As with so many things in human life, we, as the humans with those lives, are forced, somehow, to cope with it. Largely we do this by categorizing things and people that we encounter. Thus, we say of something with four wheels and an engine ‘it is a vehicle’. If we want to be more specific, we say ‘it is a car’ or ‘it is a truck’, or whatever. Once we have categorized the object in such a way, the details of it are of less interest to us. It is a such-and-such and thus will be have in this sort of expected way.
This way of thinking is as old as Aristotle, and quite probably a lot older. Aristotle divided the world by genus and species. We have a tree, it behaves like a tree. We have another tree. It is not the same as the first tree, but it looks similar, so it is the same species. We have a third tree, which is also a tree but it is different to the first two. It is a different species but the same genus. All of them, by whatever means, are recognised by us as trees.
This sort of thing can, of course, break down. We categorize things that orbit the sun as planets. But then we find asteroids, and have to work out if they fit into the genus planet or are something else. Similarly, we can classify Pluto as a planet, and then change our mind and call it a planetoid, and then, perhaps, change our minds back. Our neat categories do not fit nature quite as well as they seemed to before we encountered this sort of data.
We might wonder if this really matters. After all, so far as we know, Pluto is not sentient, and is unlikely to take economic sanctions against Earth as a result of us being able to decide if it is a planet or not. On the other hand, the arguments over the status of Pluto do make it sound that something is at stake in the classification, even if it is rather hard to make out what that something is, exactly.
Humans do this sort of classification all the time. We classify rocks, life, planets, stars, activities and food, to name but a few. And our classification systems tend to overlap: food can be nice or nasty, good for us or not, fattening and pleasurable, and healthy and dull. Out categories overlap and, if we stop to think about them for a few minutes, can be overwhelming. But mostly they work, even if it would be nice if ‘experts’ could work out whether eating, say, chocolate, is bad for us or not. I suspect the answer is ‘it depends’, because so many things are driven by context.
Which brings me, in a roundabout sort of way (mmm, chocolate) to wargaming. We do a lot of categorizing in wargaming. Our troops are heavily categorized, for one thing: infantry, cavalry, light or heavy, we categorize by weapon, tactics, training, morale, expectation of performance and so on. Of course, this is how we make wargame rules work. The rules, the models, have to accommodate everything into as few categories as possible.
We do the same for battles, of course. We have set piece battles, ambushes, encounters, skirmishes, sieges, escalades and so on. We also write rules for the specific sort of battle. We have ‘big battle’ rules, skirmish rules, role playing, and, I dare say somewhere, rules for medium sized wargames as well. We read history (itself a category, incidentally, wargamers, at least those who do read history, tend to read military history, a sub-genre of the species) and work out the sort of battles fought, according to our schemes of understanding.
In this way, of course, we can all stand accused of imposing our categories upon the world. Now, I am no Kantian, but I think there is a grain of truth in his claim that we impose our pre-conceived categories on our world. The best discussion of this is, in fact, I think, Douglas Adams’ concept of ‘someone else’s problem’ fields. The general idea is that we do not see some things because we think they are someone else’s’ problem, and thus we ignore them. We impose a pattern on the world and miss things out which we do not want to see.
I suppose the danger here is reading our histories of battles in this way, or reading the battle narrative with a certain point of view, set of rules, or array of models in mind. This scheme we already have can, and probably will, dispose us to read history in a certain way. Depending on what we think about say, imperialism, colonialism can be read as either bringing the benefits of civilization to the benighted heathen, or as the systematic destruction of a functioning society for the gain of metropolitan centres. Of course, there are also all points in between, and considerably more nuanced points of view, but the point is that what we already think, what we already conceive the world in categories as, will affect how we read and what we make of it.
So finally, to wargamers themselves. We assess other people in categories, of course. How else can we survive? My cat categorizes the world into unfriendly and friendly, and runs away from the former. I might categorize other wargamers into historical and fantasy, or role player and figure gamer. In fact, as I’m sure we all could agree, there is not a huge difference between these categories, and they are, anyway, flexible to an almost unbelievable degree. But we have to do it to make any sense of the world, and it does have unfortunate consequences.
One of the most powerful ways in human experience to gain fresh insights or new ideas is to find a synergy with something else. This is usually beyond the bounds of our categories, or at least, across the boundaries of them. Harry Potter, for example, crossed the categories of school story and fantasy novel (and made the author very rich into the bargain). As wargaming is a relatively small hobby, can we do the boundary crossing thing and gain from it?