Saturday, 30 April 2011

Performative Utterances and Wargames

Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while, or have read some of the archives, may recall that I’ve mentioned on a number of occasions things called ‘speech acts’. I’ve vaguely explained what they are, but perhaps it is now time to give a bit more information.

Performative utterances and speech acts were identified by the English philosopher J. L. Austin, in the post-war era. At the time, logical positivism was arguing that there were two sorts of statement. One was analytic, and could be proved scientifically; something along the lines that ‘all single men are batchelors’ or ‘2+3 = 5’. All meaningful statements could be reduced to analytic ones.

Other statements existed, such as ‘you shall not steal’. These, however, are not analytic and thus refer to a state of mind. ‘You shall not steal’ really means ‘I do not like stealing’. Morality thus becomes expressions of our emotions, and this form of approach to ethics is described often as ‘emotivism’ or, perhaps more aptly ‘boo-hooray’ ethics. So if I say ‘murder’ you reaction is, in effect, ‘Boo!’ and if I say ‘give to charity’ your reaction is ‘hooray’. However, this whole morality thing is meaningless because it cannot be verified scientifically or logically.

Austin pointed out that, in fact, the logical positivists had missed out a large class of statements which were true but could not easily be verified. These he termed ‘performative utterances’. Examples for performative utterances could be saying ‘I do’ during a wedding service, or ‘I resign’ while being the president of the United States. The person is not only saying something, but doing something.
The most important factors in performative utterances are the context and the reciprocity. For example, a clergy person during a wedding service can say ‘I now pronounce you man and wife’. In that context, with the authority they have to do that, this is a speech act. Everyone knows that they can do this, and it is expected. Thus the context and the expectation (reciprocity) are satisfied.

Now, suppose (as seems to be popular these days) that the same clergyperson goes into a junior school which is “doing” marriage. There is a 10 year old groom and an 8 year old bride and so on. The clergy then declares ‘I now pronounce you man and wife’. The words are the same, the person is the same, but no-one actually believes that the children are married. Context and reciprocity are not there for this to be a speech act.

I’ve written before about the three level model of wargaming. There is the game level, the rules level, and the real world level. The first is the fictional world of our toy soldiers, the last is the world in which we move, drink, roll dice and paint models. The rules level is the interface between these two other worlds.

So, now, a speech act at the game world could be ‘I hit you with my bastard sword.’ In the context of the game world, this is a speech act, assuming that the character had a bastard sword and could use it. The context is adequate to the speech-act, as is the expectation for all involved that, in fact, the person could be hit with a bastard sword.

Now, the speech-act that the game level triggers some other actions in the higher levels. Most obviously, in the rules level, it asks the question ‘can this be’. The rules level will answer with something like ‘55% chance to hit’. And that will then trigger some action in the real world level – in fact, another speech-act along the lines of ‘I roll the dice’. The result of the dice roll then asks in the rules level ‘hit or miss?’, and that is translated into an action in the game level.

Suppose the result is a ‘hit’. Then the next speech act is from the recipient saying something like ‘I parry’ and the whole varying level set of speech-acts goes off again.
This is fine within the game. We are all conscious of the difference between the game level, the rules level and the real world or rolling dice. So conscious, in fact, that we do not bother, usually, to make the transitions. What I mean is that a player will say ‘I hit you with my sword’ and immediately roll the dice. The system is familiar, so familiar that my description of it feels really slow and clunky. We all know what is going on.

Now, consider an outsider. They are not ‘within’ the game world, and so cannot see that the actions within the game world, the speech-acts such as ‘I hit you with my bastard sword’ are valid within that context. They have no access to it. Therefore, they hear the speech-act as one pertaining to the real world, threatening violence, even if they recognise that that violence (along with the sword) are ‘make believe’. At this point they turn away and shudder and declare that wargaming is making people violent.

This, I think, is one of the issues that I’ve been nibbling at these past few months with respect to the ethics of wargaming. There are other issues, perhaps, but it seems to me that the main reaction of those who object to wargaming as encouraging violence is this mixing of the three levels and misunderstanding the context of the game level speech acts. Perhaps, when non-wargamers are around, we should play more slowly and make the levels clearer.

On the other hand, making statements like ‘My character in the game will try to hit yours with his sword at 55 per cent chance’ is going to make the game a lot less fun to play, even if it wouldn’t frighten the non-wargaming horses as much. It would be a bit like living life without performative utterances; possible, but dull.

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