Saturday, 30 March 2013

Ethics on and off Table

A while ago I suggested that our ethical stance towards wargames was influenced, if not defined, by our own narratives of ourselves. In essence, this came down to the question of ‘do I want this activity as part of my story?’

In the case of wargaming, where we are, at least in principle, recreating some pretty nasty bits of history, the activity referred to could be something like ‘commanding an SS unit that murdered people in cold blood’, or ‘commanding the New Model Army at Drogheda’.  Where you stand on this ethically is, of course, up to you. It is your story, and depends on your own values.

For some, the value of playing with SS troops is that they were a disciplined unit with strong esprit de corps, cool uniforms (everyone loves black?) and wonder weapons. There may also be pinch of heroism, defending to the last a doomed cause. This need not be a political stance, of course; I’m sure many play SS themed wargames without buying into Nazi values.

On the other hand, it is rather easy to argue that the SS were simply organised thugs, the storm troopers of an evil regime who unthinkingly carried out orders of huge repugnance which no ordinary human would have countenanced. While someone could be willing to play the baddies in a World war Two game they could, reasonably coherently, refuse to command SS units.

However, despite the (hopefully) unique status of the Second World War in its carnage and horror, all wargaming faces some sort of ethical challenge, at least if we penetrate to any degree below the surface. Prufrock came up with a good example in the discussion of the original post: a small force had taken many prisoners and, as commander, he was concerned about security. His first thought was to put the prisoners in barns for the night and set fire to them. Problem, concern solved.

Now, one issue which immediately raised itself was the concern about the difference of real life (I believe the example was being kind to spiders) and the incorporation of unethical behaviour in a wargames campaign. How different can our ethics on the table be from those we have in real life?

Of course, the first question to ask is ‘why should we worry?’ Many wargamers, I am sure, would not worry at all about the question. Wargaming is a game; what happens on the table stays on the table.  That is perhaps true, up to a point, but the concern which is there is that it simply does not happen in all cases. While murdering prisoners of war in a wargame has no impact on anyone outside the wargamers concerned it might have an impact on them, their morals, their virtues.

As I am sure I have already mentioned, Aristotle argued that what we do habitually becomes part of us, whether that is virtuous of vicious. If, as a schoolchild, we sell sweets to our friends at vastly inflated prices then, in later life, we might become a fraudster, gangster or international banker (or all three). How much, as wargamers, do we want to keep our real world consciences clear of even fictional unethical behaviour?

Of course, if our wargames are anywhere near realistic, we much also land up with realistic moral dilemmas. The issue of prisoners was a real one in real battles. For example, one of the best known battles, Agincourt, had precisely this dilemma. Henry V was stuck with a small and ill army facing a large and well fed one. After some of the battle, he could reasonably assume that his troops were becoming exhausted and that the enemy still has fresh troops to throw at him. While his position was a strong one, it could still be outflanked and so he ordered that the prisoners should be killed.

Was this an unethical decision? The argument has continued over the centuries with no real resolution. It is undeniable that it was a reasonable situation, given the context and Henry’s knowledge of the state of his own army and that of the enemy. The stakes were high; he felt he had to act for the safety of his own army and himself.

There are, in these circumstances, two conflicting views which would apply in an Agincourt wargame. Firstly, of course, the decision of the Henry V wargamer profoundly does not matter. Agincourt was fought nearly six centuries ago. A refight of the battle, if it goes according to the original, will land our modern day Henry in precisely the same dilemma as the real world one, except that, of course, no lives will be lost. Not killing the prisoners will take the refight into an interesting ‘what if’ world, but will not change the outcome of the battle.

The alternative view is that such behaviour, while explicable in the real world of the real battle, is not acceptable behaviour in terms of the context of the refight. While, whatever happens, no-one is going to get hurt, the idea of murdering prisoners is repugnant and cannot be countenanced, even in a game situation.

The decision which we make as a wargamer is, of course, linked to how strongly we feel that our activities on table and those off table are those of the same person. It may be that as the wargamer Henry V we assume some of the characteristics of the original and so make the decision to kill the prisoners in a perfectly rational way. We have to justify that behaviour, at least to ourselves, subsequently, even if that justification is ‘well, that’s how it happened in reality.’

On the other hand, we may believe in a greater continuity between our on table personality and our real world selves. In such a case we would not murder the prisoners, even if it meant that we lost the wargame. Again, this points up the difference between game and life: Henry V did not have the luxury of walking away from it as just a game.

So the resolution of these sorts of issues seems to come down to this: how closely tied to the action on the wargaming table are you, the wargamer?


  1. I read this post early this morning, and I’ve been thinking about it since then. It goes without saying that I have not thought of anything particularly original, but I can hardly complain about entertainment value – where else could I get that kind of involvement without buying a ticket?

    I always get into trouble in this kind of discussion, since I am generally accused of pinko liberalism on an unacceptable scale. I cannot give you a fully argued or cross-referenced case, but I hold to a view that war does not really have good or bad guys, any more than it really has winners or losers in the long term. To be a bit more precise, it certainly does have bad guys, but normally the little men on the actual battlefield are not they. They may be individually evil, or good, but their local actions have limited impact. I am generally interested in the argument that war crimes are never (to my knowledge) committed by the winners of a conflict. If the Axis powers had won WW2, no doubt the history of the SS would read a little differently – in the same way that ethnic cleansing in New Zealand in the dark beginnings of the colony (for example) is rather glossed over now. To a large extent, what happened, what we know about it and how we feel about it depends on who we are and where we stand.

    This does not argue that there are not actions or objectives which are fundamentally wicked (or something) – merely that the situation is seldom as straightforward as we may have been taught.

    So what? Well – I do not normally game WW1 or WW2, or Korea, or Vietnam. Too close to home. Too readily empathised. Too widely documented – especially in fiction. Mostly I just find it unpleasant – the vastness of human tragedy, for me, mostly overshadows any veneer of glory or patriotism we wish to hang on it. The further I go back in time, and the more stylised the games become, the more game-like it is for me. The more detached I can feel about the unpleasantness – these things happened, it was a long time ago, the games are interesting in their own right and also because they may help me to understand a reality which I could only ever find abhorrent. For some reason, that lot adds up to a shrugging approval.

    [I'm getting near an HTML input limit, so - with apologies for verbosity - I'll continue in a second comment...]

  2. ....

    If I play any kind of game, the issues it presents – if they have any connection with reality at all – are fake. If I lose a zillion euro’s worth of matchsticks at Backgammon then I have not done anything bad – it is maybe not particularly clever, and may cause distortions in the world matchstick markets, but I have not actually given away my family’s security. I haven’t even pretended to – though there may be a hint of “seeing how it felt” to lose so badly. If I don’t have to pick up a real tab, it is still fake.

    Chess, ludo, whatever – some of these games are stylised representations of some pretty nasty stuff, I suppose, but I don’t feel badly about it (except getting murdered at chess, which is always humiliating) because it is only a game. On the other hand, I am not comfortable at all with my suspicion that street violence in our inner cities is actually promoted by violent films and video games. I would be unlikely to shoot someone in the face with a shotgun for a whole pile of reasons, many of which are moral, religious or humanitarian; but one of the reasons is that I would shirk from carrying out an act which would shock me – visually and emotionally – beyond anything I can imagine. This is probably not the main reason, but it’s there. One of the reasons I wouldn’t shoot someone is because I don’t believe I could handle the experience.

    If, on the other hand, I had spent much of my formative years watching and rehearsing exactly this spectacle in virtual reality then I’m not so sure that would still be an obstacle....

    I realise that this comment is all over the place – it probably isn’t even internally consistent. The significance of performing an unspeakable act in warfare is largely in achieving the unexpected. No-one thought that you would burn a barn full of prisoners. In its way, and filtered through the stylisation inherent in a game, this is not so very different from winning an Ancients wargame championship by fielding a historically impossible army (entirely catapults?) to exploit a loophole in the WRG rules of the day. Someone has done a Bad Thing (of whatever degree, however judged) and no-one thought they would do it, because everyone else was unconsciously constrained by preconceived patterns of behaviour, or ethical standards.

    Burning the prisoners because you can’t afford to feed them is not really a supportable action, though outsiders might well understand the reasons for it. Burning them because they were Irish, or the wrong religion, or whatever, feels worse, intuitively, but I’m not sure it makes much difference in the end.

  3. An interesting and honest response Mr Foy. I would say pretty much the same as you and would also admit to being internally inconsistent - I'm no longer sure (like I used to be when younger) that it is possible to be internally consistent with such questions.

    To add my tuppence worth, I'm not sure I'd even be bothered by which force I played in a game. Maybe there's something wrong with me but I just don't feel it is really an issue. Firstly, I don't think playing a wargame would make me any more likely to commit a crime. Secondly, I think that you'd simply have to give up historical wargaming from a lack of options. Even if you could find "the good guys" you'd struggle to find other good guys to fight against in an historical encounter.

    If its a question of "what would you do" then arguably creating a game which poses this kind of dilemma would actually be instructive. In my opinion, and this is one of the things (harking back to last week's post) I think I've learned, is that all armed forces ultimately commit crimes (some punished, some begrudginly tolerated, some tactitly encouraged and some actively encouraged). If I take my own favoured period (SYW), supply chains break down and bands of armed men take what they need and leave the peasantry to starve. And that in an era of "limited war".

  4. Interesting and excellent couple (or three?) posts, gentlemen, thank you.

    I think I'll have to think a bit more about this sort of thing, but one thought did occur to me:

    Perhaps playing a wargame is a way of confronting ourselves with this sort of dilemma?

    It is very easy to say that 'such and such is a war crime', but what if you are there on the field, trying to preserve your army, win a battle, simply feel you have run out of options except to commit something that could be held up as a war crime. In a well constructed wargame we can at least consider what other possibilities could have happened.

  5. This is my first time commenting here and I hope my comments live up to the level of discourse your blog provides.

    The problem, as I see it, is that most wargames I've witnessed, participated in and read about, do not involve ethically interesting situations beyond whether or not to participate in the activity in the first place. The reason being is that the long term issues like security and the viability of an army, the "right-ness" of one side or the other, the role the force plays in the national identity of the culture that fields it, the strategic value of prisoners and objectives etc. are not relevant. The game battle is an isolated event, and is lucky to even bare a passing resemblance to a historical situation (no matter claims to the contrary), particularly where forces are fielded based on points values. The focus is the game, and the ethical dilemmas fall into the realm of things not considered.

    Still, I am sure there are some people who find controlling SS painted figures distasteful because the figures bear some superficial resemblance to an actual group of people that did perform terrible acts. But simply commanding them on the tabletop does not entail a belief in their actual cause, only that the individual is pushing those toy solders that are painted in a manner that we would say ,"Yes, those figures there are SS." So, while I appreciate the moral stance and would certainly accommodate their choice, I'm not sure I find it well-reasoned.

    Even if I believe in some way that the actions I take during a wargame impact my behavior away from the table, unless I take horrific actions "in game", it seems to me that I am unlikely to encounter any meaningful internal conflict. That is to say, unless my tabletop commander, by my order, rounds up tabletop prisoners and executes them using game mechanics (or via hand waving), or engages in an ethnic cleansing campaign of the imaginary civilian population, I haven't taken the negative actions and quite likely, they haven't even crossed my mind.

    If those thoughts did cross my mind, I suspect the potential to do so existed pre-participation in the game, and is not a result of the activity of wargaming or the side being played.

    Nothing about commanding the SS-looking figures (or any other force), entails that I, as the commander, take the same exact actions their real life commanders took (and sadly, many rule sets don't even entail that a player use historically accurate tactics).

    If there is a game mechanic that forces these actions, or handles them in a narrative action, perhaps via card draw or something similar, the player is not culpable as it was the mechanic of the game that produced the result and not an intent on the player's part.

    If the player is required to take every action their real life commanders took, then they do not have agency and are merely the means by which the figures are moved in accordance with a predetermined script.

    And, as I feel I am rambling, I will throw out one quick thought:

    Campaign games might better allow for ethical dilemmas as prisoners and civilians can play a more visible role in the game.

    Thank you for posting such consistently thought provoking content.


    1. Welcome to the comments; please do not worry about the 'level of discourse' here, my own ramblings rarely live up to it.

      I think you have indicated an important point about agency, and it also points up the reason that most people do not worry about ethics on the wargame table most of the time. Certainly in historical wargames, the die, as it were, is already cast.

      I suppose that the bother that got me started with this line is what people outside the hobby see. Often, although not always, they regard wargamers as, at least, people who glorify in war, and I do think that we need a response to that.

      My own view is that the three level model of wargaming provides some insulation from identifying ourselves exactly with what is going on on table. But still, what is going on on table is, in some sense, a model of something which no sane person would willingly engage in. I suspect that this comes down to the ambivalence to warfare which modern western culture exhibits, but I'm not sure.

      As Prufrock notes below and you mention, probably campaign games are more likely to provoke ethical problems. We have to consider civilians,logistics, prisoners and a whole plethora of other things which do not enter a one off battle.

      On the other hand, my most worrying encounter with another wargamer was a French Napoleonic gamer who, as far as anyone could tell, really thought he was Napoleon. He was quite a bothersome sort of person from that point of view.

      I still, therefore, harbour a sneaking suspicion that we cannot bracket out our wargaming character completely from the rest of life. Although I admit that that person was a bit (or a lot) of an oddity.

  6. Another very interesting post. Just to quickly add some context, as the Prufrock whose example is cited, the game was (still is, in fact) an ongoing umpired campaign game involving more that fifteen players, and I was a commander in a very dicey position. We had managed to win a battle against all odds despite being outnumbered and low on supplies and with other enemies threatening our rear. The number of prisoners taken amounted to two-thirds the numbers of my own army, and as our next task was to defend a stronghold against other enemy in the vicinity I was concerned about the effects of having so many potentially dangerous prisoners in my camp (the game is umpired, so I could not consult a rulebook for guidance on what the dangers of keeping or releasing the prisoners might be - something which is, I think, often overlooked when thinking about 'ethical' matters!). As it turns out, I paroled them, but it could yet come back to haunt our cause.

    It is an excellent game, and I agree that there are not many wargames that actually force you to face ethical dilemmas such as these.

    1. Thank you for adding context. It does seem that a campaign game is where we can face ethical problems, although I guess a carefully constructed umpired scenario might enable us to face similar sorts of issues.

      It does sound like you have faced a real dilemma with wargames world outcomes. At least if you lose your enemies might decide to spare your wargame life, rather than find some gruesome method of execution. One good wargaming deed deserves another?

  7. Hmm, much to consider, as usual.

    To adopt a slightly different perspective, I wonder how much our attitude to ethics in wargaming depends on the level to which we are identifying with the wee chaps on the table. Certainly I think for many a dyed in the wool wargamer there is more than a little of the alter ego bound up in the splendidly attired bloke on the white horse at the front of our armies. Perhaps, just perhaps, and despite what we say, if we are honest we don't see it as 'just a game'.

    I just called to mind an occasion when I was umpiring a reconnaisance game in which one of the players brought along a friend to 'have a go'. Without going into too much detail, the new lad decided that the best tactic to gain information would be to commit an atrocity on the local populace. I wouldn't let him.
    Now I don't know - perhaps he had a predeliction for that kind of thing or maybe it was just a lack of 'buy-in' to the premise of wargaming as a representation, however imperfect, of real warfare. Either way, we never saw him again.

    I still think we struggle to rationalise our objections to certain armies in terms of 'good guys' and 'bad guys' though, as it depends so much on our preconceptions and the emphasis we place on what we know of the troops/period in question. OK, the SS is an obvious example of a corps of baddies, but the heroes of Dettingen and Fontenoy were the same blokes who scoured the glens after Culloden; which basket are they in?

  8. I think that if we have planned, bought, painted, based and carefully transported our armies to a venue, then the chances are that we actually have a significant, if unacknowledged, emotional investment in it, and to see it lose, to see our glorious little men in ignominious rout probably upsets us more than we like to think.

    Perhaps that is why I'm a mainly solo gamer.

    It is possible that your reconnaissance gamer thought that atrocities were a standard part of warfare, and should be represented on the table? To some extent any wargame (even with the SS represented) is a cleaned up and sanitised model of the real thing.

    I think that where we draw the line over playing the bad guys is something to do with our views of wars, particular wars and how we handle information about them. I was bought up on the standard British war comic, and that gives a certain view of World War Two. I doubt if they could be published now, and so a teenager of today will probably see something very different, and form differing views from mine.

  9. Frank Chadwick, a chap who knows a thing or two about the subject, once wrote that all wargames are roleplaying games. I think he hit the nail on the head.

    I had this brought home to me nearly ten years ago when a friend and I won a Falklands campaign as the Argentineans. It was a crushing victory (mainly because the British player was an oaf) and we were sitting in the pub afterwards looking at each other and neither of us were very happy. I swore afterwards that I'd never play the side that I wouldn't have wanted to win in reality.

    I stretch a point on occasion, usually when I'm umpiring a game like Science versus Pluck or if we're badly stuck for players on one side, but I never identify with those games in the same way that I identify with others.

    There are wargamers who don't feel that way of course. I remember running a large OGRE game set in a sort of Market Garden analogue. An American player had an extreme range shot at an enemy tank, but given that the game was being played in a pretty built up part of Holland there were lots of civilian refugees running about.

    The American player was cautioned that if he did fire, he might disable the tank, but he would certainly incinerate several hundred refugees. He regarded his briefing critically and responded, "There's nothing here about not killing civilians." It was a strange point - as the game organisers it had never occurred to us that such a thing would need to be spelled out.

    1. I agree with you about all wargaming being role playing, but it still begs the question for me as to how some people can separate on table behavior from off table. I guess that is why we have the war crimes court these days, as some people just can't do it in real life, let alone in a game.

      I suppose in a game there is a difference between trying to win at all, and trying to win in the 'right' way. Dead lead civilians have no children; maybe that does make a difference.