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.