It is probably, I think, worth thinking a little more deeply about wargaming and exactly what a wargame is. This is because it may, in the fullness of time, add some context to considerations of wargame ethics and how the things work in the first place. So I will attempt to develop a description of a wargame in fairly general terms, and see if it helps.
The first thing that we can describe a wargame as is a complex set of symbols. Whatever attention we give to our wargame figures, they are symbols; they stand for something else. For example, a figure of a 1854 21st lancer may stand for 20 such ‘real’ lancers, or a squadron thereof, or something similar. No matter how historically accurate the figure is, it is a token, a symbol of something else.
Two sets of such tokens make up two armies, and in most wargames there are these two symbol sets, moving over a third set of symbols, which is the wargame table and terrain. The army tokens and the terrain are in some sort of relationship; the latter can influence the movement and history of the individual tokens in the army symbol sets. Similarly, the individual tokens in the army symbol sets can interact with each other, in a way which is mediated by yet another set of symbols.
This next set of symbols is typically written, and is the rules of the game. These specify how the army symbols and tokens may move, when they may move, and how they interact with the terrain symbols and with each other. The rules usually incorporate some sort of randomising factor as well, and delimitate the possible outcomes of the interactions of the army tokens.
At this point it may be worth mentioning the three level model of the wargame which I have written about before. Essentially we can see a wargame as a table level, a rules level and a real world level. The wargamers inhabit the real world, but are also actors in the table world, in so far as the army tokens are not going to move themselves. The interaction between the players as wargamers and the tokens is via the rule set, which mediates real world decisions to the table, and relays table information to the players. I am not saying that this is how it works consciously, but it seems to me to be a reasonable description of how a wargame does happen.
So, on the table level, we have three sets of symbols, the two armies and the terrain. At the rules level we have another set of symbols, the written ones which constitute the rules. At the top level we have the wargamers, who act on the table tokens via the medium of the rules, as well as acting directly by moving the toy soldier tokens around.
I do not think that this is a particularly radical understanding of a wargame, but it does have some implications.
Firstly, as I think I have mentioned before, we tend to collapse the levels when we play the game. Thus ‘the French Grand Battery opens fire’ becomes ‘my cannon shoot you’, to the possible consternation of passers-by. This is the cause, I suspect, of some of the suspicion which occasionally accrues to the hobby, along with accusations of glorification of violence and so on. However, on this model it is simply a packed up use of language.
The second implication is a bit more serious, at least in theory. In a historical wargame, at least, the symbol sets relate, in some way, to the real, historical world. That is, our army symbol sets relate to the English at Agincourt, or the French at Waterloo, or whatever. I think that there are two implications for this. Firstly, we expect our armies to represent or model the original, and secondly that they behave, tactically, in the same way. There is also the issue of the terrain to consider, as well.
These last points are, of course, where the rules symbol set comes in. It specifies how the tokens move and interact with the terrain and with each other. Again, we expect the rules to reach out beyond the table to a historical context where “what really happened” is normative for the rules, and the rules and other sets of symbols can, in some sense, model the outcome.
This, I think, is where the other ethical issue might arise, and it is a little more important than ‘my guns open fire at you’. As rule writers and wargame players of a historical bent, we have to have some eye on what really happened, so far as we can know it. It is, therefore, perhaps our ethical duty to ensure, so far as we can, that what really happened in the original battle is at least reproducible in principle on the wargame table.
This is, I think, a cause of some unease among some wargamers and members of the public. What if the RAF was defeated in 1940? It can happen in a wargame; indeed, half the players of such a game would probably be hoping that it will happen. The idea of clearing the path for a Nazi invasion of England might well cause some to hesitate before winning.
On the other hand, there are plenty who would cry ‘it is only a game’ and get on celebrating the victory of the Luftwaffe.
This is, of course, something that I have vaguely explored before, and I might come back to it again. But I hope it is a long time before I have to type the words ‘symbol set’ quite as often.