Saturday 29 December 2012

Narrative Ethics

I have a feeling that I might have mentioned narrative ethics before, but in the light of a recent post on conflicting narratives in wargaming, I thought it would be worthwhile revisiting.

As you probably recall, I suggested that a wargame, in terms of what the participants are doing, was a trial of conflicting narrative with mutually exclusive goals. That is, if I am playing a wargame against you, my goal is that I win the game, and your goal is that you win it. It is very hard to find situations where both of these outcomes obtain. Some scenario games may approach it, as may some campaign games, but in most wargames there are winners and losers, or, alternatively, a draw where neither outcomes have been delivered.

It occurred to me that this might give another angle on the issue of wargame ethics, or why we play some things and not others. The evidence so far that I have found, or people have commented about, or I have seen as games suggest that there are few wargame eras, even up to the fracas in Afghanistan, which you will not find someone, somewhere, playing and producing figures and rules for.

Similarly (or perhaps, oppositely), there are a good number of people who will not play certain games, or eras or particular sides – the Germans in World War Two is one such example. The have an ethical theory which will cover both of these camps has turned out to be a bit tricky, to say the least. None of the three main meta-ethical theories, virtue ethics, utilitarianism and deontological, have proved to give us a particularly good handle on the ethics of given historical wargames. As meta-ethical theories they cannot, in a general sense, take account of individual tastes and viewpoint anyway.

The idea of a wargame being formed of conflicting narratives does, however, give us a potential way in. As human beings we form ourselves, at least to a large extent, by the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and those which we tell others. This is obviously trivial to some people, while others need some convincing. However, we do like to tell stories, and many of the stories are about ourselves, our values, our activities. As a minor example, ‘how was your day’ requires some sort of story in reply, if the question is not just to be dismissed as phatic speech.

The stories we tell ourselves, and tell of ourselves, arise from the sets of values and processes which are imposed upon us by our culture, society, education and personal life history. Again, this is reasonably obvious in some senses. If I have lost a leg in an industrial accident, that is going to inform my life story. If, like Roosevelt, I am disabled by childhood polio, that too will inform my life story, even if I spend a lot of my time hiding the fact of my disability from the general population.

Similarly, our society and culture can impact significantly on our stories. For example, the question ‘did you vote?’ is a fairly neutral one in most western liberal democracies, where voting is a right but not a requirement.  In an oppressive one party state where a 100% turn out and vote for the party is expected, however, the question takes on much nastier overtones, and our own personal responses to it have a much greater impact, potentially, on our life stories.

How then do our own narratives of our lives in general impact upon our wargaming choices and hence, on our wargaming ethics?

Wargaming (believe it or not) is not the whole of life, and nor is it separated from the rest of our lives. Therefore, the wargaming narratives that we tell can impact on the stories we tell more generally. If, as I have suggested, our narratives of our lives represent to ourselves and to the world ourselves, our virtues and vices, our outlooks and choices, then our wargaming stories are going to represent something of those factors. Our wargaming stories will impact on the rest of our lives, and we have to justify them, at least to ourselves, somehow.

The give an example, suppose you have just been having a wargame where the two sides are Russian partisans in World War Two and one of those nasty SS rear area units whose job was to keep the partisans down. You return home having won the game. ‘How did it go?’ asks your nearest and dearest. ‘I won,’ you reply, ‘I shot thirty unarmed and surrendered partisans, plundered and burnt the village and raped and murdered the women after killing their children in front of them. Great game.’

You nearest and dearest may well, at this point, be reaching for the phone to call an ambulance to take you to a psychiatric hospital. The above scenario is not one that most of us want within our narratives. It is at odds with most right thinking people’s views and, as such, we do not even wish it to be included in a fictional part of our lives. It has no place in the narratives of decent western liberal people.

The reasons why this sort of (even fictional) behaviour is excluded from our narratives is an interesting and rather complex one. Clearly, given that the sorts of events outlines above did happen and are a matter of historical record means that that sort of behaviour is not outside the limits of the possible. But we temper the possible by the sorts of things we wish to represent to ourselves in our narratives, of which our wargaming activities are a part.

This sort of approach dates back to Aristotle, of course. He argued that the sorts of things that we do become habitual, and they can be habitually virtuous or habitually vicious. If, then, we habitually cultivate vicious behaviour, even at the level of the (imaginary) game described above, Aristotle argues that we will, ourselves, become more vicious, and if we act more virtuously, we will become more virtuous.

Therefore, I suggest that the wagames we feel uncomfortable with are those where we undertake behaviour that we would not feel comfortable with in the narratives of our whole lives. And that, it seems to me, is an issue which is, in the final analysis, a personal one.


  1. I recognise in your post a rather more articulate defence of my "I don't play the baddies" position.

    Hence the no Nazis, no Confederates, no Republican or Revolutionary French.

    This position was arrived at after a disastrous Falklands game where a friend and I led the Argentinean armed forces to a great victory and the blackest day in the history of the Royal Navy. I swore that thereafter I would never play the side I didn't want to win in reality.

  2. Thanks for this thoughtful post. In my experience not all gamers play within the constraints of the estimable Kinch. To use your example of the WW2 Germans, some gravitate towards that period simply because they have the coolest kit. Why play a faceless horde of GIs with exploding Sherman's when I can have a few elite Waffen SS with a Tiger tank? That choice is made easier if the gamer who wants to play the SS has bought into certain narratives which valourise the Waffen SS as noble heroes, separate somehow from the whole grisly business of the Holocaust. So to use your example, while the idea of playing an SS anti-partisan unit in Russia or the Balkans might be borderline psychotic in the activity that a game might represent, playing with the SS Das Reich Division in Normandy might strike the same narrative chords as, say, Leonidas and the Spartans at Thermopylae, a doomed stand by as noble martial elite. Now if one has read Antony Beevor's new book on the Notmandy campaign, which chronicles the atrocities committed by members of Dad Reich against French civilians during that campaign, the narrative becomes more complex and less attractive. However, I don't think that we game with such a high degree of moral and historical nuance. Most gamers, like the military people I work with, buy into some version of the soldier's code, the idea that the profession of arms in itself is inherently virtuous because it demands certain virtues - courage, strength, comeradeship, skill - of it's followers. Aristotle would have dismissed these virtues as being insufficient to establish the polis, but then Aristotle lived in Athens, not Sparta. While I do not wholeheartedly buy into the soldiers' code for these reasons, that may explain why I am a chaplain and not a combat arms officer.
    Perhaps it is worth noting, as you say, that we as humans are a story telling people, and the stories we tell are often mythic, in that they do have power and appeal, and even work at some level as a vehicle for certain virtues, but do not stand the test of history with all of its moral complexities. It seems remarkable to me that so many people gravitate towards the Warhammer 40K universe, which to me is a repellent and barren moral landscape, but still good fun because it is almost entirely mythic in nature. Or even in those mythic narratives where there is a clear moral structure, say a game set in Tolkien's Middle Earth, to tell the story as a game requires someone to play to orcs and Nazgul. The difference between reading Tolkien and playing a Tolkien based game is that in the latter, as in all games, somebody has to play the baddies.
    Thank you again for a thoughtful post.
    Happy new year,

  3. Hmm, I'm a simple soul and wot not of meta-ethics, but the idea of the narrative being central - both the narrative we give of ourselves and the narrative of the games we play, interlinked - strikes a distinct chord.

    Is this to say, I wonder, that 'I don't want to play the SS' includes a large measure of 'I don't want to be seen to play the SS', as this conflicts with our personal image? Maybe so.

    As you say, David, it is a very personal thing and our own life story and experiences does affect the way we view history. I used to know a chap who had been on the Burma Railway; he was 21 when he was captured at Singapore, and when he was liberated in 1945, he was given six months to live because of the treatment he'd had. He suffered ill health and constant pain for the next forty years. It's sort of put me off the Japanese of any period as a wargames army and I won't be collecting samurai any time soon.

    I think that's the crux. If your view of the SS is as 'good troops' with cool weapons to boot, and you have no personal narrative, it's probably a fairly easy task to consign the other stuff to a dusty shelf at the back of your head somewhere or make it a footnote to your narrative. You know it's there, but it's not relevant to the wargame, so why bring it out now? Whoever said your wargame had to be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?
    The wargamer's hobby (and the historian's job, you might say) is to present history as he sees it, or likes to see it.

    And as I've said before, only Hollywood has fixed categories for goodies and baddies; in history, there's a good deal of oscillation between the two. Cromwell's army at Dunbar or at Drogheda? George II's redcoats at Dettingen or in the glens after Culloden?
    Chevauchee, anyone? Taking the Poitiers route?

    All the best for the New Year,


  4. Hi,

    Thank you all for your comments; each could probably do with a full length reply, and might get one in due time. However, at the moment I'm stymied by a cold/ear/throat infection, so my apologies if I'm even less coherent than normal.

    It does seem that this idea of allowing narratives into our overall life story, or not, is quite a fruitful one in terms of understanding why we make certain choices about our games. As Chris said, we can and do focus on certain truths and consign others to the also rans bins. Were the SS good troops? Yes. Were they only good troops with no other significant issues? No. The problem is that by focussing only on the first and ignoring the second, we land up with a view of history which most right thinking folk would reject (and might land us, in some countries, in prison to boot).

    The whole issue about human story telling and our mythic dimensions is something well worth investigating further as well. I too have no idea why Warhammer in all its forms is so popular; there is no good or evil, all the sides seems to be rather equally bad. Perhaps in that is part of the answer - the morality is simple, and doesn't matter, if everyone is on the same moral plane anyway.

    Now, time for my next round of antibiotics. Thank you for the pats and good cheer.

  5. Happy new year to you Polemarch (and to the above commentators), and my apologies for having taken so long to see these latest posts of yours.

    As always, a very interesting point of view. But here's a conundrum for you: in my personal life I prefer to chuck a spider out the window rather than kill it, and get quite vociferous about the certain modern-day conflicts are prosecuted, yet in a recent campaign gaming episode it fell to me to decide what to do with a mass of prisoners we had taken after a battle won against fearful odds. With the barbaric invaders now my prisoners, still in worrying numbers, and my own men short of food, guess what my first reaction was?

    The question for me is this: how do I reconcile the fact that I was thinking about putting them into barns for the night, locking the doors, and then setting the things afire with my real life self, who would revolt against such an act?


    1. Sorry, that should read "get quite vociferous about the *way* certain modern conflicts are prosecuted."

    2. Hi,

      Tricky one... I suppose the answer is that we can always switch to 'its only a game' mode and claim that we wouldn't do that really, but in the context of the game we can.

      It isn't a good answer, as the discomfort implied suggests; there is a need to reconcile our game action with our real life selves. I suppose the decision for each of us is how far we can keep our gaming selves and our real selves separate. they cannot be entirely separate, but how much do actions in one influence actions in the other?

      And besides, your initial reaction might just be a waste of decent barns...