Scientists to spend £500,000 examining how toys shape opinions of war

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Hayley Dixon -

 Scientists are to spend £500,000 finding out if playing with toys like Action Man shape children's opinions on war and terrorism.

The two year study also plans to look at whether such dolls have a role to play in influencing the future of our armed forces.

The project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, is the first analysis of the role of toys in the making of young people.

It's hoped the findings will be published in 2016 shortly after the expected withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan, which itself will inform the research.

Professor Klaus Dodds, of Royal Holloway University in London, who insists the money is well spent, said: "We are not examining whether war toys are good or bad or the psychology of such play.

"We will be examining how such toys help shape British attitudes to our armed forces, how do we learn to buy into 'Help for Heroes' for example and what ideas are children incorporating from outside sources such as TV news footage and children's films addressing war and conflict."

The action figure toy arrived in the UK in 1966 based on an American 'GI Joe' doll and was rebranded Action Man and features soldiers, sailors and pilots.

It was launched by Leicestershire based Palitoy Ltd and by 1998 was worth £100m but in 2006 was withdrawn from production.

The research will focus on current bestselling military action figure toy range Her Majesty's Armed Forces (HMAF) dolls licensed by the Ministry of Defence and manufactured by British toy makers Character Options.

Professor Dodds, author of a number of books on geopolitics and security, insisted the research is money well spent.

He said: "We will be interviewing children playing with the HMAF dolls now and adults who grew up in the sixties with their predecessor Action Man which was such a big part of so many people's childhood.

"It will be interesting to find out from them the part nostalgia plays in their recollections and importantly not all will be white, middle aged privately educated people like me.

"We hope to put it all down in a book which I'm sure will include somewhere in the title 'Action Man' which resonates with everyone of a certain age.

"It's vital we are not judgmental in anyway whether participants are pro, anti or ambivalent towards war. Of course Action Man was quite controversial in some households where the 'peace movement' was popular."

Professor Dodds said the sum of the grant, £492,508, could seem high because such applications now have to include "full economic costing" such as the salaries of two full-time postdoctoral research fellows.

He said: "This research project is highly innovative and the war/play debate has not been addressed in this way before.

"The war on terror is being played out everywhere and since 9/11 our security and surveillance has come under intense examination. Understanding war, conflict and security in modern life is an urgent task for social scientists."

HMAF dolls are modelled on current British armed forces and the bestseller is a ten-inch high infantry soldier in desert combats.

The doll comes with an assault rifle, radio, flak jacket, body armour, helmet and goggles. Its makers say the reason it's sold so well is due to the "free promotion" provided by coverage of British military operations in Afghanistan in TV news bulletins.

Child's play expert Dr Tara Woodyer, of Portsmouth University, said: "Play has frequently been overlooked as irrelevant to how people come to understand the world yet it's precisely this apparent banality, the taken for granted nature of play that allows its role to go unchallenged.

"Toys – and how children play with them – are not just a response to the world, they help shape our culture.

"The role of action figure dolls has been unduly neglected especially given the enormous academic attention focused on their female equivalent Barbie."

The study will include tracing the history and development of the action figure toy in British homes and the toys' role in wider geopolitical climates and cultures.



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