Alongside contributing to the sessions on Contemporary Research Strategies in Cultural Geography at the recent AAG meeting in LA, I also co-convened a session on Ludic Geopolitics with Jason Dittmer (UCL). The session was initially planned to be a stateside follow up to the Ludic Geographies sessions I co-convened with Fraser MacDonald (Edinburgh) at last year’s RGS-IBG conference. When reviewing the responses to the Call for Papers a clear theme around geopolitics emerged. This was ideal given our shared interest in geopolitics, games and play. Whilst my new research project concerns military action figures, Jason has recently been conducting research into Model UN and Statecraft.
Playing video games: producing space?
Samuel Rufat (Cergy Pontoise, Paris)
Capturing the ‘feel of battle’: embodied states of play
Daniel Bos (Newcastle)
Danger zone: Digital city and the re-spatialization of geopolitics
Sylvain Munger (Ottawa)
Social irrealism, aesthetics and the political possibilities of video games
Joanne Sharp and Ian Shaw (Glasgow)
Acting as a discussant for the first time was a somewhat daunting task, especially as I was speaking to a room of scholars who no doubt know more about geopolitics than I do, my co-convenor included. It was, however, interesting to engage with each of the papers in this level of depth and think about how they work together and what areas for further attention might be drawn out. Three key areas for reflection/discussion/future work appeared to be particularly pertinent:
1. Research on gaming
The papers, Samuel Rufat’s in particular, pointed to the need to move beyond common assumptions about who is playing video games and where they play. This might include sketching out complexities surrounding target audiences and the actual age of players, dimensions of identity other than age that play a role in shaping practices of consumption and interaction, different/multiple relations with avatars, different/multiple modalities of play, and different terms of engagement and attention. This concern might also usefully extend to the popular moral debates about videogames, for example, how they reinforce violent subjectivities and act as propaganda and recruitment tools. Reflecting on TV news coverage of soldiers playing First Person Shooters in Camp Bastian, how would ‘real life’ military personnel respond to some of these debates? Geographers have a key role in sketching out these complexities, asking critical questions about spatialities and temporalities.
As part of these complexities, we also need to address the relationship between representational and more-than-representational aspects of videogames. This was particularly highlighted by Daniel Bos’s paper, which echoes my own on video games, albeit focusing on a different genre of game. Here it is pertinent to address video games as an interactive (albeit somewhat scripted) medium, and play as an embodied, autotelic practice. It is necessary to engage with gamers, employing methods that allow us to grasp the habitual and non-cognitive alongside the representational (as argued in my 2008 paper). As part of this, it is also necessary to address the role of the academic in gaming practice – as proficient player or novice – and the situated context of gaming, including gamers’ movements between mediated and non-mediated spaces, and their social interaction with other gamers. For instance, the children I worked with in my PhD research made sense of the video games they played in relation to wider socio-material practices of consumption and interaction that take place in non-mediated space. Similarly, Call of Duty players I have worked with enjoy sharing clips of their play on YouTube. In addition, more consideration needs to be given to the various genres of video game. Whilst geopolitics scholars might focus on First Person Shooters, we should not lose sight of their predecessors, and how gamers’ wider interactions with other game genres may help shape their practice.
The papers by Sylvain Munger and Jo Sharp also raised important questions about the place of video games in wider ethical-political practices: ethical decision-making and the imagining (and enactment) of different futures. Interestingly, these papers engaged with both utopian and dystopian registers. They also pointed to questions of production. What are the political intentions of designers with regards to the possibility of imagining different futures? If our role as academics is to intervene in our socio-material worlds, is there a case for academic games designers?
2. Play and Geopolitics
Play needs to be taken seriously in geopolitical study, as tools for recruitment and training, test beds for defence industry innovations, and strategies for legitimating and sustaining geopolitical logics. Whilst research into video games is obviously relevant, we need to ensure that we do not ignore the role of other kinds of games and toys in the development of geopolitical subjectivities. Here I’m thinking specifically of Jason’s work on Model UN and Statecraft and my own work on military action figures. This is not just a case of recognising the historical trajectories of digital forms of war play, but realising the continuing importance of other war toys. Taking play seriously in this way means appreciating the significance of everyday mundane practice and the more-than-textual in the study of geopolitics and security. This inevitably raises questions about how this kind of research is accepted within the wider field of critical geopolitics, as discussed in the session on feminist geopolitics at last year’s meeting in New York.
As attention turns to video games, it might also be productive to reflect on how these cultural products and associated practices relate to wider military-oriented digital practices surrounding GIS. For instance, one of my colleagues has been working with the Royal School of Military Survey to develop strategy-based exercises (such as Operation Brown Trousers!) for our GIS students. Having visited the School for the first time this year, I’m looking forward to finding out more about the use of games in their work. As Nick Megoran rightly pointed out in our session, we need to bear in mind whether we’re concerned with geopolitics and/or military geographies as we take some of the questions forward.
3. Ludic Geographies
The papers presented in the session spoke to a series of points raised in my work on ludic geographies more broadly. Firstly, the need to collapse the conceptual distance between reality and play: how play is both in and of the everyday; how emotions and affects experienced within play transfer into non-playing space-times; and how play helps shape futures.
The papers, particularly Sylvain’s, took my notion of the becoming-with of play to a new level. Sylvain’s discussion of how technology is changing the body of soldiers contrasted my sense of flow as affirmative, recasting it in terms of docility. Notwithstanding the importance of this idea, we need to ensure our attention to becoming-with technology doesn’t obscure other forms of flow. It is productive to take broader work on the ludic and apply it, and critically evaluate it in relation to gaming.
Jo and Ian’s paper on social irrealism spoke to my writing on the role of play in ethics, how it might prompt critical moral questions and forms of ethical generosity. This relates to wider questions about the role of play in affirmative forms of critique, which move beyond masterful knowing and moralistic judgement based on separation of the detached critic. This involves experimentation with new futures and aesthetic politics of invention.
Jo and Ian’s paper was based on their article recently published in Social and Cultural Geography: ‘Playing with the future: social irrealism and the politics of aesthetics’, 14(3), 341-359.
I look forward to seeing how the theme of ludic geopolitics develops.