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.