For reasons I am still unsure about, I have started reading Hans-Georg Gadamer’s ‘Truth and Method’. My only defence is really that the choice was Kant, Heidegger or Gadamer, and I chose the middle length book. It is still a hefty 600 pages or so, but Kant was 700 and Heidegger a mere 500. In keeping with my experience of most continental philosophy, it refers to philosophers I have not (and probably cannot, for lack of language skills, let alone time) read and is high on the denseness rating. However, Gadamer keeps cropping up in my reading of assorted bits of recent writing, and in keeping with my reputation as the only postmodern wargamer, I thought I had better give it a go.
The second chapter of the tome is about play, which rather surprised me. Continental philosophy, for all its claims to playfulness, has, in my view, a tendency to take itself far too seriously. I mean, someone like Derrida can claim, in a book, that the author does not exist and that all there is in the text. Does he really mean that? If so, I can just ignore his text, surely.
Still, Gadamer does talk about play, by which he means playing in its widest sense. In fact, he is trying to get a handle on art and the aesthetic, but I am going to try to ignore that for as long as possible. But already he has observed some interesting things.
Firstly, play is not about the players. Play is, in itself serious, and someone who is not taking the play seriously is usually called a ‘spoilsport’. The aim of play, albeit as recreation, is in itself a serious aim. We do not play (and children do not play) for frivolity. Play works because we lose ourselves in the play. Hence, a wargame works because we lose ourselves in the narrative, suspense and uncertainty of the game.
Next up, I suppose rather obviously, the play is part of the players, but is not the players. The game, clearly, would not exist without the players, or at least a player (fortunately for me, solo wargamers are not excluded), but the play is not subjective, that is, the game is not wholly a subjective experience of the player(s). The game is a presentation through the players, but not wholly of the players. I am sure this is a bit clearer in the original German.
A characteristic of play is its to and fro nature, even when there is only one player. Gadamer says that play is without strain, without effort and is experienced by the subject (the player) as relaxation. The structure of the game absorbs the player into itself. So, again, the wargamer is part of the game, not simply an external operative of the game. As a player, the game takes over and relieves us from the strain of making decisions.
I am not entirely sure I agree with that in the context of wargaming, as wargamers, of course, are constantly making decisions as part of the game. On the other hand, if we admit that wargamers as players of the game are absorbed in the game, then the decisions that have to be taken are decisions within the game and as such part of the play. I suppose we could easily get from there to the idea that no intra-wargame decision is a serious, and thus stressful, decision. Not metal widows and orphans are going to be created by out in-game decisions.
Now clearly, in a wargame, there are outcomes and, ultimately, winners and losers. This is a part of the to and fro process within the game. A move produces its counter move, and so on. As engrossed in the game, we can be a victor. That, Gadamer says, is the risk of the game. We have a freedom of decision within the game, but that freedom is limited by the game, and the game, or the other players, can out think us within the game and we can lose. If we do not make such decisions, we cannot play the game; we are not playing seriously if we refuse the decision making and the consequences thereof.
The consequences of this sort of view for wargaming should be, I think, fairly clear. It certainly seems to chime in with my experience of the hobby as a whole. It is a hobby, a recreation, for one thing, but something which is taken with great seriousness by its participants. I suppose that, say, football is another such example. It can be taken with great seriousness by its participants and by spectators, but it does remain, consciously, as a game.
However, it is probably with the seriousness in mind that we object, just a little, to describing the hobby as ‘playing with toy soldiers’. I have used the expression myself to remind myself that the hobby is a game, a recreation, and is not, in that sense, serious. But ‘playing with toy soldiers’ may be taken as an expression of not taking the play seriously, of being a spoilsport. I think the reasons the expression works as a reminder of the hobby aspect of the occupation is the various meanings of the word ‘play’.
Gadamer, for example, reminds the reader that the waters of a fountain can play, as can the sunlight on water, children with sticks and mud, and so on. Cats and dogs also play. These various meanings and nuances of the word ‘play’ inform our use of the term ‘playing with toy soldiers’ to remind us of various aspects of a wargame. As with the fountain, the wargame can be an aesthetic experience, and also a dynamic one. As with the stick play, the wargame has artefacts and can reduce to simply throwing mud at each other. As with animals and humans playing, the play can be part of the joy of co-existence (even for us solo wargamers – when I am grumpy with painting, the estimable Mrs P. will tell me to go and have a battle), and also, perhaps most importantly, the game is an end in itself, not something designed of some further or future purpose.