Saturday 27 April 2013

Emotion and Wargaming

It be seem an odd thing to you that I have linked the idea of emotions to that of wargaming. After all, most wargamers are chaps (with a few notable exceptions, of course, as the wargame blogosphere will show) and chaps, of necessity, do not show emotion.

I could demonstrate this in a number of ways. For example, Wellington responding along the lines of ‘By gad, so you have’ to a colleague’s exclamation ‘By gad, I’ve lost my leg’. Or Stan, the handyman on Victoria Wood’s ‘Dinner Ladies’ reporting that, after his mother had left his father in 1950-something  ‘He didn’t cry until 1966, when Germany equalised’. On the whole, then, men are supposed, in western culture at least, not to show much emotion.

This is perhaps especially true in England, where the still upper lip is supposed to be the true aim of all true born Englishmen, and young boys are encouraged to ‘be a brave soldier’ when confronted with a broken arm, leg, train set or whatever.

This is all well and good, except that Kierkegaard teaches us that it cannot, in fact, be true. He observes that decisions, ultimately, have to be taken using emotions, which he describes as passions. The issue is this: We can continue debating and trying to discern the outcomes of the various choices before us for ever, if we choose. But, in normal life, we have to make a choice, a decision, and see what happens.

This is, in fact, one of the criticisms laid at the door of the ethical theory of utilitarianism, or consequentialism. The idea of utilitarianism is that you weigh up all the possible outcomes, and choose the one which maximises some measure of happiness or good for the most number of people. Firstly, of course, it is impossible to perform this sort of calculation in any way, shape or form. But secondly, we can keep analysing until the end of time before we actually decide which is of no use to anyone if we need to decide here and now whether the player was offside, or if we should vote for this or that political party.

Fortunately, human nature has been endowed with a function that allows it to make decisions and get on with living them out. We have hunches, or intuitions, of whatever we want to call them, make decisions, and get on with life, and the consequences of those decisions. We have to, or we would never get out of bed in the morning.

So, how does this play out in wargame terms?

We can, of course, sit in our armchairs by the fire with a pile of rules and army lists by our elbows, rationally contemplating which army we will build next. We can draw up lists, scour the catalogues of toy soldier makers to ensure that they produce figures with exactly the correct form of scabbard for the year we have in mind, sigh that the number of gaiter buttons is incorrect on all known figures, and write our orders (or ready them for email).

At this point, we have to decide. Is this army the army we want? Will it perform as we hope? Will we possess enough will power to paint it and get it on the table? All of these questions, and more, have to be answered in some way before we commit. And yet we do commit, quite easily. Not because we have analysed all possible combinations of soldiers and all the foes they are likely to meet, but because we feel that it is right to order. It will work, we will paint them and do battle with them and even, perhaps, win.

Similarly, on the wargame table, we have to make decisions. I have mentioned before that I do not really think that knowing the percentage chances of winning a given combat between two groups of soldiers is particularly useful, and this is why. A battle is much more complex than a combat between two different groups of soldiers. We might win the combat, by riding the skirmishers with our heavy cavalry, but that is not of much use if our heavy cavalry was, in fact, required on the left wing to exploit a momentary advantage, the neglect of which leads to our downfall.

The human mind, even in something as relatively simple as a wargame, thus needs to do a lot more than just thinking about the rational moves to be made. Firstly, we need to make some sort of decisions or, as I implied above, we will never have a wargame at all. But secondly, we need to assimilate so much information, so much about the content of a given situation on the table (even in a relatively simple wargame, such as DBA) that rationality cannot be the deciding factor in what we actually decide to do.

Now, this does not mean, as I hope I have said above, that we are actively irrational in our generalship. What it does mean is that we cannot afford, and in fact do not, analyse everything. Some situations are non-analysable in a reasonable time anyway. But mainly, we just have to get on with our decisions, backing our hunches, intuitions and judgements.

I believe that there is some recent work in psychology that suggests that we make decisions even before we actually become conscious of those decisions. I am not a psychologist, but I do suspect that the results need a bit of caution. Nevertheless, it does suggest that our rational decisions are not as rational as we might like to think, or, at least, that our rational deductions are, in the main, only there to justify our emotional response. Human decision making is a lot more complex that it appears.

The upshot of all this, of course, is that even to us stiff upper lip types, our emotions or passions are the only way we finally get to make decisions. Maybe, therefore, we can argue against those who wonder why grown-ups are immature enough to play with toy soldiers by suggesting that it is a sign of both intellectual and emotional maturity…


  1. When I did my Basic Officer training I was always intrigued by the tension between the paradigm of decision making that was taught to us (considering a multitude of tactical factors, multiple courses of action, etc) and the realities of having limited time to consider those factors and COAs, lack of sleep, the stresses fear of getting it wrong, fear of being jacked up by the instructor, etc. I found, as you say, that some decisions emerged before I really thought them through, Making decisions on gut, instinct, etc seems intellectually lacking, but I think it's often what happens, whether we admit it or not.

    As for pleasure, I think it's curious how many wargaming blogs use the words "toy", "little men", etc as if in a subconscious admission/refutation of the idea that the pleasures we find in our hobby are somehow incompatible with adulthood.

  2. I think that some recent work in psychology suggests that we decide before we think about, so rational decision making is more along the lines of justification of what we have already decided. So we always act of our gut instincts / intuition; the only question is whether we can find a rationalization so we can call it something else.

    i use the words toy soldier and little man to try to prevent myself from getting too intense about a subject which is, after all, a game.

    I'm not sure that wargaming is incompatible with being an adult, although some people might see it that way, but as someone pointed out here a while ago, it is certainly no sillier than following a football team.

  3. Emotion not excluding tribal beliefs and prejudice not only affect the decision itself, but also which bits of "fact" we even attempt to take into consideration.

    I can confirm the Padre's remarks on experiencing decision making under stress in Basic Officer Training and later. Tuneel vision is deadly. In post military life, decisions often came with almost as much pressure to start with but as years went by they became easier, probably because the emotional tracks were set so that only a few immediate technical details had to be sorted and dealt with.

    I used to be at great pains to avoid the word "toy" and "play" when I believed that I really could explore and discover history through wargames. As I realized the best I could do was to explore the concepts of the game designer and realized how much "game" was a part of my wargames, I out the word Toy and play back in prominently to separate myself from the serious simulation types esp the real life ones who are studying current and future wars in preparation for carrying them out not past ones for amusement.


  4. The problem is, as I see it, that we have to take decisions without being able to exhaust the rational possibilities and without being in full possession of the facts. I imagine that it only gets worse in real life battlefield situations.

    And of course, we do select the facts to suit our world-view. Ancient Britons appear to have thought that woad markings would magically deflect weapon strokes. They seem to have been wrong. I wonder how long that world-view lasted past 43 AD.

    I'm not sure that our hobby is quite so bad as simply exploring the game designer's concepts, but nor does it give direct access to understanding history. So long as we understand the radical limitations, I guess we can enjoy it in any way we choose, although as I think I've mentioned, I don't tend to wargame anything later than about 1700.

  5. There is a chap at our local club who has an almost computer-like ability to calculate mathematically the risks inherent in any manoeuvre on the wargames table. Every action comes down to a calculation of the odds based on the possible range of die rolls - x% chance of success, y% of failure, z% of no result. Seems to me to be a most un-historic lack of emotion being put into a decision of whether to charge or not to charge.

    There again, I'm still using woad.....

    1. Chris, I haven't witnessed this level of computation on the miniature wargames table but I have seen these levels of computations in board, wargames. Perhaps, your chap has entered miniature wargaming from the boardgaming genre?

  6. That does seem outside the normal sort of behaviour expected....

    Maybe standing behind him shouting 'bang' would help.