Saturday 30 April 2011

Performative Utterances and Wargames

Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while, or have read some of the archives, may recall that I’ve mentioned on a number of occasions things called ‘speech acts’. I’ve vaguely explained what they are, but perhaps it is now time to give a bit more information.

Performative utterances and speech acts were identified by the English philosopher J. L. Austin, in the post-war era. At the time, logical positivism was arguing that there were two sorts of statement. One was analytic, and could be proved scientifically; something along the lines that ‘all single men are batchelors’ or ‘2+3 = 5’. All meaningful statements could be reduced to analytic ones.

Other statements existed, such as ‘you shall not steal’. These, however, are not analytic and thus refer to a state of mind. ‘You shall not steal’ really means ‘I do not like stealing’. Morality thus becomes expressions of our emotions, and this form of approach to ethics is described often as ‘emotivism’ or, perhaps more aptly ‘boo-hooray’ ethics. So if I say ‘murder’ you reaction is, in effect, ‘Boo!’ and if I say ‘give to charity’ your reaction is ‘hooray’. However, this whole morality thing is meaningless because it cannot be verified scientifically or logically.

Austin pointed out that, in fact, the logical positivists had missed out a large class of statements which were true but could not easily be verified. These he termed ‘performative utterances’. Examples for performative utterances could be saying ‘I do’ during a wedding service, or ‘I resign’ while being the president of the United States. The person is not only saying something, but doing something.
The most important factors in performative utterances are the context and the reciprocity. For example, a clergy person during a wedding service can say ‘I now pronounce you man and wife’. In that context, with the authority they have to do that, this is a speech act. Everyone knows that they can do this, and it is expected. Thus the context and the expectation (reciprocity) are satisfied.

Now, suppose (as seems to be popular these days) that the same clergyperson goes into a junior school which is “doing” marriage. There is a 10 year old groom and an 8 year old bride and so on. The clergy then declares ‘I now pronounce you man and wife’. The words are the same, the person is the same, but no-one actually believes that the children are married. Context and reciprocity are not there for this to be a speech act.

I’ve written before about the three level model of wargaming. There is the game level, the rules level, and the real world level. The first is the fictional world of our toy soldiers, the last is the world in which we move, drink, roll dice and paint models. The rules level is the interface between these two other worlds.

So, now, a speech act at the game world could be ‘I hit you with my bastard sword.’ In the context of the game world, this is a speech act, assuming that the character had a bastard sword and could use it. The context is adequate to the speech-act, as is the expectation for all involved that, in fact, the person could be hit with a bastard sword.

Now, the speech-act that the game level triggers some other actions in the higher levels. Most obviously, in the rules level, it asks the question ‘can this be’. The rules level will answer with something like ‘55% chance to hit’. And that will then trigger some action in the real world level – in fact, another speech-act along the lines of ‘I roll the dice’. The result of the dice roll then asks in the rules level ‘hit or miss?’, and that is translated into an action in the game level.

Suppose the result is a ‘hit’. Then the next speech act is from the recipient saying something like ‘I parry’ and the whole varying level set of speech-acts goes off again.
This is fine within the game. We are all conscious of the difference between the game level, the rules level and the real world or rolling dice. So conscious, in fact, that we do not bother, usually, to make the transitions. What I mean is that a player will say ‘I hit you with my sword’ and immediately roll the dice. The system is familiar, so familiar that my description of it feels really slow and clunky. We all know what is going on.

Now, consider an outsider. They are not ‘within’ the game world, and so cannot see that the actions within the game world, the speech-acts such as ‘I hit you with my bastard sword’ are valid within that context. They have no access to it. Therefore, they hear the speech-act as one pertaining to the real world, threatening violence, even if they recognise that that violence (along with the sword) are ‘make believe’. At this point they turn away and shudder and declare that wargaming is making people violent.

This, I think, is one of the issues that I’ve been nibbling at these past few months with respect to the ethics of wargaming. There are other issues, perhaps, but it seems to me that the main reaction of those who object to wargaming as encouraging violence is this mixing of the three levels and misunderstanding the context of the game level speech acts. Perhaps, when non-wargamers are around, we should play more slowly and make the levels clearer.

On the other hand, making statements like ‘My character in the game will try to hit yours with his sword at 55 per cent chance’ is going to make the game a lot less fun to play, even if it wouldn’t frighten the non-wargaming horses as much. It would be a bit like living life without performative utterances; possible, but dull.

Saturday 23 April 2011

Playing with Toy Soldiers

Should we grow out of playing with toy soldiers? Someone, in a comment a while ago (I think it was Ruraigh) commented that the expressions is often used to denigrate our activity as wargamers. The implication is that it is juvenile, and that we should have grown out of such things.

Is this the case? Are we, as wargamers, simply emotionally immature and should we put our efforts into doing grown up activities, such as fiddling our expenses, keeping up with the Jones’ or watching endless repeats of game shows on TV?

Firstly, we need to look at the idea of play. Now, obviously, humanity is not the only species that plays. Most mammal young do, and quite a few older animals will too given half a chance. Our 3 year old cat will certainly play with us, with leaves or feathers she picks up, and, of course, with unfortunate rodents she picks up along the way. Now, of course, it could be argued that she is simply honing her hunting skills by doing so, but really her hunting skills don’t need honing at all.

Human adults, of course, play all the time. Often, it simply recognised as such. ‘Playing a round of golf’ is clearly using the language of game, even though this meaning is sometimes carefully hidden from the people making the statement. Golf is a game, along with lots of other games. The fact that some people, professional golfers, suppliers of golfing equipment and owners of golf courses can make a living out of it is neither here nor there. Golf is a game, even if it is one claimed by adults rather than children.

So why is wargaming often picked out as being evidence for immaturity?

It is a little hard to say, precisely. However, consider an analogy I’ve picked up from the philosopher Mary Midgley (in Animals and Why They Matter, chapter 10).

Most people are happy to let their children play with young animals of different species – a kitten or puppy, say. They may also assume that it is just a phase, an attachment that the child will grow out of when he or she matures. The assumption is that animals are suitable practice material for the immature, enabling them to ultimately take their place in the real world, that is, the society of grown up, mature, humans.

Midgley points out that taking an interest in animals is no different from taking an interest in music or machines. Stroking my cat is not an abrogation of my role in human society, any more than sitting and typing at my computer is. All of these things contribute to human flourishing, or at least to my flourishing: you may not find this blog contributes to your flourishing, but that is not strictly my problem.

So if interest in animals, or art, or machines contributes to our flourishing as humans, then surely wargaming can too. Humans have the quality of neoteny (thanks Mary: a good word). That is, they take some qualities or activities from childhood into adulthood. One of these characteristics is that of play. I’ve already given the evidence for that above.

Play, then, is carried through to adulthood, even though many who claim to be mature would not own the fact. The cornerstones of play are, probably, sympathy and curiosity. The trouble is that these things are often denigrated. I don’t often disagree with St. Paul, but he argues ‘when I was a child I spoke as a child, I thought as a child, I understood as a child; but when I became a man, I put childish things aside’ (I Cor 13:11). Well, in defence of Paul he isn’t really taking about playing, but learning, but the implication of what he actually wrote is that we can and do put ‘childish’ things aside.

In my career as a research scientist I was, often, playing with ideas, data, concepts, trying to make sense of them. This is acceptable adult behaviour, much lauded in Western society and culture today (think Richard Dawkins). But it was guided by the same curiosity I had as a child. Indeed, it was noted by my detractors that I hadn’t grown up and was an ‘eternal student’, even though my research was at the cutting edge of the field.

In the evenings I would go home and grapple with other problems. How had Cromwell trained his men? Why did Rupert re-deploy so aggressively just before Naseby? What coat colour had the Earl of Northampton’s men worn? At home, I was often playing with these ideas, concepts, questions, trying to make sense of them. But it was regarded as being childish, immature. Not by everyone, I grant, but by a significant minority.

There is a huge amount to say on this topic, and I need to do a lot more thinking about it. But, as a final thought for this piece, consider this. Play is creative. Children will create all sorts of worlds, activities and so on with or without toys. Creativity is one of the hallmarks of play, and creative people often play with things. For example, artists often play with the tools of their trade, the materials, textures, perspective and points of view, for example. In wargaming, too, we play with the tools of the hobby – model soldiers, rules, terrain pieces, history, story and so on.

So we can claim, at least thus far, that while wargaming is play, it is creative play, and stimulates those activities of creativity and imagination which are needed in our culture to do stuff to advance, such as making great art works, doing physics research or programming computers. Just because it is play, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t important.

Saturday 16 April 2011

Aesthetics and Wargames

One of the (probably many) things I’ve not commented on about wargames so far is the aesthetic of them. What I mean by this is the experience of viewing a nice wargame, with good terrain, well painted figures well based and so on.

My experience is that using nice figures on nice terrain gives a positive impression and leaves us feeling better about life in general, than using unpainted figures in a piece of chipboard with roads marked on in chalk.

This seems to link back to what we were saying the other week about imagination. It is a lot easier, perhaps, to imagine what is going on, to get into the story, as it were, if the terrain and model soldiers are good, as in well modelled, painted and looking fresh.
Consider going to a wargame show, at least in the UK. Usually, there are a number of games on display, and, mostly, they have beautifully painted figures and a terrain that would grace most model railway layouts. Generally, the displays represent some sort of historical or quasi-historical conflict, and the board is surrounded by explanatory information.

This sort of display is eye catching and is the sort of thing that many gamers aspire to, even though the actual effort of putting such a display on is considerable.

Now consider looking in the ‘competitions’ room. Now, I’m not a competitive gamer, but I have wandered through a few tournament game rooms, usually when I’ve been lost. Of course, you could not expect the same level of terrain as for the demonstration games. Mostly, after all, the terrain is only decided just before the game is started. But usually what I’ve seen has been a few bits of felt which, so far as the non-involved can tell, could be fields, woods or hills. In extreme cases, I’ve just seen a few chalk scribblings.

In terms of aesthetic value, I dare say we would all agree that the demonstration games win hands down.

My own experience is so. I started off as a youngster with Airfix HO/OO figures, straight off the sprue. The terrain was provided by the floor, furniture, maybe trenches dug in the flower beds outside in the summer. Moving on from there I started with 15mm Romans and ECW armies, which I painted, very badly, and based on bits of cardboard. Not very aesthetic, I’ll grant, but better than not painted at all. I will say, by way of defence of my younger self, however, that unless you washed the plastic figures, the paint simply flaked off anyway.

Then, for me, role playing games took over, and with that some more nicely painted 25 mm figures, although, it has to be said, no terrain to speak of. In role playing games, I think, the dominant force is the narrative driving the imagination.

The case of tournament games is slightly different. The constraints are, if you like, fairly similar. The terrain is unknown until the game starts, although in role playing games the scene shifts a lot more quickly. But as a self-consciously competitive game the aesthetic quality come last to the narrative within the battle and the competitive nature of the interaction.

The display game is a self-conscious ‘advert’ for some quality of the hobby and the people putting the game on. The modelling skills and painting are to the fore, and the eye catching displays of both wargame and background information are the important factors.

How about club or solo wargames? Of course, club games can suffer from the same constraints, or nearly so, as tournament games. There is a need for speed, to get the soldiers out and have a battle before the bar closes or the time in the venue expires. Nevertheless I think most club games (at least, in my very limited experience) have a higher quality of terrain than tournament games. At least clubs can and do have terrain items for use by members, and they do get used.

For individual or solo gamers there are two factors. Firstly are resources. I cannot afford to buy nice terrain pieces, and, if I’m honest, most nice terrain pieces would fill up my table. I can, however, practice improving my painting and basing of my models. While this blog does not do eye candy (there are many others, much more popular than this which do), I do get pleasure out of using nicely painted (so far as I am able) and based (ditto) soldiers.

The second factor, of course, goes back to imagination and narrative. The terrain needs to be sufficient to draw the imagination in to this particular situation, this battle, this story. I used to think it didn’t much matter, and had cardboard cut-out trees and roads marked by bits of wool blue-tac’ed to the table. And that was fine for the time.

Now I’m (quite a lot) older, and maybe my imagination just needs more help, because I find that I much prefer terrain which looks the part. Thus I’ve got some nice thick felt blankets of reasonable colours, and some professional buildings, and even proper trees. While I don’t often get a wargame played (some may argue that I spend too much time pontificating here for that), when I do I do get pleasure from handling the soldiers in that model terrain, which is a lot nicer than I recall my teenage games being.

So somewhere in this ramble is a factor or the aesthetic appeal of wargaming. Somewhere it connects to some value of art deep within me, anyway. But clearly this is not the case for everyone, or all situations. But now I’m starting to get confused, so I’ll stop.

Saturday 9 April 2011

Logistics in Wargames

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, I played a very simple wargame campaign.
It was set in a valley. The Royalists had a fort at one end, the Parliamentarians at the other, and there were a few villages and so on in between. One aspect of the campaign was that the losses for each side would be replenished, after a suitable time, to the home fort of each side, and could then move, at normal rates, to the main army.

There was no clever stuff in the campaign – no side roads or long outflanking movements or anything of that nature. The bookkeeping was quite straightforward. I seem to recall, and here memory becomes a little fuzzy, that the losses were divided into five categories and returned at one category per week, or something like that.

As you would expect, the first encounter occurred somewhere in the middle of the map, and resulted in a victory for one side or the other, I forget which. The losing force recoiled and another battle was fought, which they also lost and they then fell back on their base fort.

But now, something interesting happened. Having fallen back to their base, the losing side regained its casualties at a faster rate than the winners. Thus, the force back at base and on the defensive was stronger than the attackers, and easily shrugged off the attempt by the other side to take their fort.

After that, of course, the initially losing side took the offensive and drove the others back to their base in a series of battles. Then, the same circumstances pertained, except the other way around, and the roles were reversed, until the other side were back at their home base again.

The campaign thus ebbed and flowed until I gave up in frustration, neither side being able to land the killer blow. I’ve always regarded that campaign as a good generator of battles, but flawed in the execution of the campaign aspect. Surely someone should have actually been able to win it.

A recent comment column in the (London) Times made me thing otherwise. It was talking about the fighting in Libya, and how it had ebbed and flowed from Tripoli to Benghazi and back again. It compared this with the desert campaigns of World War Two, where the fighting between the Commonwealth and German-Italian forces ebbed and flowed in a similar way.

This ebb and flow was for logistical reasons. The victors outran their supplies and were forced to stop, while the losers fell back to positions closer to their own logistical support. The columnist, whose name I forget, suggested that the same might happen in the Libyan civil war, even with a no fly zone.

This article reminded me of my own failed campaign. Perhaps it wasn’t so flawed after all. A mind numbingly simple rule, albeit one only about casualties and replacements, had reproduced a similar sort of ebb and flow in a wargame campaign.

Now, of course, World War Two logistics was about much more than the supply of replacements. For that matter, so were logistics in the English Civil War, but the strategic situation in both my campaign game and the desert were similar. There basically was only one route for the forces and their logistics. In my game, it was up and down the valley, in the desert it was along the coast.

Logistics is usually ignored by the average wargamer, as I think I’ve mentioned before. Usually this is because they are regarded as being too difficult and too boring. But in the context of a campaign game, particularly a solo one, they do seem to add an extra dimension. And, as my example shows, they do not have to be that complex.

The mechanics of my replacement was, I think, 5 margarine tubs per side. At the end of each battle, the losses were split equally between the five categories (I think they were unwounded, lightly wounded, badly wounded, severely wounded and dead). I seem to recall that the basic dynamic came from Charles Grant’s The Wargame, but I couldn’t swear to it. The movements of the replacements could be kept track of on the map until they joined the main force when they could simply re-join their units and be counted; that is, the margarine tub would be opened and the models therein added to their comrades in the unit boxes.

This simple mechanism had the complex result to which I have already alluded. This was, of course, before the days of personal computers and sophisticated spreadsheets, but it strikes me that if such a simple mechanism could reproduce such a real world effect, something even slightly more complex could generate a much more complex scenario in our wargaming, without much cost in terms of book-keeping and other dull as ditchwater activities.

Saturday 2 April 2011

Narrative Wargaming

One of the issues raised recently has been about the story of wargaming, the narrative that makes playing the game worth while. But here we need to be a little careful, because fiction is not as obvious as we might like to think.

A wargame could be defined as a social interaction within a given set of rules with representations of real life objects (i.e. the model soldiers). With the exception of the representations, this is a reasonably good definition of fiction according to one view of it – that fiction is a social practice constituted by rules and conventions.

Another difference in wargaming is the involvement of the writers of the fiction (the authors, in this case the wargamers) and the consumers of the fiction, the readers, in this case also the wargamers, in the construction of the fiction. The generators and consumers of the fiction are the same people. Given that few philosophers can agree over the nature of normal fiction, the spontaneous generation of the fiction by a set of people who are both author and reader is going to get complex.

So lets hold on to our hats and see where, if anywhere, we can get with this. I think that, some time ago, I may have mentioned speech acts and their relation to wargaming. Looked at from the point of view of narrative fiction, a speech act is a locution with no real life referent. The propositions spoken in a wargame have no referent in real life, but they do on the wargame table. They are ‘false’ in real life, but ‘true’ in the fictional world on the table. Similarly, the statement ‘reader, I married him’ is ‘true’ in the fictional world, but ‘false’ in the real one.

How does this work, then? I think that we need to add another factor to our model to make it so, and that is imagination. In fiction, a model world is constructed, inhabited by the characters, into which we enter to find something out – what the fates of the characters might be, for example. Our imagination, prompted by the speech-acts of the author, probes the story as it is unravelled. By imagination and reflection we draw out the meanings of the fiction and, perhaps, learn something about our world thereby.

For example, The Gate of Angels by Penelope Fitzgerald is, on the face of it a slightly unfinished love story between a Cambridge don and a student nurse. The deeper meaning of the story is also about the failure of science to account for non-rational events, such as falling in love. There is also something about the nature of time and coincidence in there too. We draw these things out by reading, imagining and reflecting on the story as it is told. I won’t describe it any more; you’ll have to go and read it for yourself.

The point, however, is that it is the rules and conventions of fiction, and the speech-acts of the author in the writing itself that stimulate our imaginations and reflections to learn what we may from a story. It is this, I think, that leads people to re-read stories. They are multi-faceted (good ones, anyway), and there is always something more we can draw from them.

In wargame terms, the rules and conventions of playing the game give us a similar sort of safe sand-box to play in as a story. The actions on the table, described by the speech-acts of the players and the relative motions of the representations engage our imaginations. We are engaged, as writer and reader in story-telling, whether solo or in groups. The narrative is strong, because battles are always powerful elements in any story. Just consider how many films and books end with a cataclysmic battle.
So we have a powerful narrative element in our games, that is, a battle. This is fine for the imaginative part of narrative, but does reflection have any bearing on this?

In some practical ways reflection plays its part. For example, we might find that light armed infantry do poorly against cavalry under the rules. By pondering this before our next game, we may come to the conclusion that they are only to be deployed in rough ground where the cavalry are at a disadvantage. We have learnt something about the game world through reflection on our experience ‘in’ it.

Can we go further than this, though? If our fictive world of a battle is trying to represent to us some real world, historical event, then we might. If our rule sets are reasonably accurate, then we might learn something about how the historical even unfolded. For better or worse, I think I learnt that Wellington didn’t win at Waterloo himself, but he needed the arrival of the Prussians, from wargames of the battle. But that wasn’t how the history I learnt described it (1970's parochialism will out, I suppose).

Then, of course, our reflective and critical faculties can engage with the difference between our game world and the real historical event. Wargames are played against a backdrop of understanding of battles, and, in some cases, the understanding of this battle. The narrative is compared either with the outcome of the historical event or our judgement of what would have happened had such a historical event occurred.
So the narrative element of wargaming does seem to be very important as it engages our imagination and reflection and enables us to make sense, in some way, of the events in the fictive world on the table. It may also, but does not necessarily, engage us to reflect on the historical event, or parallels to those events. This process can be enjoyable, as can reading a novel or watching a film.

There seems to me to be at least one outstanding question about this, though. Why do we start to display anxiety at the outcomes of wargames? Is it just like getting scared when watching a horror film?