Saturday 18 February 2012

Models and Representations

Just to prove that I don’t write in an entire vacuum, I saw recently a debate on the ancmed yahoo group about modelling, in which it was asserted that someone had said that we do not have models in wargaming, but wargames are simply representations of ancient battles.

My problem is that I’m not sure I know what that means.

Now, obviously I have some idea of what a model is. A model is, in some way, a metaphor for a real life event. The Bohr theory of the atom is a metaphor – it does not represent a real thing, but it enables us to do some calculations and get some answers which we can relate to the real world. However useful it is for that, and for teaching people about atomic theory, it is not an atom, or a representation of an atom; it makes no ontological claims.

So, what is a representation?

At one level, of course, our toy soldiers themselves are representations. An Assyrian warrior (at least when painted by a better hand than mine), is a representation of a seventh century BC warrior. It is a scale model, in terms of what I have said before. But I do not think that this is what was meant by the comment.

I suspect (although I do not know), that what is meant is that an ancients wargame vaguely resembles an ancient battle, and no more than vaguely. This is not a scale model, in any way, shape, or form, but perhaps what is meant is that the wargame is a poem or a play set around the original battle; not accurate in its form or activity, but giving a flavour of the action.

I think this is for a variety of reasons. Firstly, the sources are not really adequate to a reconstruction. I’ve moaned before about the inadequacies of the accounts we have of both Marathon and Issus, and the situation for most other battles of the period is no better. Even if we do have more than one account of a battle, usually they are contradictory, at least in part. Of course, if they agree in every detail, they are presumed to derive, one from the other. There is no pleasing us, sometimes.

Secondly, of course, we cannot reduce all the reality to the table top. The smaller details of terrain that affect the action, the overall flow and interlocking of the decision making and so on are not fully modellable. When this is added to the problem of the lack of knowledge of the action already referred to, I think we can see that there is only a small chance of really simulating the battle.

Is a representation, a flavour of a battle, all we can aspire to, then? I suspect that here things get a little complex.

If, as I have surmised, a ‘representation’ of an ancient battle is akin to saying that the wargame is like a metaphor or play or poem of the real thing, then all this is really saying is that it is a model of the original, but in a different form.

Let me try to explain.

Poems and plays (and, for that matter, literary novels) rely on metaphors for their effect. In fact, our entire language, or at least large chunks of it rely on metaphor to work, even though we rarely notice the fact. For example, to say ‘I understand’ is easily understood (ahem), but actually means ‘I stand under’, which is a metaphor for knowing intimately. This is not just the case in English, incidentally.

Now, a poem or play is a set of metaphors to describe something, in terms of something else. That is what metaphors do. Thus, we can say that even a poem or play is a model of some event, because models are extended metaphors, or sets of metaphors which describe something in the world (like an atom) in terms of something else (a solar system, in the case of the Bohr atom).

Therefore, it would seem that a representation of a battle, no matter how vague, is in fact nothing more than another model of the battle, but expressed in different terms. I’m not sure, on that basis, if the person who tried the draw the distinction was actually making any helpful progress towards understanding how wargames function.

As I’ve tried to hint above, the problem with this sort of discussion is that it all turns on our understanding of language and meaning. In spite of Shannon’s work over 50 years ago, and Wittgenstein’s arguments a little bit later, we still have this idea that language, the words we use are, or at least should be, transparent. It would be nice (but probably boring) if that were the case.

Language is a little bit like the three laws of thermodynamics. The simplified version of those reads:

  1. You can’t win.
  2. You can’t break even.
  3. You can’t get out of the game.

Language is a bit like that. We can never be entirely precise – that sort of precision is the remit of logic and mathematics, so we cannot win. We can never even be sufficiently good at language that we do not need metaphors, as the language is metaphors in large part, so we cannot break even. Finally, we need language, as we cannot communicate otherwise, so we cannot get out of the game.

Language, therefore, enables us to speak, even if what we speak about are ‘only’ models. In fact, when taken seriously, much of what we do is done via model and metaphor, and these are representations of reality, seeing a ‘this’ as a ‘that’. The only alternative, as both Wittgenstein and St Augustine acknowledge, is silence.

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