other implements can be used both as hunting requisites and weapons: hunting rifle, bow and arrows, slingshot, knives.

We must differentiate between toy weapons and war machines (war toys) as weapons are defined as “hand guns” where war toys (cf. Wegener-Spöhring (1986, 1995)) are defined as “toys which present an image of war and with which children play war.”

Special weapons and certain implements mentioned in old myths and adventures and the modern “Star Wars” implements and weapons also encourage aggressive play.

Rough-and-tumble play and fighting for fun

This kind of play also includes Tag/hunting/war play. They are often violent games texted by confrontation which children and adults in the research referred to as:

Action Force games                Masters of the Universe

Cowboys and Indians              girls catch the boys

dangerous animals                  Cops and robbers

playing “tick - you’re on”         playing “tag” war

In my interviews (Steenhold:1993,d), many parents pointed out that play with aggression also often occurred (openly or indirectly) in the subgroup intimate play - where participants are most often exclusively family members, parents, children, siblings. They called this intimate, close interaction many different names:

ordinary everyday play            messing about

ordinary intimate play             fighting for fun

tickling games                           cuddling and kissing play

play with parents                     rough-and-tumble/being together

The very strong emotional contact which occurs between family members (and best playmates) allows play where aggression in the form of stubbornness, anger, strong, direct outbursts of feeling, “bear hugs” and actual physical contact is in many cases seen as something positive, in others (quoting one of the mothers) “elusive and stimulating”.

The majority of parents who mentioned this came from families where the pattern of communication tended to be concept oriented.

As previously mentioned, observations of children at play naturally involve both an observer and the children observed. Even so, some researchers describe violent play as if it were possible to describe it objectively. For example, Carlsson-Paige & Levis (1987,1990) describe boys’ play as bordering on violence or actually violent without taking into account how rarely real fights or actual violence in fact occur when boys play together. See Peter K. Smith (1992).

According to Pellegrini (1988:802-806) and Wegener-Spöhring (1989), the most aggressive children are often those least likely to get involved in play fights.

In 1987, the German magazine “Spielmittel” published an article on “Masters of the Universe”, the popular system of figures and individual buildings designed for role play.

The editors wondered how “Masters” had managed to achieve sales success when parents’ attitudes to “Masters” were often very negative. They asked: “What makes “Masters” so popular with children?” Considering the degree of parental disapproval, cool advertising alone couldn’t explain the toy’s popularity.

By way of introduction, the editors proposed two hypotheses:

A. Play with “Masters” creates aggressionand asocial behaviour and group play with more than two participants is either impossible or possible only to a limited extent. At the end of a relatively brief play sequence, it will be difficult for mothers/pedagogical staff to pacify the children and get them to play normally again.

B. Play with “Masters” does not lead to anything terrible and creates neither aggressionnor asocial behaviour. The play sequences are carried out over a longer period of time. Several children concentrate and play voluntarily together.

Stuckenhoff (1987) observed children playing with “Masters” in a kindergarten over a four week period. The following is a summary of the results of Stuckenhoff’s observations/research (quote):

1. “Masters” does not overtax the children’s mental capacities. The necessary differentiation between “the goodguys” and “the bad guys” took place although the youngest participants may on occasions bring a figure into the “wrong camp”.

2. The children express involvement, concentration and perseverance in play with the figures. The duration of individual play sequences was extremely high, on average 45 minutes for 5-7 year olds and 78 minutes for 8-10 year olds.

3. The strong appeal of the “Masters” figures” is due to three aspects:

      • the dramatic appearance of the figures and the accessories
      • the many functions of the accessory vehicles and buildings
      • the attractiveness of the accompanying comic books.

4. Play with “Masters” had a positive effect on the children’s mutual social behaviour. Before starting to play, the children must agree on:

      • what the game is about and
      • who has which figure/accessory.

Furthermore, in group play with “Masters”, each participant’s play is constantly oriented towards the play of the other participants and there is therefore a great deal social interaction.

5. No unusually high level of aggressionor thoughtlessness was observed at any phase of the game. All the children endeavoured to stick to the predetermined rules of the game. (End quote.)

Stuckenhoff’s research therefore confirmed hypothesis B and to such an extent that Stuckenhoff didn’t hesitate to give “Masters of the Universe” the predicate “highly recommendable”. As Stuckenhoff himself states, the divergence between the parents’ attitudes and his results is that the parents seen the figures’ warlike appearance and judge the toy on the basis of appearance alone. By contrast, the research was based on observation of “play”.

Stuckenhoff’s conclusions apply equally to other similar toy concepts which appeal to aggressive play.

However, there are some specific characteristics which have direct influence on how toys and play are viewed. There are at least three influential factors in relation to aggression in play with toys. These are:

  • the child’s age,
  • sex and
  • previous experiences of/attitudesto understanding aggression. 

It can be difficult to differentiate between these three factors which will become apparent in the following paragraphs. A large number of other factors (e.g. video games and violent films but also influences ranging from comic books to daily newspapers) also exert an influence but will not be discussed here.

No studies have yet been made into the different levels of children’s aggression and for this reason this book does not cover the subject.


Children and adults have very different attitudes to boisterous play. Children are very aware of the differences between aggressive behaviour and violence per se. Children make a clear differentiation between real fighting and playing fighting. Among others, Smith & Boulton (1990) have shown that English children as young as four years of age can distinguish real fights from play fights. Peter K. Smith (1980, 1990) states that more than 80% of 8-11 year olds can make a clear distinction between aggression and play.

As indicated by Buydendijk and Huizinga, playing at fighting has probably developed into a cultural phenomenon because it encourages children to practice hunting and to train suppleness, the competitive instinct, mastery, power and emotion and other survival strategies.

There are unavoidable similarities between “playing at fighting” and “real fighting” and this is demonstrated most clearly in tag/flight/hiding and war games as shown by Sutton-Smith (1971) in his theory of “order and anarchy”. (Play and games are ways of practising “approach - avoid”, “investigate - retreat”.)

When asked, most children will tend to agree that playing fighting can develop by accident into a real fight if one of the participants gets hurt or falls awkwardly. According to Koyama & Smith (1991) and Sutton-Smith (1988), this happens only in exceptional cases.

Wegener-Spöhring observed that play fighting developed into aggression only when adults invaded the “play space” (framework of play). So we must conclude that children are in fact quite proficient at determining whether their playmates have aggressive intentions or not. What is more, it is usually adults who mistake playing fighting for real aggression because they tend to focus on the similarities rather than the differences between the two.

By contrast, children distinguish play and fighting by focusing on the special characteristics of each which - according to Fry (1990) - are:

1. Facial and verbal expressions: Grimaces, clenched teeth and staring eyes represent real aggressive behaviour. Smiles, shrieks and laughter are characteristic of play which parodies real aggression.

2. Play’s result: The children are less likely to get hurt and more likely to continue to play together after aggressive playthan after a display of real aggression.

3. Frequency: Aggressive playoccurs more often than real aggression (nine times more often, according to Fry).

4. Duration: Aggressive playlasts longer than real fight

Fry concludes that aggression play is relatively safe (as long as the children do not take unnecessary risks) and is characterised by camaraderie. It is also a good way for the children to try out skills which can be very useful later on in life.

Table shows children’s own information about how often they “play fighting”.

The children have given information about deliberate, aggressive games which are often prepared and agreed among themselves in advance. The scenes and episodes are sometimes almost directed and produced like a film. However, we have to assume that the numbers are even higher than the table indicates because parents and children tend either to be reluctant to say that they “fight” or to deny that they demonstrate aggression and aggressive looking behaviour.

Boys play aggressive games - it is something girls only rarely do. Aggressive play is therefore primarily a phenomenon of boys’ play.

Table Often “play fighting” with other children


All children



Total children


Age group




year olds




year olds




year olds




year olds




year olds



259   65%

137   35%

45   54%

38   46%

40   34%

79   66%

69   95%

  4     5%

105   87%

  16    13%

No data






Source: Steenhold (1993,d)

The differences in children’s and adults’ attitudes to aggressive play fits extremely well into the familiar pattern of the divergence between participants’ and observers’ roles.

“Fights for fun” look different from the outside than from the inside because the participants have access to better and more varied information than the observer.

The persons-at-play experience emotional solidarity which the observer cannot experience or can only experience in a very limited way. The emotional solidarity can actually be the cause of the boisterousness which Caillois calls “paidia” which is uncontrolled, free imagination, occurs in chaos, noise, laughter and is characteristically tumultuous and varies in quality. Yes, the persons-at-play are “high” on play!


 The attitude to what constitutes play or aggressive behaviour differs according to the sex of the observer. Conner’s studies (1989) indicate that men and women see aggression differently:

Of a total of 14 different video recordings of children’s play with “neutral toys” (cars and dolls) and “war toys” (war dolls and guardian dolls) respectively, men and women interpreted 10 episodes differently.

One of the episodes included a scene in which a “dead or shot” child was being shot once more in order to be brought back to life. The men considered this to be play while only one third of the women saw the event in the same light.

Generally, women are more likely to describe aggressive play situations as real aggression than men. (Most teachers and especially preschool teachers are female!)

Table (Steenhold (1993,d)) shows children’s “play fights” in relation to their mother’s lifestyle. Again it is boys - and only rarely girls - who fight for fun. There is a tendency for boys whose mothers have no or other education and a repetitive job to be more likely than other boys to use boisterous play as a physical basis for contact.

Previous experiences of/attitudes to understanding aggression  

Many of the classical studies of aggression indicate that adults’ (including parents’) attitudes and behaviour are influenced by their childhood experiences, social and cultural observance and experience, etc.

With special focus on understanding aggression in play and games, we refer here only to Hastorf and Candril’s (1954) classic studies and their examples of “football games”. There is always the visiting team who are (of course) aggressive and play dirty tricks - seen from the point of view of the home team’s supporters.

Adults’ own play experiences (both in childhood and in adulthood) also influence how they judge children’s play. Connor (1989) argues, for example, that women who played aggressive play and played with aggressive toys when they were children (always with brothers or boy playmates) are less inclined than other women to judge children’s tumultuous or boisterous play episodes as aggression.

Boisterous play is more or less a boys’ monopoly. Girls are only given the opportunity to participate if they demonstrate special courage and if the boys accept that girls participate. Girls’ roles in these games are most often the least violent or aggressive attitudes and secondary to the boys’ roles.

As in the case of war games, certain psychologists (Carlsson-Paige & Levis (1987,1990) and Miedzian (1991)) argue that violent games often lead to real acts of aggression - Goldstein (1972).

By contrast, Sutton-Smith & Kelly-Byrne (1984) and Bettelheim (1987) believe that such games contribute to social and emotional development.

According to Pellegrini (1988), the confusion is simply a question of different definitions because many researchers define “violent play” as both fights and fighting for fun while others include both physical and verbal aggression.

Wegener-Spöhring (1989) observed play situations and found 62 aggressive situations in girls’ play and 335 in boys’ play. “Are boys therefore five times naughtier than girls?”, asked Wegener-Spöhring. Hardly but boys are generally permitted to behave more aggressively than girls. Girls are expected to be docile, obedient and “sweet” and also to be ashamed of being aggressive or argumentative.

However, Bjørkqvist, Lagerspetz and Kaukiainen (1991) found that girls are also aggressive but not in the masculine way of explicit violence. Girls’ aggression is verbal.

There are some studies which show that some aggressive children are far less likely to get involved in violent play because they have an unconscious fear of not having control of the situation and of possibly losing self-control. (Willner:1991)

Willner also found that violent play helps children learn the value of compromise, equality and reciprocity and that boys who are prevented from participating in aggressive exchanges miss the opportunity to learn this important lesson.

Children’s aggressions as they occur in play are, unfortunately, often seen as a lack of self-control. Their aggressions can, however, result from a lack of  the ability to understand other children’s signals and failure to understand an invitation to play, intimacy, an attempt to make contact or simple physical touching.

Table - Steenhold (1993,d) shows children’s “play fighting” with other children relative to their fathers’ lifestyle. Again boys’ almost have a monopoly on violent play. Moreover, boys’ play is not affected by their fathers’ lifestyle. A slight tendency for boys whose fathers’ are well educated (further education - long course) to fight less often than other boys must be taken with a pinch of salt.

Children’s play with toy weapons and “implements of war

The Transport/machinery: 8. War machines (war toys) group of toys includes war planes, warships, tanks, cannons, etc.

The Weapons category includes both toy copies and the original weapons. Copies are most often pistols, rifles and swords/shields, e.g.:

arrow                                     pistol

sheath knife                          slingshot/catapult

air rifle/gun                          sword/shield

In interviews with German children, Wegener-Spöhring (1989) found that 76% of boys owned a toy pistol while only 29% of girls owned one.

It is the boys who play with toy weapons/implements of war. They play with them for many different reasons but the majority of their games with these toys have nothing at all to do with aggression or war.

Play with any toy can have numerous and very different aims: ranging from mastery (gaining control over one’s surroundings) to developing physical co-ordination and social skills.

Apart from physical activities in the form of shouting and shrieking, running and acrobatic jumping, hiding, being found, making an ambush, play with toy weapons is also motivated by an attempt to understand the concept of mortality, to stimulate the fantasy, to create tension and to imitate or parody adult behaviour.

However, in many cases, play can most definitely also be interpreted as “legitimate” aggression.

Purchase of toy weapons

Table Toy weapons purchased in a toy store


All children



Total children


Age group




year olds




year olds




year olds




year olds




year olds



  12   11%

  94   89%

   3    9%

 29   91%

  6      9%

 61    91%



No data






Source: Steenhold (1993,d)

Table shows that boys participate actively in the purchase of toy weapons in a toy store and no girl is registered as having bought toy weapons.

Another table ( indicates that there is a tendency for boys whose fathers are well-educated and in employment within blue-collar work/technical and contact/communication to own more toy weapons than boys whose fathers work falls into the other job categories.

This can have much to do with the “mastery” aspect. Fathers like to see their sons master and control implements from an early age and, even though the implements concerned are imitation weapons, the fathers do not seem to attach any importance to their symbolic meaning.

By contrast, boys whose fathers are well educated (further education - long course) are less likely to play with toy weapons than other boys. No specific reason for this can be read out of the research results.

Studies/research into the effects of play with toy weapons are more or less non-existent and this means that it is extremely difficult to say anything general about this.

If we elect to accept the results of the very small number of studies into  children’s play with toy weapons, it would seem that play with toy weapons clearly increases the frequency of aggressive play and aggressive play behaviour. Yet, if they set these toys aside, children’s asocial behaviour returns to the same level as it was before play with toy weapons began.

The effect of children’s play with toy weapons does not therefore seem to be lasting. However, this vague generalisation probably does not hold water if the play situation with weapons is different or is transferred to another place or culture.

There is nevertheless a connection between the boys’ preference for toy weapons and behavioural aggression, although the cause is not clear. Jukes (1991) reports that aggressive boys prefer aggressive toys.

In her research, aggression is synonymous with the boys’ preference for aggressive combat toys. If children are motivated constantly and from an early age to play out aggressive narratives (stories or comic strips), it is all the more likely that these children will be more prone to choose toy weapons to play with than children who have been motivated by other toys.

This statement concurs with research into early imprinting, including cognitive stimulation and preference for violent entertainment, according to Goldstein (1972).

In my interviews, some parents said that they gave their aggressive children toy weapons because they hoped that they could discharge their aggressions into more acceptable, controlled fantasy play.

In the light of all the controversies provoked by children’s play with toy weapons, it is strange that the subject has not as yet been properly researched. Still, maybe the polemic and the lack of research are simply due to the fact that violence in the media, toy weapons and other forms of entertainment for children and young people give parents and other adults ample opportunity for expressing personal, ethical, moral and political views and indignation!



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