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.)
If you’re thinking about getting your kid a Nerf gun, you’ve likely got two questions on your mind: Is it safe? And is it “good” for him? (Or her, I suppose: Ritchie says that girls play with Nerf, and one Nerf fan site highlights “Foamme Fatales,” though Nerf’s marketing features only boys.) As for safety, you shouldn’t worry that Nerf guns will hurt your kid. N-Strike guns are recommended for kids 6 and older, and Vortex weapons—whose discs fly farther and faster, and which have an inner shell of hard plastic that causes them to deliver a slightly sharper sting—are for children 8 and older. They all include warnings to avoid aiming at your targets’ eyes and faces. In the journalistic tradition of those TV weathermen who volunteer to get Tased, I allowed my wife to shoot me with a half-dozen Nerf weapons, including the two most powerful, the N-Strike Stampede ECS and the Vortex Nitron Blaster. The Vortex hurts a bit more than the N-Strike, but neither causes any real harm. If you were to get hit in the face with either a dart or a disc, I suspect it wouldn’t leave a bruise (though I was scared enough of the speed of these projectiles that I did not volunteer my face for that test). You remember those low moments in elementary school when the playground bully would sneak up on you from behind and flick your ear? Getting hit by a Vortex disc on bare skin feels about half as bad as that.
Whether it’s good for your child is a more difficult question. 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. 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.”
Levin believes that the best way for parents to respond to the rise of realistic guns like Nerf’s isn’t to ban them. (Your ban won’t work.) Instead, she suggests imposing some limits on the play and teaching your kids lessons while they’re playing. It turns out that Nerf shares this belief: “It’s important to note that the Nerf brand encourages parents and caregivers to be involved in aspects of their children’s development, including play,” Ritchie told me in an email.
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.