Saturday, 16 March 2013

Wargame Houses

To return, for a moment, to some thoughts I had a while ago about horizons, wargame and, I suppose otherwise. If you recall, I postulated the existence of three areas: the known knowns, where we can ask questions and get answer them, the unknown knowns, in which we can ask sensible questions and hope to get intelligible replies, and the unknown unknowns, where we cannot ask meaningful questions or get intelligible answers.

These three areas fairly clearly describe our limits of understanding. I can ask, for example, who won a the battle of Hastings. That is a known known; we can get a reply, of ‘the Normans under Duke William’. The next question might be ‘how did they win?’ This, for most people anyway, is an unknown known. Someone out there will have read the sources, examined the Bayeux tapestry, analysed the archaeology (if there is any, I’m not sure) and so on, and there will be some sort of reply along the lines ‘the Normans did this, the Saxons did that…’ and so on. Someone out there in our world can answer the question, even if we, ourselves cannot.

Finally, the question could arise ‘what did it feel like to be a Saxon foot soldier on Senlac Hill?’ Here we are in tricky territory. We can imagine the weariness, terror, hunger and so on of such a person and, perhaps, if we are literary minded, write an account from that person’s point of view. However, we can never be sure which bit of that description could be correct, and which bits are our projections onto them. Would a Saxon foot soldier feel in the way we think we would? Can we even realistically consider what his situation might have been like, what his considerations would have been when King Harold went down?

We are heading here into the territory of unknown unknowns, at it is all the more treacherous because we might actually think that we can or do know. One of the things I have been trying to say here is that we cannot know. Any set of wargame rules, and any wargame along with its wargamers, is at a considerable epistemological distance from the original battle or warfare of the period it is setting out to represent. I suspect that this, in fact, is why most scholars reject the idea of wargaming as any aid to understanding a given battle.

To change the metaphor a little, consider observing a building. From your vantage point, say on a hill, you can see a wall or possible two, and part of the roof. You can see colours and outlines, maybe a window or two. You descend and walk around the building. At each point you can observe things much more than you could on the hill. You can see colours in more detail; you can see textures and make informed guesses about materials. If you are particularly nosey, you can peer into the windows and see a room with furniture. Books, televisions and so on. But you cannot see the whole building, nor can you see all the bits you saw before.

Now go into the building and explore the rooms. You might have seen some of them from outside, but there are bound to be ones which you did not or could not peer into. And anyway your perspective from inside the room is different now; you are, ins some sense, part of the furnishings of the room. The details of this bit of the house, if not anywhere else in it, are exposed to you.

Now, consider giving a description of the house to a friend who has not seen it. You would, I think, be able to give a reasonable outline of the building, its construction, internal layout and furnishing, aspect and situation within its plot. All of these things would be, in so far as your memory is accurate and your descriptive powers adequate, quite correct. If you took your friend to some part of the house blindfolded, and then removed the blindfold, they should be able to say ‘Oh, this is the library you told me about’, or whichever bit of the building you chose to show them.

Now, your description is of the whole house that you have explored, but there is no one viewpoint from which you can construct that viewpoint. You cannot actually see all four walls at once, even though you can walk around them, or even infer their existence from the bits you can see. Even if you have a full description of the outside of the house, the inside would be unknown to you until you have viewed it for yourself. And you cannot, of course, view both the inside and the outside at the same time.

By now, you are probably asking ‘what has this got to do with wargaming?’

Well, the thing is that it shows that no description of anything with any structure can ever be complete. The describer has a given viewpoint. Even a complete description is unattainable in reality. Some relationship between the differing viewpoints has to be assumed. In the house description we have to assume that the inside and outside of the house are, in some way, related and Euclidian geometry is in force.

A battle description is, of course, similar to a description of the house. It is necessarily limited by the viewpoint of the writer and the sources they have to work with. They may synthesise the reports they have, ask people who were there, write down their own observations, but they can never see the whole battle from all aspects, all viewpoints.

Of course, it gets worse with wargame rules. A rule writer can only read these limited accounts and construct some limited model of what they think may have been going on. This rule set is going to be even more limited by the perspectives of the writer themselves. So it is hardly surprising that wargames are a long way from anything real world; of course, in some respects that is a good thing.

So it is, in the final analysis, little wonder that most of us spend most of our time painting toy soldiers. They at least can be modelled on some aspect of real life, hopefully a little closer than our wargames can be.


  1. I suppose then that its a lucky thing that the ability to describe and to really know something is not always a prerequisite to using and enjoying it or there would be a lot of people sleeping outside.

  2. And, fortunately, nor is it a block to building it either!

    But the perfect battle report, whether real life or wargaming, is out of reach still....

  3. I was reminded of that comment by the Duke of Wellington to someone who wanted to write the story of the Battle of Waterloo, to the effect that it was like trying to write the history of a ball; some people saw more or less of the detail of what happened, but no-one saw the whole or could say with certainty what happened in what order or what event affected another.

    In that battle many officers carefully recorded the time that the first cannon fired; the times differ by up to three hours.

  4. Aye, the Iron Duke was lurking at the back of my mind when I wrote the piece, scowling probably.

    but it does raise an issue: we can still argue about Waterloo, even to the extent of who won it. There can be no definitive account, but we still want one...