Saturday 24 November 2012

Modernity and Wargaming

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.


  1. Just wanted to recommend a piece on critical thinking by Colonel John R. Boyd, USAF titled "Destruction and Creation" that somewhat addresses this topic. PDF can be found here:

  2. If individualism is a facet of modernity I'd say we were definitely living in a post-modern age (never understood that term until now!). Though the trend in popular culture focuses on the individual, it seems to me to be purely a fetishistic distraction. By breaking society down into a collection of "autonomous" individuals we seem to have weakened the power of individuals had (by undermining confidence in solidarity).

    Maybe as Boyd suggested, a new truth will emerge from breaking the old one.

  3. Hmm, interesting. But there have been lots of examples recently of autonomous individuals banding together and creating their own collective power - Arab Spring, etc. So in the post-modern world, power may have shifted to whoever controls the collective opinion of the individuals, and that can change in a heartbeat. Is the post modern world going to be the era of the twitterarchy?

    I'm fascinated by the categorisation we do as wargamers, particularly with regard to period. We see a sudden,definite change from one historical period to the next and then bend the overlaps and anomalies out of shape to fit them in, like we're overloading a lift so no-one gets left behind.


    1. I was thhinking mainly about the West and specifically the UK Chris. But your example of the Arab Spring is a good counter (and you could probably add things like the Occupy movement)

      It's also a case in point about periodisation and classifications - i.e. I fell into the old trap of seeing a "definite change from one historical period to the next".

      I should know better - partly thanks to this blog, I'm moving away from universal rule systems to specific conflict based ones.

    2. Hm, maybe the Arab Spring is individuals banding together to try to obtain individual rights, such a democracy, a job and the absence of secret police kicking down the door...

      Categorization is a very interesting thing. Consider, if you will, the performance of of blokes armed with firearms in 1500 under DBM and DBR. I think you'll notice a difference....

      Historical change tends to be fairly gentle - even the introduction of firearms took several hundred years to take full effect. Slashing into convenient periods implies change where none may have been noticed. Not only that but it is imposing a western (or even Anglo-American) view of history onto the rest of the world - the term "Dark Ages" being but one case in point. Charlemagne would, I dare say, be somewhat surprised to find he was living in one...

    3. Absolutely. It's how you slice the periods; by date? By geography? By weaponry?
      You might be able to fight Plassey, 1757, to Seven Years War rules, (just about) but what about Panipat, 1761? It would perhaps better fit a renaissance ruleset, or a mediaeval one, if any.
      An important and decisive battle largely ignored because it doesn't fit a western category very well.
      Down with modernity, say I! Fetch torches and pitchforks!

  4. I'm very pleased to nominate your blog as a Liebster Blog, since I follow it and enjoy it, and since I think that you have not been nominated already.

    The rules are simple enough (even I understand them) - you have to display the Liebster Logo (you can find it on my Prometheus in Aspic blog and a whole pile of other places), acknowledge my nomination and nominate 5 blogs which you like and read regularly, and which have less than 200 followers.

    Then all you have to do is send comments to those blogs to give them the news.

    Thanks for your blog - my compliments - please enjoy your Liebster status!

    Cheers - Tony

    1. Hi,

      Thank you for the nomination; I'll try to think of some blogs I follow that haven't been nominated, and work out how to put the logo somewhere (you may have noticed that I go for 'simple' in terms of layout.

      I'm glad you enjoy the blog - it often gets described as being a little different. It is amazing how an inability to paint or take photographs can stimulate a little creativity in a lateral direction.

  5. Very interesting blog and my thanks to Foy whose Liebster pointed me in your direction. I particularly liked your entry on Kant - who I also find very difficult.

    As an unabashed Imperialist who won't play the Germans in wargames because they're the baddies, I look forward to us having a lot to disagree about.

  6. Kant, as with a lot of extremely clever people, can't write for toffee, which is part of the problem. Plus the fact that he wrote in German (nothing wrong with that, but it is hard to translate) and made up his own words to describe things.

    As for being an imperialist anti-German wargame player, I think we can cope with that....