Saturday, 16 June 2012

Wargames and Imagination

Recently, I’ve joined the Simulating War Yahoo! Group. This is based around the book, Simulating War by Phil Sabin (he of Lost Battles), and takes a broader view of simulating conflict than Lost Battles. The book is based in part on courses that Prof Sabin runs at King’s College, London, in a BA or MA in War Studies.

I’m afraid that I’ve not finished the book yet, so I won’t comment on the content, but the Yahoo! Group is quite interesting. As opposed to Lost Battles, it does seem to have attracted the interest of what we might call ‘professional’ wargamers, or conflict simulation experts or something of that nature.

These are people who attempt to design, for government, armed forces and other interested agencies, conflict simulations. So far as I can tell, they do this for two reasons. Firstly, to give some idea of what might happen in certain situations. This is, perhaps, a lesser goal, as the world is fundamentally an uncertain place and no future projection will survive contact with the future.

The second reason seems to be some sort of education and training aim, particularly with armed forces personnel. Here, the aim is to understand why things happen, to provide some sort of deeper learning than just reading a book of, say, the Russia Campaign in 1943.

As an aside, one of the first things that struck me was, as with so many academic subjects, the deeply divided opinions as to what the subject was actually about. There are ‘pencil and paper’ simulation advocates, computer simulation advocates, storyboarders, tacticians, strategists and so on. It just goes to prove that where you have two wargamers together, you have three opinions.

One of the interesting things about the discussions I’ve seen so far is that they (almost) all use pencil and paper or cardboard cut outs for the simulations. Now, us amateurs, it seems, are the only folk who use figures. I inadvertently started a thread on Lost Battles about this when I drew attention to an earlier post on the different models which exist on a wargame table.  The bulk of the Lost Battlers, anyway, seemed to think that while figures were nice, they were irrelevant to wargaming, at least as simulation.

As I have, in the past here, at least hinted that our beautifully painted stands of historically and anatomically accurate toy soldiers are, at least to some degree, just tokens, the (relative) hostility to using figures in simulations was not a total surprise to me, but it did get me thinking a bit.

Do toy soldiers actually add anything to our wargames?

I rather hope the answer to this question is yes, otherwise I will have spent hours painting armies of Greek hoplites to no avail, but I’ll try to put my own personal views apart and answer the question.

I have, in fact, answered the question once already, where I mentioned, in the same ‘Mixed Models’ blog, that having historically correct figures aids the wargamer’s imagination. Somewhere, in our mind’s eye, we can take what we see on the table (horribly out of scale in both size and numerically) and translate that to some imagined ‘wargame world’ where the fighting is actually taking place. I suspect that this is much harder with cardboard counters, no matter how nicely printed.

This, of course, raises the question of why ‘professional’ simulation developers do not use toy soldiers, aside from any issues relating to getting procurement to obtain any.

I think there may be two answers to this question. The first relates to emotional detachment or objectivity, and the second to imaginability.

With objectivity, the thing is that the simulation is the key aim. One of the topics that come up quite frequently in simulation discussions is the Lanchester Equations. These are differential equations which claim to model the loss rate in combat, originally written down, I think, in World War I for aircraft combat. This is a nice, simple, straightforward, mathematical approach to combat which has strengths in calculability and specific outcomes.

The Lanchester Equations, therefore, are great for simulations. It is just a pity that they do not work. However, I do think that, given our culture’s view of science, they remain some sort of unconscious goal for self-conscious simulations. We should be able to input the strength, training, morale, officer class and so on for the forces and get some sort of answer out. Of course, everyone ‘knows’ that it isn’t that simple, but I suspect there is some sort of similar goal lying behind all this.

The second issue, which I have, I think, mentioned before, is imaginability. Now here we run into some other issue, namely, that of the difference between imaginability itself and intelligibility. Now, reverting to my physicist hat, I can argue that an electron, say, is intelligible, in that we can understand its behaviour and even write down equations predicting it, but it is not imaginable. A point mass of a tiny weight and miniscule charge is not, even with the best will in the world, imaginable, however intelligible it may be.

By the same token, I think that a wargame simulation is hoped to be intelligible, but the fact is that we might also expect it to be imaginable. The difference between using toy soldiers or cardboard as your counters may simply come down to that. A professional wants an intelligible simulation, a look at why things turned out the way they did, or what range of outcomes are within the bounds of possibilities.

An amateur wargamer is probably looking for a more engaging, imaginative (and fun) experience. While an amateur wargame should have an internal logic of its own, it is perhaps not quite as required to be intelligible as a professional simulation.

On the other hand, to deny imagination in the players of a simulation may well be to remove some of the usefulness of the game. Everyone involved in a battle is, after all, human, and with the human comes an imagination, along with emotions and all the whole gamut of personality and outlook. I suppose this is another way of say that a simulation can never cover everything.

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