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.