By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 11, 2007
"I want an official Red Ryder, carbine-action, 200-shot range model air rifle, with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time."
"You'll shoot your eye out."
* * *
Ralphie Parker, patron saint of toy gun owners, with your pure desire and your unyielding mom, how deep would your passion burn for Nintendo's new Wii Zapper?
The toy in question is a new accessory for the Wii game console. It's not a controller but a gunlike cradle designed to hold the Wiimote and Wii Nunchuk, increasing players' accuracy in shooting games. Like the other members of the Wii family, the Zapper is white and elegant, all sleek curves and shiny surfaces. It is futuristic in the way that "Star Wars" is futuristic, a sort of retro-future that will never happen and already has. The name Zapper is a homage to the company's first Zapper, an orange ray gun sold with the original Nintendo in 1985.
This new Zapper, the Wii Zapper, with its snub nose and smooth grip, is the prettiest submachine gun ever sold.
If that's what it is.
"We don't think it even really looks like a gun," says George Harrison. He is Nintendo's senior vice president of marketing, so he offers an alternative concept: "It's a utility that allows for more diverse styles of play."
Certain parents disagree.
In a recent New Jersey Star-Ledger online survey, one grandparent responded to news of Zapper by writing, "Why don't they enclose an application to the NRA in every box as well? . . . The marketing person who came up with this brainchild of an idea should be fired."
Certain kids salivate.
"I think it's going to make it feel like you're actually holding a gun in real life," says Jonathan Moreira, 16, who has been awaiting the Zapper (on sale Nov. 19 for $19.99) since he saw it advertised at a gaming conference in July. "It'll change everything about FPS" (first person shooting, for you non-gamers).
Says Damian Crisafulli, 14, who is fluent in Nintendo: "I mean, you may only be buying a piece of plastic that reshapes what's already there, but it comes with a free game. Plus it's a cool tool for game developers to build in, plus you get to shoot zombies in REUC [Resident Evil: Umbrella Chronicles], plus it comes bundled with Zelda." Plus, he adds, "it will be awesome to use in a 32-player match in Medal of Honor Heroes 2."
People who suggest it will promote violence are, he says, "paranoid.
"It's plastic that clips to a video game controller."
Ah, but it's plastic that travels with its own posse: The Zapper arrives at our offices accompanied by a PR rep and a peroxide-blond handler who carried it in a padlocked briefcase.
And yes, Jonathan and Damian, it feels very sweet when we cradle it in our hand and then slowly raise it toward . . .
* * *
Ralphie Parker, give us guidance.
Last month the city of Springfield, Mass., sponsored a toy gun buy-back, offering free ice cream to the 50 children who agreed to relinquish their squirt guns and fake laser pistols.
The history of objections to toy guns is almost as long as the history of the toy, from Rose Simone, concerned Chicago citizen, who organized toy-gun-burning bonfires in 1934 and 1935, to the state senators in New Jersey who are currently stumping for a statewide ban on selling imitation firearms to those under age 18.
Toy guns, in the forms of sticks, scraps and the always-reliable thumb-and-forefinger, have likely been around nearly as long as the real thing, which debuted in the mid-14th century.
Toy guns, in the form of things you could go out and buy, arrived much later. After the Civil War, weapons factory owners realized that no war meant no profits. Light bulb! Replace the bullets with sound-making caps and sell the guns as a novelty item!
Those guns were loud, but they didn't shoot anything. That joykill was fixed by harnessing pneumatic technology to make air rifles that blasted ball bearings of .18 inches (a size halfway between B and BBB shotgun shot, hence the BB gun). In 1888, the floundering Plymouth Iron Windmill Co. in Michigan decided to include a BB gun as a freebie with every farmer's order, and in two years, Plymouth had shut down windmill production and was manufacturing 50,000 Daisy Air Rifles a year, "daisy" being the "awesome" of 1888.
The noteworthy thing about turn-of-the-century Daisy-type guns, says Penn State history professor Gary Cross, is that these "toys" were marketed to adults. One 1890 catalogue billed its air rifle as "just the thing to make the neighbor's cat scratch and growl and doggy fly for home"; another similar rifle was advertised as a parlor game. Pest control and family entertainment, not shoot-'em-ups in the back yard.
Though Montgomery Ward did make pretend brigade guns for children, they were paired with miniature drums and ceremonial swords. They appealed to make-believe military parading and patriotism, writes Cross in his book "Kids Stuff: Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood."
"Toy guns in this era were about history and an introduction to manhood," he said in an interview. "They weren't about combat."
Then in 1934 movie cowboy Buck Jones endorsed air rifles for boys who wanted to play Daniel Boone. Toymaker Hubley promoted "cowboys and Injuns" games with its "hard-riding, sure-shooting" Dandy, and marketed the Winner to "kids who idolize the G-men."
Those Al Capone-type references hit close to home, and incited the first wave of organized toy gun protests, led by that spitfire Rose Simone. A Chicago judge huffed in support, "When [the boy] gets used to pulling the trigger of a toy gun, it's not a long step toward pulling the trigger of a real one."
Back and forth, parental permissiveness, parental anxiety. With World II, guns were patriotic again, even in play, but the horrible assassinations and body bags of the '60s changed that. Sears and Bloomingdale's stripped toy guns from their Christmas inventories in 1968.
Dr. Spock reversed his previously pro-pistol position in the 1968 edition of his child care manual, encouraging parents to discourage toy gun play.
In 1983, along came Ralphie in "A Christmas Story," pleading for the Red Ryder BB gun of yesteryear.
* * *
You'll shoot your eye out!
Would that the argument were that simple, Mrs. Parker.
But the truck against toy guns has never truly been about shooting one's eye out, not really. No, the fear has been that handling pretend pistols will turn tots into trigger-happy warmongers, BB's to bullets.
Toy guns, see, are examples of "functional fixedness"; Tinkertoys could be fashioned into an AK-47. They could also become a house, a car, a Ferris wheel. Guns have one purpose: shooting things.
The other parental fear has been that cops will react to realistic-looking toy guns the way they are taught to react to real guns: by firing.
The squirt gun on steroids, that celebrated star of the 1990s, addressed this problem with bright colors and cartoony designs. (The first "liquid pistol" was introduced by Daisy in 1913. "Designed after the latest automatic pistol and would readily be taken for one," read the jaunty ad copy. "When dilute ammonia is used, it makes a very effective weapon against vicious men or animals.")
Hasbro's 1991 neon-hued Super Soaker -- now that was a gusher; the company sold 27 million in its first three years on the market.
Then in 1992 gang members in Boston filled their Super Soakers with, yes, ammonia.
Politicians called for a ban.
"I find it fascinating . . . ," Hasbro's then CEO Alan Hassenfeld says in "Timeless Toys," a history, "how we can legislate toy guns, but we can't legislate real guns."
And legislate they did. The same year as the ammonia attacks, federal regulations known as the Marking of Toy Look-Alike and Imitation Firearms went into effect, requiring that all guns come equipped with an orange plug or a brightly colored paint job.
It worked, sort of, until kids discovered Sharpies and spray paint, and until cops reacted the way cops are taught to react.
* * *
Nintendo Wii Zapper, this is your history, the foundation that readers of the New Jersey Star-Ledger stand on as they ask questions like, "Could we make it squirt blood, too?"
Wii cannot make it squirt blood, reader. And Link's Target Practice, the Zelda game the Zapper is packaged with, is not particularly bloody either. In early levels, the shooter fires only at wooden bull's-eyes in a peaceful country setting, losing 100 points for each wayward blast that accidentally kills a chicken.
More advanced levels see their fair share of skeletons, Bulblins and other Zelda usual suspects, including a particularly nasty round of fireball-hurling Kargaroks, which disappear with a benign poof after being slain, rather than hanging around all mangled and gory. (Link's Crossbow training is rated T for teens and is not recommended to children under 13.)
It's just a game, and a highly social one at that, judging from the yelps and boos of non-playing onlookers when we tried it out.
It's just a kick to get all medieval with a sleek, white, sculpted Zapper.
Relax, you can't shoot your eye out.