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Hottest holiday toys feature construction not destruction

Kids choose 'Bob the Builder' and Lego over videogames about Afghan soldiers.

It must have seemed like a winning idea at the time: create a videogame that puts players in the position of smuggling guns into a war-torn nation like Afghanistan and then release it in time for the Christmas rush.

But then along came 9.11. Suddenly, kids, and more important their parents, weren't interested in virtual versions of the real thing. "Smuggler's Run 2", a videogame with an Afghan theme, faced a challenge it could not have forseen. Activision's new "Spiderman" game, which featured a battle atop buildings that appear to be the World Trade Center, actually had its release delayed to get it away from Sept. 11.

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Then there was Hasbro's hand-held game, "POX," which is loosely based on the concept of battling alien biological warriors. It arrived in toy stores at a time when Americans were wondering if there was Anthrax in their mailboxes.

Even as the marketing departments of these videogame companies try to downplay the thematic content of their products, Americans are heading down a different aisle in their local Wal Mart anyway. This year, it's toys like Lego, Connex, or anything involving claymation-star "Bob the Builder" that are most likely to end up under gift-wrapping paper. Toys focused on building up, rather than tearing down or doing battle, are suddenly hot sellers.

"Sept. 11 has unquestionably had some effects on the toy industry," says McGowan. "'POX' had an incredible stealth marketing campaign, but the ad campaign started right around September 11. The anthrax stories, I'm sure, hurt its sales."

New marketing strategies

And all of this has forced companies to reconsider their Christmas strategies. Where the box of "Smuggler's Run 2" describes the game as being set in Aghanistan, the game's official website says that what you'll see on your console screen is the landscape of Georgia/Russia.

On any other Christmas, "POX" would be your normal, run of the mill, "fate of the universe is in your hands" electronic game.

The concept is that "space rocks" have crashed on Earth, laced with alien DNA. Earth's scientists attempted to examine the rocks with small robots, but the robots are "assimilated by the alien life force." Players can do battle with other players 30 feet away whether the others know it or not.

Or as the game literature says: "The battle could rage at any time. In any place. The fate of the universe could be determined in the blink of an eye. 'POX' ... It's contagious."

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These are not exactly pleasant words or concepts in a nation that has recently faced the threat of bio-terrorism.

"Needless to say we were very conscious of the anthrax scare," says Mark Morris of Hasbro, the maker of "POX." "We made some adjustments. We changed the slogan on the game from, 'The game of alien creation and universal destruction,' to 'The game of alien creation and wireless play.' "

Lego is back in vogue

Even with the changes, Morris says, the company did receive a handful of letters from consumers concerned with the game's premise but there was little real outcry against it.

There has, however, been some effect on sales. Before the terrorist attacks, "POX" was thought to be a real comer of a toy with a chance to achieve sensation status. But a look at various hot toy lists finds "POX" absent while items less associated with bioterror rule the roost.

Among Wal-Mart's hot toys are Legos "Bionicle," which is about a mythical struggle between good guys along with "Barbie in the Nutcracker" and "Dusty the Talking Tool Bench." Products like those are always popular, but they wouldn't normally have been in the Top 10, McGowan says.

At a Rockville, Md., Toys 'R' Us, "POX" is hard to find. There are no banners screaming "Get 'POX.' " It is on the side of small aisle display. And though staff says it sells pretty well, it is on sale for $5 off its usual $24.99. "

Are we disappointed that we're not going to have a runaway hit on our hands? Sure," says Morris. "But POX is going to do fine."

'Violent games aren't us'

Wandering the aisles of the Toys 'R' Us, Tammy Mitchell says she hasn't heard of the game, though her son, only five years old, is a bit young for it.

And she says that Sept. 11 has made her more conscious of what toys she's buying. Her son is longing for action figures and though in the past she has not allowed them, this year is different.

"I don't shield him from the news so he knows what's going on," Mitchell says. "Now he wants some kind of army action figure. I don't like the real violent ones where you squeeze them and the head comes off. But I said if you really want an action figure GI Joe is appropriate."

Over in the video game section, Thierry Boussard shops for his teenage son. "POX" sounds fine to him. "This is fantasy. This is not reality," he says. "When I hear that people do things because they see them in video games, I think that person needs to see a psychiatrist. It is what your parents teach you and the values they give you that matter."

Boussard says he is not looking for "POX," however. "He wants this game. I don't know the name of it. It's a game about stealing cars."