Saturday, 28 January 2012

More on Models

Not being one to not beat a dead horse if at all possible, I’m going to talk a bit more about models this time.

Models, as I’ve said, are terribly useful sorts of things. In fact, they pervade much of our lives, even though we do not often notice them.

It is noted by some philosophers of language that, in fact, a lot of language is dead metaphor. The word ‘tradition’, for example, is a metaphor for ‘that which is handed down’, but we do not notice, or indeed know that about the word, while we do understand the meaning of tradition.

Models, in fact, capture the salient points of what we are trying to discuss across subjects. In science, social sciences and the arts, models, or their simpler cousins, metaphors, permeate our language and thinking. To learn something new we often (or, according to some, usually) use a model or metaphor to compare and contrast the new thing with something we do know and understand.

I’m sure you must realise by now that there is a ‘but’, here. In fact, more than one.

The first but is that, in most cases, a single model is inadequate. Models capture some aspects of the thing to be studied. A model cannot be the thing itself. This is for two reasons. Firstly, if the model were the thing itself it would not be a model, it would be a replica. Secondly, the whole aim of modelling is to simplify things sufficiently to understand them. A model which is a complex as the original would be of no use in that direction.

Therefore, multiple models are necessary to capture the different aspects of the reality we are interested in studying. In terms of a battle and a set of wargame rules for that period, the rules, probably, already contain different models: there are models for movement, command, combat and morale. But the single set of models (or, if you like, the single extended model covering all these things) is insufficient to represent the real event.

The upshot of this seems to be that we do need different sets of wargame rules to cover a single period, because the choices and models, or sets of models chosen by the authors will vary, and hence will capture different aspects of the original, assuming that the authors do their homework.

The result is that we should be very wary of any rule set that ‘rules the roost’ in terms of dominating the market. No single model is adequate to representing a battle in its entire nuance, even in the fairly limited set of things we wish to represent in a set of wargame rules. A single paradigm is insufficient to represent reality, and we should not expect it to do so.

The second issue there is with modelling is to look at the dark side of models. I noted above that much of our language is dead metaphor. But our models can die too, and not give us the insight that we should expect.

To an extent, this is related to the point made just above of dominant rule sets. If there is a dominant rule set, then we have a tendency to read back from that into history or reality. In effect, we make an ontological commitment to the model, and claim that the objects in the model are those in real life.

A non-wargaming example would be Maxwell’s equations for the wave motion of light. These worked really very nicely, and the model of light as waves accounted for an awful lot of observed phenomena. The catch was that waves need a medium to travel through, so the model contained this stuff called ‘ether’ for light to behave in.

As you might know, physicists at the end of the nineteenth century spent quite a long time looking for the ether, and failing to find it. Ultimately, Michelson and Morely conducted an experiment to show that it didn’t exist, and eventually, Einstein came along to explain how and why this could happen.

The model contained an ontological commitment: that ether existed. The model actually works without such a commitment, but it implies it strongly, and so ether was presumed to exist.

I think this sort of ontological commitment can also happen when we have dominant paradigm wargame rules. For example, in ancients wargaming, the DB* paradigm is still very much in people’s minds. Now, I’m not one to slate DB* (at least, not in its ancients forms) because it was a breakthrough in terms of wargaming, but that very success can lead to problems.

For example, I was somewhat nin-plussed when a review of Polemos: SPQR commented that ‘there are no warbands in the rules’. My first reaction was ‘why should there be?’ but I think what is going on is a hardening of the DB* model of ancient battles into an expectation. In short, there could be an ontological commitment to the existence of warbands, because the paradigm model is being read back into the history underlying it.

The problem here is that people might look at a new rule set and think ‘it doesn’t have warbands in it, but I know warbands existed, therefore it is a bad rule set’. The model has been substituted for the reality.

So far as I know, no ancient source referred to foot soldiers as ‘warbands’. Warbands are, simply, an element of one model of ancient warfare. Even the name is, I think, somewhat misleading. The foot of tribal armies were not all well trained and well-armed, or committed to the cause. Those who were, were the chiefs comitatus, and they were relatively few in number.

The main bulk of the foot of tribal armies are described in PM:SPQR as ‘tribal foot’, which is, in my view, a more defensible description of them.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that PM:SPQR is the correct paradigm for us to use for ancients wargaming; it is just another model. But perhaps this example does indicate the pitfalls of dominant models, all pervasive rule sets.


  1. Thanks for the really interesting post. I don't generally have anything against the terms used in the various DBx rules, the justification is always there and you take it no further. But it just shows that you cannot argue back from a set of wargames rules to history, unless, perhaps, it is the tightest, most specific set of wargames rules. Imagining that the designations of Psiloi-Blades-Warband-Auxilia-Spearmen-Pikemen-Bowmen is the last word in describing the foot warriors of five and a half thousand years might be pushing it just a bit...



  2. Hi,

    I don't have anything against the DBx rules either, except that they do seem to have become paradigmatic, in the sense that, for some people, they can only discuss ancients rules in terms of the troop types as defined in DBx. Which is a shame; I'm sure Phil Barker never intended anything of the kind.

    DBx has, thus, become the dominant model for ancients wargames, and so I think that we do need to introduce new ones, even if all we can then do is say 'DBx is better because...'. At least some thinking will have taken place.