It is possibly because I have just read a book on speech-acts, but I am coming around to the view, slowly as befits a bear of very little brain, that most wargaming is performative. By this I mean that, in part, the words we say are both descriptive and determinative of what happens, but also the wargame as wargame is a performance.
I suppose the second item above comes from my reading of Gadamer. He considers, as I might have mentioned, art and the aesthetic. As with most considerations of art, ultimately he means pictures, but along the way he considers other art, including the plastic arts and plays.
A play is, when you think about it, an odd sort of thing. The actors have a script, which they follow (OK, some avant-guard plays might be improvisation, but let’s ignore them for the moment). However, the play, as presented, is much more than just the words in the script. Different actors might present different characters in different ways. The script itself, while not obviously malleable, can be edited, cut down and, to some extent, reworked. The environment of the play, the scenery can be changed. For example, some Macbeths have got heavy duty medieval scenery. Some have been performed on an empty stage with just a crown hanging above it and black hangings around it.
The upshot of all of this is that even though the script is (relatively) fixed, the surroundings make a difference, as do the cast and their interactions with each other and the director, stage manager and scenery people, and so on. To say that there is ‘a’ play, as in a single, unalterable object of culture, is a mistake. There is a script as an object, and there are performances of it.
The point is that each performance of a play, even if the cast, director, scenery and editing of it are the same, is different. For one thing, the audience is different. As with teaching, you might be covering (or trying to cover) the same material in a class, but each time your audience is different. Even if they were the same, their location, immediate experience, reflections and so on would be difference. Even if the same audience went to the same play with the same cast again, they would have already seen the play and their reactions would, at least in part, be different.
A performance, then, is a single, unrepeatable act. Macbeth might die at each performance, but the manner of his arriving at that point is likely to be different, at least in the minds of the actors and the audience. These differences might be very minor or trivial, but they will exist. A performance cannot be repeated.
Now, consider a wargame of a historical battle. We have, if I have to labour the analogy, a cast list, which are the orders of battle of the different sides and armies present. We have some scenery, given in some sorts of stage directions, and we have a script of sorts, which describes how the battle went in its, for want of a better term, ‘real life’ performance.
So we settle down for a wargame, and various things happen during the performance of it. Perhaps the left wing which historically fought on runs away after the first move. Perhaps the rest of the army, which was a bit pathetic in the original, perform heroically and save the day. Maybe we arrive at a vaguely historical outcome, albeit by a different route. What, if anything, can we say about the performance?
Obviously, there are a few things. Firstly, we can consider the rule by which we have arrived at the outcome of the performance which we have. Perhaps the rules were inaccurate on some grounds. Well, in principle we could correct that and re-wargame, but this would lead to a different performance.
Secondly, we can analyse the distribution of luck. Some people, of course, are obsessed by rolling ones or sixes. They might believe, against all the evidence that the dice conspire against them. His is simply the usual function of the human mind. It is pattern seeking, and finds them even where we know they do not exist. As evidence, try listening to a detuned radio on headphones. Is there not someone singing in the background?
The point is, though, that the wargame is also a one off performance. You can refight the battle, but the outcome will, in some way, vary. Perhaps, having fought it once, you have learnt that masking off that portion of the other side’s army with skirmishers might be a better plan than ploughing into then with cataphracts. Even if you do not try a different plan, the die rolls are inevitably going to be different. Similarly, the set up might be subtly different; those two hills might be half a base closer together.
The thing is here that no two wargames are going to be the same, as no two performances of a play are. There are, in both activities, a wide range of variables to juggle with. Not all of these are, at least, within our conscious control. The audience and their reactions is beyond the control of playwright, cast or director. The dice rolls are (we hope) beyond the control of the wargamers. While both might have a script, subtle deviations from it (or, in wargaming, wholesale variations) can cause major differences in outcomes for the performance.
This, of course, reflects back to what I said a bit ago about history and horizons. Macbeth can be almost infinitely re-interpreted, ‘bought up to date’ by directors with a different horizon and view than Shakespeare. Macbeth can be presented as an oppressor, and man with a mission to be king, a dupe of forces beyond his control or simply as a flawed human put in impossible positions by others. But this depends on how the play is read.
And for wargaming? Do we wargame things which are appropriate to our own horizons? Is this what makes wargaming the Roman invasion of Britain acceptable, but wargaming current middle east crises tasteless?