Saturday 8 March 2014

Things in Wargamer’s Heads

Despite my earlier protestations, I have been reading a bit about historiography and (sort of) the philosophy of history). I am not claiming to have managed anything more than a toe in the water of this subject, and I earnestly hope that I will not have to. Nevertheless, it has thrown up some interesting questions about what is going on when we wargame.

To start off with, the question is asked as to what a historian might be doing when they settle down to write their history. I have already mentioned the sifting through documents, artefacts and so on which has to be done, and how the decisions which are made at this stage reflect the contemporary situation from which a historian writes.

However, the next question is something along the lines of what is going on in the historian’s mind when they are doing this? This, of course, links to some of the more obscure and abstruse bits of philosophy of mind, in that the historian, of course, is doing all those things that we usually do when we are reading or writing, such as forming perceptual images, interpreting these in some way, co-ordinating movements to read or write, and so on. And I am sure you will be pleased to know that I am not going to say anything more about these.

The real question is, of course, how does the historian understand the images created in his or her mind so they can then write history. One suggestion is that the historian actually creates a mental image of the event which they are studying and writing about, which they can enter and study in great detail. Then, they can write about it as if it were a real object, although it is actually a mental construct. Then the reader, reading the historians words about this mental construct, can themselves build a similar mental construct to that of the historian and hence generate the same understanding of the event as the historian (assuming that the latter has made a reasonable job of communicating their own mental model of the event).

This is a sort of idealism. The real event is created as simply an object of the human mind, and can, therefore, be written about and described as is it were real, but with the implied assumption that the historians mental model suffers from the limitations described above, as well as those imposed by the paucity of material which the historian might be working with. 

Nevertheless, this is a view of historical writing which is allied, at least, to Bishop Berkeley’s idealism, the argument that nothing is there unless you look at it. The historical event does not exist anymore, and so when one reads a historical text (or examines an artefact), we create the event in our minds. Berkeley would argue that we do the same with ordinary things like tables: to be is to be perceived.

The main problem with idealism of the Berkeley sort is that it contradicts our experience, even though we cannot actually prove that it does. We know, intuit that objects do not pop into existence and disappear depending on whether they are being looked at or not. What most people miss is that Berkeley, being a bishop, was actually using this as an argument for the existence of God, in that God, being omnipotent and omniscient, could perceive all things at the same time and so kept the universe in existence. But I digress.

An alternative point of view is that we create some sort of phantasm in our minds, using what we perceive and our imagination. We can then ask questions of this phantasm and understand bits of it, assuming that it is intelligible (as opposed to say, a dream, which might be vivid, but is not usually intelligible). The process is thus one of having an experience, be it imaginative or perceptual, asking what does this mean, having an insight into what it does mean, how it does work, and then evaluating this as to whether it works or not.

We can thus argue that the historians work is in creating these phantasms, obtaining insights into them as intelligible, deciding that this insight is valid, and then writing it down for the rest of us to evaluate, critique and argue over.

This, I can now finally claim, is not very far from what wargamers do when they set out to wargame a particular battle. We create, in our minds, the phantasm of the battle, and reify that phantasm, in some way, on the table top. This involves us in the same sorts of decisions that a historian makes as to what is important, what really happened when the evidence is thin, and so on. The difference is in the output, of course. The historian’s output is a book or journal article. The wargamer’s output is a scale model of the battle along with a dynamic narrative about it.

The advantage of the wargame is, of course, the concretisation of the mental phantasm. Models communicate to others in a way which books or articles do not. It is one thing to say that the ditch at Flodden broke up the Scottish foot, it is quite another to actually see the feature in a scale model and appreciate the disruption that it might have wrought.

That said, of course, the wargame suffers from all the limitations described above for this historian or lack of evidence, bias, skimping on the detail and so on, plus a whole load associated with the modelling itself. On the other hand, it could be argued that at least with the wargame the biases are out in the open. If you think the Old Guard at Waterloo were undefeatable supermen, then you do have the answer the question of why there were not on the ridge before the Prussians caused major problems.

As with historical writing, a wargame should be open to being corrected, or should even be self-correcting. How many of us have thought ‘no, that can’t be right’ when wargaming, and then gone back and adjusted the moves, the motives or even the rules themselves.


  1. Another good post. This sentence alone is worth the entrance fee:
    "Models communicate to others in a way which books or articles do not."

    1. Why, thank you.

      i was beginning to fear it was the most boring of posts. And I do think the communicating thing is a valid point. I wish more demonstration games at shows bre it in mind (although some are excellent, of course).

    2. Boring! Perish the thought.
      Quite simply nothing that could be added. Well done!