Saturday 19 February 2011

Rumours of Wargames

I think I’m finally making a little progress with my thinking, thanks to some of your comments. A few weeks ago I wrote ‘Perhaps we need to separate the ideas of war and wargames’. JWH responded that we probably did, but that we cannot separate them entirely or wargames become entirely abstract, like chess.

So here we seem to have a slight paradox. We don’t like war, because it is dangerous, nasty, violent, murderous, pointless and so on. But, as wargamers, we cannot ignore it totally, because otherwise we land up with something which is just an abstract game. We seek historical accuracy on the table top, but not to the extent of people dying, having limbs blown off, attempting to kill each other, setting fire to things and generally creating carnage.

We do need real war, or some account of it, to provide some normalisation for our rules, though. In our quest for historical accuracy we cannot ignore the original battle, however much carnage, death and destruction it caused. So as wargamers we are pulled in two different directions by this.

There would seem to be two responses to this situation. The first suggests that wargames reproduce actual battles, and actual battles are to be deprecated. Therefore wargames should be deprecated, and civilised, mature humans should not engage in them as a form of recreation.

The second is that wargames reproduce actual battles, and actual battles are to be deprecated. But wargames only reproduce certain abstract activities and outcomes of actual battles, therefore wargames should not be deprecated as a form of recreation.

Now, most wargames are pretty abstract. We push bases of toy soldiers around and call it a battle, and we use rules which are supposed to reproduce, at this abstract level, the historical outcome. The second response is a viable defence of this activity, I think. The wargame is sufficiently distinct from the awful reality as to not really worry anyone who has the slightest clues about the hobby.

There is, still, however, a line of attack open to the proponent of the first response. They might concede that the abstract wargame is at such an abstract level as not to really represent a real battle, but might argue that the necessary engagement with military history exposes the wargamer to all sorts of negative, violent images that the threshold for violence in the wargamer’s life, and in society generally, is lowered.

I think that, as wargamers, we have a defence to the first accusation, in that we may engage with military history, but that, at least, exposes us to the horror and general pointlessness of war, rather than inspires us to recreate it in our, or anyone else’s life. In terms of society generally, wargaming is a pretty minority activity and probably doesn’t change society’s outlook with regards to violence and warfare. It is perhaps to violent video games and films that the anti-war brigade should look, rather than people pushing toy soldiers around and rolling dice.

Yet another response by the proponents of the first response might be, again, to concede that fairly abstract wargames might be all right, but that skirmish games and role-playing games bring the violence close up and personal. Someone crying ‘I slash you with my bastard sword’ is, in fact, perpetrating violence, even at an abstract level, on someone else. Skirmish wargames, while less personal, record individual wounds and show that violence is, at some level, acceptable. In both cases the link to military history is more tenuous than the abstract wargame.

I’m not sure that I have a particularly good response to this accusation at present. One line of defence could be that the violence is still at the abstract level, even though it is more personal because the figure attacked and the person who “is” that figure are readily identifiable. Another might be that the violence of role-playing games is incidental, or at least an unintended consequence of the game. But the counter to that is that if that were the case, role-playing game rules would have far less space devoted to combat. The only set I can think of, off hand, where this was the case, was Call of Cthulhu, where it was probably true that if you got into a fight with anything more than fists, you were probably doing it wrong.

Perhaps, in the final analysis, the proper defence of wargaming is that of George Santayana: He who forgets history is condemned to repeat it. Even though professional historians seem to try to do a good job of ignoring and forgetting wars and battles, we need to keep some memory of them alive, or we will amble into another conflict without due consideration.


  1. I think I would take the reverse position, in that you sense that violence in RPGs is harder to defend than in traditional wargames - I wuold argue the reverse is true.

    There are various very popular cultural forms where individuals can 'assume the role' of some violent individuals, sometimes in the service of nakedly criminal or politically appalling groups - think TV and cinema. But as these are, like RPGs, primarily narrative forms, then it is accepted that 'someone has to play the baddies' or even that playing the baddy can give both participants and spectators some insights into the nature of those groups and they way the interact(ed) with the rest of the world.

    Now this defence is open to some 'traditional' wargamers, but not all, perhaps not even that many, but many solo wargamers (for example) could argue that their form of playing with toy soldiers is basically narrative and so would use the same defence.

    For 'traditional' face-to-face wargames, I think that the defence must have two strands - firstly, that the activity of the wargame can be sufficiently divorced from the realities of both battle (the dead, the maimed) and the realities of war (tortured men, raped women, starving babies), but also that there is something a bit honourable about the courage and the ingenuity shown in war that can also be divorced to an extent from the context of actual wars. CS Lewis (no martinet!) makes a similar argument in one of his books about there being a genuine sliver of honour and glory in war despite all its atrocities. I think that a strong defence of the traditional wargame must acknowledge this or risk the rejoinder - why not just read about it in a book (which many more people actually do, of course).

    Just some initial thoughts, there might be a few more later.

    Thanks for another thought-provoking post.


  2. Interesting. I must ponder the idea of a 'narrative defence' of wargaming. We all like telling stories, after all.

    And now you'll get me scouring CS Lewis for the quote.

    Why not just read about wars in books? Good question, but I think there is more to the activity of wargaming than that, just as there is more than playing with toy soldiers. Exactly what these things might be is, of course, a matter of debate.

    at one post a week it might be a while before I get around to them, of course!