Saturday, 14 March 2015

Tasteful Wargaming

I have written extensively (well, extensively for me, anyway) about the ethics of wargaming. As it turns out, there is no particular deep seated ethical issue underlying wargaming per se. What we find acceptable in wargaming or not, or whether we simply treat the whole idea as ‘yuk’ is a distinctly personal thing. The whole issue turns on taste and, I suppose, on the possibility of giving and taking offence.

Now taste is a rather funny thing. In the first place, taste is personal, subjective. As someone (W. C. Fields, possibly) once said ‘don’t do to others what you might want them to do to you; your tastes may not be the same.’ Thus, for example, most people seem to be perfectly happy to wargame World war One or Two, even though the cruelty of the warfare is extreme. Similarly, most people do not seem to have a problem with, say, Vietnam, although some might draw the line at a game which entailed firing ballistic missiles at each other (there was indeed such a game).

As personal and subjective, then, it is hard to be at all prescriptive about our taste. It varies. So too does the threshold at which we deem something offensive. Some people think that a piece of sculpture consisting of a crucifix pickled in urine is offensive and some people think it is the ultimate in modern art. In fact, some people seem to think that the more offensive a piece is, the more it must be art, even though they might not want to actually hang it in their living room.

When it comes to wargaming, however, the issues are a bit more complex. What we represent, no matter how abstractly, is going to wander close to the average taste barrier. The question is surely, then, how we approach this barrier, and how do we make a particular instance of wargaming tasteful, or at least, capable of generating the least offence (I suppose it is a different question as to whether we should do this).

As an example, I saw on a blog recently someone (quite rightly) complaining about a new range of figures released which, from the picture, were about ten 28 mm figures sold under the name ‘ISIS Fighters’. This, they argued, was tasteless, and as I recall all the comments agreed. Someone noted, however, that if they had been marketed as’ Modern Middle-Eastern Irregulars’ that would have been acceptable. And I could not help but wonder why.

Now, speaking as someone who has not fought a wargame after 1715 for about two decades, I might not be the best person to answer the question, but I do think it is an interesting one. ISIS (or ISIL, or IS, or Al-Qaeda, or whoever the terrorist monsters of the moment might badge themselves at the moment) are nothing if not tasteless (apart from anything else they might be). Beheading people and videoing it, or putting other human beings in a cage and setting fire to them are ideas that most pubescent role-playing gamers would recoil from, even in an extreme game situation. Of course, that is part of the point, but it does not remove the nastiness of these evil actions.

But does anyone really want to create a wargame based around these people as a recreation?

Now I might be guilty here of creating an ‘other’, some abstract person (an Islamist terrorist, in this case) to project all my fears and hatred onto. But I am not sure that this is the case here; I have no intention of buying the figures nor of wargaming the present atrocities in Syria, Iraq and Libya. I do think that the production of the figures has crossed a line of taste and offence, however.

I have recently listened to a series of three short talks by Roger Scruton (‘A Point of View’ on BBC Radio 4) where he has questioned the value of modern art. In fact, bits of the above were pinched from his talk. He argues (as I understand it) that the difference between art and a fake is that art means it, and a fake just tries to grab our emotions (and make a quick buck). Art is hard, kitsch is easy. Modern art, in its efforts to shock, goes beyond kitsch.

Now, the danger is with kitsch is that we think two things (Scruton quotes Milan Kundera): first, we think ‘isn’t it nice to watch children playing on the grass’. Second, we think ‘isn’t it nice to be watching ourselves thinking isn’t it nice to watch children playing on the grass’. Our aesthetic experience is turned in towards ourselves, our emotions, our subjectivity. Real art, Scruton argues, represents reality, objectivity to us.

I suspect that something similar is going on here. We can be offended, condemn as tasteless the production of ISIS figures. But the danger is that they become like a piece of offensive modern art. We start to enjoy being offended by them, or, possibly, we find that some part of the wargaming community enjoys giving the offence to everyone else, in the same way that Scruton accuses the art critics of assuming that real modern art is simply that which the public does not like.

In short, there is something about the human race that enjoys being offended. My grandmother, for example, was a rather straight laced lady whom I never heard swear. One Christmas she picked up ‘Puckoon’ by Spike Milligan. Half-way through the afternoon she announced to the gathered family “There are fourteen ‘buggers’ on this page!” She was rather enjoying the book, I think.

So perhaps we should be a little careful about gleefully condemning the figure line. I find it tasteless and offensive, as, so far as I can tell, most people do. My motives for doing so, however, seem to be subjective. There might be some people in the world who simply do not see a problem with using them in a wargame. But the question for both them and me has to be ‘why?’ There seems to be no simply answer to that, except that it is way beyond my own taste threshold.


  1. Agree it's a personal thing, but revulsion at what others find acceptable is the usual complex of upbringing, personal baggage, religion, what one's pals say in the pub etc. In other words, inculcation and what we (probably incorrectly) might term "instinct".

    When I was a kiddy-winkie you could not buy toy German soldiers in the UK - I think the first ones I saw were the big unpainted fellows Woolworths sold in the late 1950s (Marx?). As a result, I used to fight battles on the carpet between Timpo US Marines and Herald Brits, odd though it might seem now. We may discuss the reasons for lack of "Jerries" - maybe it's self-evident, maybe it was only right. Maybe it was a marketing decision rather than an official view.

    I think what I found objectionable about the recent range of ISIS figures was not that they exist (I think that the figures may well have already been around, as contemporary Middle-Eastern irregulars, as you suggest), it is that some twerp might have spotted a commercial opportunity to market them as ISIS figures. It's a fine line, and I would be pushed to explain my view satisfactorily.

    The recent post and extended commenting on exactly this topic, on a blog which i respect and follow regularly, was valid and interesting, and I'm sure the comments were sincere and heartfelt, but it went on a bit, I feel. There was suddenly a "me too" element in the clamour which I think even Steve (the bloggist) began to worry about. There is a lot of me-too-ing on blogs - every time a wargame writer that no-one has thought about for years passes away, we are all there, chipping in our appreciation - maybe that's good. There are also some things which people feel they are expected to say - maybe they get nervous if they are not seen to say it.

    A completely separate can of worms appeared briefly a few years ago, when a reasonably well-known wargamer and rule-writer was arrested in the Phillippines for alleged sexual misbehaviour with underage girls. He was subsequently released, as it happens, and I have no wish to get into any details of his case or the criminality of his activities - what sticks in my mind is the outcry which greeted it in the UK - many of the me-too-ers (no doubt sincerely) expressed the wish to carry out bizarre forms of physical punishment on this guy of which ISIS would have been proud. I always worried about that - do we all feel a need to make a noise, in case others note that we are insufficiently disapproving? Is there just a faint whiff of see how angry I am, I would never do a thing like that? I certainly hope that anyone who noted my lack of reaction at that time will not think badly of me (people may also have noted that I never left any flowers for Princess Diana, but then I didn't know her either).

    In its way, maybe this is all OK - people are upset by the activities of ISIS and feel it helps to contribute a murmur saying so. Maybe it is a feature of the Facebook/Blog age where we might feel uncomfortably left out if we like a picture of a painted soldier but forget to say so. Maybe I am only writing here (again), because I feel good about putting my worthless views in print?

    I have no idea. Good post, though.

    1. The estimable Mrs P observed on the subject of IS wargaming, that it is too soon, too close, to raw for it to be taken as a game. I guess the same might be said for WW2 gaming in the 1940's and 1950's?

      There is also, I think, a feeding frenzy on social media these days. A TV presenter is hauled up for possibly punching someone and half a million signatures on an online petition demand his 'reinstatement', even though he has not been 'uninstated' so far as I know. Moral outcries are cathartic, I suspect, even if they are often simply based on second hand accounts and emotional outbursts.

      On the other hand, we could argue that social media feeding frenzies are simply the performance art of the internet age. i can posture quite well in cyberspace, because no-one can see I'm actually typing in my grimy vest with my beer paunch overhanging the keyboard.

      The only real problem with all this is when we start to take it seriously, and inform our, say, political decisions by the reaction (or worse, likely reaction) of Twitter to a policy. We would then probably have the death penalty back in short order, followed by the removal of anyone deemed to be a threat to the state, including Muslims, Roman Catholics, people who don't use Twitter to express their views and anyone who didn't vote for the government, to name but a few.

      But then I do have a Twitter account, which I don't use, and i do run a blog, so who am I to talk / type?

      The mug has arrived safely, intact and has been collected from the Post Office and much admired. Thank you.

  2. I think you have to draw your own lines these days as pretty much everything is available. A real firestorm broke out on TMP a few years ago because one company produced a Middle Eastern suicide bomber. Now, on the one hand, it's fair to say that this is a significant aspect of contemporary warfare in that region (and others now), but is it accceptable to represent it in a game? Interestingly, this was hotly followed by another company introducing a similar figure and offering up a robust defence roughly along the lines of don't buy it if you don't like it. Flushed with success, they followed up very quickly with a variety of 'nasty' stuff. There's no such thing as bad publicity eh?

    Now, that's all well and good, I suppose, but I think that if somebody finds it objectionable, they're morally bound to challenge it. However, how do we determine the genuine cases from those who're simply band wagon jumping? And does it matter anyway? If many people habitually object, will there be a stifling effect which also include creativity?

    We indulge in a hobby which represents war and, no matter how much we adstract it or insist on calling it an intellectual exercise, it's still the recreation of pretty base acts. Nevertheless, these acts seem to be a core element the human psyche, just as it competitivemess, So, what to do? The whole of life these days seems like tap dancing in a minefield, so, as I said, yer pays yer money and all that. The debate about the moral/ethical aspects of wargaming could and will go on ad infinitum, so I'll just continue within my own 'tastes', avoid the SS and civilian casualties and stay cocooned. The last time I spoke to Mike Siggins, he was in the process of abandoning wargaming because he couldn't square this particular moral circle - must find out how far he's travelled along that path. I bet most wargamers are more concerned about being outed for playing with toy soldiers though.

    In the meantime, I'm with you on the Twitter 'final solution' and I have a few more ideas if you're interested. As Nanki-Poo says, I've got a little list . . . .

    1. I suppose that if we are true free marketeers, then the mantra of 'don't buy it if you don't like it' works. But I can be offended by the thought of such a figure; or I can be offended by my hobby being associated with such as figure, and so on. I don't think it is ever quite a simple as 'don't like, don't buy'.

      I do agree, though, that we are more worried about playing with toy soldiers than the moral aspects of wargaming per se. But it is interesting that the ethical bits could get someone to question the whole idea of wargaming at all.