Ludic geopolitics: An interim progress report

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Image Source: Klaus Dodds (@klausdodds)

Last week, we held a project advisory board meeting at the University of Portsmouth and it was a great opportunity for the team to catch up and discuss with advisory board members the interim findings of the Ludic Geopolitics project. We also had an opportunity to record our thanks to Dr. Phil Kirby who was the research associate for project based at the University of Exeter (January 2014-March 2015), and now is going on to a post at the Sutton Trust.

The day was organized into three themes, after a brief introduction by PI Dr. Tara Woodyer about the intellectual rationale for the project; addressing the role of young people and children in geopolitics and security studies, thinking about play in ways that go beyond interests in playing with guns and ‘obvious’ objects of warfare, and connecting up the various sites and spaces of play from the home to the school and public institutions such as museums and theme parks. It all seemed very timely to me given renewed interest in critical security studies and critical geopolitics in young people and their agency in everyday geo-politics. For example, a new special issue in Critical Studies on Security is out now entitled, Children, Childhoods and Security Studies.

The first theme led by Dr. Sean Carter addressed, specifically, the place of the action figure in British popular culture. From the mid 1960s onwards, Action Man was for many children (especially boys) a staple item in their childhood. It has never, like Barbie dolls, been free of criticism and controversy, as accusations of sexism, racism (action men were white in the main), and militarism abounded over the intervening years. As a toy it was introduced in the midst of the Cold War but had a distinct World War II aesthetic. In the early 1980s, the Iranian hostage crisis involving an SAS assault captured the public imagination for a while and SAS-derivative action man and other products such as film (e.g. Who Dares Wins) were released. More latterly, the HM Armed Forces action man range, released and licensed by the MOD in 2009, was discussed and explored with reference to contemporary geopolitical events pertaining to Iraq and Afghanistan. There have been some controversies surrounding this range; the absence of women in the action figure range, the drone operator toy and the involvement of the MOD in the first place in this commercial enterprise.

Sean explained how, with primary sources such as Action Man annuals, interviews with some of the original designers and employees of Palitoy, advertising, and contemporary commentary it was possible to produce a nuanced understanding of how action figures shaped British geopolitical culture.

Dr. Diana Martin, the research associate of this project based at Portsmouth, offered further insights as she noted the role of collectors and enthusiasts in perpetuating interest in action figures. Having visited collector days and talked to some of those who are action man aficionados, she reported on how action man was customized by some and coveted by others including the packaging and original annuals and supplementary items associated with the figures including the action man board game. Thus, it was important to bear in mind that the action man figures resided within a wider material culture as well as geopolitical culture.

Working with the Museum of Childhood’s ‘War Games’ exhibition (initially hosted in London but now a travelling exhibition involving Sunderland, Carlisle, Southampton, Chatham, Coventry and Plymouth), Sean and Diana explained how the exhibition was proving a fertile space for exploring the role of inter-generational meaning making practices of play (second main theme of the project) in shaping the understanding of war toys including action figures. Southampton SeaCity Museum’s hosting of the exhibition at the present has proven useful given the proximity to Portsmouth. This strand of the research is challenging but Diana’s involvement in museum workshops has proven useful in finding out more how families engage with their children and explain and contextualize war in general. Some information has been gained from visitor comments about the War Games exhibition.

Tara described the final element of the project as she explained how children play with and relate to action figures. Working with schools in the Portsmouth area, she outlined the challenges and opportunities of engaging with young children (6-10 years old) in both the classroom and with the permission of their parents in the home environment. Although difficult to operationalize, she spoke about how the children engaged with the toys and the kinds of narratives/storylines they developed alongside the play. Combining war-based stories with zombies, love-interest, kidnappings, explosions and rescues, the children played with the action figures in diverse ways and interestingly the enemy figure was usually described as ‘German’ rather than anything more contemporary. Some of the narratives involved ‘Afghanistan’ but did not explicitly describe the enemies as inhabitants of that country or elsewhere such as a non-state group like ISIS. Lone terrorists and scientists working with nefarious ambitions were popular. She also explained the work being undertaken in children’s homes including the archiving of children’s toy collections and the videoing of their play. We expect to gain a better understanding of how war play and the geopolitical imaginaries that underpin such play co-constitute one another, as children explain who those toys and types of play matter to them.

It was an immensely enjoyable day and it was clear that the project has lots of things to pursued including more detailed interviews and engagement with families in the home and alongside them as they visit the War Games exhibition. We want to deepen our understanding of the action figure toy and perhaps develop further work that explores how other European countries addressed war play through toys and games in the same period (c. 1960-2015). Meanwhile, we have a series of sessions on ‘domesticating geopolitics’ (convened by the Ludic Geopolitics team) at the annual conference of the Royal Geographical Society in August 2015 to look forward to.

Professor Klaus Dodds

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