Saturday, 9 August 2014

Wargaming and Aesthetics

I have, I think, some time ago, pondered the issue of wargame aesthetics. There is, I believe, something which is aesthetically pleasing to the human wargamer about playing with nicely painted soldiers on an attractive terrain. In short, this is a positive aesthetic activity for us; it makes us feel good in some ill-defined way.

Some of the feel good factor is involved in actually playing the game, of course. The narrative seizes us and our imaginations. The uncertainties of the outcomes engage us, the tensions rise and fall as in any good story. That is, of course, one sort of aesthetic engagement, which I have touched on in comments about wargame hermeneutics in the past as well, and will probably do so again when I can think of anything else to say.

How about the actual aesthetic experience of the toy soldiers, the terrain and so on? This is a different sort of aesthetic. Just in case you do not believe that there is any aesthetic experience going on, have a wander around a show and eavesdrop on wargamer’s exclamations over new models: “Oh, that’s nice” is not uncommon. An aesthetic experience is going on.

Now, one of the reasons for writing about it is that I, against what is probably my better judgement, have been reading (or, more accurately, attempting to read) some Heidegger. Heidegger has a lot to say about art, most specifically about what art is, its essence. Having just completed wading through (one does not read this sort of thing for the pleasure of the prose, I am afraid) ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’, I thought I would try to apply these (admittedly highly abstract) ideas to wargame aesthetics.

Heidegger is notoriously difficult to read, and his style is, to say the least, dense, and much is untranslatable, at least into English. It also sometimes makes you wonder what is going through his mind as he writes. Sentences including wondering about what the ‘thingness of the thing’ is do make me, at least, wonder if this sort of thing (sorry) is what Wittgenstein was criticising when he wrote that most philosophical problems were a case of language going on holiday. A thing, after all, is a thing and therefore has thingness. Does it really need to be defined?

Anyway, Heidegger recognises three levels of item – the thing, equipment and works of art. The thing is the natural object, a lump of granite or, perhaps, the raw metal from which out soldiers are cast. It has a range of natural properties such as hardness, colour, malleability, a melting point and so on. The point about a thing is it does not have anything else. It is unprocessed; in human terms it has no meaning.

The next level up is equipment. Equipment is what you get if you apply some processing to a mere thing. Heidegger’s example is a pair of shoes. They have no intrinsic artistic merit; they are just something which is worn by, say, a peasant in the fields ploughing. They do not, particularly, notice the shoe, except perhaps when it gets caught in the mud and removed from their foot. It is simply a bit of processed mere thing (or things) which have become something useful. In a sense, the shoe, as equipment, is a tool.

Applying this to wargaming, more or less everything is equipment, and we often refer to it as such. For example, we need a table, dice, measuring devices, rules, toy soldiers and so on. These are all things which are processed from the originals. There is, however, I think, a little more to them than this, a little more which raises them from the equipment level towards that of the top level of Heidegger’s hierarchy, which is towards that of a work of art.

Now, Heidegger defines a work of art as something that discloses the Being through being (I told you this was dense). The work of art and the artist are indistinguishable, in that one cannot exist without the other. The point here I think I want to extract is that works of art are historical, as is the artist. They represent something (peasant shoes in Van Gogh’s painting) which is historically situated, but which also opens up a space for disclosure, for understanding, for truth.

Now, surely I am not suggesting that a humble 25 mm figure of a Napoleonic Imperial Guardsman is opening up some sort of window on truth (or even Truth)?

No, but we have to consider that the figure is representing something that was true, historically, and bringing that truth into our own world, for our consideration. As an aesthetic object, the figure stands or falls on its true representation of the original. The paint job may be more or less good, the casting may be good or poor, but the object has to represent some sort of truth, at least a truth as we can understand it.

That understanding is mediated by our own knowledge and understanding of the meaning of the figure, the figure as representing Napoleon’s elite fighting force, the final reserve of the Grand Armee.  Of course, to be truly postmodern we have to admit that our truth, the interpretation of the original, may be flawed, but we also have to acknowledge that the representation we have of it is representative of at least the historical truth as mediated through the western historiographical tradition. And we would also have to admit that non-western historiographical traditions are probably less than interested in Napoleon’s Imperial Guard anyway.

The point, struggling to emerge from this is that, I think, there is an aesthetic experience in a wargame. Demonstration games at shows can be intense aesthetic experiences. Even single figures have meaning, and part of that meaning is mediated through the historical basis of the figure as well as the pure aesthetic experience of admiring it, its proportions and painting. The wargame as a whole is a historically mediated experience, with a meaning for its participants and observers which goes beyond the pure equipment which is used to put it on.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a Late Persian army to go and aestheticize.


  1. I'm not sure where I read it (you may well know) but I once came across the idea that one of the defining properties of intelligence is its ability to bring order, to arrange things/objects/whatever to suit itself, in a universe where the trend is otherwise towards increasing entropy, chaos. If we set aside the ability of Nature to produce crystals and astonishing mathematical patterns in molecular structures, the general tendency of big, coarse, outdoor Nature (capital N) is that elements will oxidise or otherwise degrade to become impure, living things will die and decompose to become a nondescript mixture of organic substances blowing about, and the weather will erode and generally spoil any eccentric or distinctive objects it comes across. The trend is always towards a general heap of rubbish.

    The fact that men (for example) enjoy arranging shiny stones in straight lines or setting up stuff like toy soldiers in unnatural, shiny arrangements is because we can. As a (supposedly) intelligent life form, a man can arrange things in a manner which is opposed to nature, and which he finds pleasing. Given time, of course, Nature will get him in the end - his shiny stones will weather away and become lost in the heap of rubbish, but there is a frontier here. Man as a bringer of order, Nature as a spoiler and a grinder.

    A friend of mine used to maintain that inanimate objects were actually aware of this conflict, and thus take deliberately action to defeat the sorting and the straight lines - the toast will invariably land butter side down, the roof tiles will crack during rainstorms etc. Of course, this is nuts my friend was a madman - it's just probability - the passing of time and events drags us towards averages and mixtures which have no space for something as trivial or as inconvenient as a line of soldiers.

    I am ducking the larger part of your post here, but I think there is something in this. Creating and lining up a toy army, however inconsequential, is an exercise of will, a statement of choice by an intelligence - the army will only continue to exist, even for a short time, as the result of extreme care, careful storage, temperature management, keeping the sunlight away, making sure that my late cousin Harold does not get to play with them.

    Man against Nature. Place your bets.

    1. Interesting. On another view, of course, man is part of nature, so our propensity to line things up is just nature's way of tidying.

      But one argument is that we create order and meaning. After all, my prized Macedonian phalanx is nothing but a bunch of toy soldiers to most people. They mean different things to me and the non-wargaming multitudes.

      Possibly, of course, that is why you tried to keep your cousin away from the toys...

  2. I am aware that I made no reference at all to Heidegger here - too bloody right.

    1. I'm most disappointed that you've not managed some Heidegger-ing; part of the point of the post, after all, was to share the pain....

  3. I don't think there's any doubt that wargaming is an aesthetic experience - if it wasn't for the aesthetic, we'd all be playing computer games instead.

    Disclosing the Being through being? Yes, I could probably get that too. In fact, I'd go so far to say it discloses more wholesome Beings than some so-called Art (with a capital A) does. What does a wargames army disclose of its creator compared with an unmade bed, pile of bricks or a shark sawn in half? Discuss.

    1. I agree that wargaming is an aesthetic experience, but I am still struggling to explain it, as it is not a static experience, but a dynamic one. We don't just look at our nice, lined up armies, we do something with them.

      As for Art, well, some of it is best left where it started from, in the mind of the 'Artist'....

  4. Perhaps it was Heidegger's appreciation of the aesthetics of uniforms that underpinned his support for the Nazis.

    And the concept which General Foy describes and to which his friend was trying ascribe supernatural causes is surely no more than entropy, as defined by the second law of thermodynamics.

    1. Certainly entropy is the word I used, so I guess it must be.

    2. I think that Heidegger, alomg with a lot of German intellectuals (and not a few non-German ones) was led astray by early Nazi propaganda - for example, Debye, Hesienberg and Plank were all more on board with the Nazi regime than Heidegger was. That doesn't mean that his actions as President of Freiburg were right, but it does contextualise them a bit.

      Be that as it may, it doesn't mean we can dismiss his thought, assuming that we can understand it. I suspect that more people give up on Heidegger for the latter reason than the fact that he was an (ex-) Nazi sympathiser.

      The interesting thing about entropy, though, is that it can show local order, like Mr Foy's crystals. Even in formally chaotic systems, some order emerges. Which is probably just as well or our Napoleonic Polish lancers wouldn't stay as lancers long enough for us to paint them...