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.


  1. Yes, I think it was me that mentioned it before. It seems to me that there are several responses that one could give to this sort of disparagement and I think that you have addressed the main issues well.

    One can point out that wargaming can teach strategic and critical thinking, enhance numeracy and literacy, enhance research skills, improve hand-eye co-ordination and generally encompasses a range of skills that are not found in any other single hobby. This range of skills can all be applied in various ways to the more 'productive' side of life. As an aside, the Old English and Old Norse languages talk about battle as play (c.f. PDE swordplay). Play was training for the real thing and was also conceptually the same as the real thing to those people.

    One might also adopt a more aggressive tone and question the right of the denigrator to judge the wargamer. I have occasionally felt like this, especially when faced with an ardent football fan of my acquaintance. After all, it seems to me that there is little that is creative about the petty tribalism of following a football team. Still, why bother with this? Why lower oneself to the level of the critic?

    Another option is one that I have used to good effect, especially when accompanied by the sincerity of my bleaker moments. This is to point out that it is all just a displacement activity, a means of ignoring the ultimate inevitability of our own demise and the pointlessness of our existence. It certainly shuts people up! :-) Probably stems from reading too much Sartre and Camus at a young age though.

  2. Of course, wargaming is probably all of these, and more. The only thing I'm fairly certain that hobby wargaming isn't is practice for the "real thing", war or other forms of violence itself.

    Another line of thought, similar to your last one, is that wargaming connects us to a line of history, of 'pageant' if you will, which enables us to make sense of our place in the world.

    And then we are back, more or less, to telling stories...

  3. The stories we tell define us as human beings. :-)

    I like your comment about it being a tool that can enhance our sense of place. One thing I enjoy is playing games of battles that my relatives were present at. It gives me an enhanced sense of connection to them.

  4. Hm; yes, I was once cornered by a person with counselling skills and forced to admit my hobby.

    They made comments like 'connection to history', 'pageant' as well as 'glory' and 'excitement'. So I suppose there is some sort of connection, there.

    Mind you, at the time I think I was playing 'Tercio', so 'excitement' might be a little wide of the mark. Now, where did I put that table of panic factors?