Saturday 15 March 2014

History, Imagination and Wargames

I have been perusing R. G. Collingwood’s  ‘The Idea of History’, which was originally published, so far as I can tell, in 1946, although the author died, sadly, in 1943. Despite its age, it is still noted in my Boys Own Bumper Book of Philosophy as being very influential in the philosophy of history and, as it was on sale (for my very own battered 1961 paperback version) for the princely sum of 1 penny (plus postage; really, the postage rate these days is scandalous to us cheapskates), I decided to give it a whirl.

Collingwood’s judicious assessment of exactly what history is and how it is done is very interesting, and I commend the volume to the historical wargaming fraternity. One or two of his ideas may well have already crept into the blog as it is, so I thought I had better become honest and confess to that, and to give credit where it is due.

Throughout the book, Collingwood is at pains to distinguish different sorts of history. For example, he discusses extensively ‘scissors and paste’ history, where the historian simply cuts bits out of his sources, treats them as authoritative, and does not really question them or interpret them.  If two sources contradict, the historian has to make a decision about which is the most reliable and use that one.  He might note that opinions on the point differ, but that is as far as it goes.

Critical history, Collingwood argues, is history where the sources are not treated at face value. The authors of the sources (or makers of the artefacts) may have their own problems. For example, a chronicler may simply be misinformed, or report a certain set of events for theological or political (or even legal) reasons. Their informer may be misinformed, and so on. Thus, a critical historian will treat his sources with some caution rather than simply accepting what they say.

This is not to be a historical sceptic, however. The past did happen and people did report it accurately. We do have some chance of reconstructing the past and understanding not only what happened (which Collingwood calls the outside of the event) but also why it happened (the inside of the event). History, Collingwood claims, is the history of human thought.

By this, as I understand it, Collingwood is arguing that what a historian does is try to understand why historical actors made certain decisions, given the choices they were presented with.  These decisions were mediated by the cultural, social, political (and so on) milieu in which the historical actors were placed.  So, for example, the question posed to Henry V along the lines of ‘shall we invade France?’ is answered in the affirmative according to the lights and understanding of the age. The historian has to understand these in order to understand Henry’s response.

It might be that in this case a modern historian would argue that there were economic reasons for the invasion, or internal political reasons (a young dynasty needing victory in battle over foreigners to authenticate itself, perhaps). But, aside from these there must also have been considerations of honour, what kings do, the legal claims of the English crown to that of the French and so on. The historian would have to have a handle on all of these in order to try to understand the decision making process of the English crown.

History, then, is an imaginative process. The historian has to, in effect, imagine himself back in the English court, with the mental processes and cultural baggage of the time, the knowledge and understanding of the international situation in mind, and to imagine the process of making the decision to invade, where and how to achieve that, and so on.

Thus history has a significant element of imagination about it, but it is not writing a historical novel. The historian is driving at the truth of what happened; a historical novelist does not have to do this, so long as the world they create is coherent and plausible. The historian has to do this and try to ensure that their picture is of things as they actually were.

History, then, has three elements. Firstly, the space and time must be specific, localised if you like. Things happen, historically, at given times and places. Novels can vary widely and wildly, and can be set in a world which simply has the flavour of history. Secondly, history has to be self-consistent. Historically, things happen, and there is usually a traceable cause and effect. Even in historical novels, this need not be the case. The narrator can be, for example, unreliable, and so the novel can unravel in so far as the reader’s knowledge of rationality is challenged. Finally, history has evidence. Now, historical novels can have evidence, as well, but this is more freely interpreted than the historian would allow.

I am fairly sure that the application of this to historical wargaming is clear to most readers, but I will labour the point just in case. The question which arises from this view of history is ‘is historical wargaming more like a novel than history?’

I dare say that more than a few historians would argue exactly that. Wargaming is at best a second or third order interpretation of historical truth, to which is added the insult of random elements, rather than a proper narrative of events and their underlying causes. Thus, this line of arguing would proceed, wargaming can add nothing to the understanding of history.

Nevertheless, I think I disagree, even slightly with that statement. If history needs imagination then, as I have previously suggested, a model of a battle can surely act as a stimulus to the imagination. By an imaginative effort the historian wargamer can enter the mind of the general (or other) and see what decisions could be made, perhaps even understand why some decision were not made.

Thus, I claim, historical wargaming can (but, of course, need not be) something which aids the historical understanding. Of course, many games are not historical; perhaps they are more like novels.


  1. Certainly wargaming techniques can be used as a means of exploring historical possibilities if this is done in a thoughtful, informed and collaborative way. I am aware of attempts to do this but I belief it to be a rare undertaking.
    It is certainly easier and more common to take the historical novel approach as it allows room for competion and for drama as well as exploration of the history. These days many rules are designed specifically to encourage the historical drama approach (film being perhaps a closer analogy to a tabletop miniature game than novel).

    However, I suspect, based on largely on observation and 3rd hand accounts, that the majority of wargames are just games with the trappings of war, chess of a thousand pieces. More about beating one's opponent(s) than studying or recreating an historical event. This is not said to dismiss the game aspect or to say that the game might not have been designed after careful exploration of the history behind it or to assume anything about the player's interest in or knowledge of history or to say that an intrepretation of history has not been built into the rules and limitations of the game.

    What a wargame is, or can be, is shaped largely by the driving intent and focus of the players.

  2. I agree with Ross on this. My own observation and experience suggests exactly the same conclusions. The place on the novel-reality axis that a particular game occupies largely depends upon where on the game-simulation axis the players stand at that particular moment. Some aspects of a battle can be illuminated purely by playing on a replica battlefield but the rules can as easily obscure the reality as they can help you understand it.

    1. I agree, in that most wargames are at the 'novel' or (possibly) historical - fantasy end of the spectrum.

      and hat we need "accurate" (whatever that may mean) rules to enable any insight. In fact, the whole thing is, I imagine, cyclical - we play the game, tweak the rules, play it again more, um, accurately and so on. Each time, hopefully, getting a better insight into the historical reality (whatever that might be).

  3. I feel a Venn diagram coming on ...
    Strikes me that the three individuals - the historian, novelist and wargamer are three interlinked circles. Yes, a lot of wargames are just games and bear little relation to the history beyond wearing its clothes; a lot of novels are wild fancy; so is some history, come to that. But there is a 'sweet spot' in the centre where they can all intersect.

    Take Crecy for an example. The historian can tell us that Philip of Valois attacked Edward, but can only speculate on his motivation - he never left a diary of his thoughts. The likely explanation is that, having faced Edward several times already and backed off, he didn't dare do that again - his army would have disintegrated. (Social, cultural, political reasons) Then again, maybe he thought he could win the battle or perhaps the gold mouton came down heads this time. Or maybe he just lost patience. It's the historian's job to set down the possibilities, but in the absence of established fact, to what extent should he speculate on which was the case?
    The novelist can be dogmatic about Philip's motivation. Motivation is his province and after all he doesn't have to prove it's true. It just has to hang together as a good yarn.
    Whereas a good wargame - campaign probably - could present a player with the same dilemma and force a personal decision. And not only on that, but on all the other decisions that Philip made, such as how to fight the battle.
    All sounds good in theory that, but possibly falls down when the wargamer is presented with a table loaded with figures and asked whether he wants to fight or not. That's when other cultural factors come into play.

    1. Too right. Show me a table loaded with figures and I will immediately sound the charge! :) More seriously, we play wargames campaigns to set up tabletop battles, for the most part, so the decision to attack has the greatest motivating force behind it.

      The historian's job is to interpret the facts. In the absence of evidence some speculation may lead the analysis down interesting paths and can lead to a list of possibilities, but the historian really must stick to the facts and their interpretation, where the novelist may speculate freely and the gamer may just want to roll dice with his mates.

    2. I think that the thing is that Philip's decision was based on a load of cultural, political and social factors (such as the concepts of good lordship, honour, chivalry and, of course, the fact that some lords may have rebelled if he hadn't fought this time). As a historian we try to create this world view. As wargamers, of course, we just shout 'bring it on!' and grab the dice.

      The point about campaign games is interesting. I think one of Don Featherstone's books has a campaign based on Crecy (or Agincourt, I forget). I think the victory conditions suggest that it really is not in either sides interest to give battle, but that is usually the case. Is this historical accuracy or the wargamer deciding that that is what wargaming is?

      After all, wargaming without a battle would be boring, wouldn't it?

    3. I think this depends what sort of wargamer you are. I am a gamer, not a figure-painter. For me painting is a necessary evil and not something I derive significant pleasure from. As a figure gamer I invest time and effort in painting my figures, so I want to put them on the table and move them around. Otherwise the effort of painting them is wasted. For this reason the campaigns I play are focused on generating battles to fight with my figures. I am aware of a large number of campaigns that are set up precisely with this objective in mind, and most gamers of my acquaintance adhere to this view too.

      It is perfectly possible to play a campaign, like the Featherstone one you mention, without having battles but that is a different sort of wargaming, I think. It reminds me more of strategic board games. These are also interesting in their own right and present different challenges from the table-top environment but they also do not have the 'pain' of painting your figures first.

      For me, at least, if the campaign is set up around the miniatures we have, then the purpose is to use those figures in battles. This creates a situation where you try to manoeuvre around the enemy and set things up in your favour, but the end result should always be a battle on the table, hence my initial response to the 'table loaded with figures'.

      That said, and to answer your final question, sometimes the 'battle' is the manoeuvring on the map, but I tend to compartmentalise that sort of game into the board gaming area.

    4. For me, painting is a necessary evil as well. On the other hand it is easier to find an hour to paint than three hours for a game (maybe I need faster play rules?). i do tend to run campaigns to create battles, as well. My 1618-something game was with this in mind.

      I suppose that one thing about campaign games is the level of abstraction. I'm not a fan of counting how many bales of hay Alexander's army consumed a day. On the other hand logistics often caused battles.

      Fuzigore, on the other hand (lots of hands, today, sorry. I need a new figure of speech) can work either at an abstract level if I'd like a quick battle, or at a 'lets map this out' if i find it interesting.

      Perhaps it all comes back to the strength and flow of the narrative that gets us wargaming in the first place.

    5. Just so as not to feel left out, my attitude to the painting is the same - I wish I could afford to have someone else do it!

      Good points though. I am a fan of wargames campaigns, and I can't think of any I've taken part in which didn't result in figures on the table. Or is it just that I don't remember the others as they weren't so much fun?

      To use the 1346 example, Philip led out his army with every intention of fighting a battle, but the first two or three attempts to force one were in locations where victory couldn't be guaranteed, so he avoided battle. By Crecy, he couldn't duck the issue any longer, so a wargames version of this could make battle inevitable, but not where or when.
      I don't suppose many people wargame the 100YW in the later 14th Century, when the French realised that the best strategy was not to fight at all.

      That's it! Campaigning strengthens the narrative.

    6. I may have mentioned it before but when i was but a nipper I drew a beautiful amp, put interesting characters in all the cities and regions and never managed to persuade any of the countries to go to war...

      I remember it fondly, but as a missed opportunity.

      I think that Philip had a bit of a reputation for not fighting battles, though. Edward had offered one a few years before and been refused, in a similar tactical situation to Crecy (memory may be playing tricks). What Philip couldn't afford, I think, was to let Edward cross France unchallenged; he could block, but not just let pass.

      I've always thought that the later 14th C would be interesting as a campaign, but it does have loads of sieges which can be tricky to play. Actually the very early HYW is interesting as well, including the French assault on the Isle of Wight.

      And so we come back to narratives again....

  4. Great piece, Polemarch. One of your best, which is really saying something. I might have to track down the Collingwood book...

    Still, I would argue that wargaming is somewhere between history and the novel. It's more like improvised drama in which actors are given a character (role) and a set of restrictions (rules, scenario details) and told to do their best with it. In this way it can give insight into both the historical situation and the players' character, and can be tweaked depending on how the game is set up.

    Again, great post!


    1. Why, thank you.

      Collingwood's book is very interesting, especially the first chapter and the last part. The rest goes through a history of history, which is fine but a bit dry in places.

      i think that you are right about wargaming falling between history and a novel. I also suspect it is a sliding plane between the two, depending on people, the aim of the game and so on. Whether it tells us more about the wargamers than history is a bit of a moot point too.