Saturday 8 December 2012

Conflicting Narratives

One of the things I try to do from time to time here is to attempt to answer the question ‘what is it that we are doing when we are wargaming?’ Of course, there are many answers to that question which cover things as diverse as ethics, statistics, historiography and speech-acts, and some of these have been discussed.

This time, however, I would like to take a slightly broader idea: what exactly is a war game? How does it function?

The idea I have is that a game, in general, is a conflict of two narrative, one from each player. Now, I know that there are games which have a single player (I am, after all, mainly a solo wargamer), but even so I think there are two conflicting narratives at the heart of the process. Of course, there could be more than two, with multi-player games where the players have varying objectives, but I will leave that complication aside for the moment.

Consider a different game, say tennis. Now, the objectives in tennis are quite clear. Both players want to win the game. If one of them, does not, it is not, strictly, a game of tennis; it is a knock about, or practice, or training, but not a competitive game. In the case that both players do want to win, each player has a narrative end in mind: me as the winner. Both make such moves as they are capable of in such a way as to achieve the objective of their narrative. So the game proceeds via serves and return, volleys and so on, with each player attempting to obtain an advantage for their own particular narrative. Eventually, one player, and one narrative will be victorious.

He other issue within such a game is, of course, the constraints imposed on the players, and their narratives, by the rules. The rules ensure some degree of ‘fairness’. Now, we have to be a bit careful here. Rules do not ensure absolute fairness: some people are better at tennis than others. That, after all, is something of the point of the game. The rules do, however, constrain the moves the players can make, so they are equivalent. Both players, for example make serves, and, roughly speaking, make equal numbers of serves with equal chances, given the individual’s ability, to score points.

The rules, then, constrain the possibilities of the game. For example, I read somewhere recently that even an omnipotent, omniscient God cannot win a game of chess against Gary Kasparov if all God has is the king and a pawn. This is not any failure of omnipotence or omniscience, but simply that, within the constraints of the rules of the game, no winning strategy exists for God. Of course, God could cause Gary to become confused, make foolish moves and so on, but that is outwith the game rules (and even so may not enable God to win, as it happens).

With respect to wargaming, therefore, the idea is something like this. The two players have conflicting narrative aims, that is, both side wish to win. The process of them winning is decided by the players, how they deploy their toy soldiers, the terrain of the wargame table and the moves they make. These factors are the ones which, broadly speaking, are up to the wargamers themselves. These are the items which the wargamers manipulate to achieve the victory of their own narrative.

There are other factors. We have already noted the effect of rules in constraining the moves that the players can make. It may be, for example, that one player lands up in a similar position to that of God in my chess example. There is no good winning strategy for him, and so his narrative goal has to change from winning, to minimising the damage, or inflicting disproportionate damage on the enemy, or delaying him, or whatever. The scenario possibilities are, of course, endless.

Additional to all these fairly predictable issues there is also a degree of randomness involved in the game, arbitrating, at least in part, between the different narratives. The randomness is not, of course, absolute, it occurs within the game. In most wargames, anyway, troops do not appear suddenly in the middle of the battlefield as a result of a random throw of the dice. Their combat may be more or less effective, but the impact of the randomness is constrained by the rules themselves.

Sitting behind all this is, of course, the expectation that the events on a wargame table will be reasonable and, at least in part, rationally understandable. To link back to the idea of conflicting narratives, we do expect a narrative to unfold in a reasonably linear fashion. This may not, of course, happen in real modern novels, for example, where authors like to try to mess with time and space to show how clever they are, but most popular stories are reasonably linear in time (think Harry Potter, for example).

Not only do we expect linear time, of at least clear cause and effect, we expect that our blocks of toy soldiers will behave, in some fashion at least, like blocks of real soldiers, and if, as seems likely, we are not sure how a block of real soldiers might have behaved, we expect a degree of intelligibility in the behaviour that they do display. Thus our rules have to allow for reasonable behaviour,  albeit moderated by a constrained degree of randomness.

Of course, the ultimate aim of any wargame, indeed, most games, is to ‘win’, whatever that might mean within the context. Winning, in a campaign game will likely be very different from winning a tournament game. In the former there may (and probably will) be a requirement to keep a force in being, leading to less in the way of gambits and more in the way of conservative and solid tactics. In the latter, the aim is to win, pure and simple, with little regard for an overall situation, because there isn’t one.

Overall,, however, the aim of each player is, given the constraints, to obtain the possession of the dominant narrative and win. If nothing else, this is an unusual way of looking at wargaming.


  1. Interesting. That covers what most of us tend to think of as a standard or normal wargame but I have taken part in at least two other types of wargame (not necessarily willingly). In some cases whether or not these are really "wargames" or "games" at all may be considered a moot point.

    The first alternative is the "serious" historical recreation where the aim is to have the game unfold as closely as possible to the original. Some participants will still be looking for the personal win even if that isn;t the stated aim meaning it is little different than the usual but I have met those for whom victory is irrelevant and "winning" is that the original pattern is followed and that tactics etc are accurately recreated (as far as possible and according to their vision of them.) If enough of the players are aligned then both sides will be trying to create the same narrative.

    The second variant is when role playing crosses over to wargaming and players are striving to reach personal goals issued by a GM, usually during a multi-player game, often a petit geurre scenario or skirmish game but I have seen the technique applied to full games. The goals may be of a strictly personal nature such as winning fame or of a political nature such as having a rival disgraced or maintaining your own force and having an ally take the brunt of casualties.
    In some cases it is entirely possible for some, all or none of the players to reach their goals. In other words players goals might, but do not necessarily, preclude other players from also gaining their goals or achieving their narrative.


  2. Hi,

    I think your first alternative, the serious recreation of a historical battle probably stretches the meaning of the word 'game' a little far. It is an interesting question as to how closely a (for want of a better word) simulation has to follow the original narrative for the battle to be regarded as a wargame. And of course, we struggle with what me mean by 'recreation' as well.

    As for the second, then of course you can have multiple narratives within the game; I guess all role playing games are multi-thread narratives. How much the goals of the individuals are met depends on the inter-relations of the player narratives, the context and so on, and the whole thing gets rather complex, but I suspect as heart the conflicting narratives account gives some insight into the game.

  3. Interesting post again. I tend to see wargames in narrative terms as well (solo gamer and blogger - it goes with the territory!), but one of the things about narrative is that while it may describe a victory, narrative itself is judged by different criteria. The success of a narrative is dependent on its value as a story or exposition, not on whether the side with which the author sympathises wins the battle.

    Therefore, when you say "The two players have conflicting narrative aims, that is, both sides wish to win", I cannot quite accept that winning can be a narrative objective.

    Of course, in the history of war we do indeed have competing narratives or discourses, but the narrative victory here is not usually in the actual winning, but in having one's description of how and why that victory (or defeat) occurred accepted, which again comes back to its value as story.

    Can you see a way to reconcile this?

    Cheers, and please keep up the postings. I really enjoy reading what you write. Your posts are sensitive and thought-provoking. Wonderful stuff.

    Many thanks,

  4. Hi,

    thank you for the kind words; I do need comments to keep going and spark ideas, so keep commenting!

    As for your point, I think perhaps I did not define the terms too well. By narrative above I suppose I mean something like a plan, something dynamic that we construct rather than something which is a given as the story of the battle afterwards would be. The two plans of the players (or narratives) are in conflict, and each modifies the others until one dominates and wins, to a greater or lesser extent.

    From some views, this is to do with contingency - the past is fixed and you can only express views about it (historiography) while the future is contingent and can, within context, be created by the participants.

  5. Ah, the heart of the matter: why are we here? In this particular existentialist question, 'here' being behind a table loaded with wargames figures.

    I think you are right, it's a conflict of narratives, but there is nothing to say that each wargamer doesn't have his own set of conflicting narratives competing for possession of his wargaming soul, apart from the wider conflict with his opponent(s)and their narratives. Your own personal conflict might be between any number of these narratives: to prove the rules work; to ensure your favourite army wins; to make sure your new favourite unit distinguishes itself; to win the game; to have fun, the list is endless and the priorities might change many times during the game and different narratives grab the upper hand.

    I've always disliked competition games and don't really understand the players; what are they trying to prove? If the whole point is to win the game or prove you can use/interpret the rules better than the other bloke, then why wargame? Why not take up chess and save yourself the bother of painting?
    Obviously, conflicting narratives are at work within the comnpetition wargamer. Deep down within the nit-picking rules lawyer is a lttle cavalier on a dashing charger wanting to throw caution to the winds and rush pell-mell upon the enemy at the head of his faithful warriors.

    Just like the rest of us.

    Thanks for more stuff to think about, David. Cheers!


  6. Hi,

    Yes, I think the whole 'narrative' thing is dynamic within the player. After all, if you start losing your outcome might change from 'win' to 'minimize the damage' and so on. I suppose the idea is that the players create a single narrative from their attempts to arrive at their conflicting outcomes, and so the narrative that each conceives initially is modified by the choices both make.

    As for competition games, each to his own, I suppose. Having wondered around a few at shows, I've mainly been struck by the poor quality of terrain and the much better quality of painting of soldiers. The other thing was, in one show, the intense quiet of concentration. I felt like saying 'come on, it is only a game', but didn't want to disturb the assembled... At other competitions, of course, there was some laughter.