Wargamers are, usually, rather creative people, I think. Certainly, the wide variety of games and ideas I see around suggest a lot of creativity is around. I do not necessarily only mean in the painting of toy soldiers, however. The creation of terrain items and nice battlefields is certainly a form of creativity, of course. The writing of rules and running campaign games, the making of scenarios, and the investigation of and generating playable games of the most obscure parts of the history of human conflict are surely creative occupations.
As you might have guessed I have been reading again. This time it is a non-wargaming book which I picked up for two reasons. Firstly, The Estimable Mrs. P was determined that I read something else apart from history and philosophy and, secondly, it was cheap.
Eagleman D., Brandt, A. The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World. Canongate: Edinburgh, 2017.
The first author is a well-known neuroscientist while the second is a composer. I confess I approached the book with a little scepticism. Neuroscientists are well known, in philosophical circles at least, for a certain ‘nothing but-ness’ about their views. For example ‘human thought is nothing but brain activity’. Philosophically, let alone theologically, this view fails, although explaining why would take me rather far afield from creativity, let alone wargaming.
It turns out I need not have worried. Apart from a series of brain scans showing how much less interested in experiences that are repeated our brains become, the discussion is really about what I suppose I would call a phenomenology of creativity. Essentially, the authors have three models of how the creative mind works: we bend, we break or we blend things to make something new.
There are manifold examples. The first is the Apollo 13 crisis, where Earth-bound engineers had to figure out how to get the crew from the stricken mission back safely. This took a lot of ingenuity, ranging from recalculating and reprogramming rockets to lashing together a carbon dioxide scrubber so the crew did not asphyxiate. The fact that they returned safely is a remarkable testimony to human creativity.
Juxtaposed with that example is Picasso’s Le Bordel d’Avignon, which scandalised the art world in the early 20th Century. Picasso undermined the whole of the realist art tradition of the West in that painting. In later years it was recognised as a masterpiece.
The two events have in common human creativity, of course. Neither came out of nowhere. The engineers had a complete manifest of every item aboard the spaceship. Picasso started with a series of realist sketches. Neither work came out of nowhere; both showed astonishing creativity.
A while ago I had a trot through classic wargame texts, some by Featherstone, some by others, and one of the comments asked whether there was any value to reading them today. I sort of prevaricated, but I think I might have got close to the answer. These texts tell us, roughly, where wargaming has come from, and, therefore, they are valuable. I think I said at the time that the questions they pose are still valid, even if our answers might differ.
That is, of course, where human creativity comes into the wargaming world. As our context changes, so do the answers to the basic questions of wargaming change. At least, for historical wargaming, more information, more historiography, and different points of view appear, and suddenly our old ways of doing things feels less appropriate, and less comfortable. To innovate is to be human, and so we set to work again to create something that satisfies this new view of the world.
We do not approach a wargaming subject from a vacuum. There are many tried and tested methods that, unless we have been wargaming in a bucket for years, we will know, or partially remember. Then, with these tools in hand, we address the new problem; our solutions may vary, of course, and, often, we come up with many solutions and have to try to find the best one. There are plenty of ways of fighting a wargame; there are plenty of ways of writing rules. One of the points the book makes is that some ideas will be too radical to catch on, some will be only slight evolutions, and some will be both noticeable and acceptable.
As a slight aside the book suggests that the imperfect memory of humanity is an aid to creativity. We cannot slavishly follow the previous solution because we cannot remember it in detail, so we have to make up a slightly new one. Computers, it is noted, have perfect recall and do not need to create a new solution. Therefore computers are not creative in the way that humans are.
So faced with a new problem we perform, albeit unconsciously, our blending, breaking, and bending operations. We break down the problem into smaller bits and solve some of them, then reassemble with some other ideas to see if it works any better. We might throw large parts of old solutions overboard as unworkable or too complicated. We might blend in solutions to other problems because they look a bit like this one, even if their context is different (physics does this a lot, by the way). And so on.
If we are being creative we come up with many solutions, many ways of solving the problem or achieving the task, and we have to pick one to try out. If it does not work too well, we have a load of other things to try and see if they fix the new problems we have developed. And so on.
As a wargame example, I have tried a number of ways of creating a Thirty Years War campaign game. The problem is handling the complexity of the number of states involved and their relations. I have decided on a simplified version of the Holy Roman Empire game, and I am trying it out. It is still too complex, in my view. Quite how even six players could handle the cognitive load of it rather beats me, but the game is the game. It has a nice map. Even as I am playing it, I am pondering the processes and methods and how it could be simplified. Another iteration could well be in the offing.