Saturday 19 November 2011

Wargaming as Boxing

In boxing, two adult humans enter a ring where they know that someone will be waiting who will attempt to do them harm. While there are some rules, even a referee, to ensure that the harm attempted to be delivered is limited, nevertheless the boxers, by climbing into the ring, have given their informed consent to the possibility of physical harm, even brain damage or death.

Boxing is an occasionally fairly controversial subject, both in terms of the spectacle, the violence and the possibility of physical harm. However, the usual defence of boxing is that the participants have consented to the rules and to the possibility of harm befalling them. In a sense, then, there is a mutual, implied agreement or contract between the boxers to engage in the activity, accepting the possibility of harm.

It is this aspect which makes boxing a possibly useful analogy for wargaming, rather than strict parallels between the spectacle and the violence. In wargaming, the violence is abstracted away and implied (this might be an issue for wargaming, but that is not the focus here), and the spectacle may or may not be an issue, but the contractual aspect could be a useful one.

In a wargame, two players agree on a set of rules, models, and so on, that they will use. As in boxing, there are two defined areas. One is the ring, or table top, the other is the rest of the world. The rules are different in each of them. In a sense, then, wargamers in agreeing to the parameters of a game, agree to the suspension of real world rules on the table, for one in which violence, even abstracted, is determinant of outcomes.

This can be used for a contractarian defence of wargaming. As an ethical theory, contractarianism has a venerable history, starting with Rousseau and Hume and continuing today is modern theories of justice such as those of John Rawls. However, contractarianism is not straightforward.

The idea that the boxers, or wargamers, enter into a contract is, mostly, an implied one. When this is used at a social or political level, as in a ‘social contract’, of course, a counterargument can be made that no-one has any choice about signing up to it or not. You are party to the social contract whether you like it or not. In the case of a boxing match or wargame this is not the case, clearly. You can choose whether to fight or play, or not.

This is not enough, however. A boxer may feel, against his free choice, that he has to fight. Perhaps he feels he needs to fight for his honour, or for the money, or because of obligations to his trainers or agents or other actors. Thus, it could be argued that the boxer has less of a free choice than the implied contract suggests.

This could also apply to wargaming. Suppose you arrive at your game with your Hittite army and meet your opponent. He is dressed as an Assyrian king and, as the armies are unpacked he shows you that he has many bases depicting Hittites being tortured, executing and lying on the ground, dismembered. “Casualty bases for you”, he says.

Now, clearly, your opponent has gone to a lot of effort for the game, but do you still wish to play it? Indeed, are you under a contractual obligation to play it? You might feel offended by your opponent’s attitude, uneasy at their approach, but is that sufficient to breach the implied contract to play a wargame? If you do feel that it is, of course, there is no wargame to play.

Now, suppose the scenario were replaced by one where your opponent was the US Cavalry, and you were an AmerIndian tribe. The casualty bases are now depicting women and children, as well as warriors. How would you fell then? Has the implied contract been broken? If so, why?

The important point is, I think, that while normal rules are suspended in the boxing ring, not all the rules are, and some are replaced by other, similar, rules relating to boxing specifically. Outside the ring, gouging people’s eyes and biting them is against the rules of society; in the ring, there are specific rules against this behaviour, while punching is forbidden outside, but positively encouraged inside the ring.

Thus, while you might have entered into a specific, implied contract with your opponent, not all the rules of the outside (off table) world are suspended. There is some sort of rule of acceptable behaviour. The depiction of prisoners being tortured, non-combatants being murdered, and so on, makes us uneasy, no matter how accurate the historical representation might be. Somehow, we do not want to know that the US Cavalry killed civilians, or the Assyrians tortured, enslaved and executed prisoners.

The problem, it seems to me, revolves around the non-explicit nature of the contract. The rules of boxing are fairly clear and penalties are imposed for breaking them. In wargaming, the rules for conducting the game are clear, what can be fuzzy is the overlap between these rules and those of normal ‘polite society’, that is the rest of the world and the combat being depicted.

We could argue, again with boxing, that ‘what happens on the table stays on the table’. Thus we still get our battle with the Assyrians, accepting the casualty bases as weird, but arguing that the game itself is more important.

But then what if your opponent, instead of giving you a casualty base each time you lose one, removes the base and smashes it with a hammer, while replacing it with one of his casualty bases. To be fair, let him to the same with his bases.

Somewhere between the unpleasant casualty bases and the smashing of losing bases a line has, I think, been crossed. Unfortunately, due to the implied contract to play a game, it is a bit difficult to say exactly where that line is. Maybe it simply depends on the participants.


  1. There is lots to think about in this one, but my initial reaction is to disagree, at least in part.

    In boxing, the fighters really do hurt and get hurt. Wargaming seems a step back from that - we agree to play a game where the actions we take are supposed to have some resemblance to some of the actions taken by warriors and soldiers in the imagined past, present or future. Perhapa wargaming has more to do with wrestling than boxing? It is skillful artifice rather than a real fight.



  2. Well, boxing is an analogy to some aspects of wargaming; I wouldn't want to push the correspondence too hard.

    However, boxing is a useful example of a contractarian moral problem, and that is what I wanted to probe for wargaming.

    I think the issue of metaphors and models of and in wargaming is an interesting one.

    Mind you, given some of the wargamers I've seen at shows (present company excepted, I'm sure), many of them do seem to bear a striking resemblance to Giant Haystacks, so maybe the wrestling analogy does have legs...