The PJ Tatler

Slate Writer's Deep, Abiding Fear: Are Nerf Guns Too Realistic to be Good for Kids?

Slate writer Farhad Manjoo frets that a gun that looks like this:

And fires little orange foam darts, may be too realistic. Subheadline: Grown man plays with kids toys, milks experience for navel-gazing article.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been playing with some of the new Nerf guns, and I’ve tied myself in knots thinking about whether ultrarealistic weapons are just harmless fun or whether they reveal something terribly wrong with modern American boyhood. I’ll admit it: As a father of a 1-year-old son, Nerf’s weaponry worries me. And it worries me mainly because these guns seem irresistible.

Emphasis added, and see above for what he considers “ultrarealistic.” Please, nobody show this guy one of those insanely cool full auto airsoft AK-47s.

Oops, sorry.

You can tell the liberal guy actually likes Nerf guns, but doesn’t really want to admit that before consulting an expert.

There are now several varieties of Nerf guns, including one, Dart Tag, that’s meant to be played as part of a structured game. (It works a bit like paintball, only with Velcro-tipped Nerf darts instead of colored paint.) Nerf also makes Super Soaker water guns and a line of close-combat hand weapons—swords, hatchets, axes and the like made of hard foam—called N-Force. But its biggest and most iconic weapons fall into two categories: the N-Strike system, which shoots foam darts, and the new, innovative Vortex system, which uses small, rubberized spinning discs. Michael Ritchie, the senior director of global brand marketing at Nerf, says the company designed the Vortex in response to consumer desire—kids wanted to shoot projectiles farther and more accurately. The Vortex discs can fly as far as 65 feet, which Ritchie described as a major technical feat. (Designers had to find a way to get each gun’s firing mechanism to shoot the spinning disc without having it wobble, which would alter its flight path.)

And so off to the expert for validation he goes.

Whether it’s good for your child is a more difficult question.

No it isn’t. These Nerf guns are basically water guns that don’t soak you. They’re perfectly fine unless your kid has shown a tendency to torture small animals.

For help on that question, I turned to Diane Levin, a professor of education at Wheelock College in Boston who in 1987 co-authored The War Play Dilemma, a book on the subject of kids playing with guns.

Adults aren’t allowed to make decisions on their own anymore, about anything, without consulting the 21st century’s answer to the old world’s village priest.

Levin points out that in general, child-development experts believe that you should let kids play how they want to play, because kids use playtime as a way to work on their problems and curiosities about the world. Boys have always played “war,” and development theorists believe that they do so as a natural part of growing up. For instance, playing with guns teaches boys about power and gender dynamics (though you may not have realized it at the time). In her research, though, Levin found that as violent imagery began to saturate pop culture over the last few decades, war play became a larger and larger part of a typical boy’s childhood. The play also became more realistic and “less imaginative,” she says. “We found in talking to teachers across the country that boys were just imitating what they saw on TV—they were just blindly shooting each other, and not playing creatively or using play to construct knowledge about the world.”

Wait ’til these people get a load of Modern Warfare 3. Actually, he does get a load of Modern Warfare, and then decides that Nerf will be better for his one-year-old. Pity that it won’t be an either/or choice.

If you consider how pop culture has changed since I was growing up in the 1980s, it’s no surprise that today’s Nerf guns look so different from those of yesteryear. Nerf has to compete for a boy’s attention with so many other amazing toys, including, most importantly, video games. Compared to the world of Call of Duty, a toy like the Blast a Ball looks hopelessly rinky-dink, and only something as big and bad as the Vortex will earn a second look on the shelves at Toys R Us. Look at the bright side: If your kids play with Nerf, at least they’re running around outside.

Not in my experience. Nerf darts don’t mix well with trees and brambles and lost darts are expensive to replace, so they stay indoors. Airsoft pellets are cheaper and more accurate, and you don’t have to reload as often. That full auto airsoft AK is definitely the way to go for outdoor kid combat.