Dr. Robertson Allen

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Fellow Profile

Robertson Allen earned a M.A. (2007) and Ph.D. in Anthropology (2012) from the University of Washington, Seattle. He teaches courses in media studies, global studies, and interactive media in theSchool of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington, Bothell.

His research focuses on labor within the electronic entertainment industry and the militarization of both this labor and the industry itself, asking how games and virtual simulations take part in both the imagination ofnational enemies and in the recruitment, training, and rehabilitation of soldiers. His past US National Science Foundation-supported work focused on the organization of commercial game studios, government offices, marketing companies, recruitment initiatives, and military bases that played a role in the development of the U.S. Army's official video game, America's Army.While working to turn this research into a book at MECS, he is starting a new project looking at military simulation development initiatives across Europe.

He has published withCritical Interventions (Berghahn Books), Games and Culture, Transformative Works and Cultures and in the anthology Virtual War and Magical Death: Technologies and Imaginiaries for Terror and Killing (Duke University Press, 2013). Forthcoming articles will appear in the Journal of Games and Virtual Worlds and in an upcoming edited volume The War of My Generation: American Youth Culture and the War on Terror (Rutgers University Press).




Virtual War and the Cultural Work of Military Simulations

Simulations and “serious gaming” technologies have revolutionized the ways in which contemporary wars are imagined, visualized, and fought. With projections for significant growth through the next decade, the European aspect of this industry figures importantly in this rapidly progressing market. Serious games are being used currently in attempts to forecast emergent “hotspots” of terrorist activity while also training soldiers in “cultural awareness.” The data collected through these projects is used for creating militarized simulations of cultures for the purposes of control, military intervention, and soldier training.

Considering these technologies and their political applications, my project poses the following questions:

  • How do ideas about war, peace, conflict, and cultural difference become translated into serious military games? In other words, what is the “cultural work” that these technologies do?
  • What are the outcomes when these technologies become privileged as solutions to forecasting, representing, and mediating conflict?

I build upon previous long-term research undertaken within the network of development studios of the official U.S. Army video game, America’s Army. Whereas that research focused on militarization and U.S. popular culture, this project turns a critical eye towards contracts negotiated by the global defense industry, looking specifically at NATO and EU serious gaming networks. The European serious games industry, along with its connections with the NATO military and global armed forces, will be the focus of investigation for this project, and empirical ethnographic research will take place within these environments over the course of the postdoctoral tenure.

I intend to combine the results of both research projects into a single book that looks at the larger international and institutional trends in military games and simulations. My methodological approach acknowledges that ethnography involves an iterative process of revisiting locations, topics, and subjects. Participant observation—watching, observing, and talking with people in order to learn about their work and lives—will be at the heart of this project. Moving within an assembly of serious gaming institutions, I will track relational networks at both the individual, institutional, and governmental levels. Employing audio recordings I will conduct a series of in-depth interviews similar to the ethnographic work of anthropologists of global militaries, whose careful attention to the narratives of individuals working in defense communities has illuminated how subjectivities are shaped by military institutions.

As simulations, serious games, and other virtual technologies become regularly deployed as tools for defense research, weapons for fighting, methods of military communication, and mechanisms assisting military recruitment, there is a growing need to critically investigate the cultural work that these technologies carry out, especially since, as Ed Halter notes, they “have taken on a peculiarly resonant role in how we are thinking about war now.” As simulations and serious games become increasingly a leading method by which defense institutions conduct research and mediate asymmetrical conflicts, this study will remain significant in its contribution to understanding the emerging cultural impacts of new global military technologies.