Saturday 26 January 2013

The Language of Wargaming

One of the triumphs of twentieth century thought was probably its focus on language, and the uses to which it is put. Some would probably argue that this trend, in and of itself, has caused an awful lot of problems, leading, for example, to some of the excesses of the sillier end of postmodernism (which, inevitably, gets most of the attention). Whichever way we see it, we cannot ignore language.

The first indication that language is not all it seems actually comes from Claude Shannon, a physicist. He analysed the transfer of information, and concluded that most language is heavily redundant. I am not sure of the exact numbers, but in English something like eighty per cent of the letters are not needed. I suppose that explains a lot of the text speak we see around these days.

The second issue that Shannon identified was that information degrades as it is transmitted. The original thought on this was, I suppose, ‘Chinese whispers’, where the message is passed on from person to person, and is mutated in that process. However, this also happens in electronic transmission, and so some of the redundancy of language to provide context and checks to prevent this from happening. Indeed, a fair bit of our electronic transmissions are devoted to check bits to ensure that the correct message was received.

The other indication that all is not as it seems with language came from Wittgenstein, who observed that his earlier idea, that language gives a picture of objects in the world, is probably false, at least in large part, and language often functions in a different way, or, actually, several different ways. The meaning of a word, he argued, was in its use, not in its definition, as definitions change over time, guided by the use to which the words are put.

I think that this sort of approach to language has two impacts on the world of wargaming, at least. Firstly, we have to live with the fact that language is not a transparent medium. What I write in a set of rules is not exactly what a given reader might understand from those words. As I noted previously, the reader is bringing a whole load of other understandings with them, and using those to interpret my text.

I had an example of this recently with the Polemos SPQR rules, where someone was asking about the ranged fire of skirmishers. In SPQR skirmishers do not fire at range, the skirmishing rules, and the underlying model for skirmishing, are different. You could argue that either my correspondent was not reading correctly, or that my text and writing skills are simply not up to the job of transmitting the ideas (the latter being the most likely, as readers of this blog can testify), but the most likely thing happening is that the words are actually getting in the way of the meaning.

The second issue which arises from this consideration of language is that the language we use shapes our understanding of the world around us. A real world example at the moment would be the arguments around about ‘gay marriage’.  I am not, here, going to take sides, but simply want to observe that the use of the term I have put in scare quotes is, in itself, a change in the usage of the word marriage. It sometimes seems to me that the proponents of such are good Wittgensteinians and are trying to redefine the term by changing the usage, while to opponents are attempting to shore up the ‘traditional’ definition of marriage by rejecting the change in use.

Be that as it may, in wargaming terms the issue is about the language we use in definitions. If, for example, I give a definition of a cavalry unit as a chap mounted on a horse, in close order with other chaps mounted on a horse, with a shield, a couple of javelins and a disinclination to charge home, then that is how the term, in my rule set, will be defined. I will then go through the real world defining the troops as cavalry or not cavalry. The law of the excluded middle applies; there are no ‘sort of cavalry’ troops.

This, of course, has ways of imposing our scheme on other societies. I may well have defined my ‘cavalry’ by means of a few examples in my particular culture, say, European mounted troops around the era of the Roman Empire. When I go beyond those confines, it becomes harder to fit the troops into by pre-decided categories, and things start to look a bit flaky.

The situation in then compounded by the fact that I have not just a single category, but a whole system of categorising troops, in terms of mounted troops as, say knights, cavalry and light horse. In my scheme, therefore, everything has to fit in one of these three categories. There are no alternatives. In the scheme you cannot be ‘sometimes a knight, sometimes a cavalry’.

I dare say that some of you are now recognising the point I am trying to make, for I have, at least, hinted at it before. We cannot honestly impose our categorisation of troops on cultures alien to those in which the category was created. I cannot impose the categories of the early Roman Empire on Warring States China, or on the Carolingian Empire.  At least, I can, but I am then faced with some distinct oddities in terms of nomenclature, as, for example, calling Roman cataphracts knights.

This also links to what I was whiffling on about the other week, in terms of how we read texts. If we come to a bit of Herodotus where he describes the Persian cavalry, do we ask the modernist question: are these cavalry?, or do we attempt to be good postmodernists and ask ‘how did these guys actually behave?’.

It may be that, at the end of the day, it does not much matter, as we have to impose categories somewhere, but I prefer mine tightly linked to a distinct, and named, troop type in a given culture. But, perhaps, I am in a small minority.


  1. Interesting thoughts. I am reminded of Halsall's comments on household troops (huscarles and similar) in the early medieval period, who probably fought both mounted and on foot with equal facility. We cannot easily define them as infantry or cavalry, because even those terms are culturally loaded and suggest a mode of warfare that is more modern than that practised by the early medieval warriors. Language can be a minefield. I think this discussion may well reinforce my desire for period-specific rules like those of the Perfect Captain, with their own terms and frame of reference. The problem there is that wargamers have traditionally attempted to use period-specific terms but have used them badly. My pet hobby horse in this regard is the use of the term 'bondi' to describe units of early medieval Scandinavian freemen of lesser quality than the huskarls that formed the personal bodyguard of the king or leader.'Bondi' is the nominative singular form of the word and thus suggests that you have a unit of 1 person. It makes me want to tell my opponent to remove all bar one of his figures because they are defined in the singular. Come to that, the term 'unit' is loaded too and does not really fit readily into the army organisation of many periods. Ah, I could go on, but shall refrain at this juncture. Anyway, I enjoy your meanderings as they make me think more about my hobby, which is no bad thing.

    1. Hi,

      I think that period specific is probably the way to go, myself, but as noted we then have to deal with the culture of wargaming which has expectations about troop type and function. I suspect this also links to my 'postmodern wargaming' post, appealing for us to read and understand the whole text, not just mine it for modernist wargaming bits of technology and organisation.

      Still, if these maunderings make people think a bit, they will have served their purpose, and I'm glad you find them useful and / or interesting.

  2. Part 1.
    I would have thought an earlier indication that language is not all it seems comes from Shakespeare "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet". As for Mr. Shannon's redundant letters he may have missed the bit about language having been spoken for hundreds of thousands of years before it was ever written and that the problem of letters is one of how we represent language, not of language itself.
    As for the Polemas skirmishers, there is a 3rd, to my mind more likely, arguement that his question was an attempt to correlate past expectation and/or outside knowledge with a new context. That is in other rules/reference books skirmishers were usually javelin, sling or bow armed troops on foot operating in dispersed formations. In low level, process oriented rules the use of the ranged weapons carried by these warriors is usually represented, in higher level, results oriented, rules only the effect of the skirmishers is shown in a more abstract fashion. In both cases they are representing the same real thing so the language is the same. It is the way in which this thing is portrayed which is different not the thing itself and so the same name should be used.
    I'm afraid I don't understand why you cannot be ‘sometimes a knight, sometimes a cavalry’. Even the DBx rules in their lists allow some armies to represent troops one way this game and another way the next. Other rules allow such changes during a game or differentiate between troop classifications and troop behavior with the former possible affecting the effectiveness of troops operating outside their normal range. That is not a question of name but of how restrictive a rule set is on defining and maintaining classifications and tactics.

    1. Hi,

      I shall grant that probably previous expectation about skirmisher behavior was to blame, at least in part, for the PM:SPQR confusion, although I cannot absolve the author from blame...

      I think the problem with 'sometimes a knight, sometimes cavalry' is that, swapping category from one battle to the next surely indicates a different sort of troop, not one that flips from one year to the next?

    2. Does it? or does it describe different behaviour depending on the situation? Look at the persistent arguments surrounding Alexander's Hypaspists. On some occasions they appear to be part of the phalanx and yet they were selected to accompany cavalry on a forced march and to assault walls. Roles that imply different equipment and training despite being the same men. The most likely of the explanations to my mind is that being professionals they were trained for multiple roles and were able to leave heavier equipment behind when necessary. Thus they could fill both roles, but not at the same time.

      A similar example comes from 12thC English knights who usually fought mounted but on occasion, a proportion of them were dismounted and formed with the infantry to stiffen it. Something that could not be done mid-battle as opposed to a group of knights (and sergeants) dismounting as a body.

      I suppose though that it also depends on what one means by a "troop type".

      There is a lot to be said for the sort of approach that provides for rules for various weapons, equipment, tactics, behaviors, morale and training etc and then defines troops by assigning the appropriate attributes to each unit or troop type.

    3. I think the issue is exactly how we conceptualize categorizing troops. Do we want troops whose troop type shifts from one battle to another, or a troop type that reflects two different (or partially different) activities.

      After all, ECW cavalry dismounted to lead the assault in sieges; do we want to reflect that in the troop type? If so, how do we prevent it being mis-used, but if we don't we miss out some historical capability.

      Not being able to switch role mid battle is helpful, but with most games not being based on historical ones (we don't have enough information for most battles, after all) how do we decide which role the troops are to play in this battle?

      Lots of questions, but not many answers, I'm afraid.

  3. Conclusion.

    I once gave up on a lengthy discussion of whether 18th & 19thC European Dragoons were really cavalry or if they were mounted infantry. The problem of course was that there was no all encompassing yes/no answer, partly because different countries used the same name for slightly different things, partly that Dragoons evolved over time and partly that sometimes the same unit performed different tasks and sometimes units with different names did the same sorts of things. All of which is to say that behavior and effect is a better basis for wargame rules than names.(imo of course)
    If one was trying to link a rule set category to a distinct, named troop type in a given culture, you should really be sure that your sources are from that culture and time not from another unless you wish to portray say, the Greek view of a Persian troop type. If we look at something as simple as Platea, we know from Herodutus's catalog that there were a dozen or so nationatlies of horsemen present with different arms, armour and presumably tactics though he doesn't describe this for all of them, that the catalog doesn't match archeological evidence very well, that there were other "Persian" cavalry tyes not present and that only one encounter with an unamed unit is described in anything like detail. One is forced to either invent Persian cavalry categories and rules from whole cloth or look at their effect over time in various battles and draw tentative conclusions.
    It has already been pointed out that borrowing a word from a foreign language may help add atmosphere but almost invariably the meaning will not be precise. I have never understood the urge to insert bits of Latin and Greek. If you are calling your heavy infantry infantry "hoplites" why would you refer to spears or shields rather than their Greek equivalent? and surely a movement should be measured in Greek terms not centimeters? and on and on. If you imagine a language to be a colour, lets say red for the Greek terms and blue for the English, and see a passage of test as a word picture, the names would not stand out in Greek as red words in a see of blue, the whole world would be blue. So if writing an 18thC set of rules I may need as many as 4 classes of troops labelled Dragoons with each having a different set of rules if I don't want to invent a name.
    Lastly, I think the goal of having troops behave in context is a good one. When it comes to rules, when one has various bodies of troops who, based on our very inadequate and incomplete knowledge, use the same tactics in battle, do we strive to make the rules for each different to justify having given them a different name? or do we say here is the name for these troops and here is the rule for the others, its exactly the same rule, but the paragraphs have different names? or do we say this category covers the effect and tactics of the following types of cavalry? or even say this time of cavalry can use the following capabilities and may use the following rules?

    1. Hi,

      I shall take the dragoon example, put it down and back carefully away.... often the problem is the definition of words, which is usually inexact, or at least much less exact than we expect or hope.

      As to borrowing words, I suspect that names like hoplite and legionary are heavily culturally loaded terms, whereas hoplon and scutum are not (or not as much), in that they simply refer to a particular sort of object in the material world, for which a general term 'shield' will suffice.

      Mind you, English has been characterised as a language that doesn't just borrow words from another language, it follows them up dark alleys, mugs them and steals the fluff from its pocket linings as well.

  4. Period specific rules? Most definitely, but even then the words can get in the way. Napoleonic French, British and Prussian fusilers are three distinctly different troop types and there are lots of words which have more than one meaning even in the same army. Division, brigade, regiment in the British army all have more than one definition. Rename your Horse as Dragoon Guards and you can pay 'em less without changing their role at all.

    More concerning, I think, is where a word takes on an accepted wargames meaning with a life of its own, despite it not being entirely appropriate. You mentioned 'Warband', for example, a few posts ago, David. Renaissance is another such.

  5. Of course, you kind of have to try to find a definition of troop type and stick to it - 'men with pointy sticks', 'men with bang sticks' and so on. Then you can look at these classes and say 'you've got bang sticks and no formation, so you go there', rather than saying 'you are called fusiliers so you go in the fusilier class'.

    It is a matter of knowing the period well enough to have a handle on these different terms, and to find some reasonable way of handling them within the period covered. Does paying for dragoon guards get you the same as paying for poncy cavalry? If so, they are the same...probably!

    I once started a major thread on an email group by asking when the renaissance, early modern and pike and shot periods were. So far as I recall, the conclusion was that we didn't know when the medieval period was anyway. Rules need to be distinct in time and space, I think.

    Now, I think I'll just go for a quiet lie down...

  6. Unless we have two opposing armies on the table who should be in different periods.

    Then we call it 'Colonial'.