Saturday, 18 March 2017

Wargame Identity

As someone noted recently in a comment, identity is an interesting thing. It crops up almost everywhere. There is, for example an ‘identity politics’, and also a ‘politics of identity’. What the difference is I leave as an exercise for the reader.

Identity seems to be predicated on the assumption that there is, in fact, something irreducible to me, as a person, as an entity. I am more that my spatial-temporal activities. One of the authors I have read on this matter, Ian Ramsey, has an argument along these sorts of line. His example is, so far as I recall, this:

You meet a work colleague. ‘I’m tired’ they say.
‘Why are you so tired?’
‘Because I got up at four am’
‘Why did you do that?’
‘Because I was meeting Tom at the river bank.’
And so on, until it transpires that your colleague went to go fishing. When you ask ‘Why fishing?’ you get a different sort of answer. ‘You know what I’m like about fishing’.  There is no further question to be asked. The next question would by, again, ‘Why fishing’ and the answer would be similar. Fishing, for your colleague is irreducible. The answer to ‘Why fishing?’ is something like ‘Because I’m I’.

Ramsey, being a theologian, wants to use the argument above to show that the soul exists and that it is immortal. I’m not sure that the argument works to that end, but that is not the point here. The point is that there is something irreducible about the person. There is something that cannot be explained in terms of anything else. The man likes fishing, and there is an end to it. He orientates his life around fishing; he is prepared to sacrifice sleep for it, and so on.

I suggest, metaphysical arguments about the soul aside, that this irreducibility of activities, particularly hobby activities, is a part of what it means to have an identity. There is an irreducible ‘I’m I’ about our spatio-temporal actions, something about them that we do because we are us.

Before the language gives up in this area, I think this applies, without much adjustment, to our self-identity as wargamers. I could, with a little thought, come up with a similar dialogue to that above which concludes ‘Because I’m a wargamer’ as a similar sort of statement that admits few additional questions.

Of course, we could start to analyse ‘Why are you a wargamer?’ That would start to ask other sorts of questions, however. I might be a wargamer because I was traumatised by being scared by a soldier as a baby, for example, and wargaming is my way of getting revenge in the solider profession. A little far-fetched, perhaps, but it does not address the fact that, in the here and now, being a wargamer is part of my identity, part of who I am.

Further, we could ask as to what sort of wargamer you are. From the comments section even of this blog a variety can be deduced. There are ‘social’ gamers, people for whom the main reason for wargaming is the social interaction. If that is not available, no wargaming happens. There are solo wargamers, who for reasons of time, space or temperament, wargame on their own. There are role playing gamers, skirmish wargamers, ancient wargamers, World War Two wargamers, wargamers of different genres and scales, and many (if not most) who cross over between these different categories in a way that, quite likely, bewilders non-wargamers.

Any attempt at self-identification within these groups is bound to be a little difficult. After all, we can, ourselves, vary quite widely across these categories anyway, and so few wargamers are going to announce to the world ‘I am a social ancient wargamer’, or ‘I am a solo World War Two wargamer’ or whatever is floating your wargame boat at that point. Nevertheless most readers of the blog may well be fairly happy with the statement ‘I am a wargamer’, whatever the nuance on that might be.

Being a wargamer, of course, indicates that you will partake in a number of spatio-temporal activities, such as playing wargames, reading sets of rules, books, painting toy soldiers and so on. None of these are irreducible to wargaming, in the same that buying floats and untangling lines are not irreducible aspects of fishing. With the possible exception of actually playing wargames, being a wargamer does not entail painting and reading, it just tends to happen that way.

The irreducibility, therefore, is not grounded in the spatio-temporal activity. Where then can it be found? The only suggestion I can make is that it exists in the mind of the wargamer themselves. I am, indeed, I, and this is part of what it means to be ‘I’. I might be able to conceive of myself as a non-wargamer, but part of who I am is that I wargame. If I were sent to prison for twenty years and then emerged, would I still be a wargamer, as someone who had not pushed a figure or rolled a dice for that time? The answer would depend on what was going on in my mind, whether I was still interested.

We do, of course, have many other irreducible parts of ourselves. We have jobs, names, families, places where we live, even, possibly, things we do other than wargame. Our identities are complex and multi-faceted. They are also mutable. I am not exactly the same as I was twenty years ago, whether I have spent that time in prison or in a variety of more or less dead-end jobs. My wargaming self too has changed – in my case from Renaissance to Ancient wargaming. Other wargamers change as well; our interests within the hobby vary over time.

So, I think that being a wargamer is more than just the activities we associate with wargaming. You could, in principle, be a wargamer without actually wargaming, although how long the interest would last is a bit of a tricky question. As irreducible, however, wargaming is part of the identity of a wargamer. It might be a greater or lesser part thereof, but part of it it is.


  1. Interesting. I think you're right. There does seem to be something irreducible about being a wargamer whilst that doesn't seem to be the case with regards to being a wargamer of a specific type or period. Whilst all my wargaming for many years has been the 'black era' period, I'm not 'not an Ancients' gamer. I indulge a particular period, many because of time, space and financial constraints.

    Conversely, when the subject of the national winter sport crops up, and I'm asked whether I'm 'into' it, I half-jokingly announce, 'I don't follow football. I'm a Grimsby Town fan.'

    Your question about a wargamer in prison set my mind thinking about the challenges that would pose ;-) I think Bob Cordery's Portable Wargames would come in handy.

    1. I think we need some volunteer wargamers to obtain criminal convictions for a bit of research :)

      Would the equivalent to Grimsby for a wargamer be Burgundian Ordonnance? Or Napoleonic Ottomans?

      But yes, 'I am a wargamer' - I might even find a WW2 game interesting, just not my thing really.

    2. Results wise, yes! And as a hobby, it's strictly a minority interest. However, they're much less colourful than either Burgundians or Ottomans.

  2. My first thought on the prison question was "well, a "REAL" wargamer would find a way, even if it was scratching battle maps in the dirt if they wouldn't let you have paper and a pencil".

    I can come up with a list of aspects of the hobby that give me pleasure and traces influences and events that got me into the hobby or increased my attachment or involvement but I'm not sure it really explains it anymore than a similar list would help explain my wife's even more intense identification as a purebreed dog show person.

    However, having such an obsession makes it easy to accept and understand another's having an obsession (as opposed to the obsession itself). What is hard to understand is the apparently large number of poor, incomprehensible people who aren't obsessed with some non-practical hobby.

    1. Ah, I suppose it takes one fanatic to recognise another...

      As for non-obsessed people, the poor souls, obsession seems to be part of the human condition, so the non-obsessed are clearly lacking in something.

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  4. Great post again with much to think about.

    It seems likely that the wargamer identity is created in part by being part of a community of like-minded enthusiasts. The identity is created by being part of a group, even when only a solo gamer. The group identification/identity may well be the key to understanding why some say they are wargamers, while others just play wargames. I totally agree that being a wargamer is more than just rolling dice and pushing figures round a table, but I do wonder if the group identity is where the irreducibility lies rather than in the individual minds of the wargamers.

    1. I suppose that it works both ways. The wargame community defines, roughly, what a wargame is and an individual self-identifies with that set of activities or does not.

      On the other hand, the wargame community is a set of people who identify as wargamers. If all (or most) of those people decided that wargaming was something else, then identity of both individual and group would shift.

      I guess that the irreducibility lies both with the group and the individual. So I'll keep a foot in both camps.

    2. I suppose it comes down to when a person begins to identify as a wargamer, rather than just playing wargames. Presumably the process of creating the wargamer identity takes time and involves emotional engagement with the subject. This possibly includes focus on individual gaming, and perhaps on engagement with the community. Engagement with the community may develop and reinforce the sense of identity, or it may actually create it as the gamer becomes part of the sub-culture. I'm not really sure about this and need to read more on identity creation in sub-cultures if I am to say anything remotely sensible. You are clearly sensible to keep a foot in both camps.

    3. Yes, I think there is a synthesis from individual to group and group to individual.

      But there are also physical constraints, such as the tables, toys and dice. There are only so many things you can do with those, after all.

      Perhaps we could look at becoming a wargamer as a process of critical learning: some bits are accepted, some are rejected, but we learn about the sub-culture and, as such, start to identify with the group.

      As for a foot in both camps, either sensible or indecisive....

    4. Yes, I think it is a process of critical learning and acculturation.

      It's not that you are keeping a foot in both camps, really. You are keeping an open mind and weighing up the evidence as it comes to you. So, definitely the sensible option.