Saturday, 22 April 2017

A Wargamer of Wealth and Taste

Looking back through the records of this blog it has been going an amazingly long time – who knew I could type so much?) there is a theme which keeps coming around. It is not about history, accuracy, authenticity or anything else which is, or could be, particularly objective. It is about taste.

Taste is, of course, hard to define, hard to pin down and highly personal. What is to my taste is reasonably unlikely to be yours. As, I think, W. C. Fields once said ‘Don’t do to others as you would have them do to you. Their tastes may be different.’

And so to wargaming, achieved much sooner than in the posts of late. I have, no doubt, drivelled on before rather a lot about wargames and taste. I might find a particular sort of wargaming highly acceptable. For example, a game set during the Lebanese civil war, where victory might consist of using a car bomb to assassinate my political and military rivals. That may not be to your taste. Fair enough: you do not have to play.

However, in the tradition of the blog, I have to push things a little further. Is simply refusing to play a sufficient sort of response? Your offense at my game is palpable. My reaction could be deemed to be inappropriate. Is there simply a matter of taste at stake?

I have, I think, mentioned before vaguely, that non-historical and fantasy or science fiction games might be used to explore recent or contemporary issues. In science fiction, for example, some well-known novels, such as Joe Haldane’s ‘The Forever War’ is exploring the effects of Vietnam on the United States and its soldiers. Ultimately, the latter are fighting, more or less, for themselves and each other, not to defend a home society that they can barely recognise at the end.

Similarly, fantasy role playing games could be regarded as being related to their societies and as reactions to those societies. In a world where moral certainties were unravelling, is it so surprising that role-playing games emerged which had distinct categories of good and evil, order and chaos?

Do non-historical historical wargames explore the same themes? The obvious answer is, of course, no. A matchup between medieval French and Aztecs reveals little except an overwhelming desire to have a game.  There is, at least on the surface, no commentary here. If we look a little deeper, we might find themes of colonialism and imperialism, of course, both in terms of the highly trained and armed few against the many, and also in imagining that such a wargame is at all viable anyway.

However, non-historical games, as role playing and science fiction, can be ‘based on’ a historical original. Then the resonances become, perhaps, a little more interesting. Plays, for example, can be ‘updated’. Sometimes it misfires horribly. But sometimes the resonances can work. How would Richard III work updated to the Brexit campaign? What resonances could we find between the election of Mr Trump and Macbeth?

We can, naturally, if we look hard enough, find a resonance between today’s politics and any particular part of the past. The past is a bit like that; we can read bits of the contemporary scene into it, and gain some sort of insight, understanding or, at least, parallel with it. Similarly, the reason that Shakespeare can be updated is that classics are like that. We can read and re-read them and find further resonance with our own situation.

Part of the issue is, of course, that anyone can do it. So long as the past is not a total fabrication, resonances between, say, Agincourt and Brexit can be found on both sides. One could emphasise the plucky English against the might of the European hordes of faceless bureaucrats, one the fact that Henry V and Katherine Valois got it together in the end. Of course, you could go further and note that their son was a lunatic, but that might be pushing the resonances a little far.

As with the classics, and with history, so too with wargaming. I could wargame Agincourt. Which side would you choose? The plucky Brits (I mean English, of course, and Welsh, but not the Scots, nor the Irish – resonances continue). Why would you choose that side? Are you on the side of Brussels – the European integration project? The English independence movement? Does that even inform your choice consciously?

So too with other games of course. What leads people to want to wargame the army of Nazi Germany? What sorts of motives lurk beneath those who push the SS, in their smart black uniforms around the table? I, for one, really do not know. I cannot say that it is strictly, in my view, tasteless, although it is certainly not something that floats my wargame boat. After all, the SS existed and fought. History, as with nature, cannot be gainsaid.

But there seems to be a stop sign lurking somewhere near here. A few bases of SS on the table is one thing. Having nothing but SS units is another. A group of SS re-enactors seems beyond the pale entirely. We all have, I suppose, our own lines in the sand, but there is some broad agreement as to what is acceptable and what is not. A leaflet describing the battle of Agincourt is fine. One including comment on the current turmoil in the European project might raise a few eyebrows.

Those of you who are still awake might notice the title of this piece. If you have really imbibed your coffee you might note the allusion. And so, I think, the bottom line possibly emerges. Wargaming is a hobby of personal involvement. I do things – open fire with the grand battery, order the troops over the top, turn towards the enemy and damn the torpedoes. As a commander of World War Two German armies invading, say, Russia, am I demonstrating ‘sympathy with the devil’?


  1. I've always wanted to have an ahistorical game with Mick and Keith.

    Best Regards,


  2. Re taste - our niche hobby itself is filled with a ton of niches - how does anyone sell anything in sufficient volume?

  3. Interesting - I suspect you may be slicing the same onion once again, albeit in a slightly different direction, but interesting.

    Subjective view of what taste might be - scope as well as definitions - is as diverse as the personal value-sets which shape it. An explicit commemoration of the SS in a game, with hand-painted characters and a lot of deep study, might offend some - I really don't know. For a while I might find it interesting to watch, but mostly as a visualisation of what history might have looked like, and that is so constrained and distorted by the limitations of the game and its players that it might well fade quickly. Abstraction might hide but not remove the implication of taste - I would assume that there have been many occasions when the simple, traditional chess set or the humble tiddlywink have been called upon to represent the ultimate forces of darkness and evil in someone's particular imagination. Is there implied lack of taste there?

    The question of taste sometimes seems to bear some correlation with the theme of patriotism. Our quintessentially English performance at Agincourt might be regarded as saying something-or-other about us as a people; records of drunken English officers in the colonial days having pig-sticking contests involving the local Maoris might not be chosen as today's big theme. We maybe have to try to judge behaviours, at least partly, by the context and standards of their own time. That's not an excuse for anyone, you understand - no-one gets off the hook - but we should try to be less confoundedly sanctimonious - or at least be a little more consistent.

    Personally I have always found it distasteful that almost all British histories of the Peninsula War (Guerra de la Independencia) have limited themselves to a personal glorification of the Duke of Wellington and his chaps. The Spaniards are represented as a rather unsavoury nuisance, displaying even more reprehensible traits than the damned French (which is saying something). It was, after all, their war.

    Now - call me silly if you wish - I regard that as an example of very bad taste indeed - but that's just my definition.

    1. I am almost certainly banging the same empty tin again...

      but I do think there are issues of taste in wargaming. If the tiddlywink is the guard at Auschwitz flipping the Jewish counters into gas chambers, then there is little doubt that taste (at least) is lacking.

      i think that the problem is that often the past is judged by the standards of today - hence the historical apologies sometimes demanded and occasionally given. We could wonder why, for example, the British government is issuing apologies long dead homosexuals for persecuting them through the law courts of the time. I'm not saying that persecuting anyone is a good idea, but the reading of history is through modern lenses, where homosexuality and its practice is not a crime (lesbianism, apparently, was never a crime. Rumour (as always, unsubstantiated) has it that Queen Victoria refused to sign a law to that effect, as "no lady would ever do that". I'd like to think that was true, but seriously doubt it).

      I also think that historians do have a responsibility towards balance and completeness, so I would agree on the Peninsular War. But then we tend to look at history through nationalist lenses as well as modern ones. That is, I suppose, why history is written and re-written in every generation. To move the metaphor beyond what it can take, the lenses change as well.

  4. I have struggled but failed to find a response beyond "Possibly but not necessarily".

    It is sad to say you could probably walk into a game convention and find kids (and young adults) who have only a vague idea at best who and what the models they are pushing across the table represent. You will find even more you have never stopped to think about what their game is really about when it is a "French & Indian War" or "Viking Raid" game where the victory conditions include burning​ farms and dragging off prisoners of all sexes and ages. Do the players really have suppressed desires to do violence and this is the safest outlet for everyone else or are they just not really thinking about what the game is actually about? Both probably.

    1. I'm sure you are right - for most, the game, or at least, some game, is the thing. Part of me wants to suggest that when i was under about 10 a wargame was rolling marbles at Airfix figures, and maybe most of the hobby has not progressed far beyond that.

      But it might be a bit unfair.

      I'd not thought much about the safest way for these suppressed desire to come out. It sounds a bit like boxing for teenage aggression. Maybe wargaming is a substitute for boxing?

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    3. I had been pondering a reply to this blog post, and Ross has expressed my feelings more succinctly than I ever could (me being somewhat prolix, and all that). Games happen. Most people probably don't think too closely about what is being depicted. Temporal distance may well contribute to a lack of engagement and empathy with the real events. Thus, SS bad, Vikings not so bad really from a game perspective.

      I would be interested to know if the idea that wargames are an outlet for socially undesirable urges has been looked into though. I've read about them possibly being therapy for former soldiers, a way to deal with the events they saw by galloping pepper pots down the dining table, but not as a form of social control for other people.

    4. I doubt if games of any description as outlets has been really looked at. Usually the narrative about computer war games is the other way about - first person shoot-'em-ups lead to real life violence. I shouldn't think that anyone has looked into tabletop wargames. Too boring, I should imagine....

    5. Agreed, they don't make a great spectator sport. Mind you, there was all that fuss about D&D way back when, but that was hardly scientific analysis.

      A quick search of Google Scholar just turns up video game analyses. There is a Board Games Studies Journal, but nothing on violence in the accessible articles.

    6. Yes, I think that research is, um, limited. When I last looked there was some stuff of RPGs, and a furore over video games and using Manchester Cathedral as a place for a gun battle. But not much terribly enlightening.

      The most useful work I found was by Gary Fine 'Shared Fantasy: RPGs as Social Worlds' (2002, Chicago, UCP). I've not read it all, and can't recall most of it. I think it is summarised in part in Fine, G. A., 'Fantasy Games and Social Worlds: Simulation as Leisure', Simulation Gaming 12, no. 3 (1981), 251-279.

      I think it is from reading that article that I got the idea of wargaming as a sequence of speech acts, and hence to concept of personal involvement.

      I may have missed stuff, of course.

    7. I'll have to check Fine out. Thanks.