Saturday, 14 January 2017

Wargamer’s Readings of History

I have noted before that wargamers have, in all likelihood, a particular view of history, and a particular use for the texts thereof. Wander around the book stalls of your local wargaming show and, I suspect, two things will become clear to you. Firstly, wargamers are, even in these days of the Internet, a fairly book-ish tribe. Secondly, they are interested in politics, campaigns, battles and military dress, and very little more.

History, of course, encompasses much more than this list of what, I think, historians would conceive of as fairly minor sorts of interests. I once read that professional historians were little interested in the battle of Agincourt and its outcome, but much more interested in the Treaty of Troyes and what it tells us about medieval kingship. This always struck me as slightly odd, partly because I had just read an article by Austin Woolrych bemoaning this attitude among historians, and secondly because Troyes would not have happened if Henry V had gone down under the weight for the French attack in 1415.

Woolrych observed that, when he started being a historian, it struck him that some idea of how things turned out, of who won the battles, for example, was quite important. Professional historians, he discovered, did not really agree, which he found very strange. For myself, I do find that historiography’s focus on thematic analysis is only of any use when you have a firm understanding of the chronology of the period in question. Otherwise it just gets confusing. That chronology is often not present in academic historiography, and thus it seems, at least, to split itself off from events. Sometimes, it seems, history can spend its time examining the lichen on the bark of a tree, and forget that the wood exists.

In spite of all this, of course, the spate of respectable history books by professional historians published about Agincourt around 2015 was rather large. Whether or not the main focus of the profession is on the Treaty of Troyes, some historians clearly have an eye to the popular history main chance, and what the book-buying public might be interested in. Battles are, if nothing else, high drama which even Eastenders or similar soap operas find it hard to compete against. When it comes to conflict, battles are hard to beat.

Nevertheless, it is true that wargamers, as a community, have a different set of interests, and a different set of readings, from people who are following, say, church history, or medical history, or the social history of dustmen, or whatever. We read the same texts, perhaps – in ancient history particularly there are only a limited number of texts to read – but we read them in a different way, asking different questions and finding answers that satisfy those, in whole or part. A medical historian reading Arrian might be interested in Alexander’s wounds, their treatment and his final illness. A wargamer would be interested in the numbers of troops in the armies.
In terms of the authority to interpret, what we have here is a diverse set of interpretative communities. The medical historians and the military ones, let alone the wargamers, probably have little to talk about beyond the interpretation of certain words. This is not strictly because they talk past each other (although that happens) it is just an indication of diverse interests. The secondary literatures that build up around these topics are usually only of interest to the members (more or less peripheral to them) of that community of interest. Interpretations are then relative to that community.

Thus, for the wargaming community, the interpretations we seek are those which aid the community in the fulfilment of its aims. The aim of the wargaming community is, of course, to play wargames, and to enjoy them. As has been noted a few times here, while that aim is not incompatible with having an interpretation of history which is acceptable in a wider historiographical community, such as professional historians, it does not entail that a wargame is historical. A wargame may be a reasonable and acceptable interpretation of a historical event, but it does not have to be.

The acceptability of a wargame, therefore, is not a simply function of its historicity, nor is it one of the fun of the game. It is, rather, a complex function of the two, plus a few other aspects, such as aesthetic appeal, playability of the rules, sociability and so on. But it is, I think, a mistake to suppose that a ‘good’ wargame is a historical wargame, or a wargame played strictly for fun. As with so many things, the truth of what a good wargame is lies between these poles.

Interpretations of history of interest to wargamers thus tend to evolve. Wargaming started, perhaps, with the view of the activity of the individual solider, what he could do in a certain time. As understanding of battles and their concomitant activities evolved, some aspects of wargames became more unit based, and the interest switched to what a unit could achieve in a certain amount of time. Of course, there was a backlash to this as, perhaps, a more ‘romantic’ view of the soldier as hero reasserted itself. History as written and interpreted is an aspect of this, but only one of the inputs to the debate.

Who, then, has authority of interpretation in wargaming? The answer is, perhaps inevitably, no one. But the reasons for making that the answer are at least a little interesting. There are active debates in wargaming between the unit and the individual, and that debate is articulated through big battle and skirmish type rules and games. What we actually think are important aspects of military conflicts is shown though our activities. Not that, of course, our opinions do not shift, but consider this: if you fight a wargame with a set of skirmish rules, and the same wargame with a set of big battle rules, you are almost certain to get a different outcome.

Nevertheless, Einstein encouraged sociologists of science not to listen to what scientists said they do, but to watch what they do. How much, I wonder, of wargamer’s commitments to interpretations of history can be seen in the games that we play?


  1. Excellent post! We find what we seek and I interpret (or reinterpret) history every time I set up a wargame and resolve it on the gaming table. Rules, scale of action, and prejudices all lead to steering our interpretations. The answer to your last question, in my opinion, is "most."

    1. I'd guess you'd be right, but perhaps the level of commitment is given by the inside of the wargamer's cupboard, or possibly their unpainted lead pile....

  2. Of course, in a 60's/70's pov, if your wargame rules were accurate and complete then they should be correct for both a skirmish and a battle, of course the latter might then need srveral thousands of players, a drill hall and many hours to play, or more realistically happen only in dreams.

    The answer to the last game varies, I think, with the sort of wargamer. Putting them all into 4 too broad and too vague categories, I see them as a fairly large group eith very shallow or non-existent knowledge of or personal interpretation of history which makes the question meaningless, a perhaps as large or larger group who mistake the game as history or to put it differently who base their interpretation of history on the wargames. A smaller but substantial group who start with the history and delude themselves that they have captured it and lastly a fair number who find the idea of a satisfying game and a valid or accurate intreptation of history to be incompatible but are happy as long as the game at least invokes history like good art or fiction might.

    1. I like the categorisation and I roughly agree with your rough groups. I think there is a further thing, though, which depends on how much wargamers in each category are aware of their position and how much they care.