Saturday 4 April 2015

Wargaming – A Liberation View

For my sins, I have been reading a bit about liberation theology. Now, before you all rush off in despair about the ‘t’ word, I just want to use some of the ideas (as I understand them) to try to critique some bits of wargaming. It probably will not work, but I might get a medal for trying. I did, in fact, ask a local radical feminist theologian to comment, but she just muttered something about even asking the question being patriarchal and then flounced off to wash her hair in a mass of contradictions.

The last sentence above is, of course, a feeble attempt at a joke, but does raise a more serious point. Liberation theology (or politics, for that matter) is something that looks very different from the global south than it does from the global north, and so my witterings here will be form the comfort of my middle class armchair, rather than a place where I cannot afford an armchair at all.

Be that as it may, it is possible to argue that wargaming and wargamers are attempting to live in a world dominated by the male and by aggression. This, of course, also includes science fiction and fantasy wargames, even if female characters are included in the games, the violence is still male generated. As wargamers, it could be said, we live in a fantasy where male violence is normative, and an acceptable way of resolving disputes.

Now, of course, historical gamers (and, I suspect, everyone else) can say ‘yes, agreed, but that is just the way it is’. At, to an extent, they would be correct in that. Warfare has been overwhelmingly the province of males, usually, in its organised form, ordered and undertaken by males, and the results of the wars have been related to male-dominated hierarchies of power. A historical wargame, therefore, is simply representing a past which was male dominated.

The problem with that (and I’m not convinced it is a real problem, but it is a possible argument) is that by re-enacting, in whatever form, such activities, we are attempting to relocate them into our worlds where, perhaps, the (post)modern male has much less power, much less of a monopoly of the means of violence. The reproduction of power dominant behaviour of the past is an attempt to legitimize similar efforts in the present.

On a similar line, it could be argued that colonial games are an effort by some citizens of a failed Empire (or a failing one, if one views the USA as such) to reclaim domination over the world. A colonial wargame is an attempt by a reactionary faction of the metropolitan state to recapture the days of power and glory, at the expense of the colonised, defeated and enslaved peoples of the world. In a colonial wargame, the argument might run, the aim is to re-enslave the native peoples of the land, to re-exploit their legacy.

Now, of course, I am not claiming that these arguments are valid, true or even useful, but I do think they might make us pause a little and consider what we are actually doing when we wargame. Naturally, the overriding activity is one of recreation. Wargaming is a hobby (at least, I guess, for more or less everyone who reads this blog). We play wargames for fun, for entertainment and for interest. There might be a few misguided wargamers out there who think that by winning a game they have humiliated their opponent, for example. I have heard of this sort of thing, but it is rare (fortunately).

But, despite this, there is a little nagging doubt as to our motivations. Our choice of wargame could be a political one, in the sense that our choice of, say, a British Expeditionary Force dispatched to Darkest Africa could be because we do, perhaps subconsciously, hark back to days of glory and daring do. Our interpretation of history might be something along the lines of ‘white rule was good for Africa’ and an attempt to justify that by re-enacting some aspect of it.

I do not think that this is the case, but I do think we, as a hobby, might need to be aware of it. By extension, the argument could be made, in a similar way, about those who insist on wargaming the Axis powers in World War Two and, if proven, the implications of that could be more unsettling yet.

From, as I said above, a global north perspective, this all seems fine and dandy. There are few issues, ethical, moral or political, about fighting colonial wargames or World War Two. From a global south view, however, things may not seem quite the same. World War Two could quite happily be dismissed as a European Civil War with unfortunate consequences for the rest of the world. A wargame based around the Warsaw Ghetto could be quite acceptable. A wargame based around, say, the Ashanti campaigns could be viewed very differently, however. For us, it is just another Victorian small war. For someone who is an Ashanti, it is likely to be much more than that.

It has been noted here occasionally that, for example, there are some bits of English history that do not tend to be wargamed. The bit of the Hundred Years War after the death of Edward II, for example, when the English lost decisively, is largely ignored. Similarly, the rest of the HYW after, say, the Siege of Orleans tends to be passed over in silence, at least until the glorious failures of the last couple of battles. Again, viewed from a global south (or even, in this instance, French) perspective, these eras of operation might be entirely acceptable and interesting.

Perhaps, then, it is just a matter of where you sit. If we accept that in principle anything is possibly wargamable, then it is only our perspective, our horizon, our prejudices and biases which limit the possibilities. This might suggest that, in fact, we should game those things that make us slightly uncomfortable. 


  1. This speaks well enough to the Imperial player in those Colonial games, especially the ones where all the players are on the Imperial side with randomly generated enemy forces. But what about those who normally choose to build and play with the nonEuropean forces? Apologists perhaps?

    Of course if I were being grumpy I might comment that 2/3 of gamers these days don't know who the parties are or why they were fighting, they just like the look or heard that it was a fun game. But I'm not grumpy today.

    However does make you wonder about guys who like to play viking raid games where you get points for stealing things and dragging women off to be slaves. Should I let them in my house?

    1. I suppose that part of the point might be that, whichever side they might be playing, the wargamers, being on the whole white western males (or at least products of such a culture) are still on the 'imperial' side. After all, the mind set of the player might be to close to decisive action, as the (so called) western way of war would have it. The original armies might not have thought that way.

      Sadly, too many people seem to have no idea or interest in history (or current affairs). Wargamers tend to be better than most. But given that 2/3 have no idea about the sides in a game, how is the rest of the population doing?

      I suppose the answer to the last question is 'what do you want to represent?' It isn't a game I'd like to play and, I suspect, it is becoming viewed as less historical than it was, but given some of the films (for example) that are available (or even The Romans in Britain on stage) it is kind of hard to rule it out totally.

    2. I'm not feeling grumpy either, but there might be a bit of devil's advocacy coming on.

      Isn't the choice of sides in colonial games largely one of familiarity? I mean, when did you last see a book written from the 'home army' perspective - memoirs of a pathan tribesman, or example? It wouldn't be difficult to set games from the 'home' point of view, say with the players each having their own lashkar and a randomly controlled imperial army, but would it generate the same interest among the players or would it look just a bit 'gimicky'?
      Now I've thought this, I'm determined to give it a try and see how it's received!

    3. I wonder if there is less of apology than there is of cultural appropriation with some wargamers who like to field the indigenous forces in colonial games. Perhaps there is also a quest for the exotic and for novelty.

      I worry less about the Viking raid gamers than I do about the RPGers who think it is ok to kick in the door of your home, kill you and take all your stuff just because you have green skin and like to eat humans.

      Chris, I would play the game from the tribesperson's perspective. I suspect that USAians and Western Europeans find it easier to identify with the colonial power, so they choose that side generally. It's also likely that it is easier to programme hordes of natives over the possible reactions available to a trained and drilled army.

      I agree with points about many gamers being clueless about history. I wonder if we have a right to criticise them. As long as they recognise they are playing Ahistorical Wargame v3.4 and that they are not recreating battles as they happened way back in the past, then no harm is done. Possibly. Well, at least no more harm than is done by all those films that misrepresent history. The problem comes with those that engage with history but lack the critical tool-kit to winnow the wheat from the chaff in their sources. An honest attempt to work through things and to question the sources is fine, but the gamer who reads a book and then pontificates loudly on how they have achieved a Rankean epiphany regarding the period in question will bring out the worst in me ... not thinking of any luminaries of societies of wargamers in particular with whom I have had run-ins online, honest. I am feeling a tad stressed and grumpy at the moment if you want to consider the hermeneutics of my situation while writing this. :)

    4. Chris:
      I really don't know how people choose their sides in colonial (or any other) game, but it is an interesting question. From a given point of view, of course, it could be suggested that controlling the natives with 'random' rules (whatever that might be) is denying them Enlightenment rationality, or western understandings or something long those lines.

      Let us know how you get on flipping the tables on the Imperials, anyway.

      Well, RPG-ers are often the spotty teenager end of the spectrum (guilty as charged) and often do silly / extreme stuff. Mind you, playing Flashing Blades tends to cure them of that. Moral ambiguity is a great antidote to slaughtering baddies because they are, well, baddies.

      It is a fair point about criticising wargamers who know nothing of history. But I'm not sure that many would necessarily spot that they are wargaming something other than 'history'. I'm not a trained historian, but I do know enough to know that it isn't simply, and most epiphanies are best left where they happened.

      I think I agree, that it is the grey areas which are the most dangerous. Knowing I don't know is OK. Knowing that I know is fine. Not knowing that I don't know is iffy. as my grandfather told me: 'You don't know enough to know you don't know nothing.'

    5. Your grandfather was a wise man. I am reminded that sometimes we do not know enough even to ask the right questions.

      Should we expect Enlightenment rationality from our indigenous peoples in wargames? Should we not present them in the game as their culture would depict them? Forcing them to conform to our modes of thought is a form of colonialism too, even when the culture is only depicted as figures on the table.

      I have been a Viking raid gamer and an RPGer. I still am both on occasion. My latest project has been to try playing the old Basic series D&D modules as a solo endeavour. One area I really struggle with is the whole 'kill the Goblins, take the treasure' ethic. When those Goblins are just wandering monsters in a dungeon, or are just occupants of the dungeon whose only crime is being there when I am passing through on my way to rescuing the royal offspring, I find myself questioning the morality of slaying them and taking their treasure. It's an interesting dilemma, because the humanoid races are described in D&D as mortal enemies of humanity and of the rule of law, but I see the the world with eyes that are more accepting of other cultures now. There is a lot of rolling on reaction tables to see if I can achieve a peaceful outcome for the encounter these days. :)

      I have a copy of Flashing Blades somewhere but never actually played it. I did enjoy En Garde though.

    6. Is playing Romans against Ancient Britons a colonial game? All the same factors seem to apply, except the imperial forces may be the ones with the heavier suntan.

      And I was suggesting denying the redcoats (et al) Enlightenment Rationality and granting it to the natives. I expect the EDL round at any moment to hurl missiles and contradictions at me.

      Loved the Grandad quote - what a master of the multiple negative.

    7. Ruaridh, I agree that playing the 'natives' as Enlightenment westerners is colonialist, but the question is 'what else can we do?' I am deeply embedded in a (post-) enlightenment culture; it is likely that i would not even raise the question if I were not. In many cases I suspect that we force them to conform to western ideas of warfare (and hence wargaming), which is as neo-colonial as we can get without becoming global businesses.

      As to Viking raids / RPGs and so on. Well, i think D&D and other FRPGs do simplify morality. Baddies are baddies by definition. The Goblins hold my wealth, even thought they own it, because they are baddies. If you look at the works of Terry Pratchett, you can see a working out of the hostility between dwarves, trolls and humans - they start as hostile and end as helping to hold 'civilisation' together, even though TP has probably a too rosy view of progress and the possibilities of everyone agreeing on stuff.

      Flashing Blades is the only RPG I have refereed that managed to reduce all the players and referee to helpless giggles, as the sword-fighting on top of the galloping coach degenerated into a desperate attempt to stop said coach crashing.

      Romans vs ABs colonial? More than likely, especially as often the 'us' are the civilized Romans and the 'them' are to ABs. A lot depends on who wrote the history.

      Denying the redcoats rationality is possibly not helpful historical representation, but denying the 'native' forces knowledge and understanding of their aims might be. I think there is a solo system somewhere in a very old Lone Warrior where the enemy moves randomly, but each objective is given a marker when they move in that direction. At the end of the game the markers are counted up and the highest score is the enemy objective. That might work for the 'natives' who do not see objectives in the same light as 'us'.

      As for Grandad: i still miss him. He also painted soldiers for me, taught me about strategy in WW2 (in which he participated) and launched into a detailed critique of the Airfix 8th Army officer figure, who had his bayonet on the wrong side...

    8. I take your point about the simplified morality of RPGs. Such worlds are very clearly chaos vs law or good vs evil and shades of grey rarely come into it. My own comment had more to do with my own approach to gaming now.

      Regarding Romans vs Britons, I was initially convinced that it was a form of colonial gaming, but I am not so sure now. It really comes down to what you mean by 'colonial'. For me, colonial gaming is small, well-trained armies with high firepower vs tribal armies with primarily melee weapons. It belongs to the 19th century and that era's imperialism. I wonder if this means that we should differentiate between colonial wars, which the Roman invasion could be construed as being, and colonial wargaming which is something more specific.

    9. I suspect that some part of your current response to the RPG universes might be to do with a growing awareness of the usual lack of such simplified morality in the real world. Perhaps a 'Goblin's right to life' campaign might be appropriate? I seem to recall a Call of Cthulhu joke along the lines of 'Nameless Horrors are People Too'.

      For the Romans and ABs, I agree that it depends on what we mean by colonialism. Perhaps we should extend the definition to being Victorian imperial colonialism, which is clumsy but more specific. But on some views, at least, the Romans seem to have the same idea as the Victorians. On the other hand, I suspect we don't really have enough information to decide on their motives, while the Victorians were kind enough to leave us lots of documents to deduce them.

      So, do I mean that sometimes ignorance is a good basis for a wargame?

    10. If the emphasis is on the game aspect, then ignorance is quite possibly a good basis for the game. Knowing too much could easily get in the way of designing a game, because one tries too hard to incorporate all that one knows.

      My current response to RPGs is very much rooted in my awareness of injustice in the world, and my lack of desire to perpetuate it even in a fictional world. Perhaps I should stick to superhero games. That would be a lot simpler.

    11. I have heard it said that ignorance is bliss...

      Some superheroes might have a morally ambiguous side - doesn't Batman in some of the films? I suppose that if all the world's decisions were black and white, we would put all the politicians out of work.

    12. Batman is certainly morally ambiguous both in comic and film at times. There are many other superheroes who are morally ambiguous too. Now that you mention it, perhaps even a superhero game could be difficult to game. On the other hand, it is easier to accept the moral distinctions in such a game, because the bad guys are the ones who are hurting innocents. The problem then becomes one of defining who is innocent and whether the society that your heroes are protecting is actually morally good. Oh, this is going to go round in circles ... sometimes I think that I should just switch my brain off and play.

    13. Ah yes, that going round in circles feeling, wondering 'is there an issue here, or is it just me?'

      One idea that I quite like is that the superhero theory of righting wrongs is like the myth of redemptive violence; roughly speaking, blowing everything up makes it all OK (like a Sylvester Stallone film).

    14. I know I have a real problem with over-thinking everything. I thought this was a support group for that sort of person! ;)

      The myth of redemptive violence is very compelling. I used to read a lot of westerns as a teenager. The fact that the hero was always able to end all the problems in a gunfight with the bad guy appealed at the time. It's a simple solution to all of life's ills that does not actually work. I've been meaning to do some work on redemptive violence in the Icelandic sagas. I now feel encouraged to try to find the notes I made when I first mooted the topic. That bit of rambling aside, you could be right about superheroes belonging in that area too. Most superhero problems do seem to be solved by beating up the villains.

    15. I think redemptive violence is still a huge issue in today's world. Too many leaders still seem to think that a good quick war will shore up their popularity.

      The best / only place I know to start is Walter Wink, if you can cope with a liberal US theologian. His example is Popeye, as I recall. Not far from Icelandic sagas at all....

    16. The problem seems to be people looking for quick-fix solutions and thinking simplistically. A good quick war is just that sort of thing.

      I'll check out Walter Wink and see how I cope.