There is usually a range of opinion regarding some of the posts I make to this blog, and last week one on ‘The Spirituality of Wargaming’ is no exception. As you have probably already noticed, the term ‘spirituality’ was intentionally left vague. Any attempt to nail it down runs the risk of becoming like those sociologists of religion who try to understand what people mean when they say they are ‘spiritual but not religious’. To be honest, that expression reminds me of a Not the Nine O’clock News sketch called, I think ‘The Agnostic’s Creed’, which began ‘I believe in God, or at least it stands to reason that there is something out there, doesn’t it; did you see that program on BBC2?’ I dare say someone can dig up a YouTube clip of it….
Anyway, I chose the term ‘spiritual’ to differentiate some parts of wargaming, those which go on in our heads, from the material components of wargaming, the soldiers, terrain and so on. One of the things that does go on in our heads is the narrative component of the game. Someone on The Miniatures Page commented that the last post was a long winded way of saying that we liked the narrative part of the game. That would, I think, be true (I’ve never made claims to brevity, here) but I do not think it is the whole story.
Another comment was to the end of someone plonking badly painted figures on the table and attempting to use all the rule tricks in the book to win the game. There is nothing, I suppose, intrinsically wrong with that, but it is not really helping anyone else whose interest might be in the narrative flow, the imaginative parts of the game. We could describe our figure plonker (for want of a better expression) as a wargaming materialist, in the sense that the other aspects of the wargame mean less to them. That is not to say, I suppose, that winning is a material aspect of the game, but that the material parts, such as just using the figures as counters, count for more.
This is, I think, where it starts to be shown that even the material aspects of the game have a spiritual expression. The Estimable Mrs P used to tease me massively about the advent of ‘Grey Armies’, those unpainted figures that you just wanted (at least, in the first flush of youth) to get onto the table and have a game with. Maybe it was an expression of enthusiasm, or youthful callowness, but now, as a solo wargamer, I still shudder a bit to recall that I did use unpainted figures. It is not something I would consider doing now.
The point, at which I am slowly and long windedly aiming, is that the material components of the wargame can also have a spiritual dimension. In the book about the Spirituality of wine, which started this whole idea, the author comments that there are few pleasures in the world better than slowly sipping a glass of well-crafted wine in good company, and preferably with good food as well. In terms of human social activity, she is probably right.
In terms of wargaming activity, what is the equivalent? I think, and I am becoming more convinced of it as I get older, that a wargame with nicely painted figures on nicely made and laid out terrain, with a good reason for having a wargame (a scenario or as part of a campaign) is probably as good as wargaming gets. The rest is down to the company. Using half- or un-painted figures detracts from that. Having a game just because you want a game also detracts from it. It is not that such a sort of game is a bad thing, but that it is not the best. In the same way that industrial-technology wine turned out by the million bottles is better than no wine at all, any wargame is better than none, but should we not, as wargamers, be aiming for the best games that we can have, the best overall experience?
Most wargamers, I think, would agree. The quantity of effort that goes into, say, demonstration games at shows is remarkable. The figure painting, terrain making and so on are true creations of a craft form which, in many other walks of life, is being squeezed out. And, perhaps, there, in that last sentence, it the key to the pleasures of wargaming, and also, maybe, to the paradox of the hobby.
If nothing else, wargaming, as I have described it, is creative. We create our soldiers, our units, our armies. Even though many of us buy toy soldiers, their painting and basing is our creation. The terrain too is ours. The Estimable Mrs P looked in on a Fuzigore game once, there the Romans were being ambushed, and noted that the terrain was creative, the game narrative was so as well. As a hobby, wargaming can release our creative expression, even if the rest of life consists in sitting in front of computer screens.
The paradox this reveals, of course, is that warfare is anything but creative. Wars, at least as they have been practiced in the twentieth century, are the ultimate in the capacity of the human race for destruction. Even before the unleashing of the destructive powers of the military-industrial complex, wars could be seriously destructive. You only have to read Geoffrey Parker’s Global Crisis to realise that.
And yet some part of humanity can work with that destructiveness and turn it into something creative. Even a Second World War Russian front game can have an aesthetic creativity to it. It is most emphatically not my thing, but I can accept that, to those interested, the wargaming activity can be a thing of aesthetic pleasure. Perhaps it is just that there is nothing so awful that humanity cannot redeem it a little bit. I am not sure. But I can see it happening.
So I shall leave this one on this note of paradox. Creativity in chaos; a wargame full of craft and aesthetic delight from a field of destruction. What will we think of next?