Saturday 16 May 2015

Tales of Mystery and Imagination

Thus far, I have written a fair bit about wargames, the culture they spring from and the preconceptions we bring to them. I have claimed, for example, that wargames are an example of enlightenment rationality. Thus, in a wargame, we can fairly well predict what will happen, barring a few random bits and pieces. Cannons will shoot and, within a predictable manifold of probability, will cause a certain amount of damage. Even when, for example, it is pointed out that casualty rates in real battles are far below that in wargames, this is rationalised away as lightly wounded, their comrades bravely helping them to the rear, and those whom, as the Earl of Essex politely put it, ‘have gone to see their friends’.

This is, of course, all well and good, but it seems to be side-stepping an important bit of being human, which is the emotional side. We rationalise away the fact that units disintegrate in real life, model it, but actually turn it in to some intelligible activity. Running away might be a wholly understandable activity in a battle (I’m sure I would participate in it), but it is not necessarily the most rational course of action; most casualties in (pre-modern at least) battle are sustained during the rout.

The focus on models and rules in wargames, of which I am entirely guilty, is the application of a sort of ‘cold’ rationality. The real world, that of a battle, is chopped up into a series of models, the outcome of which (or, rather, the outcomes of the models and their interactions) is compared with that real life original to see whether it has worked out, in any sense, as the original has. So far, so coolly Enlightenment rational.

There is, however, much more to a wargame (or, for that matter, a real battle) than just some machinations, calculations and outcomes. A wargame also has emotion, it has mystery, for we know not what the outcome will be, and it makes use of our imagination, otherwise it would be seen for what it is, merely pushing bits of lead (or cardboard, or whatever) about a table. There must be more to a wargame than simply the cool rationality of rules and army lists.

Firstly, of course, there is the aesthetic imagination which is engaged when surveying a wargame table, nicely set up, with decent terrain and well painted soldiers. We consider that to be nice; a nice demonstration game at a show, for example, might tempt us to give that period a go. This seems to be somewhat akin to the suspension of disbelief that occurs when watching a good film, or reading a decent novel, or seeing a well-acted play. The line between make-believe and reality blurs, as is does sometimes with children playing a game. We focus our attention on it; it becomes, somehow, real, while, at some level we know that it is fiction, make believe, and that we are safe. We can safely experience a range of feeling we would not have (for example, of being in a British square at Waterloo) without the danger and inconvenience of actually being there. We know that the actor is not King Lear and is not blinded, but at some level, that does not matter.

So our imagination is engaged by a wargame. I think that this is not only our aesthetic imagination, in seeing the troops, but also our narrative one (if, indeed, narrative and aesthetic can be so divided). As with a new novel or film, we want to know what happens next. Even if we know the outcome of the original battle, we want to know if the Light Brigade will get to the gun line. The narrative thread is strong enough to move us on into the unknown. Even in something as simple as a wargame, the thread of narrative is, usually, strong enough to draw us to an outcome. Even boring and one sided games have their moments of interest. We can take emotional sides, rooting for the smaller force to escape, for a particular officer to survive, and so on. Our imagination is fully engaged, as can our emotions be also.

It is possible that somewhere under all this there are answers to questions about whether this is a good wargame or not; or, perhaps a little more pointedly, whether this is a wargame campaign that will fly or not. It is not enough simply to have some good mechanics, some decent rules, a nice campaign map and some willing players. The wargamer’s emotions must also be engaged. Their imaginations must be stimulated.

It is a fairly well acknowledged issue that simple, single, pick-up games tend to pall after a while. We deploy our troops, maybe have an enjoyable battle, but eventually we might seek something more. For many wargamers this might be another period to research, buy figures for, evaluate rules and play more games. But others might seek a more ongoing narrative, to care more about the armies, the countries they represent, the characters of nations and individuals. The mysteries of the future for these entities beckon us on.  We start to care for the characters and their wellbeing, even if we try to bracket out that care for them on the wargames table.

Wargames are usually (not always, but usually) conducted by men, and the male of the species is generally regarded as not being good at expressing emotion. This is, in fact, only partially true, as attendance at a football or rugby match will show. In wargaming, of course, we have our favourite units and armies, and it might be interesting to reflect on how we feel when they perform well or badly. In golf, for example, it has been observed that albatrosses are due to bad luck, but that we are personally responsible for every hole in one. It is our engagement with our armies that makes them into armies, rather than just lumps of painted metal or plastic.


  1. Interesting line of thought. Keeping up the level of personal engagement is a different kind of challenge in a solo environment, maybe - but there are different things to be absorbed by.

    There is an element of disillusionment in a lot of hobby activity. I remember being absolutely thrilled to go to visit a school friend who (with his brother) had the most fantastic model railway layout I had ever seen - unbelievable. After just one afternoon I could think of nothing more tedious than continuing to watch those stupid, beautiful trains going round and round. There are many who find that wargaming is not all they originally hoped - I believe that some of the blind obsession we see with getting back to Featherstone etc is to try to recapture a lost magic which we grew out of or eventually found to be flawed.

    1. I think personal engagement is, um, a personal thing. I confess that when the wargaming palls, I go an read some Featherstone. The enthusiasm shines through, even if Old School Wargaming is not my thing.

      But I do think that there is more emotional engagement in wargaming than I, at least, first thought. Some of us even have favourite units, which can be nudged just out of charge range when needs be....

  2. I agree that personal engagement makes the hobby more interesting. A few observations.

    Not expressing emotion is not the same as not experiencing and there are "acceptable" ways for even Manly Men to express certain emotions, such as atfootball games but elsewhere as well. but it interesting to watch gamers at public events such as participation or competition games at shows.

    I started off with the example of Lawford & Young and of Tony Bath's Hyborian campaign before me and no army list or similar to guide building our ancient armies so a backstory and pseudo campaign with maps and histories of characters and units. After graduating I moved on to thinking that proper wargaming required historical accuracy (whatever that is) and thus should involve refighting historical battles or plausible what if scenarios. Contrary to expectation, this decreased engagement and enjoyment but not enthusiasm and after 40 years I find myself back building backstories for fictionsl lands and weaving tabletop battles into a continuing, developing narratives. Possibly seeking lost youth but also reaching back to campfire tales of heroes and gods told millenia ago.

    1. I suppose a lot of expressing emotions depends on our engagement as well. 'Our' team engages, but as a neutral observer I can appreciate but not necessarilty express the same depth of engagement / emotion.

      i guess also what keeps us ticking in the hobby changes. history, narrative, aesthetics, plausibility and such all go together, in presumably differing quantities, along with more mundane things like time and family commitments. I never cease to wonder at how much time I spent as a teenager wargaming or playing RPGs. Seriously not possible now, as a responsible adult....