Saturday 7 May 2011

What Am I Doing Here?

I often wonder, when I’m writing these pieces, why I’m doing it. It may be a familiar feeling to you too, but on the other hand, you don’t have to read them. But it is an interesting question: why try to understand wargaming or worry about its ethics, rather than just paint soldiers and play games?

I suppose that, for someone attempting to engage with classical Greek warfare and culture, a bit of philosophy can be excused. After all, Socrates was a soldier too, and he came to think about things rather hard. So perhaps a bit of philosophising, without the excuse of so much as a pint of beer to do it over, can be excused.

However, that does not answer the question of what I/we are trying to do here. I’m not sure that there is a particularly good answer, or that it is a particularly well formed question. After all, I’ve written about rules, dice, ethics, logistics and wargame periods so far, to name but a few and there need not be a common theme running through them all.

There are, I think, two broad views of philosophy and its relation to life. The first, which we might term the ‘engineering’ point of view, arises when we have a rather high flautin’ view of our thinking. This view emanates, for me, from Simon Blackburn, who argues (in Think: A compelling introduction to philosophy) that philosophy is conceptual engineering, that is, constructing edifices of thought for the good of our fellow man. Well, maybe, but it certainly is not what I’m doing here.

The other view comes from, for example, Mary Midgley. Her concept of philosophy is the plumbing one. That is, it is largely unseen and not worried about until something starts to smell, and then we have to get under the floorboards and see what has gone wrong. Philosophically, this means that we run on understood concepts until something goes wrong, and then we have to pull the concepts out and see what smells.

As you may have gathered, I’m more in favour of the latter, rather than the former model of doing philosophy. But, at this point you may object that, in fact, in wargaming nothing smells. There do not seem to be too many philosophical, ethical or conceptual issues around wargaming. Everything in the battle-game garden is smelling of roses.
So, are there any issues that might have us wrinkling our noses, just a little?

Consider this:
In 2007, the clergy of Manchester Cathedral protested that a computer generated visualisation of the inside of the cathedral was being used as the backdrop to a violent computer game released by Sony Corporation, entitled ‘Resistance: Fall of Man’. Aside from issues over copyright and defamation, the Dean also objected to the ‘virtual desecration’ of the sacred space of the cathedral’s nave. The game is set in an alternate time line in the 1950’s, and part of it depicts a gory gun battle in the cathedral, particularly ironic in the light of the cathedral’s outreach to victims of gun crime.

Does this make our noses wrinkle at the smell? Is there, indeed a smell here to be discerned? When I’ve written about speech acts and performative utterances, offence and the harm principle, do those considerations apply? Is this something, as hobbyists, we should be concerned about?

Consider this:
In 2003, a miniature war game journal published a short article relating to British SS ‘Freikorps’ troops in action against Soviet forces during World War Two. This provoked a significant reaction from the readership, including a detailed refutation of the premises of the original article. The original was, in its historical interpretations, alarmingly close to neo-Nazi views.

Again, is this something we should worry about? Why was there such a reaction? On a similar notethere was a distinct problem at a UK show a few years ago when a group of World war II re-enactors turned out to be re-enacting the SS. There were protests, the group were removed and the show organisers issued a highly apologetic statement. Why? I’d be willing to lay a small amount of money that somewhere in the show you could have seen SS soldiers in a demonstration game, or bought some, or bought a book about them at least.

So, there are some smelly corners of wargaming, ethically at least. If you can think of any more, please do let me know, because this is the way that the thinking about the hobby can be developed.

Are there similar things in the concepts of the game. Quite possibly, but I think I need a bit of a lie down now.


  1. I think the 'problem' with the occasional SS-thing which comes up in the hobby is that every so often we come up against a person who acts in such a way that we suspect them personally of using the hobby as a an acceptable vehicle for indulging their real political fantasies which are such that most people and most wargamers would find unacceptable. The 'SS' stuff is a convenient target because most examples seem to come from this side. However, I would feel just as bad about a British Zulu War player who seemed to be using his games/re-enactment as a vehicle for indulging some real neo-Colonialist fantasy or a Confederate gamer who seemed to be using it as a way of indulging an imagination that really wished to re-enslave black Americans. Such a thing would be pretty unlikely, but in theory I'd feel the same.

    Most wargames or re-enactments are fairly clearly totally devoid of any of this stuff.

  2. And I think the good Dean had pretty much no point at all about the physical space of the cathedral. I just can't see how that would really make people feel differenty about his Church in general or this church in particular. Does he really want to control the backdrops for others' fictions? He should have been more upset about the depiction of the clergy in, say, 'Northern Lights' and hundreds of thousands of people have read that.

  3. I do think a lot of this comes down to the confusion of the different wargame levels I've described before.

    I think, for example, that the dean does have grounds to object, but they are not the ones he did object on - copyright and defamation would be more serious charges than the one laid. But that is the one the press and politicians ran with, and the cathedral got bothered about. I wonder why that was?

    As another example, in the late 1990s a couple of teenagers somehwere near Seattle murdered a girl. it came out that they had been members of D&D groups, and the press had a field day about the dangers of FRP games. However, it also turned out that the teenagers had been thrown out of the groups for blurring the lines between the games and reality, which rather killed the story.

    Again, this seems to have been a simple blurring, by both press and teenagers, of the levels of game and reality. But it was the one that got a lot of attention. Is it just that wargaming is suc an oddball activity that the press enjoys these implications, or just sniffing an interesting angle?

    I'm not sure I've got any answers, but the question is "is there a question?"

  4. After a lot of thinking about this post, I think that there is a question - a few, actually.

    First, is wargaming disrespectful? Does it make light of the suffering of those who fought in the wars, or just as importantly, those who suffered as a result of them. If we know that say 27-28 million inhabitants of the Soviet Union were killed in the Great Patriotic War, or that some of those surviving soldiers then proceded to rape two million women in Berlin, should we feel comfortable about playing a 'Flames of War' Eastern Front battle?

    This problem is reasonably specific to wargaming, as it aims to make something enjoyable from something hideous. Narrative forms like drama and novels don't have to minimize or (largely) ignore the human suffering. Is the defence of wargaming, that it is only a game, on a par with that of German Generals who were only concerned with the tactics and strategy of Eastern Front warfare 1941-5?

    Second, does wargaming encourage violence or at best, promote extreme political views? I think that I have a hard time expressing this objection with its full potential, as I tend to feel from experience that this is absoutely not the case. The 'Salute SS' incident may stand for all of this problem in all its forms - do SS re-enactors/wargamers with 'evil' armies do so because they are at some level sympathetic with the causes those armies fought for? I think this is probably 99% untrue, but there might be a remaining 1% with something in it...
    I tihnk mainly people get these armies because someone needs to play the baddies or that the baddies have the coolest uniforms/kit (this might apply to Star Wars as much as WW1, for example).

    Thirdly, and I think this is distinct from the other two, is it a sign of inadeqaucy in us as wargamers (although it would equally apply to military modellers, some RPGers and some re-enactors) that we play a game rooted (however far removed) in violence and cruelty (athough we are not supporters or practioners of any actual violence or cruelty)? Should we be doing something else with our lives? If we find all this war stuff fascinating, is that a sign that we are deviants rather than the fact that war is intrinsically interesting.


  5. FWIW, as a wargamer and previously as an RPGer, I've never felt that 2 or 3 had that much force, but I have sometimes wondered about 1.

    I remember this issue being discussed in episode two of the View from the Veranda podcast and in Meeples and Miniatures podcasts when the modern skirmish games 'Ambush Alley' and 'Flying Lead' were discussed. One point that the different contributors made was that serving soldiers had no problem with this stuff. I remember thinking that this was fine as fas as it goes, but I wonder what the civilians involved would have thought?


  6. Thank you for your thoughts; it is a lot more complicated that first imagined.

    I do think that your 1 has some legs to it. Making a game out of suffering on an unimaginable level does sound a bit iffy. Films and novels (and non fiction) can examine the human effects of war in a way that wargaming doesn't. On the other hand, wargaming might answer some of the big picture 'why' a little better than, say, Catch 22.

    I'd tend to agree that your #2 is the area of the extreme minority, but they do crop up and have to be dealt with. There does seem to be a line, somewhere, which SS re-enactors cross and SS toy soldiers don't. Something about living it, I suppose - Ruraigh mentioned a while ago the stories that we tell inventing ourselves. Do we really want people inventing themselves as the SS?

    #3 is a bit tricky. Wargaming, at least in some of its forms, does acknowledge the violence and cruelty, and could act as a method for understanding and deflecting conflict. There are highly respectable departments of War Studies, for example. War may not be nice, but it is real and important, so I guess someone has to consider it.