Saturday, 30 November 2013

Wargame Communities

At the risk of sounding far too postmodern for my comfort, there is an argument that knowledge is socially mediated. By this is meant that what we know is a product of the various communities of which we are a part. We are raised in such communities, obtain access to them at various times of our lives, lose contact with them, and so on. But, the argument goes, what we know is mediated by these communities.

So, for example, I am a member of the wargaming community. This community, as I have tried to suggest here, has some boundaries in both what is acceptable to the community and what counts as membership of that community. Putting a unit of World War Two SS on the table is acceptable, dressing up as and role playing SS is not.

By its very nature, by the fact that this community is one which has a defined interest, it must have boundaries. We can, of course, as a community of wargamers argue as to what is acceptable or not acceptable behaviour of our members. We can also discuss where the ethical edge of our chosen interest it, or whether something (say the ‘Princess Diana Demolition Car Chase’) counts as a wargame or not.

The point here is that the community actually, if we in any way associate with it, starts to determine the sorts of things we think and talk about. This is not necessarily a bad thing, of course. By defining what counts and does not count as an object of interest to us, we can build up our community into something which does have knowledge about the subject in question. To use MS Foy’s recent comment, a community of Napoleonic wargamers may well know, or at least have some idea, what time Wellington gave up on having lunch at Salamanca.

This idea, inevitably, can be taken to extremes. Some postmodernists argue that all knowledge is socially constructed. That is, the argument is something like all knowledge, everything we think we know, is in fact created by the communities we belong to. The knowledge of Wellington’s lunch, on this view, simply becomes a construct of the community of Napoleonic wargamers, part of the story they tell to validate their community and its knowledge.

Now, far be it from me to denigrate anyone’s hard fought for theory, but this, even though I have been accused of postmodernism myself, looks suspiciously like specious twaddle. I am, after all, at heart a physical scientist. I cannot see an electron, but I can point to a sizeable body of evidence that they exist, or, if they do not exist, that something very much like them must. After all, if electrons do not exist, the Internet and computers probably would not work. The existence of electrons is not wholly socially mediated knowledge. We do have reasonable grounds for the justified belief that they do actually exist.

This does not mean, of course, that such knowledge is not, in some part, socially mediated. I was, at some point in the past, a member of a community that thought long and hard about the phenomena that, today, we call electrons. I could access the evidence, and even (in theory, anyway, if not in practice that often) reproduce it myself. Despite the best efforts of philosophers like Paul Feyerabend to show otherwise, science is not wholly a social construct.

We could, I suppose, imagine a physics that is different from our own, which calls electrons something else, which has classified objects in the real world (oops, lots to argue about in those five words) in a different way. The bottom line here, however, is that the results of such a physics would be in agreement with those of our physics. Even though the social and philosophical milieu from which it had sprung would be different, the answers it gave would be similar, sufficiently so to be able to identify the objects within it.

When we move on to other areas of human intellectual endeavour, however, we can see how social constructed ideas become more important. Consider, for example, ideas we have of nationhood. We know what a nation is, with particular citizenship, borders, laws and so on. But unless we are extreme nationalists, we would mostly have to accept that our nation could be otherwise and, more to the point, that it is a human construct. Similarly we could argue that, for example, our governments are human constructs, or even such aspects of life as race are.

For the wargaming community this is something I think we should note. Our wargames and the community are human constructions. The question is, therefore, what are they founded upon. I suspect, when we look into the details, the foundations in reality are a bit slender.

I think, in the final analysis, the question of reality in wargames come down to the normal two aspects of any theory of truth. Firstly, the wargame has to be internally coherent. As I have tried to indicate before, the models of, say, a set of wargame rules have to work together. An incoherent set of rules, one where, for example, the outcomes of ranged combat do not affect the losers of that combat in any way, is likely to be, quite rightly, rejected.

The other aspect of truth bearing is the correspondence of the knowledge to the external reality. We know, for example, that dispersed infantry caught by a cavalry charge are likely to come off worst. How do we know that? We have examples from history. Our rules have, therefore to correspond to that knowledge from history.

Of course, this can involve us in yet more complexity, because our knowledge of historical events is itself mediated by both our circumstances, that is the historical communities of which we are members, and also those communities in the past by and for which the historical record has been made.

At some point, however, we have to stop this potentially infinite regression into communities, never touching bottom, never finding reality. Events in the past did happen, even if the record of those events is heavily mediated by social constructs.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

The Downside of Models

I have written quite a lot about how much we use models, and how useful they are. Models, I have claimed, are basic to how we wargame, and, indeed, how we can wargame. Without models there would be no rules, no process of playing the game and, if I stretch the use of the term model to the scale models of soldiers that we use, there would be no figures to wargame with.

Now, of course, in a true spirit of equitability, I am going to have a go at our use of models. I am going to contradict myself, even though I will claim, I imagine, before the end of the post that I am not really doing so. We shall see.

What possible problem could there be with using a model for a wargame?

Firstly, of course, I have already said that we actually have a large number of models interacting within our rules. We try to ignore the fact, and treat a set of rules as a single model, but the clue is in the name: a ‘set’ of rules. Each rule within a rule set constitutes a model, which is part of an overall process, a dynamic model, of a battle. Thus, the rule models which  we have have to be made to work together.

But that is not, in many cases, the issue. What is the real issue here is the fact that while models are useful, and perhaps inevitable, in life as in wargaming, they do have a tendency to limit as well as assist our thinking. A model is an intellectual construct for thinking, for making things intelligible, but it is always limited, in the sense that a model is not the complete thing modelled, but an abstraction. A model, we hope, picks out the important bits of the thing modelled and allows us to concentrate our intellect upon it.

Now, as I said, this is all well and good and inevitable. We cannot hope to understand real life in any depth as a whole. The complexity would simply overwhelm us. A quick look at the history of science and philosophy (the two were, after all, only separated in the 17th century, or so. Newton wrote far more theology than he did physics (plus the fact that he was fairly close to being a heretic)) shows that attempting to understand the world via its details is more or less impossible. The big breakthroughs have come about when abstractions have become available.

For example, and to stick with Sir Isaac, gravity was a puzzle. It was thought, for example, that there was a force pushing down on a rock in the air which made it fall to earth. Alternatively, a rock fell because its natural place was at the centre of the universe, which was the centre of the Earth. The only thing that stopped the rock achieving its final goal was other bits of rock attempting to do the same thing.

This sort of issue, and an apparently unrelated one due to the motion of the planets, was resolved by Newton with a new abstraction, that of gravity, as a universal force. The fact that the details could be worked out mathematically and checked against empirical measurements was a bonus, of course, and launched all sorts of research and some fairly wild speculation. But the fact is that newton had proposed a new model of gravitational attraction, and it worked. The older, more concrete models were swept away in a matter of a century or so.

The thing is, however, that Newton’s models for the universe became a constraint on how people could think about how the universe worked. While the evidence mounted up, for example, that atoms were not billiard balls, and that the perihelion of Mercury did advance, physics was a bit constrained by the very success of the Newtonian system. It took a lot of work, brilliant thinking outside the box and some careful experiments before modern physics, of relativity and quantum mechanics, was accepted. Even then (and even now) people find these parts of physics hard to grapple with; the Newtonian model, because it refers to the scale of people and our perception, dies hard.

So, how does this affect our wargaming. As I have said, wargaming is about models, and systems of interacting models creating the whole rule set and dynamics of a battle. But if you look at most rule sets, including the ones I have written, then fall into distinct bits.

These models are fairly consistent across rule sets. We have a section for movement, a section for fighting, a section for morale. These are the basic models, and they are, excluding details, fairly similar. These rules constrain how we think about wargaming and, in all probability, have a normalising effect on how we think about battles. We can, and probably do, back project our views of, say, morale, onto an account of a battle.

Thus, the models which we have evolved in wargaming, in modelling a real battle, then constrain out thinking about that real battle. We find it more difficult to think outside the constructs of our intellect to find a different view of what happened, of how the world in fact works. The anomalies of battles which are not described by our rules and models are shelved, much as the anomalies of Victorian physics were shelved, until someone came along and incorporated them into a new scheme of models.

Now, of course, history is not physics. Models in physics are everywhere, and new experiments can offer new perspectives, while we only have one set of fairly dodgy data for our battles. But I do not think that that excuses us from looking for new models, new ways of understanding battles and gaining insights into them.

However, I will have to confess that I am not really sure how to go about this. But I do think that one thing is clear. We have to try to avoid basing our models on secondary sources, and go back to original descriptions of battles in the hunt for new explanations, new models. Secondary sources are, often, I think, based around an understanding of the battle which is similar to those we already have, and so will only reinforce our prejudices.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Probably Probability

Oh dear. I’ve been reading about probability and emergence again, and, even worse, pondering the implications for wargaming. This is likely not to end well.

The issue is this. Consider a range of outcomes. A priori, we have no reason to choose one over another, and so the logical thing to do is to assign an equal probability to each of them. Given that probability is defined on a scale of 0 to 1, and that we have A possible outcomes, the probability for each specific outcome will be 1/A. Of course, we hit a slight issue if A becomes infinite, but let us ignore that in the interests of sanity and the fact that we, as human beings, do not really deal in the infinite.

Now, suppose that the system we are considering actually activates, and we get some state of affairs, call it Y. This has happened, of course, with probability 1/A, but is not the actual state of affairs. All the other states of affairs now vanish, as this is the one we have to deal with.

A number of things can now happen. It is possible that the state of affairs Y is not stable, and that it collapses back into the undetermined state we first had. Thus, while momentarily being different, Y has no long term effect on the reality we observe. In terms of, say, thermodynamic theory, this is the equivalent of all the molecules in a room being found in one corner, but then spreading out again before anyone attempts to breathe in. It was a possibly interesting event, but of no lasting consequence.

Another possibility is that the state of affairs Y is stable. This then means that another manifold of possibilities will present itself as outcomes from this state of affairs. These will, of course, be different, at least in principle, from the previous manifold of possibilities, and, potentially, have different weightings of probabilities. Thus, the selection of state of affairs Y has dictated that another set of possible outcomes is available, which is different from the first set.

Yet another possibility is that state of affairs Y is stable, but is then disrupted by event E. Event E might be more or less probably in Y, but is such that instead of a gently evolving system depending of even probability distributions, E resets the system in some way, meaning that the system we are looking at is now in a very different set of circumstances. Let us call this state of affairs X.

We therefore have a set of states of affairs, the original one (call it W), the newly selected one, Y, into which W evolves with probability 1/A, and the disrupted Y, which I have called X, which happens with probability P(E), where P(E) has to be measured on Y, of course.

What we have here, therefore, is a system that shows both stability and the possibility of sudden change. The paradigm example of this would be the solar system, in its current form. The state of affairs W would be the configuration of the planets as measured at some time. Y would be the expected configuration at some later time, given what we know about planetary motion, Kepler’s laws and so on.

In this scenario, event E would be some massive object passing by the solar system and disrupting the planetary system. This may well be a low probability event, but if it happened it would be very noticeable.

So, what has this to do with wargaming?

Well, consider your army as the system W. It will evolve in certain ways, to state of affairs Y, given tis orders, the terrain and so on. You expect it to behave itself, to evolve in a fairly predictable way, just like the planets. You tell a unit to go there, and it goes.

So, what are our events, E?

Probably, we do not actually have too many of them. Of course, a unit can be shot to bits by enemy fire, or fail a morale roll, but I suspect it is disputable as to whether these are not simply another state of affairs Y, just a less desirable one from the point of view of the player.

So what sort of thing could create a truly disruptive event E? How about, for example, the sudden emergence of an enemy force behind your left wing? That, I suspect, could be quite a disruptive thing. And yet, it seems to me that often our rules just allow our troops to raise their eyebrows a little, perhaps sigh theatrically, turn, and face the new foe.

Or how about the above scenario plus the misinterpretation of incoming banners, giving the opportunity to shout ‘Treason’ at least for one side? As happened at Barnet, this can be rather disruptive, too. But is it, can it be, accommodated within our rule sets.

The point is, I think, that our rule sets, and, probably, our views of wargaming are based within the paradigm of gently evolving, logically acceptable events. This phalanx advanced and, after some resistance, the enemy run away leaving it victorious. That tank shoots at this one, and it may or may not disable it, but in the overall flow of events it does not make a huge difference, only that in the next turn this tank is still available to shoot back. The new state of affairs, Y, is similar to the previous one.

It is, I think, more unusual to have an event like E in a wargame. Occasionally you could put something into a scenario, such as refighting Barnet; you would need a treachery rule for that, but on the whole we do not like such things. Our wargames are nicely logical, evolving systems with clear cut probabilities at each stage. We like to be able to give an account of them, even if that account blames the dice, because even those probabilities are accounted for in a slowly evolving system.

Of course, real life is not like that, there are events which have recently been characterised as ‘black swans’. But if we put those into a wargame, the gamer on the receiving end might feel very hard done by. It is not the way we expect the game to go. Wargames, it seems to me, rely on gently evolving probability manifolds, and we do not like the disruptive events.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

A Wargame Dialogue Part II

Socrates: So, then Bellus, are all these authentic historical wargames?
Bellus: Not really, Socrates. They are more like representations, flavours or similar.
S: Are they all good wargames?
B: I imagine that the players are enjoying themselves, Socrates.
S: So to be a good wargame it has to be enjoyable?
B: Well, Socrates, I suppose that as a hobby, if the activity was not enjoyable, we would not partake in it. Only fun runners and cyclists seem to enjoy the pain they inflict on themselves with their past-time.
S: So is a good and enjoyable wargame on in which you win?
B: Not necessarily, Socrates. It has to be a bit difficult, a bit of a knife edge cliff hanger to be a truly memorable wargame.
S: But, my dear chap, you’ve just changed the terms. Is a memorable wargame a good wargame, or an enjoyable one, or simply one that you have won?
B: A memorable wargame is one you remember, Socrates. I mean, it is usually enjoyable, or amusing, or unexpected, or all of these. But you do not really need to actually win the game for it to be that. I mean, some wargames you lose heroically, against the odds, but you do remember it as a good game.
S: So is the goodness of the game related to its game-ness. A good, even contest which could have gone either way, but some small misfortune or ill-advised move give rise to one side or the other winning.
B: Quite so, Socrates. A one sided wargame is no game at all, no fun.
S: But historical battles are often very one sided, are they not?
B: Well, sometimes, Socrates, but usually generals did not try to fight at huge disadvantages. And you do have to include troop quality, terrain and so on, so sometimes in real life what looks like a big disparity in sides can be reasonably equal.
S: So, then, why not do as your demo game coordinator and simply follow the timetable of the real battle?
B: Because it’s boring, Socrates!  History is contingent, battles are so in spades. If we follow the original battle, there would be no wargame as a game, anyway. But a wargame lets us explore that contingency; what could have happened.
S: How does that work, Bellus? A battle happened in the past. I’m not sure I know much about battles, but I do know that the past in unchangeable.
B: That is sort of it, I think, Socrates. We can make a model of a battle, or, more likely, a whole load of battles, and try to create some general rules as to how the battles might progress. We can test them against the original battles, by playing a game, and hope that the results are reasonably in line with the original. But it also gives us some latitude, within reason, to have a battle with a different outcome.
S: So the wargame can attempt to model contingent outcomes other than what actually happened in the real battle?
B: Quite so, Socrates. And then, you see, if we are reasonably happy with the model, we can go further and fight imaginary battles, battles which did not take place, just for fun, or for entertainment.
S: But these have nothing to do with real history.
B: No, Socrates, but it doesn’t really matter. It is, after all, a hobby.
S: Let us wander a little further around the club. Hm. What are these chaps doing, pray tell?
B: Oh, these are our tournament players, practising.
S: Practising a historical battle?
B: No, Socrates. You see the competition games can mean that they encounter any other allowed army in the rule set. So they could fight anyone. This one looks like, um, Medieval French against Inca.
S: So is this a historical wargame?
B: Well, the sides are historical. I mean, Medieval French are a historical army, and so are Incas.
S: But even our friends with the imaginary American Civil War battle at least had armies that did fight each other. Correct me if I’m wrong, Bellus, but the Medieval French never invaded South America, and nor, so far as I know, did the Inca assault the Isle de France.
B: No, Socrates, of course not. But you have to fight the opponent you get in a competition game. The problem here, as you see, is that the Inca army is huge and the French are small, but much higher quality. So the French player has to kill lots of Inca quickly to win the game, but the Inca has to swamp the French and make lots of reasonably lucky rolls to win.
S: So actually, this is more an exercise in problem solving within the model and rule set than anything to do with history?
B: Well, really, I suppose so, Socrates. But the model and rules are validated against historical match ups.
S: So the competition game is a sort of unvalidatable generalisation of the model contained within the rules?
B: Yes, I think that would be fair to say, Socrates. After all, Medieval French and Inca were on the same planet at the same time, so they could have met and fought.
S: So we are back to your historical contingency again, Bellus. It could have happened, and you happen to have a model which might tell you something about what would have happened has these two sides met, even though they didn’t meet.
B: There are a lot of ‘happens’ in the sentence, Socrates, but yes, I think that is the gist of it.
S: To, to go back to my original question, what is a good historical wargame? Does it really have that much to do with history?
B: Well, Socrates, it does and it doesn’t, I suppose. We can’t change history, but we can see what might have happened contingently otherwise. And, of course, however you look at it, we can still have an enjoyable game.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

A Wargame Dialogue

Socrates: Greetings, Bellus. What brings you to this part of the city on such a dark night?
Bellus: Oh! Socrates. How nice to see you.
S: What is in your box?
B: Oh, it is my wargame army.
S: You have an army in the box?
B: Only a model one, Socrates! I’m not planning an insurrection.
S: It is just as well, for if you could carry armed men in a box, the city would be in trouble. Anyway, my fine fellow, what is a wargame?
B: Oh, it is a game, of warfare.
S: I could tell that from the name ‘wargame’ Bellus. But what do you do?
B: Well, Socrates, we have armies of toy soldiers, all arranged like the units of real battles, and on tables made to look like battlefields, and we are the generals and order our troops about thus and so, with rules to tell us what we can do and what happens. Oh, and dice as well, because things always are a bit random.
S: Can you show me one of these fantastic battles?
B: Certainly, Socrates, step into here and there will be a feast of them for you.
S: This corridor is a bit shabby, do you not think?
B: Well, Socrates, we are wargamers, and the venue is cheap.
S: And yet you must spend a fortune on those toy soldiers; that box you are carrying seems very heavy.
B: Wargamers like to spend their money on the important things, Socrates, like soldiers and rules, not on ephemera like paint on the walls. Now, here we are, this is the club, and all these chaps are wargaming.
S: Let me look at one in more detail. What is this one?
B: This? This is an American Civil War battle, Socrates. See? That army over there, in blue, they are the Union, and these here are the Confederates.
S: I see. And what is the glass doing on that hill?
B: That is containing the Unionist general’s beverage, Socrates.
S: So this is a wargame on a historical battle?
B: Well, I’m not exactly sure about that, Socrates. It is a battle with armies from the American Civil War. It is a historical wargame.
S: But which battle?
B: I don’t think it is a particular battle, Socrates. It is a representational battle, something that could have happened.
S: And are the armies authentic, too?
B: Of course. All of the uniforms and flags and formations are entirely accurate, if scaled down.
S: But did they all fight together, at the same time, in an army?
B: Well, possibly not, Socrates, but I’m sure they were all in the American Civil War.
S: Then what does it mean when you say they are authentic, my fine upstanding historical general? While the sides are correct, the battle is imaginary and the armies constituting them are not from the orders of battle of a given action, because it didn’t happen. So how is it historical?
B: I suppose, Socrates, that it gives a flavour of the American Civil War, and that flavour is authentic.
S: A flavour, eh? How can a flavour be known to be authentic? But no matter, those chaps over there seem to be doing something else.
B: Ah, yes, Socrates, these chaps are playing a board wargame.
S: I thought you said that you needed toy soldiers to have a wargame.
B: Well, Socrates, I suppose that in some senses you don’t, because the figures on the table are tokens for units, and these counters are tokens for units in the same sort of way.
S: And the map is the substitute for the hills and green cloth and such like on the sort of American Civil War battle we have just seen?
B: Quite so, Socrates.
S: Then, although almost everything is different, you say this is still a wargame?
B: Well, it is still a game based on a battle which happened in real life.
S: Is that your new definition of a wargame, Bellus?
B: It will do for now, Socrates.
S: So what is happening over there?
B: Oh, that is our role-players.
S: You’re what? Explain, my fine fellow what those chaps are doing.
B: Well, they are all player characters in the game, and one of them is the game master, and they use magic, fight monsters, rescue damsels in distress and find buried treasure, Socrates.
S: All in one evening? That is impressive. But how is that a wargame?
B: Well, I suppose they do fighting. But I admit that not much else is the same. I don’t talk to them much.
S: But they could be playing a game set in your American Civil War?
B: Well, Socrates, I suppose they could. But it wouldn’t be realistic. We don’t know much about real small units rescuing damsels in distress in nineteenth century America.
S: Yet it might give you a flavour of the American Civil War?
B: I suppose so, Socrates.
S: What is that chap doing over there?
B: Oh, he is our demonstration game co-ordinator.
S: What is he doing?
B: Um… He is working out the order of battle for our next demo game at the show next month. And co-ordinating the making of the terrain; you see the map? And of course he has the timetable for the action, to see which activity needs to take place on which turn for it to be accurate.
S: Accurate according to what?
B: Accurate according to the historical accounts, Socrates. We want our demonstration of the battle to be as much like the original as possible.
S: So this is the true authentic wargame? Not just a flavour of a war, but as close to the real thing as you can get in a model?
B: Well, yes, I suppose so, Socrates. But it doesn’t get a huge amount of enthusiasm from the club members.
S: Why on earth not, my fine fellow? Surely, this is what you are all aspiring to, with counters, pencils or toy soliders!
B: Well, maybe, Socrates, but when it comes down to it, it’s OK for a demo game at a show, but it is a bit boring, really.