Saturday 5 February 2011

Positive Philosophy

You are a philosopher, Dr. Johnson. I have tried too in my time to be a philosopher, but, I don’t know how, cheerfulness was always breaking in. James Boswell.

It might be thought, by looking back at the six months or so of posts on this blog, that I don’t have much regard for wargaming. It might be considered that I think most wargaming to be inaccurate, incoherent, ethically dubious and, quite possibly, imperialist. I dare say that evidence for all of these, and some others, would be available from the posts here.

In other words, I seem to have a real downer on my hobby.

Actually, I have no such thing, although all the above accusations could still be true. I think wargaming is in something of a golden age. When I remember the difficulty of acquiring toy soldiers, the dearth of rules and other paraphernalia of wargaming when I started, the range of services available today is truly remarkable. It is unclear if this will continue, although perhaps the internet will facilitate the exchange of ideas and goods. The real problem, I suspect, will be weaning people off computer games to “the real thing”. But that isn’t my problem, at least at present.

What I am trying to do is to think as clearly as possible about the phenomenon of wargaming, how it works, and what it means, in so far as any hobby means anything. As a case study, there is the development of some rules for ancient Greeks, but what I am trying to do is to get below the ‘just do it for a laugh’ layer and try to see what is really going on.

To suggest that wargaming presents a philosophical or ethical problem is already starting to reflect at a deeper level than simply deciding what soldiers to buy next. But can we define what the philosophical question (or questions) raised by wargaming are?

Pondering this over the last few months, it seems to me that there are both philosophical and ethical issues within and about wargaming, and both revolve around exactly what it is we are doing, or rather, what it is we are representing on the wargame table.

Now, most people who react badly to the information that I’m a wargamer do so, I think, because they imagine that there is actual representation of the violence of a battle on the table. In this sense, I think, that the same people should react in the same way to, say, a violent movie. Not too many people reacted badly to the violence of, say, Saving Private Ryan, but would a wargame of Omaha Beach engender the same muted reaction?
If not, then the difference must revolve about the engagement of the individual with the representation. The representation of the violent act in the movie is “out there”, on the screen, perhaps even a matter of historical record. But the representation of the violent acts in wargaming is also out there, on the table, but the player has some degree of control over what happens.

Perhaps, then, the genesis of the ‘yuck’ response that some people have to wargaming is due to this control. I can choose whether this company, platoon or whatever is placed in harm’s way or not. A wargamer has control over who “lives” and who “dies” in a way that a movie-goer does not. It is perhaps that control which raises, in a few people’s minds, anyway, that question of whether it is ethical to wargame this or that event.
Anyway, I do think, in accord with the quote at the top of this post, that the positives of wargaming outweigh the negatives. Wargaming, mostly, promotes social interaction, historical perspective, literacy and numeracy skills and an inclination to research. It may also provoke philosophic reflection, as well as resource management experience and, finally, it is actually fun.

So I’m not really negative about wargaming, honest. But I am going to try to continue thinking about what it might mean, both to itself and within a broader social context.


  1. Another consideration is that wargaming can promote understanding of why events unfolded as they did in the field. A well-constructed historical simulation game can be a useful research tool too.

    In my experience, people either see wargamins as a refusal to leave childhood ("playing with toy soldiers") or as an indication of a desire and willingness to see and participate in real wars. In the former case, the accusers often have their own "childish" hobbies (e.g. the petty tribalism of following a football team) but they will not see it that way. In the latter case, it is a misconception that is borne of ignorance, but it is an ignorance that does not wish to become informed.

  2. Wargames as historical reconstruction? Well, possible, but we probably run into problems of circularity which bedevil most history, so far as I can see. That said, I do like the 'Lost Battle' approach. It might give us some more insight, after all. Phil Sabin's view of Marathon is that, as an outcome from the model, the important issue is the number of Persian infantry. Their cavalry is largely irrelevant.

    On the other hand, playing with toy soldiers is a reasonable description of what we do, but if that is accepted, its distance from real wars has to be accepted too. And I, for one, am still trying to decide what I want to be when I grow up...


  3. Yes, there are issues with the idea of historical reconstruction, but that is the sort of game I am more interested in for the most part. Armies use wargames as training tools, which suggests to me that there is some validity to this approach too. The key really is that I want to be able to use historical tactics and achieve a historically viable outcome. Games like DBR left me cold because they rewarded ahistorical deployment and tactical usage.

    Playing with toy soldiers may well be part of it, but I would suggest that it is hardly the whole of it. As mentioned before, wargaming is a military training tool. It has also been suggested that it is a tool that helps soldiers come to terms with their experiences in the field. A wargame is a social event generally and setting a game up is a creative project that engages both mental and physical abilities. Calling it "playing with toy soldiers" belies and belittles the full extent of the planning, preparation and event that is a wargame. Hmm, that sounds a bit ranty. Sorry. I don't mean to rant (although I frequently do).

    This actually reminds me of the time my father told me to grow up and stop playing with toy soldiers (I was about 40 at the time). It made me think about how my hobby and his hobbies were related. He is an artist and paints pictures. I paint wargames figures. He builds model ships, you know, those big expensive wooden ones. I build terrain for my games. He likes to socialise at parties. I socialise over the gaming table. The list goes on, yet he saw his hobbies as adult and mine as childish. I believe that you cannot dissociate the pushing lead from everything else that goes into the game, because to do so is to fail to see the big picture. Yes, I play with toy soldiers, but my hobby is more than just playing with toy soldiers.

  4. I think you've managed to hit several nails on the head in that. Wargames are a complex social phenomenon and there is a lot more to it than pushing lead. On the other hand, without the pushing of lead there is no hobby.

    As for historical reconstruction, I think that it is possible, but we can't claim too much for it, or we land up in circular argumentation.

    Armies do use wargames, it is true, and some of them are quite scary. It would be interesting to ponder whether, for example, the late 19th century Kiegspeil wargames in Germany influenced war planning and indirectly perhaps, caused world war one, or made it worse by over-optimistic results. I believe the Japanese did something similar with a Midway style wargame at the opening of WW2.

    I suspect that the original battle environment is too complex to really reproduce, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't try, or have fun doing it.