I have long considered that there must be some philosophical or ethical problems associated with wargaming, ever since I had the misfortune to do some philosophy courses a few years ago. I have not, however, allotted a great deal of brainpower to working out what these issues may be. After all, wargaming is a hobby, a leisure activity, not something which is supposed to give you serious brain strain, of the sort normally associated with philosophising about anything.
Recently, however, I’ve revisited these thoughts. Ethical considerations I might come back to later, but my wargaming philosophy, or at least thinking about how I’ve been writing wargame rules, has moved on a bit.
I think the catalyst for this was a talk I went to by a philosopher of science called Nancy Cartwright. This was actually at a conference about physics, but her ideas are more widely applicable. As she now a professor at the London School of Economics, this is probably just as well. Anyway, her two books of interest are “How the Laws of Physics Lie” and “The Dappled World”.
The key idea Cartwright has is that, in physics, we only get answers to questions, and hence general laws of physics, when we set things up in a certain way, called an ‘experiment’. The law we derive from this tells us only about the conditions within the experiment, not in the general, wider, world. In this way, Cartwright claims, the laws of physics lie, because they make (or are used to claim) universality, for which we have not a shred of evidence.
Whether we agree with Cartwright or not, I think the concept has applicability to writing wargame rules, as we are doing exactly the same as she argues scientists do. We have a small number of battles and incidents. We extrapolate them to be general rules for all of warfare of a period, and if those rules do not behave as the incidents did in reported history, then we modify them until they do.
We could also admit that we do rather worse then science, as at least scientific experiments are supposed to be repeatable, in the way that battles are not.
So we land up with a set of generalised laws, derived from historical accounts of dubious value, in some cases, and then apply them to all warfare in a broad sweep of history. Ancient’s rules, for example, get applied to everything from chariots to Wars of the Roses dismounted knights. And they then get praised or castigated for something called historical accuracy. Even though more recent periods of history are covered by rules of more focus, they still tend to cover much change under the banner of “Horse and Musket” or “Modern”.
Nearly as bad, in fact, possibly in some cases worse, are those rules that have a core set of laws, and then add supplements to cover each sub-period. Somehow, this seems to me to be the worst of both worlds, in that the assumption is that there is a base set of laws of wars for a period, and that differences between periods and armies are simply bolt on chrome. No so, I’d argue, for the contexts which create an army are as important as the weapons they carry. You cannot, I think, reproduce an English army of 1415 simply by making the longbow something akin to a machine gun in a general rule system. The reasons the English won in 1415 are complex (and more to do with French politics than machine gunning bowmen).
Let me hasten to add that I’ve not bought, read, or used many of these systems. Most of them are too darn expensive, for one thing, and I’ve only got so much time. So I'm not criticizing those who write or use them, but questioning the underlying concepts of stretching the same rules over many cultures are time periods. The point is that, going back to Cartwright, you cannot build a general system on a few well known but arguable facts.
Do I have an answer to this? I’m not sure. My answer is, obviously enough, a system like Polemos, where come core concepts (but not rules) like tempo points and bidding, are carried over from one set to another, but the whole rule set is rethought for each period and sub-period. Which is why, by a roundabout route, I find myself trying to write rules for Ancient Greeks when some people would have simply adapted a system already written for Imperial Rome. A degree of generalisation is, I suppose, vital, otherwise we’d be writing rule sets for individual battles (they exist, and are called board wargames, aren’t they?), but too much generalisation leads to strange results, in my view.