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?


  1. I would posit that the human mind, through the act of imagination, becomes entangled in the fictive reality of the circumstances facing the focus of the attention (the characters in a film, or figures on the sandbox table). Observing a child which is full-immersed in play demonstrates the ability of the human mind to 'project oneself' into the scene or action. This level of self-identification with the protagonist(s) is part of the reason for the popularity of the venue.

    This is reminiscent of the Atman Brahman investing its attention to the world of Maya in which the Original Observer enters into the illusory, but purposed, reality of the world so as to delight the OO in the happy play of the game. OO 'puts on the mask' of identity of incarnation for the purpose of entering the action of the fictive reality. OO is capable of portraying any number of 'selves'/'masks' necessary to facilitate the story.


    "Life is but a dream" / "All the world's a stage - And all the men and women merely players; - They have their exits and their entrances, - And one man in his time plays many parts."

  2. Hi,

    Thanks for that. Yes, I think there is something about imagination and 'immersion' in the story, and identification with the protasgonists. In solo playing, the number of protagonists is increased, of course.

    I'm not very up with Atman Brahmans I'm afraid but I think I can see what you are meaning. If we suppose our reality is all 'inward' (which is a perfectly respectable position in western philosophy, too), and a story focusses our attention outward, albeit onto a fictive world, then it is not different from doing so to play in the real world.

    On the other hand, we can argue that there is a difference between our fictive world and reality. If we throw ourselves on a fire in a fictive reality and in the real one, then we will experience difference outcomes.

    Maybe Shakespear was right after all. We can pull on different masks at different times, and, pushing further, these can be either in the 'real' world or in a fictional one.