Saturday, 1 September 2012

More Ethics

Suddenly, it would seem that discussing the ethics and / or morality of wargaming is all the rage. I may well be exaggerating a little bit, but two items have come to my attention recently which suggest that there is a modicum of thinking through these issues.

Firstly, there is a podcast on the Meeples and Miniatures page (, in the View from the Veranda bit, Episode 2 ‘The Morality of Wargaming’. Here, the two gentlemen on the veranda, Neil and Henry, discuss at some length issues of morality in wargaming, or at least their take on it.

Now, this is a very long ‘cast; I gave up at about an hour and a half, having based everything I was trying to get based that morning. But it seems to me that the basic idea was that the questionable bit of wargaming, ethically, is the decision whether to game a modern combat or not. The historical line is not very clear, in this, but it is something to do with the conflict being in living memory, or post World War Two anyway.

One part of the discussion centres on the fact that people can play, say, the Assyrian or Genghis Khan without batting an eyelid, while wargamers worry about playing Second World War Germans. The Assyrians, it was posited, were a nasty, brutal and conquering people, but we do not worry about portraying them. The reason is that it was so long ago that no-one really minds, these days.

A second string to this account was delivered by the surprising number of soldiers who did not mind at all playing games based around modern combat, even those conflicts in which they themselves had played a part and, possibly, lost friends and comrades.

Various wargaming luminaries were mentioned in this context: Brigadier Peter Young, Charles Grant, Donald Featherstone and a number of unnamed serving personnel, all of whom enjoyed a tabletop battle.

The second item to tweak my attention is on pages 162 - 163 of Simulating War by Philip Sabin. There, he discusses the objections of non-professional wargamers to playing modern conflicts, where the images and memories of combats and casualties are fresh.

As a professional conflict simulator, Sabin does not much discuss this attitude, arguing that professional wargame players are interested in, and have to model even unsavoury parts of the conflicts they are interested in, and that to be of use, those models have to be reasonably up to date. Wargames have to abstract their subject, and present simplified versions of history, much as books or films do. Anything is thus decontextualized and can be accused of perpetrating horror, or glamourizing it, or something close to those unpalatable outcomes.

Wargaming, as Sabin quotes Cornell as writing, often takes place in a moral vacuum. The people, times and places we represent in a wargame are too alien to us to understand in and of themselves. There is no reason to engage in the conflict as a wargame, and such moral dimensions should be depicted in them.

I hope, in my summaries of these items that I have not misrepresented anyone, nor projected views unfairly onto those making these points.

Now, my take on these ideas is that they are somewhat mistaken. I think the Meeples and Miniatures podcast has rather collapsed a consideration of the morality of wargaming in a desire not to give offence. I think I have written before on the differences, but let me just restate them if I have.

The idea from the podcast seems to be that modern conflicts are questionable in wargaming terms because they are representations of horror in the recent past, to which participants and grieving relatives may take exception. This seems to me to conflate the morality of wargaming as a representation of violence in a game or pastime mode with the possibility of causing offence or being open to accusations of bad taste.

The point is that causing offence is not immoral. In modern ethics, this relates to J S Mill’s harm principle, where I cannot do you harm by offending you. Offence is not harm; doing things in bad taste is not harm. Harm only occurs when I affect your rights and interests.

On this basis, of course, a wargame, carried out between consenting adults in a closed or perhaps semi-public place like a wargames show, can never be more than offensive or in bad taste. The approval of currently or former serving military personnel of these activities is simply, it seems to me, a statement that these people do not find a wargame on these subjects offensive or in bad taste.

Sabin also suggests that some amateur wargamers fall into this category, finding modern combat wargames distasteful, but not unethical, and they therefore execute their free choice not to participate in such activities.

There is no criticism here – I do not play modern wargames, in part because of similar concerns. My Grandfather had some lurid tales of working in a field hospital in France just after D-Day. However, I have also never felt particularly attracted to modern games. I suppose I just like to see the enemy (Sabin remarked somewhere that he once won a prize at a show for a modern game because the judges could not see his tanks…).

Sabin’s second point, in the quote from Cornell is more germane, but is still not an ethical objection. There is a terrible tendency for wargames to occur in moral vacuums, but that does not mean that a wargame in a moral vacuum is unethical; it may simply be daft in its assumptions.

An extreme example of this might be a tournament game of, say, Assyrians against the armies of the Great Khan. Two unpleasant regimes who could never have met historically facing each other commanded by players who may not be able to explain their choices except that they max out under a certain set of rules.

So, in my view, neither Meeples and Miniatures nor Sabin’s first point really are about the morality or ethics of wargaming. Sabin’s (Cornell’s) second point is a bit more significant, but, arguably, has nothing to do with historical wargaming, just some odd sort of fantasy where armies are plucked from their historical context.

In my view, the real issue in wargaming ethics is to try to justify the representations of violence which are implied, whatever the period represented. Causing offence is not part of that discussion, I think.

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