Saturday, 25 August 2012

The Beautiful Game

Consider the following scenario:

You go to a wargame show. The first game you see if a veritable feast for the eyes. The miniatures are wonderfully based and painted. The terrain looks like a slice of the countryside has been lifted up, reduced in scale, and plonked artistically in the room. The wargamers responsible have managed to remember to keep all beer glasses, coke cans, rule books and other paraphernalia off the table. You admire in awe the skill of those who have put the game together.

Having pulled yourself away from the first game, you wander, eventually, into the competition area. Here, a series of wargames are underway. However, in contrast with the first game, there is nothing here to keep you admiring them. The miniatures are very nicely painted, it is true, but the terrain is, to put it politely, rather less good to the demonstration game. Woods are irregular bits of felt, roads and rivers are chalk marks or coloured string. The aesthetic impact is rather less than the first game.

I am not now going to launch forth about how competition games should up their standards and be able to hold their heads up high before the world with wonderful terrain. That, after all, is not the nature of competition games. The terrain is only decided when the game is about to start, and so it is a bit difficult to have already sculpted the relevant pieces.  In a competition game, the game is the thing.

I am also fairly sure that the game we go away with the memory of, that we wish to contemplate and, if we can, emulate, is the initial demonstration game. While we realise how much time, energy and effort goes into that sort of game, it is what we imagine our games should aspire to. That, we might consider, is the beautiful wargame.

I could, at this point, give lengthy descriptions of these sorts of games, but as I am sure much of the readership of this blog (such as it is) will realise by now, I do not really do pretty pictures. Many other blogs do, however, and so I suggest you check them out (say, God’s Own Scale or The Awfully Big Towton Project) to see what I mean.

The point is this, however. Why does one wargame stick in the mind, while the others do not?

Here, we land up in the field of aesthetics. By what means do we judge between one object and another, and declare one to be more beautiful than the other? Why is it that we do judge, that we can even think that making these judgements is a reasonable and rational thing to do?

One answer is that “it is all relative”. One wargame is as good as another. The competition games are just as valid as an expression of wargame-ness as the beautiful demonstration game. To claim otherwise is simply to express a personal view, that of an observer. The true values of any wargame is that given to it by the participants.

That is all very well, and certainly scores quite high on the post-modern aesthetics table. On the other hand, the post-modern aesthetic scale is also responsible for (to quote Prince Charles) some monstrous carbuncles, including, in my view, the “Shard” in London. But I digress.

The thing is that the claim ‘it is all relative’ is clearly not the case. Firstly, the claim itself is contradictory. To argue that it is all relative is to either reduce the statement itself to relativity or to give it a privilege that it claims does not exist.  This is, to put it in philosophical terms, self-stultifying.

The second thing about the claim that our view of the different varieties of wargame and their aesthetics is all relative is that, in our own experience (or mine, anyway; I suspect it is a wider view than just me, however) it simply is not true.

In terms of wargaming we do, I think, make aesthetic judgements all the time. I see it on the wargame related internet frequently, where wargamers enthuse over the latest line of wonderful figures from their favourite manufacturer. These are aesthetic judgement – the reviews in magazines are packed with them.

You could argue that the view of a figure is, in fact, based on something other than a purely aesthetic judgement. You could say that it is based on how well the designer has captured the human body, on the historical accuracy of the clothing of the figure, on the pose, and so on. All this would be true, to an extent, but the basic question we have is “does it look right?”

Here, I suspect, we start to get to the crux of the matter. The demonstration game, in some way, looks right. It has some undefinable rightness about it which the competition games do not have (and, indeed, cannot have and should not be expected to have).

The question now arises ‘what is this “rightness”?’

Here, I think, we are in some tricky areas. For example, we can look at a door frame and say Yes, that looks right. We can look at a building and say Yes, that looks right. In each case we need to consider what this rightness consists of. The door frame is appropriate to its use and its proportions please us. The building is, in some way, balanced, and again, the proportions please us.

How does this work with a wargame?

The truth is, I am not sure. But it is the case that we do draw these conclusions.

However, I think I do have to add that it is not about the match of reality to our game. One of the things that does please us is uniformity. We like our figures to be all of the same height, and all doing exactly the same thing on a given base or in a given unit.

I defy anyone to find an example of that in reality, but somehow it seems right to us.

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