Saturday 10 December 2011

Morality, Models and Rules

My two lines of thought, about ethics in wargaming and how wargames actually work, are starting to come dangerously close together.

The last ethics articles, on virtue and contractual ethics, seem to indicate, to me at any rate, that the morality or otherwise of a wargame comes down, more or less, to what is modelled in the wargame rules. If you want to have rules for atrocities, you can (but don’t expect me to agree that they are an ethical rule set). So the question which arises is that of ‘what do we model in a rule set?’

The other line of enquiry has become a bit more pointed recently, given that I’ve actually made some progress on writing rules for classical Greek warfare. The bones of the rules are laid out, but the question arises now is 'what does this set of rules need to add the colour and spice of the original period?’

Now, in my mind, these two questions tend to collapse into each other. The overall question is what do we model in wargames rules and how do we choose?

To start from the question of the Greeks, the first job is to read the literary sources and note the general impressions of how the battles were conducted. This gives you the basic troop types and some answers to outcome questions.

It is not too difficult to take these basic empirical data and create a combat table, and from there to get some basic rules for a wargame. The question which arises is to wonder how close this is to what really happened. It is here that a degree of skill, or art, or something like that (ingenuity, perhaps) needs to come into play.

Now, looked at from the moral angle, all we want to do is model the combat and its outcomes. For example, in Xenophon’s Anabasis, the Ten Thousand spend quite a lot of their time moving into untouched areas, killing or driving off the inhabitants and looting the food and other items, including, on some occasions, selling women and children into slavery, or keeping them as slaves, concubines or servants themselves.

According to our lights this is immoral behaviour. But the Ten Thousand were not alone in doing this. Even the much vaunted Alexander III of Macedon, (sometimes called ‘the Great’), in the opening few pages of Arrian’s Alexandrus Anabasis is reported, in his campaign against the Thracians:

“Nearly fifteen hundred of them [Thracians} perished. Few of those who fled were taken alive, on account of their speed and knowledge of the country, though all the women who had accompanied them were captured with their young children and all the property they were carrying.

Alexander sent the plunder back to the cities at the coast, appointing Lysanias and Philotas to dispose of i.t’ (Arrian, 1.1.13 – 1.2.1, Landmark Arrian).

The word plunder in this passage presumably means the women and children too. Hardly the sort of behaviour we expect of a demi-God, perhaps, but it was a part of warfare of the time, and a neat way of making sure your troops had money.

The point is that we, as rule writers and users, have to choose what to model. Do we want to model the selling of women and children into slavery? Probably not, so we exclude that from our rule considerations, although it is probably harder to do this in the context of a campaign game than a free standing wargame.

On the other hand, the interaction between hoplites and peltasts in combat is a significant factor in warfare of the period. The Ten Thousand seem to have formed the hoplites into various bands of different age groups, and it is sometimes reported that for example, all the hoplites under thirty were sent to chase off the peltasts.

We probably do want to model the latter example, while ignoring the first, but why? On what basis do we make that choice?

I think this comes back to what I’ve said before about our western traditions of warfare. Like it or not, we do have a ‘just war’ tradition, and that tradition determines that, for example, non-combatants are not to be harmed. Thus, on the basis of keeping our wargames within the culturally acceptable terms of our times, we have to exclude selling women and children into slavery and similar things which we would define today as war crimes.

On the other hand, the interaction of hoplites and peltasts is a legitimate point to model in a wargame rule set. The two elements in the conflict are there (more or less) by their own choice and thus this bit of the warfare can be legitimately modelled.

I think the point I’m trying to make here is that, in general, we do not consciously make these decisions, they just happen. We have a pool of general assumptions about warfare, wargames and rules which we do not, actually, question, or even think about in any detail.

It may well be that you are thinking that we obviously do not play wargames centred about atrocities, while obviously modelling the interaction of hoplite and peltast on a battlefield is an entirely acceptable focus for a rule writer.

I’d agree, but what I would like to add is that these ‘obvious’ choices are not quite as obvious as we might like to think. Supposing a different culture had come up with wargaming at a different time, we would probably have a very different sort of hobby. What is ruled in and ruled out is a matter of choice, albeit choice heavily influenced by our culture.

In the end, we have a hobby which is part of our culture and is heavily influenced by it. Wargames focus on specific bits of warfare in whatever age. Principally, we focus on the actual battle, which if Victor Davis Hansen is to be believed, is simply how western culture views warfare.

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