Wednesday 6 October 2010

Wargames and Ethics

A slightly shorter blog this week, due to work suddenly rearing its ugly head. On the other hand, it means you only have to read a shorter quantity of my deathless prose. But I do want to pose a question which only gets occasionally asked.

Is there a need for an ethic of wargaming?

Put like that, the answer is probably ‘no’.

But asking “are there some wargames you wouldn’t play?” is perhaps a different question, and may well get a different answer.

So, are there? At this point, of course, by giving examples, I could run the risk of being accused of bad taste, or giving people ideas. So be it.

Would you play the ‘Princess Diana Demolition Derby’? The players, as paparazzi, pursue a car through the deserted streets of Paris trying to get a picture. Dice rolls are included for the drunkenness of the driver, oncoming traffic and the degree of injury of the occupants upon crashing.

Game or no game?

How about then a game of the terror bombing of Amsterdam, the aim being to encourage citizens to flee, clogging up the road system and ensuring that your armies have more freedom of movement as the defenders cannot move?

Game, or no game?

What about a game set in the Thirty years War, where you are an army commander trying to obtain food for your army from the local peasantry by whatever methods seem appropriate. Or a game based on the Assyrians removing the population of Samaria to exile beyond the Euphrates?

Which of these would you be willing to play? Where do you, or I, draw the line, and why?

It is fairly clear that there is some moral boundary to wargaming and similar activities. There was a furore at one of the shows a year or two ago when some SS-re-enactors turned up, and another kerfuffle when a vendor started selling pornographic (I beg your pardon, I think I mean gentleman’s) models. There was also a bit of a hiatus in Miniature Wargames a year or four ago when an article about the British SS Freicorps was published, in the basis that it was a neo-Nazi whitewash (which it probably was).

In the 1970’s, Paddy Griffith wrote an article in Lone Warrior called Uncomfortable Wargames. He argued that we simply don’t play some sorts of game. As examples, he cited World War 1 trench warfare, Elizabeth’s wars in Ireland in the 16th Century, and, if I recall correctly, English chevauchee raids in France. Why not, he asked.

Griffith put forward a few reasons. Firstly, some situations are simply boring games, such as WW1 trenches (although there have been some valiant efforts recently). Secondly, some games can provoke unexpected reactions of a political sort. Elizabeth’s Irish wars might fall into this category (although, again, more games along these lines are now played). Finally, there are some wargames which simply make us uncomfortable. Raiding defenceless villages in 15th century France might fall into that category.

There are various responses to the question of ethics and wargames. Mostly, however, the issue is simply ignored, and we play the games we like to play. That is fair enough, for most games and most people. But every once in a while some limit is breached, but we never seem to actually define that boundary. Perhaps someone should start thinking about it.


  1. Good question. I don't think the boundary can be an absolute; one man's pornography is another man's art. Are paintings of half-naked women pornography or art? Where does the line between the two fall? I incline towards the view that there are some rather funny attitudes in society and that often a form of mass hysteria creeps in to protests against anything. It feeds off itself and draws in people that would not normally be bothered.

    In gaming, ethics are personal. Each person comes to it with their own line drawn. Sometimes that line moves. I used to play AK47 Republic and still love the rules concepts, but to make it acceptable to myself I always created 'fantasy' armies with moral values equating to my own. At some point, the reality of the real world history relating to the game intruded and I no longer play the game. Others still do though and have no such ethical qualms. They still see it as 'just a game', which any wargame is really. It's just the tokens and markers that change. I won't play anything set in the real world post-WW2 now because it gives me qualms, but others do. That does not make me more ethically correct than the others. It is just that I draw my line in a different place from them. I can't help but wonder if it is not so much a matter of ethics as it is a matter of taste. I would consider some of the examples in your post to be tasteless, but are they ethically wrong? I'm not sure about this myself. In the end, no one is being killed or hurt as a result of our games and our 'dead' figures go back in the box at the end of the game only to re-emerge next week. We roll some dice and enjoy the company of our fellow gamers at the same time, which seems reasonable to me. My only concern with any game might be offending the sensibilities of a putative casual bystander, but I do not see that as an ethical issue, more a social one.

    I think I need to think on this some more though.

  2. Thank you for the really good post. I wouldn't play any of the games you mentioned as miniature wargames, although I might do them as RPGs (in some ways, I think the way Paddy Griffith's games developed was along these lines). I can live with roleplaying terrible situations but, for me, wargaming is all about the toy soldiers being lined up on the table and playing a complicated version of chess. If too many realistic horrors were introduced to I couldn't play. I do sometimes wonder if I all my wargaming should be in imagi-nations, where no-ones suffering, however long ago, is treated lightly.