One of the things that makes wargaming a bit tricky to think about is that fact that, so far as I can see, it is fairly well unlike any other occupation or hobby. For example, football (soccer) is a game of skill (and absurdly high pay) and the element of luck, while present, is not really part of the discourse of the game. While there is an unfolding narrative, and certain points might be determined as crucial in hindsight, the result is the important thing; few people remember that particular goal at the end of the season.
The thing about most other hobbies is that they are focussed on some sort of output. Sewing, for example, is aimed at the output of a garment or decoration. Picture painting is aimed at the output of a picture (no, really?), fishing the catching of fish. I know there are noble examples to this, where, in fact, the point of fishing is the process of fishing, not the end result, but without the possibility of catching fish, fishing is not fishing, but sitting by the river (or whatever; I’m trying not to get hung up on the details).
The point is that wargaming, while narrative driven, is dynamic, and involves a significant degree of acknowledged chance. The situation in a wargame a few minutes ago is not the same as the one now. The game moves forward, develops, and the prospects for each side vary as it does. Therefore, an analogy of a wargame, something to aid thinking about it, needs to be dynamic as well, and the outcome needs to be, in the main, not foreseen.
The closest I can think of at the moment as an analogy for a wargame is a film. If you consider the audience, the file is a dynamic medium, full of tensions and conflicts, without a known outcome. The plot twists and turns; random events, chance meetings and so on can influence the outcome, and on the whole it resolves nicely. A film, in general, has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and proceeds, fairly logically in general, from one to the next.
Along the way, the film presents its heroes with challenges, inversions of fortune, puzzles and problems to resolve and so on. There is also, as I mentioned, conflict either between the heroes themselves, or between the heroes and the others (the bad guys, the apparent bad guys, fortune in general, etc). There is tension – will Harrison Ford get the amulet before the bad guys do – and so on.
Not only this, but there is the possibility of catharsis, the emotional cleansing we feel having suspended our disbelief and engaged in the fictional world of the film. The film (if it is a decent one) can mirror, in some way, our this-worldly stresses and strains, concerns and fears, and in doing so can help us in understanding our concerns, in contextualising them and reducing our fear of them, even if only temporarily. Aristotle thought this was the function of Greek tragedy, at least.
So a film and a wargame have, at least, some parallels. As audience, a film watcher does not know the outcome and can get concerned about the fictional characters (a friend of mine once bit through her T-shirt while watching Aliens, do deep was her tension over the action). This is, obviously, similar to the position of the wargamer. The film proceeds by scenes as the story develops and a wargame does so by turns (or similar mechanisms). Hopefully, both come to a satisfactory, or at least intelligible, conclusion.
Of course, films and wargames are different. A film, if watched again, will have exactly the same outcome. Wargames will not, because of the increased use of chance. In this sense, therefore, wargames are more flexible. Additionally, the authors of the film will know the outcome of the story; it is usually pre-defined and the scriptwriters have to work out how to get from the beginning to the end. In a wargame that aspect unfolds as the wargame proceeds, much as it does to the audience of the first showing of the film.
However, I think the analogy of the film to a wargame can help us think a little more about the meanings that might be associated with wargaming. There is the unfolding of an unknown narrative in both, in wargaming because it is unknowable in advance, the film because it is not known. Both can have tension and emotional swings to and fro, and both have plots which have to be (saving some avant guarde film) in some way, at least in principle, intelligible. A bad film is one where the outcome, or rather how it is achieved, is disappointing. A bad wargame might be one where one side deploys a superweapon and simply blows everyone else away.
Another way of looking at film is that a film represents to us some aspect of our culture, and therefore is material for reflection on that culture. I think I mentioned before the making of a film about The Eagle of the Ninth where the legionaries in Scotland were portrayed in a similar fashion to US troops in Afghanistan. Similarly, the wartime film of Shakespeare’s Henry V carefully excluded the Southampton plot, because talking and showing treason was not a good idea in the culture and society of the day.
How about wargames as cultural items? Do our games reflect something of the surrounding society?
In a sense, given that rules are written and games played by members of the society, it would be a surprise if they were not reflections of that society. I think we can see, for example, creeping scientism (science is the only true knowledge) in some of the models of wargaming we have, mostly in some of the earlier ‘plus one if English sea=dog’ type of rule. But that does not absolve ‘modern’ wargaming of such influences, they might just be harder to spot. But Old School wargaming is, I think, an expression of nostalgia for a lost age of innocence, and some of the simpler rule sets written in the last twenty years or so could also be a craving for simplicity. Alternatively, they could just be a turn away from our increasingly complex real lives to a world where the decisions are easier. Catharsis again, perhaps.