Saturday 18 July 2015

More Leisurely Wargaming

According to Sarah Broadie (‘Taking Stock of Leisure’ in Aristotle and Beyond (Cambridge: CUP, 2007)) human selves are essentially practical agents. That is we put a lot of effort into making practical decisions and achieving practical things. We have to deal with the practical necessities first, in order to survive. After all, the first of Douglas Adams’ questions in the scale of civilization was ‘What shall we eat?’

However, Broadie also points out that human selves are essentially much more than practical. In her example, consider what food would be like if the only point of it was to fulfil a biological need. Animals, in general, do not cook; they do not add ingredients together.  Our cat occasionally eats a mouthful or two of cat food, and then turns to the dried stuff. But that is hardly cooking or fine dining. And yet almost no human food consumption consists of something that has been processed, either by the consumer or by someone else, into something that is not the original product. Even if the food is, say, a salad, which does not need much in the way of preparation, it has still been arranged, flavoured, considered in its combination with other food and so on.

Furthermore, consider what the world would be like if we had only practical knowledge. Our knowledge would be patchy, superficial, incoherent and inconsistent if we simply stuck to the practical. In Bernard Lonergan’s realms of meaning, the common sense world (which is roughly equivalent to Braodie’s practical one) is the world we live in most of the time, but our ideas and insights about it are only completed by the concrete problem before us. For example, turning some patchwork into cushion cover is a practical problem. I asked someone (whom I regard as an expert needle-person) how they did it, and they looked at the piece puzzled. ‘I can show you,’ they said eventually, ‘but I cannot tell you.’

Practical knowledge, therefore, is patchy, reliant on unstated assumptions, and cannot wait for adequate reasoning to emerge. This is how most of life is lived. How I decide between two different flavours of marmalade in a supermarket is not (usually) a product of abstract reasoning. It might be guided by some reasons, such as price, supply, whether I like lumpy or smooth marmalade, and so on, but the decision is not a rational one, but a practical one. I take that jar, and move on to the next thing.

Leisure is different, Broadie suggests. We go with the flow of an activity or subject matter. It has its own standards of excellence, its own agenda of questions and challenges. We can aim, in our leisure time, for perfection, or at least, something beyond the simple ‘good enough’ of our everyday existence. These activities can deliver improvements in quality of life, in human welfare, and even generate new industries and practical concerns.

Leisure, then, is something that is supported by practical agency, which supplies the necessities of life. But leisure itself should be construed as one of those necessities; otherwise we would never get beyond eating lettuce. There must be a balance between the obtaining of practical necessities, using the practical human agency, and the leisure activities which may, in due course, improve life. Leisure is to do with the sublime, the beautiful, the interesting or the adventurous. Society should support these activities.

Within leisure, then, there are activities which turn their backs on the everyday. These sorts of things might include the study of stars, abstract sciences, mathematics, philosophies, music and so on. The aim of these is not to obtain a practical end. We cannot travel to the stars. Most abstract mathematics does not find a practical use for a generation or two, and when it does it is usually in another abstract science, such as general relativity.

As an alternative, there are leisure activities which are about something. They re-enact, celebrate or comment on something. For example, a play might comment on current events, even though it is set in the distant past. An example of that would be Shakespeare’s Macbeth. This is, in part, a comment on the origins and longevity of the Stuart kings. Terribly diplomatic, that Shakespeare, you know. Other aspects of the practical world can be incorporated. Sport, for example, could be interpreted on this view as taking its theme from conflict. The decathlon, for example, is claimed to be based on the skills that a messenger in wartime would need in Ancient Greece. I am not arguing for the veracity of that claim, but for how the idea is thematised within the sport itself.

Wargaming, as I am sure you will have deduced by now, falls into the second camp. It comments on, re-enacts, and celebrates events in history. If it is objected that some form of wargaming do not do this, such as science fiction, my only reply is that most science fiction is, in fact, a comment on the present day. The themes of the latter, are extended, taken to extremes and then worked out in a form which does comment on the here and now.

Wargames, then, take a target, that is warfare, and attempt to comment on and re-enact the event. In doing so we aim to understand something of what happened, or what might have happened, or what could have happened. We might not consciously do this, because much wargaming is simply sticking toy soldiers down on a table and pushing them around. But if we have done our painting properly, if the rules are in any way an attempt at being realistic, then the whole activity is an imaginative exploration or a narrative space, whether or not the wargame itself is based around historical events. That exploration is therefore, at some level, an exploration of human potential, or contingency, of our own actions and reactions in a given place and time which is set apart from the normal requirements of human necessity.

And, therefore, O gentle readers, I put it to you that wargaming is a leisure activity of the highest standing.


  1. Some wargaming is like that but I think the vast majority is more akin to prehistoric man listening to hunting and warstories around the campfire and dancing a reenactment of the hunt. Social bonding both by having fun and by celebrating tribal history, a chance to boast and show off, to inspire the young'uns to work hard at their spear chucking skills and keeping the lads too busy to break into the fermented grain.

    Its easy, I think, to forget or ignore the first 90% or more of human experiencr, the time when cooking was waiting for the berries to ripen before picking them or throwing dead animals on the fire or into hot water to make the meat it easier to chew. (which is pretty smart and practical really and better than the other option of letting it rot for a while like other animsls do)

    1. Well, storytelling is also a leisure activity, even if it is just filling in time before the meat is cooked. But I think the point is a bit wider - a society needs leisure time to develop, to tell the stories, inspire spear throwing and so on. Leisure, as Josef Pieper put it, is the basis of culture and without it we would be a lot more boring and ill-informed.

      As to whether wargaming is more like telling war stories around the camp fire or developing abstruse bits of mathematics I'll leave as a task for the reader...

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