The corporatisation of childhood

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OPEN FESTIVE season has officially been declared, not with the official launch of Pokemon, this year's toy anointed as Most Certain To Induce a Christmas Shopping Frenzy, but with Early Learning Centre's declaration that it will not be stocking the range because it is "violent". Success is now entirely guaranteed, since no toy craze is complete without a blaze of manufactured controversy.

It's been more than two years now since the launch of Teletubbies and, looking back on the whole insane beanfeast, it is difficult to believe that they ever generated, let alone sustained, months of angry hysteria.

Their creator has weathered the storm to become considered as a creative genius and worldwide mother figure. Her declaration last week that it is not possible to develop specific children's programmes for people of more than eight years old is considered sensible, though sad. Instead of sinking under the early predictions that Teletubbies would harm children's development, she is now credited with being one of the few people who really have understood how the magic of childhood can be sustained and the innocence of play-worlds encouraged.

The Teletubbies, though, have now dropped off the Toy Federation's list of top-selling toys, while Pokemon is predicted to be far and away the number one Christmas seller.

At the heart of the craze is a pair of Game Boy computer games, Pokemon Blue and Pokemon Red, and the idea is that children identify with the boy hero and aspire to become the best Pokemon trainer in the world. To do this they have to take on eight master-trainers and take over their monsters. Players have to capture all 150 monsters to win, though each version of the game has only 140 of them, so they need to team up with a friend to complete the process.

As well as the games themselves, there are plenty of other spin-offs. All 150 pocket monsters are available as Tamagotchi-style figures that have to be trained and nurtured in a similar way to the electronic pets. On top of this there are the trading-cards, banned in many US playgrounds and subject of a US lawsuit in which a mother has accused the manufacturers of promoting illegal gambling. This is because the cards, which are sold in packs of 11 at various prices, have become something of a currency in themselves, with the rare ones being auctioned on the Internet for as much as $100. There are also, of course, all the other spin-offs we now come to expect as part of the merry-go-round of toy hype, including 150 collectable bean-filled soft toys, duvet covers, feature films, a television series... and so on, for ever.

About 50 per cent of American and Japanese children are estimated to be utterly addicted to Pokemon in all its forms, while in the two countries sales of the toys worth more than pounds 3bn have been clocked up. But while Early Learning Centre has condemned the toys as violent, they were in fact developed with politically correct parents in mind. The Pokemons are never killed - they either faint or defect to other trainers, and the manufacturers claim, with endorsement from parents, that the play inspired by these creatures encourages strategy, loyalty and friendship.

What then are we to make of Early Learning Centre's decision? Is the shopping chain right, or is it, rather like its similarly middle-class equivalent the National Childbirth Trust, just being too namby-pamby? The question for me is not that pressing, since my son has just turned two. His Christmas present will definitely be coming from Early Learning Centre, because they stock such a range of his favourite toys, the reassuringly wooden Brio train system, accessorised by the reassuringly invented-by- a-vicar Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends characters.

These toys don't make the Christmas Top Ten, either, but that doesn't stop my son from being utterly obsessed with them to the exclusion of absolutely anything else. He wakes up in the morning saying "trains" and drops off to sleep saying "trains". Sometimes he whispers the names of Thomas characters in his sleep, and so apparently, do all of his little friends.

And although this play sounds innocent, it is in fact both obsessive and violent. Little boys all love to crash Thomas best of all, an activity that for quite some days after the Paddington train disaster seemed more than a little inappropriate. Meanwhile, the news last week that a school had banned conkers, not because the age-old game was violent but because one of the pupils suffered from the most extreme form of the ever-more- prevalent and parent-terrifying nut allergy, served only to illustrate how much childhood has changed and how little we can resist such change.

My hunch is that while the denizens of ELC have crystallised their misgivings around the Pokemon craze by alighting on the supposedly violent aspects of the play, the real reasons for chattering-class boardroom unease around these particular toys are rather more complex and rather less easily expressible than that.

The uncomfortable thing about the Pokemon bonanza is the way in which pretty much everything that has ever gripped the imaginations of children at play has been incorporated into one big sales effort. At the centre of all this is the computer game, which many parents feel uneasy about anyway. But, surrounding it, the pleasure children have always taken in collecting and swapping things has been picked up on, as has their love of furry toys - as interpreted nowadays in the Beanie Baby craze. Their liking for pets is catered to by the models they can nurture, while their keenness to have a very best friend is fostered by the need for two games connected by a special cable.

The almost sinister aspect of the Pokemon empire is its appropriation of all of these pleasures under a single, multinational umbrella. It is the apotheosis of the corporatisation of childhood and the logical conclusion of a long process that has seen children increasingly manipulated by free markets.

So when Early Learning Centre says that its problem with these products centres on their violence, they are being disingenuous. Pokemons are no more violent than conkers, no closer to illegal gambling than old-fashioned scrap-swapping.

Instead, what really is violent is the aggressive targeting of childish pleasures, and the deliberate cornering of the worldwide market in childhood. Such cynically clever planning and such regimented exploitation of our children makes us, the parents and providers, feel powerless and put- upon.

But no more so than we have done every Christmas since we fell for the line that we, the consumers, were kings of all the earth.