Saturday 17 November 2012

Black, Grey and White Wargames

A comment from Aaron a bit ago has refreshed my memory as to where my ponderings about the ethics of wargaming started. A long, long time ago, Paddy Griffiths has a couple of articles in Lone Warrior which questioned why some periods were simply not popular.

I cannot find my copies of those articles, but I vaguely remember the arguments and upshot, which I will try to summarize below. Aaron’s point, as I understood it, was that we self-select those wars which we do not wish to game for ethical or taste reasons. If we can identify these wars, and the reasons why they are not wargamed, then we might get what we might call an empirical handle on wargame ethics.

Griffiths, as I recall, decided that there were three categories of wargame which we do not play. The first were the boring games. In this category he placed trench warfare on the western front in the First World War, for example.

The second category were games which were far too one sided to make a good game. Here, I believe he referred to a variety of colonial small wars where a Stone Age technology tribe went up against a high firepower modern army and, inevitably, lost.

The third category Griffith defined, I think, were games that were too raw or political. By this, I think he meant wargames where some of the participants may have more riding on the outcome that was realistic for the game to manage. His examples of this were Elizabeth’s Irish Wars, where anyone with an Irish background might take offence at the representation of early colonialism, and, I think, he observed that an American Civil War wargame could, at least in some parts of the United States, cause offence as well, especially if the “wrong” side won.

Griffiths was writing a long time ago, sometime in the mid-1970’s, I think, and it seems to me that his list of examples may not be sustained today. Even as he wrote, Charlie Wesencraft was publishing ‘With Pike and Musket: Sixteenth and Seventeenth-century Battles for the Wargamer’ (Elmfield: Morley, 1975). This included four scenarios from Elizabeth’s Irish Wars out of twenty seven battles included. It has to be admitted that all except one of the rest were English Civil War, but nevertheless it was a definite indicator that someone, at least, did not find that war too politically hot to handle.

So, can we update Griffiths’ lists of examples? To be perfectly honest, I am finding this a bit of a struggle. Over the years since he wrote many of the subjects he ruled as grey wargames have, in fact, been played and, more often than not, become mainstream.

For example, First World War trench warfare is now frequently seen; at least, I have seen a number of articles on the subject in magazines, and also a few demonstration games at shows. I confess, it is not my thing, but they do exist as games and presumably people play them. I suspect that one of the things that makes the games playable is the design of decent winnable scenarios, although the fact that the war and its carnage has faded from living memory might help a bit too.

Again, with wargames that are deemed too one sided, sophisticated scenario design can make a big difference. This, I suspect, is related to the idea that the natives should stand up and fight like civilised people do – in ranks like real men. They can then be mown down my western firepower, and the result, of course, is a boring and one sided wargame. If the ‘native’ side is allowed to use its own tactics, with a scenario of which the winning outcome is not the standard wargame ‘annihilation of the opposing forces’, then an interesting and (so far as a wargame ever can be) instructive battle can be had.

I suspect that this second category reflects on the type and style or rules which were available then (and mostly still are today), where the non-western forces are forced into categories of western troops into which they do not really fit. The ‘Skulking Way of War’, to quote early North American settlers about the aboriginals, did not fit into the rules of war at the time, nor does it fit easily into our wargame concepts today. The upshot was that the colonists went and destroyed native villages, leaving only death and starvation, while our wargame forces do not really have a battle on their hands.

The final category that Griffiths defined is more of a moving target, I suspect. It is quite possible that a game based on Elizabeth’s Irish Wars would not play well in, say Dublin, even today. I have been trying to come up with a list of games that would today, fall into the ‘too politically hot to handle’ camp, and I am not sure I can. If you can, please let me know via the comments button!

Even so, I think that there probably are some currents in contemporary wargaming where things just are not done. I suspect, for example, that some things which were highly acceptable in the 1970’s might raise an eyebrow or two today. For example, some colonial games may well have been rebalanced, or at least renamed as such titles as ‘The Indian Mutiny’ may well be deemed to be inappropriate. For that matter I vaguely recall an episode of ‘It Ain’t Half Hot Mum’ where the events of that war had to be rapidly re-invented when an Indian politician came to visit.

I do not seem to be getting very far along this track, however. I cannot think of any particular period that wargamers in general avoid. Perhaps that is a sign of the times, or perhaps it is counter-cultural, in that wargamers, qua historians, at least accept that battles happened, they were not pleasant and someone often won. Maybe, our politically correct historical narratives cannot bear those unpleasant truths today.


  1. Thought provoking stuff as usual David, many thanks for your thoughts.

    I reckon Paddy Griffiths' categories aren't too far from the mark, though I suspect the first two are linked, but it's like trying to capture fog. We all experience and understand things slightly differently, so there can't be a definitive list of black, grey or white which applies to everyone. We'll all have our own.

    One period I don't play is American Civil War. I think, for me, it comes very much into the first category. Frankly, I just don't CARE enough to find it interesting. Perhaps if I knew more about it, I would find it more interesting, but where's the motivation to find out more? Catch 22.
    (Actually, if the club is doing ACW and need a player, I will join in though. Sometimes it's useful to have a player who's completely ignorant of the period and it's only fair - they play enough of the obscure periods I like, such as Elizabethan Ireland.)

    The perception of a particular period as boring can often be down to experiences of bad game/scenario design, oft repeated. You can only take so many Colonial games where the British form a square in the centre of the table and the zulu/dervish/other native player has the option of A) die, or B)run away, before you get the impression it's not a fun period. I like Colonial, but it can sometimes be difficult to convince other players to take part as that's the sort of game they've come to expect. I very much doubt that the prospect of shooting lots of the enemy puts them off, per se.

    I think the last category is the one where there isn't an easy answer, for we all have different tolerances. I suspect the rawness of certain periods will take a long time to fade and make for an acceptable wargame; personally, I dont look forward to seeing the Northern Ireland conflict or the Falklands war on the wargames table, far less Afghanistan or Libya, but it will happen.

  2. I thought that Paddy Griffith's was getting at something a bit more subtle - that it wasn't necessarily the conflict per se, but what the game was.

    So take Ireland - whether 1590s, 1920s or 1970s - a traditional skirmish-type game, probably no great dramas. Change the victory conditions to include VPs for civilians of the other tradition being murdered or tortured - do we still feel the same?

    I think one of the original examples that I associate with Paddy Griffith (although this is dimly remembered, I was pretty young at the time) was the chevauchee - that to gain an idea of what the 100YW was all about, you need to have a game about plunder and slaughter, as they typified that conflict (and many other medieval wars) far more than the occasional set-piece.

    Funnily enough, the only (relatively) traditional wargame that includes this sort of thing (rather than actively avoiding it) was Pony Wars, where in the 'Soldier Blue' scenario the US player(s) have to massacre the Indian village to win...

  3. Hi,

    I suspect that a lot of the boringness does come down to scenario design, but that is affected by our considerations of what we have referred to before here as 'taste'.

    For example, do WW2 blitzkreig fames include the terror bombing of cities to create streams of refugees to hinder the opposing side? Some may, I suppose, but most will not. Why not? Because having a player do that is tasteless, to say the least. The same is true of Ireland and the Pony Wars - killing civilians is tasteless and unethical, however these items may play out for the individual.

    So are one sided games boring, or tasteless, or some combination of the two. I can see that turning Gatling guns on Fuzzy-wuzzies endlessly can pall quite quickly, but is that the fault of the scenario design or history? How much can and should we modify history to give a good and tasteful game?

    I have no answers, but I think the questions are probably not without interest.

  4. Very grey. I've taken part in games set in 1940 where refugees are featured - they clog up roads and present the players with an extra tactical problem; sort of a moving terrain feature.
    Would there have been a level of distaste expressed if any of the players had used the miniature refugees as a human shield or something? Possibly, but that didn't happen and no-one expressed any disquiet at all.
    If there is a line to draw, maybe that was close to it, I'm not sure, but it wasn't visible.

    I don't think tastelessness comes in to the British square games either; it's purely boredom induced by a lack of tactical options, with one side not having any and the other not needing any.

    We modify history all the time to improve the game. You've heard the old saying that warfare is 95% boredom and 5% sheer terror; by that criterion, we should spend a whole day sitting in the rain for an hour's fast play.


  5. I suppose that some of it depends on your levels of abstraction, as well. Moving terrain features is very different from tanks driving through streams of civilians.

    Actually, I've just been pondering wargames as narratives, and it seems to me the ethical question could come down to something like 'I don't want winning by killing civilians to be part of my narrative.'

    As for modifying history, of course, we do it all the time. But then so do historians when they write it down. I guess the question is 'what is reasonable to change/ignore?'