I rather feel that last week’s effort didn’t quite go where I expected, so I’ll try again.
What are the discourses of wargaming?
By this I mean, roughly, how do we construct the social phenomenon that is wargaming today? Wargaming is decidedly a social construct, I think, but I want to try to consider how it is formed.
There are various structures that, I suppose, frame wargaming. Materially, these would include the figures themselves, books of rules, history books (or “source” books if we are talking fantasy or science fiction), terrain and so on.
Then there are the more social structures. Wargame clubs and shows, online email lists and fora, and even blogs such as this one. Spanning the material and the social are the associations of wargamers, such as the Society of Ancients and the Solo Wargamers Association, which produce their own material as well as form a social space for discussion. Similarly, I suppose, the glossy wargame magazines provide the same sort of space.
The thing about all of this stuff is that it constrains our means of creating wargames. We fight wargames in a way that is constrained by the physical space and objects, as well as the rules. Furthermore, the constraints on our time, by work, family commitments or the sheer activity of everyday life also limit what we can achieve.
Nevertheless, wargaming exists, and exists in a socio-cultural environment that permits it to exist. How then can it said to be constructed?
At a fairly low level, it could be observed that wargaming is a method of telling ourselves stories. A narrative of sorts unfolds as a wargame proceeds. The unpredictable nature of these stories, moderated by dice and decisions, makes them engaging. A wargame might be written up as such a story (I’ve posted one here myself, complete with pictures) but that is a post-wargame reflection on the event, or series of events, that made up the game. The game itself is more engaging than simple story-telling.
From another view point, the game is constrained by the rhetoric of the rules. Some rules are more guidelines to the players which outline the sorts of things that should happen. Some are more dogmatic, instructing the players in how to lay out the terrain, deploy the armies and in many cases, exactly which troops are allowed in which army. Indeed, I recall furious debates in some parts of the wargame community in the 1970’s about the use of army lists and how they were dumbing down the hobby, and writing your own rules was deemed to be the ‘best’ or ‘most accurate’, whatever that was held to mean.
Of course, the rules we play do make a difference, not least to the language me use in describing a wargame. In Polemos, the term ‘shaken’ has a specific meaning, and that enters then discourse of the players. Shaken in Polemos does not necessarily correlate to descriptions of battles which state ‘The 39th foot was shaken but unmoved’. It might, but not necessarily. It is probably worth recalling that in the earliest version of Polemos there ever was, shaken was described as ‘not ‘appy’, as in “This base is not ‘appy”. The discourse of Polemos could have been very different is we had retained this name for it.
So we layer various frames, constraints and discourses onto our wargames. Does any of it matter? Well, perhaps, because the constructs that we make inform the choices and directions we take. For example, 6 mm figures were long regarded as either being for WWII wargames, where they were respectable, or for the poor or cheapskates (like me). I well remember being told by someone that my 6 mm armies were ‘versatile’. As this was said with a slightly malicious grin, I presume that the implication was that they could be used for practically anything. The discourse here was to do down someone with a non-fashionable view or set of actions, in this case, in buying, painting and playing with 6 mm toys. Only with the hard work of Mr Berry and other 6 mm advocates has this bit of discourse started to change. Mind you, I do recall similar views being expressed about 15 mm toys in the 1970’s (and guess who was buying them then).
Similarly, I could argue that my favourite bugbear of recent times, the ancient rules covering everything from Sumeria to GarIgliano and all stations between around the world is a part of the wargaming discourse. It says that, for example, chariots are pretty well medieval knights, and Huns are more or less border horse. The claim lying behind here is that all ancients were pretty well the same, and can be treated the same. I would submit that this part of wargame discourse is as ill-founded as the argument that what really matters in WWII wargaming is the number of rivets on a Tiger tank’s turret.
It may be that I’m beating dead horses here, but I do think that, while talking, thinking and taking part in wargames, we probably do need to watch our language a bit. Not only do we run the risk of boxing ourselves in and cashing in our creativity for a few D6, but we also may well startle non-wargamers but exalting the virtues of, say, Napoleon’s Imperial Guard, which, at least, is not part of everyone’s everyday conversation.