Cook, D. (2001) 'Exchange Value as Pedagogy in Children's Leisure: Moral Panics in Children's Culture at Century's End', in Leisure Sciences, Vol 23: 81 - 98.
Children's leisure has become a site of a great deal of anxiety, debate and regulation, and there is a long history of concern. Modern popular amusements are seen as particularly threatening because of their influence in the world of childhood, and because they are produced by a large modern industry. Parents can feel that they are attempting to police their children's activities and battling with modern industries.
New electronic media are particularly difficult to keep outside the family, and licensed images of various personalities are found all over common household goods. 'These, along with action figures, music videos, and video games invite preconstructed personae and prenarrativised scenes into the circle of play' (82).
Children can reinterpret corporate images and products, and give alternative interpretations to plots and characters, but there is still 'exposure to an influence of corporate images and imaginings... Children's play... remains intertwined with the material manifestations of capital and, as -- that is, the commodities themselves' (82). It is in this sense that children's play indicates existence of 'a post-modern version of childhood -- a childhood inseparable from media use and media surveillance' (82).
Three fads in particular examined -- trading cards, Beanie babies, and Pokemon. These are focused on the 'realization of economic exchange value as the goal or point', and this rather than any moral lessons or ideologies in the actual activity that has aroused comment. Apparently, each activity generated 'large scale and active secondary markets', and were associated with press stories of theft, addiction and greed (82). Some commentators saw these activities as the very opposite of play and leisure, while others saw them as a source of education about the real world. Cook thinks that all popular culture teaches, as with Giroux, and that these lessons increasingly take place outside the family and community.
The study focuses on public discussions and reactions in the press in the 1990s. The term moral panic is defined via Cohen (83) -- and it is suggested that moral panics have now become 'more or less institutionalised as part of the news cycle and as the staple of many talk-shows' (83). Collecting activities serve as a useful 'public symbol for threatened values' (84), but the press commentary is necessary ambivalent, since the activities represent 'the core values of capitalism', and the participants mostly seem to be white middle class children.
[Neo-classical arguments about markets are then summarised, together with a few basic sociological critiques, page 84 - 5. These include 'a feminist critique... [market relations]... favour personal autonomy to the exclusion of community; it is a self that performs market transactions as if unencumbered by emotional attachment to others, as if home and family were epiphenomenal' (85).] Markets are better seen as social formations. The market for children's goods has always been subject to adult regulation. Childhood itself is often seen as a virtuous distinct time of life, from Rousseau, and this has led to childhood currently being seen as economically useless, 'but emotionally priceless and sacred'. Thus children do not produce, but they still have a function for the economic system [as its 'soul' etc].
Children have also been the subject of commercial activity, and this has been reconciled with the sentimental view of childhood in two ways -- it is acceptable to sell goods that are beneficial [especially educational], and children are increasingly seen as having a right to be a consumer. However, tensions still remain. 'Leisure purists, like childhood purists, approach extrinsic or monetary value as an imposition which corrupts or destroys some true essence of the activity' (86). The best activity is seen as autotelic [and there is an explicit reference to Csikszentmihalyi here, which raises the interesting notion of an anti-commercialist value position implicit in the concept of 'flow']. The battle is focused on children's play.
Sports trading cards were marketed using a 'chase' strategy from 1990 -- special insert cards appeared in limited numbers, and consumers were encouraged to chase after them. This is only an extension of the 'limited editions' strategy which artificially restricts supply. In 1996, some adults and parents attempted to sue the major companies marketing trading cards on the grounds that they encouraged gambling. Part of the argument suggested that an innocent and wholesome pastime had been corrupted [clear references to some past golden age of childhood, Cook suggests]. One Montreal school decided to allow trading in school, and reported 'a common ambivalence' -- that children were learning how to trade, and yet there were also heading towards gambling (87). The activity was thought to be heading from play into monetary exchange.
Other press reports found apparently addicted collectors and gamblers, although there was a general scepticism as well, with barristers accused of talking up the phenomenon-- one lawyer referred to trading cards as '"cardboard crack"' (88). This analogy between chasing cards and chasing drugs helped fuel a moral panic by suggesting an equivalence between urban drug cultures and the collecting hobbies of white middle-class suburban youth. Cook suggests that there is little evidence that collectors themselves ever used the term 'cardboard crack'. [There is also an interesting suggestion that litigation is and amplifying mechanism for moral panics].
Beanie babies were also subject to the limited edition strategy, which produced a substantial secondary market, and some high prices for the rarer items. Authenticity became an issue here, since real Beanies came with their own identifying ear tags which guaranteed their value -- adult collectors would make sure that the ear tag was protected, and certainly did not play with the toys [in a similar way, British collectors apparently buy toys and never take them from their original packaging]. McDonald's also promoted them, and this led to stories of adult collectors buying large numbers of Happy Meals 'only to throw out the food and keep the promotional Teenie Beanies' (89). Other stories involved adults forcing their children to buy McDonald's meals, children offering to accompany adult collectors for money in order to enable them to purchase a Happy Meal, and stories of thefts from delivery trucks. This was seen as adults taking over a child's activity, swarming to stores where new deliveries appeared, stacking toys from children, and so on. Many of the stories featured a 'discursive contrast', between predatory adults and innocent children, monetary greed and children's fun (91). Such a contrast ignores the fact that the adult economic system produced these children's toys as commodities in the first place.
Pokemon offers the clearest case study. The characters appeared in television shows, video games, and films as well as in trading cards. The manufacturers pursue the 'chase' strategy. Child collectors seem to be mostly three and four year-old to 12 year-old boys. Partly because there are so young, Pokemon has attracted particular criticism. Considerable knowledge od characters etc is needed to trade effectively, and this also excludes parents and teachers. The demonic looking characters also attracted moral condemnation. Again a number of incidents were reported of crime and cheating (where older more knowledgeable children cheated younger ones by persuading them to trade valuable cards cheaply). Some adults thought that trading had a pedagogic value in explaining how the real world works, while others were worried that this activity clearly involves something outside the family circle -- 'a strong, perhaps hegemonic definition of value existed beyond [parents' ability] to control it' (93), supported by online auctions, card swap centres, dealers and the like. Again trading has been seen as frenzied or addictive, while Christian ministers denounced the activity as evil.
Some commentators have blamed parents, or advocated an attempt to incorporate Pokemon into instructional sequences about consumerism. The activity has been compared favourably to the isolation of computer games. Others have listed the development of skills in mathematics, language and reading. However, 'These are life lessons in pradatory capitalism better learned earlier than later' (94).
These activities taken together generated a number of moral panics which overlapped and focused on the changing nature of childhood. Exchange value became the goal of children's play. Parents worried that their activities would lead to cheating and fraud, despite the acknowledgement of the possible instructional elements for the younger children. However, none of this led to a critique of capitalism or the free market in general. Aggression and greed are valued among adult traders. Those same parents who worried about the effects on the children are quite likely to engage in their own versions of speculation, gambling and trade. Overall, the objections seem to be based on an notion of childhood innocence which may be on the wane anyway, and it is most likely that 'exchange value may be emergent as the quintessential teacher, the ultimate pedagogue' (95).