Saturday, 22 October 2011

Wide Boys and Heroes

Why do we wargame?

As I’ve probably written far too often on this blog, wargaming can have a wide variety of responses, ranging from mild interest to derision to implications that it supports violent activities. But that does not actually answer the question of why we, as normal (so far as anyone is normal) healthy adults spend a lot of time wargaming.

Firstly, I suppose the answer is ‘because we can’. Some people hang glide, some play golf, and some wargame. Our society is such that we do not have to struggle to survive; every waking minute does not have to be spent in backbreaking agricultural work which was the lot of most of our ancestors. If, as Josef Pieper argues, Leisure is the basis for Culture, then all of these things contribute to a diverse and vibrant culture in which ordinary people can do things that their great-grandparents could only have dreamt about.

Secondly, as has been mentioned a few times before, there is a basic interest in battles. This shows itself in a variety of manifestations in society, from war films to wargames to video games, books, DVDs and so on. Indeed, to look at the bookshelves of many libraries or bookshops one would start believing that military history started with World War 1, peaked in World War 2 and has continued at a lower level ever since. It is also true that publishing books about World War 2 is about as lucrative as book publishing gets these days.

Now, battles are intensely dramatic and emotional events. I’ve just read Juliet Baker’s excellent book on Agincourt. Discussing the killing of the French prisoners towards the end of the battle, she remarks that probably Henry V, who gave the order, had little choice because his men were emotionally and physically exhausted by what had gone before. He had to protect his army from the possibility of being attacked by both fresh enemy forces and escaped prisoners, rearmed by weapons picked up on the field.

Films, too, tend to have a climax with a battle, unless they are about the battle as a whole (think ‘The Longest Day’). Books too, if set against a background of war, tend to have battles as dramatic plot forcers. If the film or book is a decent one it does not tend to get accused of encouraging war. I suppose the question here is ‘why not?’

Often, films present war in considerable nastiness, although they do have to stay within some limits. On the other hand, they also present war as an opportunity for ordinary people to do extraordinary things. The representation of on screen of courage, self-sacrifice, team spirit and so on more than makes up for the inevitable depiction, if only in long shot, of the carnage that is battle.

So where does this leave wargaming? To some extent, as has been mentioned in the comments recently, wargaming represents the heroic ideal of battle. We abstract away most of the gory, nasty bits, and focus on the courage, the strategy and tactics, and the pageantry in a convivial social atmosphere with like-minded people. The games are mildly competitive but not particularly addictive, and are normally played for bragging rights, as opposed to the perfectly socially acceptable occupation of, say, poker playing.

We can also say that wargamers know, perhaps, more history than many in general society, and also probably know more about the consequences of war than many. One of the slightly depressing things to do as a wargamer is to go through the magazine articles and note how frequently certain parts of the world have been the arena for battles. At Agincourt, again, the route of the English army takes the traveller across the front line trenches of World War I near Amiens; indeed, there was a story of Agincourt archers, in ghostly form, joining in the battle of Mons. But then we can start to reflect that none of these battles actually seem to have solved anything in particular.

We wargame, perhaps, to give us some connection with the past, however tenuous and remote it may seem to be. This is not so obvious as it is in more popular culture, however. The films of Shakespeare’s Henry V are an interesting case in point. Olivier’s Henry V, of World War II vintage, was aimed at a world about to invade France in the cause of liberty. Interestingly, Churchill asked that the Southampton plot was removed; the country needed to appear to be united. Kenneth Branagh’s version was anti-war and produced after the Falkland’s War, while a stage version with a black actor in the title role came after the invasion of Iraq. I’m not sure we can detect such political views in our wargames.

So wargames seem to link us to the glory and pageantry of battles, but do not, on the whole, make any particular political point. Is wargaming then, simply a pastime, of value only to its participants? Is it undertaken so unthinkingly as to be amoral and apolitical? It is rather hard to suppose that it is, being, as I said above, part of a wide band of social and cultural activities. There must be some link with modern politics or wargaming becomes mere fantasy and escapism.

Now, there is nothing wrong with fantasy and escapism per se, but to ignore the other currents that might be swirling around our hobby might be foolish. At least, we probably have to accept that most of our wargaming is based on the easy availability of decent texts on the campaigns and battles that we play. Thus, through that link if no other, wargaming represents some aspect of the society in which it is embedded. Perhaps this does explain why increasingly exotic (from our point of view) wargames are promoted such as the Chinese Civil war of the 1920’s. From our western point of view it is (to misquote Neville Chamberlain) a war among people of whom we know nothing, and thus is ‘safe’ compared to say the Black and Tans campaigns of the same sort of era.

Anyway, why do you wargame?


  1. I apologise in advance if my comments are not considered especially germane.

    In my Vanguard tactical RPG game, a player is able to control a squad (or more ) of 'Operators' (troops) in a kit-bash of shot-and-pike to repeating rifles (think BAR). Although we have run more than a few 1-Player per Squad games, we have recently been playing with each participant controlling their Character and then issuing orders to Non-Player Character troops.

    The most recent set of battles involved the first time air insertion of troops (with an entire squad effectively wiped out due to accident) and then the long slog through enemy held territory. By the time the first objective was reached, only a squad remained, made up of remnants from the paratroopers.

    From there, an infiltration of a very large stronghold continued to follow the PCs and their troops who were constantly beset by the baddies and whittled down in two's and three's until the main force arrived to initiate the true assault on the rock tower. The Player Characters' actions influenced the enemy's reactions and signalled the holders' defeat, but at a cost of roughly one-third of the main column of assaulting troops through what was essentially a dam-buster operation. Over one hundred friendlies were swept away and drowned, with likely two to three times that number of the enemy.

    The players were, more than once, surprised at the brutality of the wounds suffered, as well as the damage they doled out, and by the end of the six session mission, I think everyone was reeling a bit. I know I needed time to vegetate and watch cooking shows before I went to bed, only to talk things through with my girlfriend (one of the players).

    As to why: I think that at the scale of conflict we play (PC = Commander), it makes the other events and undertakings (maintaining a colony and exploring the virgin land) more meaningful, and perhaps poignant -- for a fictitious setting -- as well as helping everyone realise the sorts of costs that were paid by all sides in historical events, such as the colonisation of the 'new world'.

    That's why we WG.

  2. Warfare and history fascinate me, they always have. And although I enoy reading about these, and watching films and plays about them, and can admire those who dress up and act out certain aspects of history in re-enactment societies, games offer a way "in" which is second-to-none because there is a personal engagement deeper than being an observer of past events. Perhaps, it is "childish" in the best sense - a way of engaging imaginatively with what fascinates without maintaining as much adult reserve.



  3. Thank you for the comments; I don't think I'd like to rule anything as not being germane...

    The common theme between both of these is a kind of deeper personal involvement, maybe some sort of personal stake in the 'action' whatever that might be.

    I do recall when switching from Runequest to Call of Cthulhu the horror there was among the players at the damage which was inflicted (unhealable, too). It doesn't really seem to matter if our game world are historically based or entirely fiction either. The sense of identity seems to be the thing.

    Food for even more thought...

  4. I'm brand new to the historical wargaming hobby, but on first impression I'd say that the desire to 'be there' or at least to obtain some sort of closer association to a moment/era of history than is possible by passively consuming various media is a pretty substantial driving force. I think that wish to be there is something that wargaming shares with roleplaying games.

    Another impression that I've been struck with is that historical wargaming is largely concerned with the history of the trivial. The thickness and slope of the front hull armor on a T-34 or the muzzle velocity of the MG-34 just aren't all that meaningful, in the long term.

    That sort of minutia seems to serve the notion of 'being there' more than it does any sort of historical study.

    As I said, I'm brand new to the hobby, so I may be way off base in my observations.

    Great blog, by the way!


  5. Hi,

    Welcome to the hobby!

    I think you have a point, and it does depend on the gamer, the rules and the era. some game top down, from the general's view point, some bottom up, in particular from the technology point of view (WW2 gaming is particularly prone to that, in my view).

    The good thing is that you can simply game the way that interests you.

    1. I think WW2 gamers only have a tendancy to obsess over numbers simply because the rules invariably deal with range, penetration, armour thickness and angle, etc of individual combats: Quantifiable data, now readily available at the click of a mouse which is fairly easily converted into probabilities for one-on-one action.
      Casualty results for the 'ancients' period, for example (and for want of a better label) is surely more of an art form requiring debate and obsessive research into effects by and on massed bodies?
      Is the difference between modern and ancient/pike/shot games that the former can use (if you want that sort of game) very detailed calculations for weapon use and the latter relies on historical research to glean combat data and has more organic morale implications?

    2. I guess we have a chicken and egg situation. the data is there for WW2 gamers to obsess over. If we had statistics for the angle of attack of a pike on a cuirass, I'm sure we would obsess over those too. But (fortunately for the sanity of the wargaming part of the human race) we don't.

      The problem is that we have a model, and the model uses and has definite data of input and output. Which the human race seems to be programmed to like.

      But real life is a lot messier than that. My guess would be that a lot of, for example, AT combat was predicated by terrain and tactical situation rather than if a shell hit at a particular angle.

      Just because we have the data, it doesn't mean that we have to use it.

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