​Flashback 1986: Laser tag debuts to controversy

This feature, The Way It Was, resurfaces and explores past stories from the CBS News archives. If there's a topic you'd like to see, leave a suggestion in the comments section or send us a tweet at @CBSEveningNews.


Over the last two decades laser tag has become an American staple, but its path into American homes and strip malls wasn't without controversy. At issue: Did laser tag glorify gun violence and war to impressionable children?

In 1986, the year Lazer Tag made its debut, dozens of America's top cartoonists thought enough of the issue to initiate a protest against war toys for Christmas.

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1986 editorial cartoon drawn in protest of toys that glorify war

"Put Bambi not Rambo under the Christmas tree," said a spokesman for the cartoonists.

The battle lines were drawn and a game that involves shooting sensors with infrared beams fit squarely on the Rambo side. CBS News correspondent Anthony Mason looked into the debate for the "CBS Evening News" in December of 1986.

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Kids play with Lazer Tag equipment inside New York's FAO Schwartz toy store in 1986
CBS News

"Lazer Tag and gun games like it will once and for all end those arguments over whose been hit," reported Mason. "It's not really a laser but an infrared beam. The sensor you wear tells you when you've been zapped."

There was no denying the game's technology was innovative - a game changer for the toy industry.

"Instead of watching a 'Star Wars' movie, it's like being in a game of it," said one boy.

"We've taken what children have always imagined, the ability to tag some distant object, and made it into reality, and that's magic to kids," said Don Kingsborough, a Lazer Tag manufacturer.

The magic worked. In Mason's report there are scenes of children storming the FAO Schwartz floor all clamoring for Lazer Tag. Yet, other toy shop owners were weary - more on the Bambi side of the debate.

"I am refusing to carry them in my store," said Joy Miller, a Washington, D.C. toy store manager. "I feel that they are very violent for children."

Laser tag manufactures argued their toys were just a new version of tag - harmless and fun. Critics, though, pointed to cartoons made for the laser tag companies which showed characters beaming bad guys.

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A character in the cartoon "Lazer Tag Academy" fires his lazer gun
LAZER TAG ACADEMY

"There's a question here of values," said child psychologist Lawrence Balter. "You have to decide whether you want your child to be exposed to something that kind of institutionalizes the use of war-type toys and weaponry."

Ultimately the dilemma did little to disturb laser tag's success. The Photon Company started to spend millions of dollars to build elaborate indoor battlefields. In 1986, laser tag centers were opening up around the country at the rate of two a month, according to Mason's report. One facility boasted 40,000 members and designated Monday nights as "League Nights," where teams would compete for laser tag glory.

And if you thought no one was still worrying about whether laser tag sets a bad example, one company still does. ICOMBAT Laser Tag recently announced the game "Hero Blast," which the company boasts as a "new non-gun laser tag system." The company says their glove like blasters will allow laser tag to enter schools and other markets long considered off limits to laser tag.