Saturday, 14 May 2016

A Brief Defence of Imagi-Nations

Now, I imagine the first response to last week’s post is that ‘it doesn’t apply to me.’ Of course not. It really does not apply because I am not a historical gamer. I am a fantasy or science fiction gamer, or I am a historical gamer but I play in an imagi-nation. The implication here is that these occupations get us off the hook as wargamers. In an imagi-nation, or any of the others, the wargames can exist in as much or as little a vacuum as we choose.

Thus, as non-historical wargamers, we do no need to worry about what our toys eat, where they sleep or what they believe they are fighting for. The game is the thing. We can prescind from all these rather dull and boring bits of social, cultural and intellectual history, and just play games.

This is, of course, all very fine and dandy. It enables us to cut through all the clutter of messy human lives and living, and gives us a clean cut wargame without worry. Something set in a world of imagination carries a lot less baggage than the real thing.

Except that it does not quite work like that.

A fair bit of our culture focusses on the present day. I have noted before that, for example, homosexuality is a major political and cultural issue across the globe. There are countries who are busily banning it and putting perpetrators in prison, and there are countries just as enthusiastically permitting members of the LGBTIQ communities to marry and so on. Is it any wonder that, for example, classical historians are taking an interest in Greek homosexuality?

The point is that the sorts of things that we as a society and culture are interested in tend to be reflected in our literature and research. We can argue, for example, that some of the best science fiction of the 1960’s came out of the Vietnam War. We can also suggest that one of the most popular comedies of the era, MASH, was, while set in the Korean War, also really ‘about’ Vietnam. And so on.

The point is that the best of our cultural creations, however heavily disguised, can be seen as describing our current situation, as developing it, commenting on it, describing and criticising it. Thus Gordon Gekko in Wall Street was, according to the writers, being cynical and critical when is said ‘greed is good’. The fact that this was taken up as a mantra by the financial sector and ultimately caused the 2008 crash is an unfortunate side effect. We are not that good at understanding stuff like that.  Similarly, the government of Yemen had to put out a statement a few years ago that there was not any salmon fishing available in the country. This had to be done despite the fact that the book and the film were really about government and how things are spun for the news. The salmon, the fishing and the Yemen were not the real target.

So, do wargames, even imagi-nations, have a topic rooted in the present day? Are they just pure escapism from the problems of today, or even, can they be?

I was reading a book review recently of a new tome (600+ pages) on the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. I have noted before that I have no intention of wargaming this. You might suggest that repeated denials might undermine the belief in that statement, but I shall continue.

Aside from the fact that the reviewer was a bit startled to have 300 pages per year of the rebellion, they did make a few astute points. Firstly, that the question was about the relationship of Scotland to England. We could possibly wonder where the Scottish Nationalist Party would line up – with the Stuarts or the Hanoverians?

Secondly, of course, there is the presently live issue about Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe. In part the Jacobites failed because of the support from the French government. The French, of course, were playing their own military and diplomatic game, and the Jacobites were hung out to dry when it suited them. The main failure of Bonnie Prince Charlie was to be unable to attract the lowland Scots and English to his side.

Thirdly, there is the issue of how to invade a hostile or potentially hostile country with some hope of succeeding to hold it. Armies throughout history have been faced with this one. The only way to hold territory which is hostile is to build garrisons. This has two effects. First, the strength of the army is dissipated into the garrisons. The field army is denuded of strength. Secondly, these garrisons have to be supported and supplied. This means that they either live off the land, and thus further alienate to inhabitants, or they need regular resupply, thus tying down even more of their colleagues running convoys.

The third way is to do as the Jacobites did, and strike at the seat of government. If BPC had taken London, who knows what might have happened. Failure, however disruptive to the other side, however, usually means defeat.

So, even as historically based book as one about the ’45 has some unexpected resonances with not only the political issues of the day, but also political and strategic (or even grand tactical) issues. Given that our wargames, of whatever nature are, inevitably, part of a cultural matrix, they may, however distant the feel of the game, have a rooting in the issues of the day. A Fuzigore rebellion against the local Rome look-alike state could have resonances which I really do not expect. An ECW game around the Covenanter army can be interpreted on the basis of modern Scottish nationalism. A galactic rebellion against an evil Empire can be freighted with ideas of democracy, totalitarianism and the fight for freedom.

Overall, then, we would have to conclude that a wargame is not just a wargame. After all, for most citizens, the weekly shop is the most political act they engage in. it would be unreasonable to claim that are wargames are not political acts. 


  1. Excellent points. I have been developing a campaign provisionally entitled 'Three Kings in Albion' which is loosely based on the Glorious Revolution of 1688 (I'll not dwell on the currently popular victor knocking diatribe surrounding whether it was 'glorious' or not), and of course am trying to integrate the historical figures of Monmouth, James and later William into a wargaming docu-drama.
    The kicker has been how to model the core issues of the debate and campaign. Am I modelling power blocs grasping for a disputed throne, the reticence of various parties to enter into a second ECW, or indeed the simple juxtaposition of supposed religious freedom vs French absolutism? That's just the thing; without the real world parallel and theme, the imagi-nation gains no context or core value, but contrast that with the reason why I am developing a quasi fictional campaign in the first place - I love the period, but there weren't enough battles in the real thing to justify pushing toy soldiers around...

    1. I think that, indeed, there is the rub.

      I remember a long time ago trying to set up an ECW type imagi-nation. i had a nice map, income, militia, the whole works. the only problem was that all the nations were too nice to go to war....

      it is certainly true, I think, that the 'real' world gives context to our imagi-nations. Whether they reflect the current world is also an interesting question. someone could suggest that the religious freedom / absolutism juxtaposition might have something to do with the UK's angst about the EU.

      But it isn't only, or even major-ly, about that. We like the period, read the books, paint the armies and want to have battles. Sometimes context is just context.

  2. The only imagi-nation I use is very much a conscious political act. It simultaneously claims to espouse the views that I prefer while also having a much darker, ironic sub-text about abuses of power and propaganda. It allows me to explore ideas without getting too emotionally involved, while still allowing for a good game with some elements of whimsy. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go and write a strongly worded letter to the Bwendi Bugle about how the people of neighbouring Albion put the milk into their tea-cups first, instead of putting the milk in last as any decent person would do ...

    1. I fear you may have mis-identified your opponents. Surely the most insidious are those who break their eggs at the wrong end in the morning. They are a heretic fifth column who must be expunged for the good of the majority! Down with the wrong-endians!!

      I do think it a pity that Swift is relegated to a children's story, these days. As political satire goes he can't be bested.

    2. Good political satire is hard to come by these days, especially because political life seems to have exceeded the boundaries of satire anyway. How do you write satire in a post-satire world? That said, I agree about Swift. Brilliant stuff. Reading 'Gulliver's Travels' certainly shaped my approach to my imagi-nation, as did Maurois' 'Fattypuffs and Thinifers'.

      I noted your comments about tea further down the page. I fear you may be buying the wrong fair trade tea then. Loose leaf tea is the future, despite what Marx says about all proper tea being theft, and buying direct from the growers is much easier now so you can directly support plantations that do more for their workers. The spring 2016 Darjeelings are particularly good. It's been a good growing season for them. Sorry, bit of a tea nerd too.

    3. That is true: in a world where Mr Trump is having a good go at becoming POTUS, satire is lagging a long way behind. Berke Breathed bought back 'Bloom Country' because if Trump could do it, so could he...

      I remember Fattypuff and Thinifers, and it was brilliant. I think I preferred the laid back Fattypuffs, something that may be reflected in my shape in later life.

      I defer to your knowledge of teas, and will scour the shops for this Darjeeling of which you speak. I confess my view of Fair Trade tea is coloured by a very early box of tea bags bought when Fair Trade coffee still tasted odd. It was truly foul (nearly as bad as the Marx pun!), but I suppose things have moved forward since.

    4. I fear that most wargamers eventually are expelled from the land of the Thinifers but are welcomed in Fattypuff.

  3. Polemarch, I think you probably have a point. Our tendency to find parallels and resonances is interesting and no more so than in the imaginary worlds that we create for ourselves. That said, I think that a lot of the time we project ourselves onto other peoples problems. I saw a recent production of Coriolanus (the one with Hiddlestone, top stuff) and then saw an interview with the production team afterwards. They described what they thought were the contemporary resonances of the play and I'll be honest, I was wondering if we'd seen the same show. That and they criminally under rated Volumnia.

    I can see your point that ones wargames may be a political act, to the extent that *any* act can be a political act.
    Are you drinking Fair Trade tea? Are you sure it's fair trade enough?

    In the words of Mrs Kinch (who thinks my interest in poetry is closely related to mental illness), "Sometimes a daffodil is just a fucking daffodil."

    There comes a point where Socrates dictum that the unexamined life is not worth living must be kept within decent bounds lest life become too much examination and not enough living. My wargaming choices are certainly shaped by my politics (I dislike playing Second World War Germans or Revolution/Imperial French for example), but I think I would lose a lot of the pleasure of the hobby - it's simple joy - if I were to examine the political implications of every gaily painted toy soldier.

    1. I think that you are right. Any cat can be political, can be interpreted as such. The question is about our interpretation. Shakespeare did not write about our problems, he wrote about his world, but we can only interpret his world through our own cultural matrix.

      I also think that Mrs K. has a point. Not all our political acts are conscious, after all, and we do have to stop to smell the roses, sometimes, without worrying that the roses might indicate support for the Labour Part (there was some discord somewhere recently where market traders were prevented from giving red roses away to ladies on St George's day because the local council was worried about bias - see, everything is political if you look at it in the "right" way).

      If we took Socrates really seriously we'd spend our time examining our life, which would be spent examining our life and so on, ad infinitum. Plus we'd probably starve.

      We cannot examine everything for political implications, agreed, but they do still potentially have them. But I really don't like fair trade tea very much, so I stick with supermarket finest and the guilt associated....

  4. I think Conrad is dead on. My east front troops are supporting two of the worst regimes to ever blight our planet, not necessarily because they like it (sure, some do), because it's what they're stuck with, they have no choice except a very unattractive surrender, and mostly they are patriots. I suppose you could call it a 2-sided version of 1984, but I play for the strategy and tactics, not the politics.

    I also agree with Mrs. Kinch. It takes a smart man to marry a woman like that.

    1. I think that when we get down to the level of the troops, the complexion of the politics takes a different hue.

      I recall a conversation in Len Deighton's Funeral in Berlin. One of the characters was a former concentration camp guard. He could have started by shooting the sergeant, another suggests. But the sergeant was an old social democrat who had a family to support and had lost an arm on the Russian front. How would shooting him changed anything?

      I suppose the question arises as to whether we can separate strategy and tactics from politics. But I think I'll put that one down and slowly back away.

    2. Camus may have been a bit of an arse on occasion - but I recall, I think it's in one of his Combat editorials, a question he fielded about whether it was moral to share a cigarette on a bus with a German soldier. His answer was something along the lines that of course it was alright, at that moment, you are two men sharing a cigarette. You can shoot him later if you have to at a time when he is a German soldier and you are a resistant.

    3. If I'm not under orders to shoot him, I don't?

      I imagine that some patriots might not have liked Camus' answer, but it does make a bit of sense. On the other hand, the 'just following orders' defence isn't one.

      Of course, Camus could always wait until lung cancer got the German, as well. On the other (third?) hand, once the German soldier is wounded, we are obligated to help him.

      Funny thing, ethics.

    4. Wow, from politics to ethics. You just need to bring sex and religion into it and you can piss off everyone at one shot! :)
      Has there ever been an ethical war? What did they do, apologize to the other side and beg to disagree?
      I think you're making this too hard, man. I'm playing with toy soldiers. My Dad was a decorated US Navy veteran of WWII and DAV member (one of 30% of his crew who survived the kamikaze, severely wounded), and while he felt he was doing the right thing at the time (he volunteered at age 26 with a wife and a kid), he didn't believe there was anything good or admirable about any war. My brother, a Viet Nam vet, feels even less disposed to look favorably on war as a means of settling differences; I know he doesn't want his grandson or any of his great-nephews/nieces to be drafted and sent overseas to fight. [I missed it by a hair, my graduating class was the last one that had to register for the Viet Nam draft, and they didn't take me or anyone I know from that class.] After listening to his horror stories for several years, I'm not sorry I missed it. Fight to defend my country from invasion? Hell yes! Fight overseas to further some crooked politicianses' agenda? Hell no, precious!
      But playing with toy soldiers is no more a political or ethical issue to me than would be playing with toy trains or collecting stamps. Now Monopoly, training innocent children to be unscrupulous land barons - that's unethical! :) The only ethical consideration for me is whether I am depriving my family due to my hobby expenditures. I'm sure I'm not, or I wouldn't be doing it.

      I realize that the eastern front was one of the most hideous events in human history. By the time it was over, both sides hated each other with unimaginable ferocity and there were countless atrocities committed by both sides. I think many people are not aware that the ultimate Nazi agenda in the east was extermination for many and literal enslavement for the rest. It's inconceivable to a reasoning person. My little plastic dudes don't feel any of that; they're just happy to be out of the box for a change.

      Remember, a very wise man (me) once said: Life is both a tragedy and a comedy. The tragedy is that so many people take it so seriously. The comedy is the outrageously stupid things they do because they take it so seriously.

      Hope you're having as much fun with this as I am. If not, just delete it.

      Supplicant: "Mister Natural, Mister Natural, what does it all mean?"
      Mr. Natural: "It don't mean shit, man!"

      [which also makes a good mantra]

    5. Religion I could manage to drag it. Sex might take a little more imagination :).

      I think I understand. The politics of the real world, and its wars are usually, at best, dominated by mixed motives, and a lot of the people on the front line don't have a lot of choice about it.

      I read an article by someone pondering the Somme recently. There was, he concluded, a lot of heroism there, but the heroism was coerced. Perhaps it is the coercion that sticks.

      I think that, from the mere fact that we're discussing it, the choice of era / army / war to wargame is a political act. It depends on the sort of politics we are talking about, and that is slippery. But perhaps we can and do wargame the Eastern Front because we want to keep in mind that wars are nasty, and also that there is still something worthwhile about the, um, pageant (for want of a better word for it) of the conflict. After all, wargamers cannot be buying all the books about the Nazis. Certainly agreeing not to wargame the conflict and to pretend it didn't happen would be, I think, wrong.

      Nevertheless, i do think buying, say, Eastern Front wartgame figures is a slightly political act. It might, for example, encourage more manufacturers to
      amke figures for that era, more rule writers to produce rules and so on. It might, of course, promote a more balanced view and better research on the conflict (and hence a greater determination to not let it happen again). It might lead to its being sanitized. The outcome is not determined, but it is a mildly political activity.

      But that is true of buying figures for any period.

      I think someone said (Churchill?) 'Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel'. War seems to be both. Perhaps that is why it is a subject of such interest and fascination.

      But keep posting; I'm garnering topics for the future :).

    6. Do we game Eastern Front because we want to remember wars are nasty, or because it has greater distance from our parents'/grandparents' experience of war? I'm not sure I would agree with the idea that we do it to remember that wars are nasty. Perhaps some do, but I suspect most don't. To many wargamers, it probably has more to do with being able to game the largest tank battles of WW2. I think that negotiating the political difficulties of both sides in that arena is not high on their agenda. While there are certainly subconscious political decisions being made here, the idea that it is all just toy soldiers in the end probably dominates. Do you think that gamers make the emotional connection that is needed, or does it remain a wholly intellectual one?

    7. I doubt that most wargamers consider the politics or ethics of any period before starting it. But it might draw them into considering the problems, politics and ethics that the period might engender.

      So initially, no, the wargamer makes an intellectual decision (or maybe an emotional one - 'ooh, shiny') and does not engage with the other issues, in my view.

      I guess I'm trying to persuade wargamers that there are issues beyond shoving toys around tables. I am not convinced that I am succeeding, nor that the issues should stop certain sorts of wargames, but I do think they need to be dragged out into the light and looked over from time to time.

  5. I think you're up against human nature. You have the advantage that wargamers who read wargaming blogs (as opposed to just looking at pictures of toy soldiers) are more likely to be readers and thinkers, but we're talking about a very small audience now. Most people (probably even most wargamers) don't like to think! I don't get it, but it's true. Not about important issues, anyway. Sure, what toy will I buy next, where will I go on vacation, when can I get laid again, what movie do I want to see this weekend. But nothing that requires research or analysis of socially-oriented issues: what do we do about global warming, dependence on fossil fuels, education, the growing economic disparity in our society, the antiquated forms of government under which we live. The most consideration that is given such issues is when the topic comes up in conversation, and when the topic changes, it is as quickly forgotten.
    I mean, in the US they elected GW Bush! Twice!! No thinking going on there. Donald Trump may be the next Prez. Same point. Partly I blame the educational system, but I'm sure it's mostly just human nature to not want to examine yourself, your friends, your hobby, your society in any deeply meaningful way. It's hard, it's unsettling, and in the end there's so little you can do about whatever conclusions you reach. If it wasn't for the feeling of helplessness/hopelessness there might be hope to shape this aspect of human nature, but how do you get people to change their patterns of thinking if there seems to be no advantage to be gained by doing so? When being aware just means being saddened and frustrated by you inability to influence anything, obliviousness becomes an attractive alternative.
    At least, that's what my Airfix guys tell me. My Revell guys don't agree at all, and my Atlantic guys are really out there...

    1. Well, David Hume, when he was unsettled by the implications of his philosophy, went a played backgammon with his friends until it went away.

      Funnily enough, I was having a similar conversation with a student a few days ago. She was asking what can we do to change the system, and really didn't like the answer that we are part of the system and, almost entirely, powerless to change it.

      I mean, I have only ever once voted for the candidate who was elected in a general election, let alone the party that won. Democracy may work, but only because it is the least worst system we have come up with.

      But I do agree with your Airfix guys. Most humans find thinking unsettling and unpleasant, and try to avoid it as much as possible. Similarly, most wargamers prefer to push figures around the table and play games. I am only a partial exception to that. Thinking about what we might be doing when we are playing wargames is not something many want to do, present company excepted.

      On the other hand, I can't post pictures of my eye-catching figures, terrain because I can't paint or take photographs, as the occasional evidence on the blog will confirm. It doesn't stop me thinking these things, or posting them, however. I know I'll never change the world, or perhaps I'm just getting old and cynical.