I mentioned a week or two ago the idea of the authentic and the kitsch in art. Real art, I claimed (or at least, quoted Roger Scruton as claiming) represents reality to us. Kitsch invited sentimentality, the turn inwards to observe and admire our own emotions and enjoy ourselves as being civilised, sensitive people.
I also noted, in passing, that modern art, in its many forms, simply seems to set out to shock. In fact, some art bureaucrats often seem to think that something is art if the general public do not like it. It can then be sold at a vastly inflated price for someone to put on a gallery wall (no one in their right mind would actually want these things in their own living room, would they?). Shock, the public outcry garners attention, if nothing else.
Now, harking back to vaguely remembered bits of Gadamer, I think we could claim that, in some senses, wargaming is art, or at least has some features in common with some art forms. The art form in particular that I have in mind is theatre. Now, of course, there are clear differences. A play has a set script which, except in some more modern plays, the actors tend to follow. But there are some helpful resonances as well, I think.
Firstly, a play is repeated a number of times, both in its current production and in revivals, and also in different productions, with different casts, directors and so on. Furthermore, a play, as the instance of this particular performance, is unique. This set of actors, this room, this audience is specific to this one off event of a play. As with teaching, this version is a singular event.
Wargames, too, can and are played and played again. Again, each event is different. The wargamers might be different; they might swap sides and be informed by what happened last time, and so on. The rules might be known more or less well, the terrain set out slightly different. The details, which do actually matter in a game as well as a play, vary.
Now, the point to which I am painfully iterating is something like this. Some plays are done well, some poorly. Some are shut down by mobs or the secret police. Some mock the establishment and some the population, and so on. Good theatre, then, brings us face to face with reality, or at least a recognisable depiction thereof. In some sense, we could argue, a good wargame should do the same.
Consider a fairly simple case of a classic role playing game such as Runequest or D & D. Good and evil are fairly explicit in the rules. A character in D & D can be evil, good or neutrally aligned. In RQ chaos is everyone’s enemy and the Lunar Empire is suspicious because of its ambivalent attitude to it. Thus, most of the time, there is no moral question which arises. The baddies must be defeated. Perhaps the nearest theatrical equivalent would be a modern pantomime, where we can safely Boo the baddies because, well, they are baddies and because we know they will be defeated in the end.
At the other extreme there are some theatre productions which do simply set out to shock. I vaguely remember a controversial production, I think of ‘The Romans in Britain’ which featured a scene of homosexual rape. For its time this was outrageous and widely condemned. What it had to do with the plot or what the play was trying to say I am not sure (I’ve not seen it, nor can really be bothered to find out more about it), but the fact is the outraged a lot of people (who probably had not bothered to see it either; outrage is like that).
The wargaming equivalent of this is, well, what? Would a wargame of an uprising in a concentration camp do it, or of the Warsaw uprising? The Princess Diana demolition derby, where the players as photographers chase a car until it crashes (bonus points for pictures of the maimed occupants)? These are certainly tasteless, but would they produce the outrage?
I think what I am trying to get at is that an authentic wargame is one where we can see, or feel the emotion, the reality, reaching out towards us. If we did have a Warsaw Ghetto game, it would be only authentic is we could find in it the desperation of the fighters in launching such a desperate battle, and the destruction which befell the city. Anything else, perhaps, would be less authentic, less respectful to the original situation and battle.
Given the difficulty inherent in constructing wargames with even a slight degree of the real historical outcomes, are we therefore condemned to inauthentic wargames, ones with little or no contact with any real historical world? And if we are, are we not more comfortable with the idea that they do not correspond to any sort of reality? After all, a wargame which does confront us with reality would, in many cases, hardly be a recreation.
So, finally, what of wargaming the ultra-modern, the Taliban, IS or conflict in Ukraine? Are these merely shocking and tasteless, or are there deeper currents moving? Given the general inaction of politicians and widespread near to apathy of populations not directly involved, would a tasteless, provocative wargame of Kaderia, Donetsk or a border post in Sinai at least get people talking about it. Could a wargame, like art, hold up a mirror to the world and attempt to get us to stop ignoring it?
I think to suggest it would is, probably, yielding far too much to the idea of a wargame as in any sense powerful, politically or morally, whereas a play might be. I am as much against the idea of painting toy soldiers in the form of IS and wargaming with them as the next wargamer in the street.
But I do wonder. Could a wargame of the British NW Frontier of India, or Alexander’s problems in Bactria hold up a mirror to the times? Or, like science fiction, a non-historical wargame actually be ‘about’ today? But, maybe, I am starting to take the whole idea of wargaming way too seriously.