Saturday, 10 September 2011

Wargames and Symbolism

What are we doing when we wargame? There are, I suppose, as many answers to that question as there are wargamers. But we can surely try to abstract some of the common threads and see what they might be.

Of course, common threads are there, and are not that obscure. I cannot think of a wargame that does not have a representation of a fighting unit. What the representation represents varies widely. It could be a space ship, a naval vessel, an army unit or an individual. The form of representation varies as well. The representation could be an individual model, a set of models, a cardboard or wood counter, or a bunch of pixels on a screen. Whichever way is chosen, the wargame piece is a representation of a ‘real agent’ on the battlefield.

A second common thread is randomisation. This is normally generated by dice. There are two reasons for including a random factor in wargames. Firstly, some things are random, or nearly so. “Every bullet has its billet” as the First World War slogan had it. Really, we can trace a causal relationship. If I move my head there, then a bullet fired just then, at that angle and direction, will hit me. This is not random, but it is unpredictable. And of course, we cannot trace the causal relationships on all our wargame interactions, so a random factor for this will have to do.

Secondly, there is another layer of unpredictability. Fallible human beings, in situations of great stress, make mistakes or fail to perform as expected. This is not actually random either, although I doubt if the state of psychology at present would enable modelling of it. Add in the complexities of humans acting in a crowd, and the dimension of discipline and its breakdown and you have a very hard to understand situation.

So as common threads we have randomisation representing the unpredictability of the battlefield, and we have representations of battlefield agents, at some level (individual, subunit, unit, and so on). Thirdly, of course, we have a set of rules that the players have agreed to use.

As I’ve said before, the rules mediate between the table top ‘action’ and the world of the players. In the player’s world, no battle takes place, just a (hopefully) enjoyable game or social interaction. On the table top a representation of a battle is taking place. The representative agents are moved and removed in accordance with the players wishes (and the random factor) as mediated through the rules. The outcomes are similarly transmitted though the random factors, the rules and the player choices.

Now, I like to argue that our ‘agent representations’, the toy soldiers, are, in fact, symbols. I do not think that this is a particularly large leap in logic; we are used to reading battlefield maps, or counters in boardgames. These have symbolic meanings which vary according to use. So too do model soldiers; they symbolise an agent with certain capabilities.

The thing about symbols is that they need interpreting. If you do not believe me, try taking your favourite wargame unit and showing it to a non-wargaming friend or colleague. Ask ‘What is this?’

The chances are that you will get an answer along the lines of ‘little men’, or ‘toy soldiers’, rather than “B Platoon, 21st Lancers, Sudan, 1898”, which is what you might have been expecting. But why could you have been expecting that?

Your interlocutor is, in many respects, as correct as you are. In a sense, in fact, they are more correct, as what you have shown them is not a unit of lancers, but a representation or symbol of a unit of lancers, no matter how accurate. And that symbol, as just demonstrated, needs interpreting or its meaning is lost.

To see what I mean, consider an ancient monument such as Stonehenge. At midsummer the sun shines in a certain way on the stones. We sense that this event, is, in some way, deeply symbolic; but what is it symbolic of?

Actually, what it meant to the designers of Stonehenge is lost in the mists of prehistory. While some people do go to Stonehenge on midsummer morning to do assorted ritual stuff, at the very best they give a modern interpretation of the stones. The symbol, the sun on the stones at midsummer, has lost connection with its meaning

The upshot of this is that a base of lancers of the late British Empire is a symbol (a representation of the real thing), but that symbol must be interpreted in order to keep connection with that real thing. In fact, I think there may be two levels of interpretation.

Firstly, I can interpret the base historically. I can look at the figures, their arms, uniforms, disposition on the base and so on, and compare that with other representations I have seen. Hopefully I will come to the same conclusion that the owner of the base has, that indeed this is a symbol of a unit of lancers from a given time and place.

The second interpretation of the base comes via the set of wargame rules. This interprets the base as a symbol of an agent. The base is treated as an agent in the rules with certain capabilities to move (be moved) and to fight (be made active). The rules, then, do not just interpret the table top, they give the symbols we manipulate a sort of make believe agency to act on that table top.

These two strands of interpretation do not have to hold together. I’ve always been a wargamer, not a military modeller; that is, I’ve focussed on the second interpretation, not the first. I’ve never really understood why people engage in military modelling, nor why there is such a divide between them and wargamers.

Maybe, now, I’ve found something of an answer.


  1. One way of looking at it may be to compare chess with miniature wargames. Although there are chess games played on exquisite chess boards, the largest proportion of time is spent playing games of chess, with very simple pieces. In contrast, the time and money in miniature wargaming seems to be much more placed in the purchasing and decoration of the playing pieces and the board than on playing the games themselves, different interpretations of the importance of the symbols being prevalent in the different hobbies?



  2. Yes, I think there is also a value attached to the piece as well, which can vary.

    But then, some people place more interest in playing with, say, chalked roads and piles of felt for hills, while others won't play on anything that does not look like a model railway layout.

    The aesthetics of wargaming is interesting, but I'm not sure I've got the intellectual firepower to tackle it...