Saturday, 22 November 2014

Essential Wargames

One of the dangers of western ways of thinking is that of essentialism. We start to think that there is some essential property of something that is shared by all the somethings to which we give the same name. Thus, we think that there is some underlying notion of, for example, a wargame, that is common to all wargames; there is some essence of this thing that is a wargame which is in common with that thing which is also a wargame.

The problem with this is, as I might have alluded to before, that it is very difficult to see what this thing in common is. For example, a historical wargame involves some sort of simulation of combat in a historical setting. Science fiction wargaming involves some sort of combat in a non-historical setting. Role-playing games can be regarded as a sort of wargame, but do not necessarily involve combat. Board games have a setting (usually historical, but not always) but the combat is usually abstracted to a table and a dice roll. Yet all these things are wargames of some sort. Do they really have anything in common?

Of course, the other way of looking at this is that the use of the word wargame defines it. Thus, there is no essence of a wargame at all. If the community determines that it is a wargame, then a wargame it is. Thus, all sorts of things can be ruled in or out by simply looking at the word in the context of how people use it.

This too is fine, and indeed a lot of the philosophy in the Anglo-American tradition has been based around this idea. It originates from Wittgenstein, in Philosophical Investigations. His example there is of the word ‘game’, and he points out that there are loads of definitions of ‘game’ and it is hard to see what they have in common except being described as a game. For example, a soccer game and a game of solitaire with cards are both called games. It is hard to see what common ground these have; both could be called ‘pastimes’, but, of course, there are professional soccer players. One is competitive and one is not. And so on.

So, in the more narrow focus of a wargame, we can examine what we mean by that and attempt to decide, perhaps[s as a community, or at least by listening to the community, whether something is a wargame or it is not. Of course, there will be grey areas. Chess, for example, is often described as a wargame, or at least wargaming is described as chess with a thousand pieces. Often wargames have an element of chance build in, which chess does not have. So, is chess a wargame?

We can go further. Why do some businesses run ‘wargames’? Are they wargames which the wargaming community would recognise? Almost certainly not. The conflicts that business wargames are concerned with are not what most hobby wargamers would recognise. There may be some vague organisational similarity, in terms of having sides and umpire, goals and some sort of rules, but the goals and outcomes are different.

Of course, this can run to narrowness in a different sense. A wargame is what I determine a wargame to be, as I am the wargaming community. Thus what I do is a wargame, what you do might be a wargame and what they do is not. You can see this around the place. I wargame properly with my 25 mm Napoleonic armies and detailed rules and beautiful terrain. You might wargame, with your tiny 15 mm modern figures and some sort of rivet counting random rules. They cannot be wargaming with their role playing, no figures and scraps of paper to record stuff. Plus they seem to having way too much fun.

This relates back to what I was trying to say a week or two back about the discourses of wargaming. What a wargame is conceived to be is, of course, a part of the particular discourse a wargamer has. To have a discourse at all is, by the nature of discourse, to rule some things in and some things out. Once I start to say something I close off certain routes, certain things which I cannot now say without contradiction or inconsistency. So, for example, if I say ‘wargames use miniature figures’ I have already ruled out board and computer games as being what I mean by a wargame.

The situation is, of course, slightly worse than that. My Napoleonic wargamer, above, could stand accused of simply criticising the ‘Other’, the mass of people he does not understand. As he has ruled them out from his community, they are simply there as a potential object of ignorance or derision. By the nature of the discourse (and, quite likely the discourse of the role playing gamers, as well) there is an implied decision not to engage, not to see what it is about, to draw lines of demarcation as to what a proper wargamer might be about.

To some extent, by human nature and the nature of our language, this is inevitable. As I said, by saying something we rule some things out, and we have to say something or we cannot create a community at all. But language is often a lot more flexible than our categories of thinking allow. In fact, a bit like the universe, language is infinite but bounded. There are loads of things I can say, many of them intelligible which can break the categorization of which I, as a human, am so fond.

So I think it is beholden on all of us to examine our own discourses of wargaming (including, of course, this one). The powerful narratives of what we think a wargame is are such as to marginalise at best, other sorts of wargame which might prove to be enriching. It is to exclude, or worse, to try to silence other voices that might be worth hearing. And, possibly, to relate back to one of the more popular posts on the blog, it might be why I no longer buy wargame magazines.


  1. I'm not so sure the Enlightenment philosophers are so wrong on this. "Game" obviously has many and varied definitions, but mostly to do with spending time on an activity that isn't real fighting or real working. When you look at the difference between "game" fishing and coarse fishing it's originally to do with people who fished because they had to and people who fished for a pastime.

    The "war" bit is more exclusive. To my mind it would exclude RPGs which didn't have combat as it's central theme.

    I think the use of "wargames" to describe business scenario simulations is a borrowing from military usage. To me it means an exercise that is analogous to professional military wargames. It might be a game but it's not military, so it's not really a war game.

    So to me all wargames share a common essence.

    If the English speaking world had decided to use the word "play" for "spiel" in its interpretation of "kriegspiel" we might be having a slightly different discussion involving acting.

    1. "The play's the thing"?

      Of course, an RPG-er would have a different view (if they were bothered at all) and so might a computer gamer.

      I'm not sure that all Enlightenment philosophers would have one essentialism, though. Locke seemed to admit that there were essences, but then claimed that the essences were unknowable. So I suppose that Wittgenstein's view is at least practical - just get on with it and play the game.

  2. In my experience, few if any things are so simple as to be just one thing. So they may share a characteristic with something else without being the same in all respects. Football, solitaire and wargames all meet the common definitions of a 'game', (even solitaire which has rules, can be lost or won and so is a competion if only against oneself, and is played for amusement.), but, looking at just one difference, football is athletic but the others are not. So they are all games but they are not the same game.

    I once had an enlightening online discussion with a fellow member of a Volley & Bayonet forum. He had been offended by the presence of some sort of space marine wargames at an historical mini wargaming convention. Eventually it became clear that if he and I had ever faced each other across a table for a game of V&B, we would have been indulging in different hobbies. He would have been playing an historical wargame that happened to use miniatures rather than chits on a msp or a computer while I would have been playing a miniature wargame that happened to be historical.

    Perception and intent matter.

    1. Agreed, they are all a game, and are not the same game. But I suspect the problem lies in the direction of how far do we go before this game and that game are so different as to lose any commonality at all, Is a military wargame played by professionals the same as, say, Monopoly in any recognisable sense?

      As you say, it depends on how you look at it and your motivation. In this sense, professional wargames are not the same as hobby ones, because the motivation is different, even if the rules and miniatures are the same.

      I think it possibly is just too confusing to ponder much more....!