Saturday, 8 September 2012

Wargame Ethics – What is the Problem?

Reflecting on some of the issues raised by the terms wargame ethics or wargame morality has led me to something of a startling conclusion: I do not really know what the ethical problem is with wargaming.

In a sense I suppose that this should not be a major surprise. I think the problem here is that I simply have not found a suitable definition of the issue, in part, at least, because I have not really looked that herd.

I mentioned that a problem with the discussions of wargame ethics I have so far seen in fact collapse to questions of whether this or that wargame or period is tasteless or offensive. 

To me, this is not really the issue around ethics. I have not, in general, done harm to someone if I have offended them. They might object and appeal to the court of public opinion against me (and quite likely win), or even go to law if I have really offended their taste, but that is not strictly an ethical issue.

So what could the underlying ethical issue be for wargaming?

I think I have hinted at this view before. The issue is in the portrayal, explicit or implied, of violence.

So, the objection to wargaming could look something like this:

P1 All portrayals of violence are unethical.
P2 Wargaming portrays violence either explicitly (role playing or skirmish games, or implicitly in board and figure games).
C Therefore, wergaming is unethical.

Now of the two premises, P2 seems to be fairly uncontroversial. Wargaming does portray violence, in that participants explicitly use violence (at least in terms of speech acts, along the lines of ‘My Grand Battery opens fire’) to resolve the game and move it along.

The problems come with P1, of course. As it stands, P1 would not only declare wargaming unethical, but also films with any violence in them, Tom and Jerry cartoons (the old ones are really violent) and Popeye, the 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky (cannon going off), Bach’s St Matthew Passion and most of the Old testament.

In short, P1 is far too swingeing a statement of the issues of violence and culture to be accepted.

So P1 needs some sort of nuancing. How do we go about this, still having an ethical condemnation of wargaming, but allowing, at least to some extent, films, books and the rest of culture to continue.

I think the first thing we can do is to add some sort of individual involvement to P1, so it would read:

P1 All portrayals of violence which engage the individual are unethical.

Now, this is perhaps a little better, but it still, in my view, does not work as a premise to our argument. It is still, I think, too wide in scope as firstly, most films, books and other art is designed to engage the individual and secondly, in order to educate someone about, say, war, we need to engage them in thinking about it. So under this premise art is dubious still while education is probably disallowed.

So we need to add these concerns to our premise:

P1 All portrayals of violence which engage the individual are unethical unless they are artistic expressions or educational, or for news and information.

So now we can still get our fix of daily violence from news broadcasts, and educate our children about the Second World War and other conflicts, and even accept artistic expressions of violence in picture, film or literature.

The issue is that now, wargaming does not appear to be necessarily excluded. We can argue, for example, that some wargaming is educational. Phil Sabin uses it on academic courses, for example, and armies the world over use wargames for training.

Furthermore, we can argue that wargaming is an artistic expression of violence. For example, a nicely sculpted and painted wargame figure is, on some views anyway, an object of art. It is, I think, rather hard to argue that wargame figures, or indeed games when they are set up and in play, are not, in some ways, aesthetically pleasing objects.

So what then is this ethical worry that wargamers are supposed to spend so much time thinking about?

I suspect that the issue is really something to do with the fact of wargames as pastimes. If that is the case, then P1 could read:

P1 All portrayals of violence are unethical if they are used as pastimes.

But then we run into the same problems as we did above with books, films and other works of art. On the whole, such objects are also pastimes, and so our revised premise falls again. Other problems also mount, as some people’s pastimes may include learning; the boundaries of pastimes are not at all clear.

I think the problem I am running into again here is a bit of a lack of definition as to why portrayals of violence are problematic. This anxiety seems to come from societies (i.e. western, liberal democracies, mainly) that portrayals of violence lower the threshold for actual violence. That is, the underlying issue of P1 is that portrayals of violence are bad for society.

I suppose that there are two points here. Firstly, that portrayal of violence increases the propensity to violence in our society. While there are enough tragic incidents of violence in the world to suggest this might be the case, and the press tends to leap on any incidence of violence where the perpetrator has viewed, say, violent video games or films, I am not aware of any serious research work this confirms this link.

In other words, violence is not linked in any strong way to violent incidents in society. Such incidents are, sadly, much more often linked to mental health issues.  I seem to recall that there were moves to ban war toys in the 1970’s, but I do not think they had any real impact on societal violence.

The second point is that, even if the case were proven, wargames, being a fairly marginal hobby in the world, can hardly contribute to portrayals of violence in the same way that the Rambo movies did.

So, I seem to be no nearer defining what the ethical worry with wargaming might be.

Sometimes, wargamers are described as worrying about the games they play. I have to say that, aside from this blog and one or two other places I have mentioned, I have not seen wargamers worrying themselves silly about their games. Perhaps we should, but we need to know what the question is before we start trying to answer it.


  1. Perhaps it would be better to consider the ethics of wargaming in terms of warmongering and playing with people's lives. Where I have encountered concerns from the non-wargamer, it has been in terms of: "How can you get entertainment from sending virtual men off to be killed?" and "How can you derive pleasure from an event in which hundreds/thousands of people were killed?" It has never been to do with the violence per se. Instead the commentators have failed to distance the wargame from the reality and perceive 'real' people as being killed in the games and the wargamers as celebrating that fact.

    I came to the conclusion some time ago that there is nothing inherently ethically wrong with wargaming. Instead the boundaries are all to do with tastefulness or the lack thereof. The boundaries between ethics and tastefulness seem to be blurred these days. Perhaps they always were but I was not around to notice or not concerned with them then. Anyway, as you note, giving offence is not the same as being ethically wrong. I think that wargaming falls firmly in the former camp rather than the latter.

    One thing that would interest/amuse me is a consideration of whether wargaming would have been considered ethically wrong at any period in history. In a similar vein, would this discussion even have arisen prior to the modern period? What has changed in our values systems that could give rise to the consideration that wargaming could be ethically wrong?

    That's enough rambling, stream-of-consciousness wittering from me. If I continue then I might go to bed thinking about it and wake up screaming that there is a moral relativist under my bed!

  2. Tthanks for another very interesting post. Some half-baked thoughts:

    1. Wargames - and similar cultural phenomena - might be an expression of, and a cause of, the idea that there is glory and honour in war, which might be considered unethical. Or even, in some circles, taboo?

    2. There is no context in many wargames - both sides are treated uncritically as ethically equal. An SS Panzer-Kompanie Flames of War 'Army' is presented as just another choice for the player.

    3. Wargaming is not merely a representation of 'violence' - it is specifically tied to 'war'. Therefore your 'P1' should probably reflect this and the argument might go down a different path. Further, I don't think the last variation of P1 was really stated with full force. I might want to use the word 'uncritically' here - i.e. wargames that did contextualise the violence might escape the censure, books which simply glorified war might equally fail it. Your argument might need to consider more that some books, films and wargames were al l unethical. Or put another way, the question is there anything unethical in wargaming is substantially different from is wargaming especially/uniquely unethical.



  3. Lots to ponder in both of these comments, thank you, both.

    I suspect that we do run into the offence problem more than an actual ethical issue, at least presuming that Mill and the Harm Principle is valid. People may find a wargame of, say, Stalingrad offensive, but it is certainly less unethical than, say, the real siege of Sarajevo.

    I think that over time we have probably become more aware as societies of portrayals of violence, probably as the actual level of real violence has declined. Is that a change in our ethics, our perceptions or simply that as a wealthy society we have the time and energy to worry about these things?

    And finally, before I muse some more, it does look like the key words are 'context' and '(un)critical'. Wargames do happen in a context (say, a club), even if the on-table activity is not contextualized. Deriving pleasure from a murderous event is perhaps, only unethical if we disregard the murderousness of the event itself.

  4. "I suspect that we do run into the offence problem more than an actual ethical issue, at least presuming that Mill and the Harm Principle is valid."

    I suspect you are right, but the presumption is a large one. As a historical fact (rather than a philosophic one), it seems most people at most times have not believed in the separation of the immoral and the offensive to the extent that Mill does.


  5. True, but utilitarianism does rather control our public discourse on ethics at present.

    Other approaches are available ... I will be trying a virtue ethics view soon.

    A problem with Mill is where does offence shade into harm - how offended do you have to be before harm is done to you? Does, for example, giving you sleepless nights constitute harm? If so, then your average horror movie might be deemed harmful, while a wargame most likely isn't going to be.

  6. Fascinating stuff this, gents.

    Just to throw up a different ethical dilemma, when our club was casting about for a display game to put on at Triples this year, they decided on a modern game and asked me to write a scenario and rules. (Obvious choice - I know nothing about modern warfare.) I came up with a scenario based in Rhodesia in the 1970's.
    One of the members immediately threw up his hands in horror and cried: "You can't do that - it's white on black violence! We'll get complaints."

    So, was it unethical, tasteless or just politically incorrect?
    Or are all these things, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder?

    We ran the game; no-one batted an eyelid.

  7. My goodness!

    I made a comment on a blog and it didn't spit me out saying I'd committed some unspeakable transgression. That's a first!

    I might even make the Baccus Forum one of these days.

  8. Hi Chris,

    that is the sort of issue which is unclear. Is it simply that it is within living memory? Racist? What if you did a siege of a white owned farm by Mr Mugabe's 'veterans'?

    The thing is, if you ran this as, say, Rourke's Drift it would be acceptable - I've seen such wargames at shows as I'm sure many others have.

    There does seem to be a time boundedness to the problems of ethics. But it dies include some issues about historical perception and accuracy as well.

    And feel free to keep posting comments...

  9. Hello Polemarch,

    A thoughtful post, as are the rest in your ethics series. If you will forgive me, I'd just like to add my tuppence to the cup.

    As I see the issue, a war is a life or death struggle waged for reasons of power or - less frequently, but you wouldn't hear it from the protagonists! - morality. By contrast, a game is, by its most commonly recognised definition, a lighthearted activity whose chief purpose is the amusement of its players.

    I think this is the root of the problem, for it is difficult to reconcile this essential oxymoron.

    What you are asking in your posts is why it is not okay to game war. I think we need to turn the question around: why (or when) IS it okay to game war? Once we frame the question in this way, it is easier to accept that there ARE boundaries to this 'okay-ness'. What designers and players have done in the past (and continue to do) is claim that certain subjects, themes and so on - in short, territory - can be acceptably gamed.

    The chief difficulty is that while for wargamers this territory is, for the most part, well established - though each player will of course have certain 'badlands' they are not comfortable going to - for non-wargamers, the territory has not been established at all, and so we must go right back to the beginning, staking out the 'okay-to-game' areas as we go, but as most of us have only a fuzzy idea of where that starting point might be, this is not something that we are very comfortable dealing with.

    That, at least, is how it appears to me.


  10. Hi,

    Funnily enough my musing on wargame ethics started with a couple of articles by Paddy Griffiths in Lone Warrior many moons ago.

    He tried to define a series of 'black wargames' which we do not play. These were for reasons of being boring (WW1 western front trench warfare), onesidedness (some colonial warfare) or political difficulty (Elizabeth's Irish Wars).

    The reason I've not gone down this route is that it seems to me that all of these things are now wargamed quite happily.

    Furthermore, Griffith pointed out that, say, wargaming the Arab-Israeli conflict might be fine if you are in Israel, but not such a good idea (or even psychologically possible) if you are in Egypt or Jordan.

    However, I think this is an approach which I had forgotten and could do with some more exploration.