Everyone knows of the embarrassing scandal concerning the Tarzan doll that appeared to be masturbating, but how many remember those other toys and games which have had to be withdrawn due to their unsuitability for children? Remember the Bombshell game marketed in the 1980s which invoked the self-righteous wrath of Prince Charles? The game itself was pretty innocuous – a variation on Buckaroo – in which players had to try and defuse a an unexploded “bomb”. Remove the wrong part and it exploded. Unfortunately for the manufacturers it’s release coincided with a major IRA bombing campaign in the UK and the death of an Army bomb disposal expert whilst trying to defuse a real bomb in a Wimpey bar. However, this was not the only time that the spectre of the IRA and the Irish Troubles would cause problems for toy manufacturers. In a mid-1990s attempt to re-launch the popular “Action Man” doll, it was proposed that a new range of accessories reflecting contemporary conflicts would be introduced. Apparently it was felt by marketing consultants that the “Action Man” range’s traditional concentration upon World War II uniforms and equipment had adversely affected sales. “Kids today just can’t identify with a conflict that took place more than fifty years ago. A lot of them couldn’t even tell you who we fought in the War!”, a spokesman for the consultancy firm told the press in 1996.

It was decided that the first contemporary conflict to be addressed would be the Irish Troubles. A British Army urban warfare outfit was planned. It was to have included special body armour and a riot gun capable of firing miniature plastic bullets. An IRA accessory pack was also planned. This would have included an Armalite rifle and bomb-making kit (including ultra-realistic looking semtex plastic explosive). Future additions to the range would have included an exploding Ford Transit van and a special Bloody Sunday paratroopers outfit (including an automatic rifle with authentic “indiscriminate fire” setting). Pride of place in the new range was to go to a special edition of the ever-popular talking “Action Man”. This version was to be bearded and bespectacled and capable of speaking twelve of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams’ best known phrases (voiced by an actor), including the famous “There’ll be no decommissioning”. Not surprisingly, reactions to the proposals were hostile. An official spokesman for the Northern Ireland Office condemned the plans as “tasteless” and “insensitive beyond belief”. Leading Unionist Dr Ian Paisley went apoplectic on Question Time and had to be confined to bed for a week. The plans were quietly dropped and the marketing consultants responsible for their genesis dismissed. The manufacturers should have been forewarned of the negative reaction in the light of their 1975 attempt to update “Action Man” with a Vietnam war range. This included jungle fatigues, necklaces of severed ears, and miniature packs of Agent Orange. The range was discontinued in 1977 following complaints from parents over incidences of child cancer and the defoliation of their gardens.

It is not just action figures which can cause consternation amongst our moral guardians. As the Bombshell controversy showed, games can also cause problems as a result of their “unsuitable” content. One such case was the late 1980s board game Riot – The Game of Inner City Violence. Inspired by the Brixton riots of the early 1980s, this game put one player in charge of disruptive elements on an inner-city estate, whilst the other took control of the police forces. Over a set number of game turns each player attempted to secure victory by controlling the level of civil unrest on the board. The civilian player could gain victory points by escalating the level of unrest to a riot and then full scale civil insurrection, whilst his opponent gained points by containing the violence. The player controlling the rioters could deploy overturned cars as roadblocks and, as the violence escalated, could call upon more resources in the form of extra rioters, petrol bombs and even firearms. The police player also had access to additional resources, including riot guns, tear gas, armoured cars and even snipers. However, he risked losing points if he used these at inappropriate times – using baton rounds against small-scale protests could – as in real life – prove counter-productive. The game, devised by a group of Bristol students, quickly came under fire from the Police Federation, who claimed that it was highly offensive and could encourage urban violence and anarchy. They also claimed that the game was unfair, as they had played it several times and found the odds stacked so heavily against the police player that it was virtually impossible for him to win. After questions in the House of Commons the game was withdrawn and is now a collectors item.

More recently, the Playstation game Brawl had to be withdrawn after complaints that it might encourage violence. In this beat’em up game, the usual arena was replaced by a pub bar and the usual bizarre opponents by drunken skinheads, fat blokes with beards and bouncers. Fights can be started by spilling someone’s beer and the drunker the player character is before he starts a fight, the stronger he is. Beer bottles, chairs, tables and ashtrays can all be employed as weapons and the action often spilled out onto the street. Special moves included the knee to the groin and vomiting in an opponents face. Points could be lost for wetting your pants, however. The graphics were excellent, including vivid renderings of teeth being knocked out and bloody bottle slashings. The main opponent of the game turned out to be pub-owners, who claimed that it was destroying the traditional British Saturday night. “Why should they go out and spend money getting drunk before starting a fight when they can have a good virtual punch-up in their own living rooms for free instead?”, complained a spokesman for the Licensed Victuallers Association.