Ah, I hear my loyal reader think, this is about modern wargames. That pre-1700 curmudgeon has finally seen the light and is about to launch forth on the SAS, asymmetric wargaming and all the jolly technology that gets modern (did someone mutter ‘ultra-modern’?) wagaming its good, or bad, name, depending on how you look at it.
In fact, that is not the case. I am as unreconstructed as ever, especially after my experiment last week with baking spelt bread. Spelt, in case you were not aware (as I was not until a few weeks ago) is an ancient grain that was grown in Britain (among other places) in the later Iron Age. The good thing about it, from my point of view, is that the gluten is fragile, so it does not need much kneading, which is great for lazy bakers like me. On the other hand, it does not do well in the bread maker, so it is all hand labour.
Spelt produces a dense (or perhaps that is my kneading), slightly nutty loaf which is nice for a change but will not, I think, become part of our staple diet. However, Mrs P, who is a seed biochemist by origin, did remark as we were trying to track down what sort of grain spelt is, ‘Now, at last, you are doing something interesting.’
But I digress, probably because I am trying to avoid writing about the subject, which I know a little about but not really enough to spout confidently. The subject is modernity, and how it has influenced wargaming, so with some trepidation, here goes.
The first problem, of course, is to define ‘modernity’ anyway. It is one of those things, I think, which we all know when we see it, but it impossible to nail down. It is the train of thought that started during the later medieval period, got going in the seventeenth century with the birth of the natural sciences, and reached its peak, perhaps, with the Enlightenment of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It then proceeded, fairly happily, through the twentieth century until sometime, say, in the nineteen eighties, when some of its certainties started to fracture under criticism from, for example, feminists, ecological activists and some French thinkers like Derrida.
It is probably true to say that, whether we acknowledge it or not, all the readers of this blog, along with its writer, are children of modernism. Its way of thinking is deeply ingrained in us. We do analysis, reductionism, and, when we have reduced something complex to its components, we categorize them. Things get nailed down, become mathematical in nature. Indeed, one of the themes, it seems to me, anyway, of modern philosophy is its attempt, from Descartes through to Kant and Whitehead, to nail philosophy as tightly as mathematics had nailed physics.
Obviously, modernity has had profound effects on the way we think and do things. For example, history has been moved from a basically narrative viewpoint to one of themes and sweeps of history. Marxist analysis (one of the upshots from modernity) has focussed historians attention on economics, viewing historical actors as trapped in inevitable cycles of ‘progress’, or of Hegelian ‘thesis, antithesis, synthesis’ cycles. Historians want ‘facts’, they want to be going through account sheets of early modern companies to understand what was going on with the economics of the time.
How does this sort of thing affect wargaming? Well, I suspect that you might be able to see where wargaming fits into this idea of modernity. As wargamers, as rule writers and players, we categorize events and armies. We start off with, perhaps, the idea of a cavalry army, or an infantry army. We go from there and reduce our infantry to light, medium and heavy foot. Each has different properties, depending on our understanding of our sources (whatever they may be), our hunches, our mental models of what it means to be a medium infantryman armed with a shield and spear.
In short, we subject our subjects to a thoroughgoing modernist analysis, and insist, as a consequence, that our troops fit our categories. We can see the effect of this in some rules and, perhaps most particularly, in army lists. There we find, for example, Aztecs categorised in a certain way, perhaps as ‘blades’ or ‘heavy foot’ or some such idea. In effect, we have taken a modern category, say ‘tribal foot’ and imposed it on a different, in the case of the Aztecs, totally alien, culture.
Fortunately, wargaming has never had to defend itself from charges of imperialism and neo-colonialism, but I do suspect that this, at heart, is what we are doing.
Of course, if we do not do this categorization, then perhaps we would not be able to play a wargame at all. All we would have would be a bewildering array of different troop types to find the capabilities of which we would have to leaf through several large volumes of rules and army lists to find an answer.
Actually, as I type this, it does start to remind me of some rule sets I could name. However, many of them only do this because they have a core system and blot on all the oddities like Aztecs and Samurai as additional rules. I guess the charge of neo-colonialism still applies.
Other effects of modernity include the over reliance on technology. I have lost count of the number of times I read in army lists words to the effect of ‘these troops are recorded as having shields and so are counted as superior’. Well, possibly, but perhaps they were issued with shields to make them feel braver? Technology is not a single edged weapon.
Finally, one of the effects of modernity is to focus attention on the individual. In this regard, human rights, for example, have come to the fore, as they are individual rights, asserted against everyone else. Wargaming, of course, started out with individual soldiers performing acts of derring-do. It them went to something a bit more collective, perhaps, with bases, but now a reaction has set in and old school wargaming is back, proclaiming the power of the individual toy soldier.
Or may I am getting to postmodern for the good of my own mental health.