Now, there is a clumsy title, but what I want to explore is why we chose to wargame the periods we wargame. This sort of follows on from last time’s comments on why we wargame at all, so in a sense I’m trying to drill down to the bedrock of an individual’s hobby (in this case mine; I can’t speak for any other individual).
In another sense I am also trying to explore the culture of wargaming, and whether what we choose to wargame is, in any sense, culturally conditions. Put another way, we can ask if wargaming is totally an escapist fantasy which only bears a passing resemblance to real life, or if what we choose to game has anything to do with what is going on in our world.
I used films of Shakespeare’s Henry V last time to try to illustrate what I mean. Another possible cultural icon is, as I’ve mentioned before, the Battle of Marathon. Moving on a few years chronologically we have, of course, the film 300. Now, I’ve not seen the film, but I do wonder if the choice of Thermopylae was, at least in part, culturally conditioned. I’m thinking along the lines of a few brave men (western, of course) against a horde, betrayed but fighting to the last, and so on. This is orientalism, as I’ve mentioned before, and it goes back to the Greek historians, but I cannot help but wonder if, somewhere in the background are recent events in Iraq and similar places. Perhaps, however, I’m being too cynical.
Anyway, the question of interest is whether those sorts of cultural and socio-political events influence our choices of wargaming topic. In the 1970’s, Paddy Griffiths caused a ripple in some wargaming circles by suggesting that there were ‘gray’ wargames, or what we might term forbidden subjects. Among his candidates were the 16th and 17th century struggles in Ireland and the 1939-40 campaigns in Poland and France.
In the first place, he suggested that the Irish campaigns were unpopular because they still had relevance to modern politics. A wargame which showed the Irish and English in mortal combat would, he suggested, make us feel uncomfortable, and so we wouldn’t wargame it. The 1939-40 campaigns show, of course, the “bad guys” winning, and that too makes us dubious of playing the wargames.
I could not honestly say the Griffiths raised a storm with his comments, but he did provoke a bit of debate. Some argued that his list of grey wargame periods was not grey at all, but simply too boring or one sided to make a good game. The Irish campaigns of the sixteenth century were classified in this camp. It was also argued that there was too little information around about some campaigns to actually be able to set up a wargame based on it. The Polish campaign of 1939 was placed in this category; there was also the problem of the lack of figures and models for the battles.
Now I’ve noted before that wargaming is an individualistic thing, and the choices we make are, broadly speaking, unconditioned by anything outside our own moral world (for want of a better expression). While there may be some who would be happy playing, say, a game set in the ‘Wild West’ which included killing American Indian women and children, many of us might get uncomfortable with that.
The point I’m drifting towards here is to wonder how we choose which periods we wargame. Now, of course, you might argue that ‘I wargame Napoleonic British because Fred collects Napoleonic French’, and Fred is your normal wargame opponent. But even if that is the case, Napoleon had more opponents than just the British, so why choose them?
There are, I think some constraints on our choices. Firstly, there is the availability of information and models for our games. Lots of people are interested in Napoleonics and World War Two (not just wargamers) and so there are vast quantities of books, DVDs, model soldiers and so on about these topics. I would suggest that this interest, at least in Britain, is because these were ‘heroic’ times for our country, where “Britain stood alone against the tyrant” and so on. Even if, as our reading of history and understanding of the period nuances these claims, we are still, somehow, joining in this narrative.
We also have the counter-cultural, as well. I recall someone telling me that he played Napoleonic Turkish because they were rubbish and everyone knew they were rubbish, so it did not matter if he won or not. In fact, if he did win, he could make bigger claims about the fact. But, perhaps, that is a little unusual.
Another response I’ve seen, I think on the old DBM-list run out of Stanford, was to advise the choice of an army you could love, even when it had lost. This was quite widespread advice when someone came asking for a suggestion for an army, and all the odder because of the way it was phrased. Perhaps it is just me, or that I’m particularly sensitive to language use, but to suggest that an army of model soldiers can be lovable seems to me to be a little strange.
Nevertheless, it is clear that people do make choices of armies, campaigns, periods or whatever that they can ‘love’, whatever than term might mean. For myself, I rarely wargame anything post-1700, as those of you who have read these witterings for a while might have deduced. Why that should be the case I am not sure, but it is probably due to starting out with the English Civil War and being able to visit some of the battlefields and other associated places, plus the fact that the source material is mainly in English and widely available.
But what about you? Why did you choose the periods in which you wargame? Answers on the comments button, please!