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…

Saturday, 20 April 2013

The Postmodern Wargamer

It was suggested recently on a nearby blog ( that I was the first postmodern wargamer that the author had encountered. After an initial period of outrage and amusement, I thought I had better see if he had a point.

Excluding the sillier versions of postmodernism which claim that things do not exist if we do not talk about them, I think there might be a case to answer. Not that I am particularly happy with that idea. As you may have gleaned from the posts here in the past, I have a background in science, and science does not really do postmodern. A frequent stance, after all, between scientists and postmodernists is that of distinct hostility (see the Sokal Affair: Still, let me ponder my ponderings and see if a case can be made that I am, in fact, a postmodern wargamer.

One of the main tenets of postmodernism is a rejection of meta-narratives, by which is meant a rejection of overarching explanations of events, people and things. Thus, postmodernity can reject such ideas as ‘progress’, on the basis that progress is only progress for some, for others it is exploitation. Similarly, hierarchical structures of human society can be rejected as exploitative; things do not have to be as they have always been, as used to be assumed in, say, the medieval period.

Whether this last point is historically true is rather moot, or we would still be there, of course, but that is not really the point here.

With respect to this blog, I suspect that it does tend to reject overarching narratives of wargaming. As I have mentioned several times before, I do not believe the notion that one set of core rules can provide a reasonably accurate representation of warfare over the last several thousand years, no matter how much chrome is applied in the form of expansion packs, extra rules and army lists and so on. I do get somewhat disheartened by the selling of large sets of very expensive rule sets whose mechanisms basically refer back to one original idea in a given period.

So that, I suppose, is the first tick in the postmodern box. I do not buy into the idea of an overarching rule set, from which all other rule sets are derived, with just a bit of polishing.

A second point is that, more or less as a consequence, I do not agree with this idea that a single model of an event will capture the events, or even a reasonable subset of events. That is, a single model or rule set will not capture all the nuances of a battle.

At some level, this is astoundingly obvious. An army level rule set will not, cannot, capture the events of a single person at, say, the Battle of Balaklava. Some individuals were in the lancers charging up the valley, some in the infantry or the heavy brigade, some making tea in the camp overlooking the whole debacle. A few were generals. We might be able to capture the important events and influences on the units, but not the trajectory of the individuals on the day.

To tackle the events in an individual’s battle, we would need to narrow the focus to, say, a skirmish level game, or even a role playing game. This, of course, would allow us to track the progress of the individual, but we lose the bigger picture, at the unit or army level.

I also do not think that we can, in principle, assume that many role playing game level activities going on will give us the battle. An army unit is, in some senses, more than just a crowd of people. It has training as a unit, esprit de corps, and whatever else is drilled into it. It is not just a bunch of several hundred people hanging around together. So even several hundred role players will not, I suspect, give us a historical unit’s behaviour.

Even at a given level, I am really not sure that a single model will yield the results that we need. Any model surely has to take some sort of average of behaviour, and exclude the extremes. A unit may have run at the first shot, but most units do not do this. The average tends to blend out the extreme. So we have to choose our models to pick out the things that we thinks are important, and the way we think they are important.

Clearly, these decisions about importance and the interactions of the important things will vary among models. At a simple level, interactions between training, morale and tactics will determine how we are imagining our soldiers will fight. Some may close in for close action; others stand off and shoot at long range. This may not be due to a single factor, but the ways even these three items can interact can, and will, vary from model to model.

If, therefore, postmodernism indicates a fragmentation of overarching narratives, then, as a wargamer, I probably am one.

If postmodernism means that I do not think that one single description of reality (or, in this case, a historical event) will do, then again, I suppose I am probably, in that sense, postmodern.

Furthermore, I have, in these posts, occasionally questioned our sources of historical, and hence, wargamer-ly information. I suspect that lurking somewhere in here is something that could be accused of postmodernism – a scepticism about what people have written and why. As it happens, I do not subscribe to postmodern theories of deconstruction (which I think tend to the incoherent), but I do think that, as wargamers, we have a tendency to pick out the bits about battles we like and ignore the rest.

As a brief example, frequently classical writers bemoan the poor state of the army, and explain how a new general got them up, trained, fit and generally raring to go, and thus winning the next campaign before the enemy (used to the old, lax, army) got out of bed. This happens too often to be particularly true, I think; it is a literary trick to explain a success, to lay it in the hands of the victor. We need to be more careful with how we read, but we do not need to dismiss everything we do read.

So, counting up the issues here, I seem to be about two-thirds postmodern. 

I'm not sure whether to say 'oh dear' or 'hooray'...

Saturday, 13 April 2013

The Owl of Minerva

‘The Owl of Minerva,’ the philosopher Hegel wrote, ‘flies at twilight.’

Now, you might think that I have finally flipped my lid, and, of course, it is perfectly possible that I have, but let me try to explain, unpack what on earth Hegel was talking about, and what it has to do with this blog.

Minerva, as I am sure you are all aware, was the Roman equivalent of the Greek Athena, the goddess of wisdom. She was also, as I am sure you also know, the protector of Athens. Her symbol was an owl, and hence the Athenian coinage, the obol, was also embossed with an owl. An interesting reference to all this is, in fact, in the children’s TV series ‘Bagpuss’, where there is an episode called ‘The Owls of Athens’, which, as a bonus, also explains why nightingales sing and owls hoot. But I digress a little.

So, with “The Owl of Minerva” we have some sort of reference to wisdom, of, in Hegel’s case, philosophy. Flying at twilight, however, is a reference to the fact that we are usually philosophical in reflection, or, to put it more colloquially, wise after the event. So wisdom and philosophy are reflective, backward looking human intellectual undertakings.

This does not mean that philosophy is useless, however, but it does mean that without something to reflect upon, philosophy will not usefully happen. In my case, in an Anglo-American analytical philosophical tradition, I cannot really engage in philosophy until I have something empirical to try to understand. Anything else is dangerous speculative metaphysics, which Hegel is often accused of, and is best left to those weird people who want to undertake what is usually called (in the said Anglo-American tradition) ‘Continental Philosophy’, often with a sneering curl of the lip.

Now, far be it from me to join in the sneering. After all, as some of you might have worked out, I am something of a fan of Transcendental Thomism, which certainly does not fall within the normal Anglo-American tradition. Nevertheless, I think it is worth trying to unpick what Hegel’s comment might mean for this blog, at least.

Obviously, without wargaming in general existing, there would be nothing to reflect on and nothing to worry about ethically. Given that there is something like wargaming, we can attempt, as I do here from time to time, to reflect on what it might mean, and how, ethically, we might proceed about it. However, the issue is, of course, that the Owl only flies at twilight, that is, the pondering about it does not, itself, change the subject of the pondering. Thinking about wargaming does not, itself, alter wargaming.

This is clearest, I think, with the recent bits about ethics. As you might be aware, I have suggested that, ethically, we choose what we wargame because we accept those representations as being part of ourselves, of the narratives that we construct about ourselves and are prepared to tell other people. I might, for example, have a penchant for wargaming the nastier elements of the SS, but I may not wish to share that bit of myself, my narrative with anyone else. My public narrative could be squeaky clean, but my private one could be vicious. If you do not believe me, just have a quick look at the press stories about how some very squeaky clean public reputations have been found wanting recently.

As it happens, my private reputation, on the SS front, at least, is as intact as my public one; I do not wargame World War Two, so the question is irrelevant. But the ethical answer I have found to the question ‘What shall we wargame’ does rather beg a preceding one: why does having a coherent narrative matter?

There are some people, of course, who would argue that having a coherent narrative of our lives does not matter. Some existential philosophers (in the continental tradition) might well argue that it does not matter, for example some of the work of Sartre suggests that coherence is not an issue; we do not need to live our lives coherently. We could be vicious at one point and virtuous a few minutes later. As long as we exist in the moment, how we exist, compared to how we existed a moment ago, does not matter. The only thing that is important is now.

This is, of course, a point of view, but it is not one that I, at least, subscribe to. Many, if not most, people actually do seem to think that having a coherence to one’s life is important, at some level. Thus I can say that I would no more play the SS than I would fly to the moon unaided. It simply does not fit with my view of myself as a human.

Obviously, people do play the SS, even, occasionally, the nastier parts of it, and some players will play the baddies, and so on. The question then arises as to why this should be. Clearly, in, say a WW2 battle, someone has to play the Germans, or there is no battle. Similarly, in a role playing game, someone has to play the bad guys for the player characters to try to beat. How can these players assimilate these items to their narratives and still be true to themselves?

I think that there are two responses here. Firstly, that some players are quite willing to shave their narratives to include playing baddies, on the basis that no-one was all bad. The German army in WW2 was not stacked full of ideological Nazis, they might argue, and anyway, they had cool uniforms and equipment. Well, maybe that is a good enough reason, but it will not wash with me, I’m afraid. ‘Good’ weapons are not a sufficient reason in my book to play the army, not when compared with the murder and mayhem it caused in the world.

The second response, which might be a better one, is to admit the evil caused by the army and not to justify playing it in terms of its equipment, courage, organisation or anything else. This way needs to keep some sort of emotional and intellectual distance from the activity of the army historically, so the deeds of the original do not intersect with our narratives of ourselves. In effect, we invent a ‘clean’ version of the original, and wargame with that.

Of course, you could suggest that this is what we do with any historical army. I doubt if any ECW wargamer seriously considers the New Model Army as having committed war crimes. But, perhaps, with WW2 the issues are a lot more pointed, as well as more recent.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

The Medium and the Message

What do you expect from a set of wargame rules?

My guess as an answer to that question is that a set of wargame rules is a fairly conventional book type thing with an introduction, definitions, and some rules for battles and, maybe, some suggestions for campaigns, or some army lists or something similar at the back. Maybe there are some nice colour pictures of toy soldiers in the text, and a few photographs which try to explain some of the finer points of the rules, and so on.

I can think of few rule sets which do not conform to this sort of structure. I suppose that the one sort which do not are computerised rule sets, but they do not seem to be actually that popular. At least, I’ve never used them and I think I have only seen computer wargame rules at one show, and I cannot remember if they were on sale or used in a demonstration game.

There may be a number of reasons why rule sets are usually in a given form. The overwhelmingly like reason is that most of us do not want a computer cluttering up the wargame table alongside everything else. Certainly in the days before wafer thin lap tops, tablets computers and Smart phones, most people did not want to wheel a great big PC into the room just to calculate the results of a few dice rolls.

Speaking as someone who spends most of his days sitting in front of a computer screen, I, personally, do not wish to do so in pursuit of my hobby as well. Aside from the fact that computers go out of date faster than you can say ‘Moore’s Law’ and the fact that often, at the most critical juncture, they go wrong and refuse the calculate the effects of the advance of the Imperial Guard at Waterloo. I might work with them but I do not have to like them.

Be that as it may, I’m still not sure that computer moderated rules are terribly popular. The point is, I think, the computer moderation of the rules. I have reasons to suppose that placing wargame rules on computers, so they can be read as, say, a PDF, might be popular, but that is simply because you can then read the rules on, say, a Kindle rather than on a paper page. The medium has not changed that much; a book on a Kindle is, in all important respects, an analogue of a book. After all, that is an important aspect of the marketing of e-book readers.

 The result of this trend, that of placing conventional rule books in computer formats, is that the full use of the possibilities of computers are not exploited by format. By this I mean that, for example, video or audio channels are not exploited and nor, in most cases, are ideas of, for example, having an army list calculator built into the rule set. A wargame rule set, conventionally, is a flat document which does not do an awful lot. A wargame, however, is a dynamic thing acted out in some sort of real time.

Now, I suspect that computer moderated rule sets are not terribly popular because we like to ‘see the workings’, as it were. If I am the general of a wargame army, I want to roll the dice and see the result, not tap a few numbers into the machine and get a result. I want to feel personally responsible for rolling that 6, or feel the terrible sinking feeling of the double one that sends my hussars scurrying the wrong way across the table.

So a computer moderated wargame rule set probably pushes the boundary of what we want from rule sets a little bit too far. We do not want to be confronted by a completely black box which just issues inscrutable results. Part of the reason for wargaming, I suspect, is a desire to see the logic behind outcomes, even if that logic is moderated by random dice rolls. After all, the randomness more or less balances itself out within a game or two, if not within a given game itself.

The fact is, the medium does have a role to play in determining the message. A book gives a way of receiving the message: you have such and such factors, you have this terrain effect, you have a dice roll and you look up the results of this table. The result is explicit and intelligible. This is not the case in a computer moderated rule set. Inscrutability is not what we are after, even if it can be argued that it is more accurate (whatever that might mean).

Wargaming, of course, does use computers extensively, but not for the actual game itself. You, gentle reader, are an example of this, reading a wargame related blog. But the rules are not really a part of this. One answer might be that wargamers are inherently conservative; another might be that I am completely out of touch with wargaming reality, but I suspect the answer is much more widely known than that.  If we use computer wargame rules, we change the nature of what we are doing.

It is well known that, for example, a text of a story and a video of the same story give different responses in the viewer, even if the events in each are the same. The medium in which the story is delivered is a part of the story. While, of course, it is an exaggeration to declare that the medium is the message, there is a real effect. If we computerise our rules, we are doing something different from having the rule book to hand; it is not a totally different sort of event, but it is, to paraphrase Star Trek, ‘wargaming Jim, but not as we know it.’

I am probably writing from outside left field here, and do not think I have been very clear, but I would be interested to know: would you use computer moderated rules?