Saturday 25 May 2013

Peeling Wargame Onions…

…there will be tears before bedtime.

A while ago I attempted to remove any ideas of Kant from wargaming. The problem with Mr Enlightenment Philosopher is, of course, that he keeps sneaking back into our thinking, however postmodern or post enlightenment we might like to think we are.

Some of you might remember the ‘wargame houses’ post, as well, in which I tried to show that no one can have an overall view of a house, let alone a battle. The example came from Bernard Lonergan, who, as I might have mentioned, is what is described as a ‘transcendental Thomist’. Without wishing to delve into what that actually is, suffice it to say that traditional Thomists view transcendental Thomists to have yielded too much ground to (you have probably guessed it already) Immanuel Kant.

I dare say that you can see the point. I suggested that we can have no knowledge of a house as a house from our senses. All we have are different impressions formed from our view of the house from different angles. We cannot know the inside of the house and its outside at the same time. All we can do is synthesise an overall house from our impressions. That is not the house in itself, which is, after all, closely parallel to Kant’s view that we cannot know the thing in itself.

As the house, I suggested, so the battle. No-one can know the battle as a battle, a thing in itself. We cannot know the historical event, the battle as it was. This is also inaccessible to anyone who was there. Let me call the battle in itself Battle 1. It is to Battle 1 that we have no access.

Now, obviously those present at a battle will have some experience of it, or at least, their part of it. They do have access to this layer, let me call it Battle 2. This is knowable by the participants, although they have no access to the overall battle, Battle 1.

Some of the participants, those with Battle 2 knowledge, may write down their impressions of the battle in diaries, letters, battle reports and so on. This I shall call Battle 3. Battle 2 is only accessible to those who were present, but Battle 3 is accessible to us, given that we can read their accounts of Battle 2. However, we are already two layers away from “the battle” Battle 1 level.

There are other things which can happen at this sort of level, of course. Archaeology can take a turn, as with Naseby and Bosworth, to name but two. This gives us further information which can be interpreted to provide an account of the battle, or parts of it. Similarly, historians can come along and create accounts of the battle from the sources. These secondary sources are also available to use. I could call these a different level of the battle, but for simplicity I shall lump this is with Battle 3. We have access to this level.

Now, consider the complex of a set of wargame rules, two armies and a wargame table set with terrain. This provides a further level in the battle, let me call it Battle 4. The wargame is a model of the battle, which we hope will provide a similar sort of outcome, within a reasonable margin of error from the original.

The point about the model (Battle 4) is that is self-consciously not the Battle 1 event itself. It cannot be. But the question then arises as to whether it has any relation with Battle 1 at all, and whether Battle 4 can show any insight into Battle 1 (or, for that matter, Battle 2).

One of the interesting things about models is that they can throw up all sorts of spurious intermediate results. For example, a model of an aeroplane flying has, in its simplest form, four forces acting on it: thrust, drag, lift and gravity. These balance out so the aircraft can continue to fly. However, it is not actually possible to isolate these forces. All we can measure is the outcome, the fact that the aircraft continues in the air going in a certain direction. The forces are, to a greater extent, fictitious; they help us to model the situation, but do not actually exist.

As with scientific models so, I suggest, with Battle 4 models. The point about the forces in the aircraft model is that they do not exist, on their own. They are not ontological forces. The outcome is ontological, it does exist; the others simply help us to reach that point.

In Battle 4 models, the Battle 1 level is unobtainable, and so is Battle 2. But, from Battle 3 we have a certain amount of outcome information. We know that this charge worked ad that one did not, that this unit stood firm while that one fled, and so on. The point is that the Battle 4 mechanics are expected to achieve this outcome, without knowing what the internal mechanics of the result are.

The upshot of this ramble is that most of the mechanics of our Battle 4 models are fictitious. I can, for example, include a reaction roll for a unit that is being charged. However, I can scan the Battle 3 accounts for a sentence that says ‘the unit reacted’ in vain. It is a fiction, a part of our model that has no counterpart in real life, in Battle 2 or even, presumably, in Battle 1.

Does this matter? I am really not sure it does, because all we can ever have access to are the outcomes anyway. In the aircraft model I do not really care if my forces exist or not, so long as the aeroplane remains airborne.  Similarly, all I can really say about Battle 4 is that the outcomes match those given in Battle 3 within some margin of error.

So, I contend from this analysis that the mechanics of wargame rules are fictitious, and there is nothing we can do about that. All we can hope to do is match outcomes.

Saturday 18 May 2013

Wargaming and Free Will

One of the interesting things about writing this blog is to see whether I actually understand what I write. It may seem to you, on the receiving end of these posts, that I am a supreme expert in wargaming ethics and philosophy. I can assure you that this is not the case, and mostly I am at least  as puzzled by the issues I raise as the rest of the world is.

Be that as it may, I do attempt to obtain some understanding of what I am trying to write before I start, and sometimes this understanding, such as it is, arises purely serendipitously. This week is a case in point, although it does return to a consideration of ethics and wargaming. I am sure by now that some of my readers are getting heartily sick of the subject, and wish I would move on, but I, at least, find it moderately interesting and if I can find something which seems worth trying to say, I will carry on and say it.

The case in point here refers to some of the comments from ‘The Owl of Minerva’ post. Firstly, there is the fact that within a wargame, or even a campaign game, most of what we do, and most of our decisions are fairly mechanical. What we do within a wargame are to make decisions based upon our knowledge of the rules of the game, that is the mass of models which constitute the framework for conducting the game, and the concrete situation of the game which is presented to us.

The argument here and I think that it is probably a valid one, is that there are no real moral decisions contained within these sorts of mechanical or ‘plain’ decisions. I think that there are probably one or two caveats to that, but on the whole I do not think that these decision are particularly moral or ethical ones.

Let me give first a non-wargaming example, and then try to construct a wargaming one. The non-wargaming example is taken from IT Ramsey’s Freedom and Immortality (1960, London: SCM) p. 36. This is the serendiperty. I was not expecting the book to have any bearing on the topic of wargaming. 

Suppose someone says ‘I have decided to marry’. If we ask ‘Why?’ we might get a response like ‘It is too expensive to live on my own,’ or possibly ‘It is cheaper than hiring a housekeeper’. You  can tell the vintage of the book from the nature of the example. The idea is not that these are moral decisions; nor are they in fact immoral. They might be manipulative or on the far side of grim rationality, but that does not, in fact, make them immoral.

On the other hand, suppose the answer is ‘Because I am truly, madly deeply in love with this person’. While being a socially more acceptable reason for getting married in the first place, this also reveals a depth of feeling, or, put another way, a transcendence to the person replying. There is something more than purely empirical, rational decision making going on here. By this, I mean not that getting married to someone you love is irrational, for it is not, given the premise, but that there is simply something beyond the mechanical decisions making process here.

Now, being in love of course might show itself in various, measurable, practical ways, but these ways may only be explained by something beyond the empirical observations, in this case of being in love. This concept is not vacuous, or disingenuous; we use these sorts of ideas a lot in normal life.

Now, to try to work this around to a wargaming point of view, I think we can start with the example of ‘My grand battery opens fire’. This is a purely mechanical process. We know the rules indicating that a grand battery is effective in firing at certain ranges, against certain targets and so on. We have compared that model of grand battery fire with the situation on the wargames table, where we have a grand battery and a suitable target within range.

So far as I can tell, in those circumstances, there are no real moral considerations to be had. The decision is a plain one, a mechanical one, such as our person to be married was making a plain decision based on rational thought about money.

So is there a different sort of decision to be made in wargaming, one which is transcendental, or, in Ramsey’s terms, leads to a disclosure of something broader? This would be a free decision, a decision taken of our own free will and hence, quite probably, a decision which is loaded with moral and ethical implications.

I suspect that such decisions do exist, but that, on the whole, they do not occur within wargames, but in the decisions that lead up to a wargame. A simple example might be given by a scenario, however, if, as someone mentioned in a comment, there are civilians represented on the table (or implied, of course). In that case, calling an artillery barrage down upon them would be a moral (or rather, immoral) decision. Such on table scenarios are, however, something of a rarity.

It is more likely, in my view, that moral decisions are taken before a wargame. The questions which we might ask ourselves are, for example ‘What army shall I build?’, ‘Which rules shall I use?’ and so on. These questions may well have a moral aspect to their answer, although it will not be the only aspect of consideration.

For example, suppose I know that my regular wargame opponent Fred is building a Unionist American Civil War army. I may well consider building a Confederate one. Fred may well have asked me to, or we may even have decided that I will. Thus, I have an obligation to Fred to build such an army.

On the other hand, it might be that, on reading a history of the ACW I discover that the Confederates were defending slavery in the US South, and that I have a moral repugnance for slavery. (Let us assume I was ignorant of this fact prior to my reading). I now have two conflicting moral issues: my duty to Fred given my agreement to build an army, and my repugnance to the values (or at least one value) that the army stood for and defended.

While the example might be slightly trivial, it does show, I think, a real moral dilemma. Perhaps the outcome of this post is to suggest that our moral decisions are not, in most cases, simple choices between good and bad. Which should win here? My duty to Fred, or my repugnance of slavery?

Saturday 11 May 2013

Multiple Models and Wargame Emergence

It should come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog that I understand wargames rules as models of reality. They cannot, of course, be reality itself, or it would not be a wargame, and we probably could not get away with, for example, firing 25 pounder artillery in our quiet neighbourhoods just to find out what happens.

The situation is, in fact, slightly worse than we might think. A set of wargame rules is not a single model . We have models built in for all sorts of things, such as movement, shooting, close combat, morale and whatever else the designer thinks might be important. The way the model set is presented might, and usually is, different, but, nevertheless there is this set of models.

In fact, I think it might be argued that there are nested sets of models. For combat we have, perhaps implied, models for each different troop type against each other type. These may, indeed, sit within an overall combat model, but we could regard each combat type, by which I mean say, cavalry against cavalry, or infantry against artillery, as being a model in itself.

This might sound slightly alarming, but I do not think there is a particular cause for panic. In many areas of life assorted models are used quite happily up against each other. In physics, for example, we have wave-particle duality of quantum particles. This is, in fact, two models, that of an electron being a wave and that of an electron being a particle, which coexist quite happily alongside each other, even though the idea is counter-intuitive.

Even in less esoteric worlds of human endeavour we tend to have multiple models. I have two alarm clocks in the house, and they do the same job, but the user interface they present are different. The designers, presumably, had different ideas of how a person would come and set up an alarm clock. These interfaces are, of course, models, in that they attempt to form in my mind a mental map of how to set them.

The fact that one is more successful for me than another is not really here or there. The fact is that they are two models of a task that I would like to do.

So, two sets of wargame rules are, in essence, two different sets of models of some sort of battle reality. I think this has some implications for how much we like given sets of rules.

Firstly, there is the question of whether the individual models in a rule set fit together. If, say, the morale and command rules bear no relationship to each other, or contradict each other, then we might not like the rules. If my commander is within command radius and yet cannot encourage his men, we might look a little askance at the rules and declare the inconsistent. There has to be an internal coherence to the model set to make the rules work at all.

Secondly, the model set has to, in some way, correspond to our expectations of the real world the models are abstracted from. If, for example, our early WW2 Matildas are regularly taking out Tigers, while 88 mm shells bounce of the armour, we might suspect that the rule set was not a particularly accurate one. Similarly, if our Assyrians routed when a single Egyptian chariot appeared on the table, we might think that the rule model set needed some adjustment.

Thirdly, the way rule models sets are constructed is via the modern philosophical standby, reductionism. In my description above is reduced the battle to a set of component parts: cavalry against cavalry, tanks against tanks, or whatever. We then can model the individual bits, and build up our set of models to acquire an overall process of the battle. The battle, we imagine, is simply to be reduced to a set of interactions between these constituent parts, in more or less complex ways.

The question that arises is, of course, the one which arises for reductionism anyway. Does the sum of the parts actually give us the whole?

I have mentioned before the interesting fact the individuals behave differently in a crowd to when they are on their own. Of course, in military units that goes further. Individuals are trained to act in a different way within the unit. That is, after all, part of the point of having a unit at all. So we cannot, in principle, model a unit in the same way that we model a whole bunch of individuals. There is, in a unit, some emergent behaviour.

This is not, of course, fatal to our ability to wargame. In fact, given that we do not need to model the individual because of the emergent behaviour of the unit, it simplifies matters considerably. All we need to do is to successfully model that emergent behaviour.

The question is, then, do we need to go further. A set of units is, of course, a higher level unit, a division, or a corps, or even, depending on your scale of thinking (or the size of the historical prototype) an entire army. Do these objects exhibit emergent behaviour too, and can we, should we model it?

Now, many rule sets to at least pay lip service to army level emergent behaviour. In PM:SPQR (and, I think, PM: ECW, I must be more persuasive than I think) army morale is modelled. As a rule set they are not alone in having a model for emergent behaviour at the level of the whole force, but, given that there have been a fairly limited number of armies (as opposed to units) modelling the top level behaviour can be a little tricky.

Nevertheless, I believe that, historically, army commanders can affect the emergent behaviour of armies. Montgomery seems to have been able to do it. Wellington certainly seems to have thought he could do it. But it is not something that, it seems to me fits easily with our highly reductionist standard model sets for wargame rules.

Or, maybe, I am simply overemphasising something quite obvious again.

Saturday 4 May 2013

What is a Wargame?

Everybody, I imagine, who is a reasonably regular reader of this blog, knows what a wargame is. The thing is, though, that I suspect that a wargame is something that we know when we see it, rather than have a hard and fast definition of it. In this, wargames are no different from a lot of other human activities, of course.  A game of football is recognisable as such whether it is a dozen children with a ball and piled up jumpers for goalposts, or Premier League players on a pristine pitch at Old Trafford.

It is probably, I think, worth thinking a little more deeply about wargaming and exactly what a wargame is. This is because it may, in the fullness of time, add some context to considerations of wargame ethics and how the things work in the first place. So I will attempt to develop a description of a wargame in fairly general terms, and see if it helps.

The first thing that we can describe a wargame as is a complex set of symbols. Whatever attention we give to our wargame figures, they are symbols; they stand for something else. For example, a figure of a 1854 21st lancer may stand for 20 such ‘real’ lancers, or a squadron thereof, or something similar. No matter how historically accurate the figure is, it is a token, a symbol of something else.

Two sets of such tokens make up two armies, and in most wargames there are these two symbol sets, moving over a third set of symbols, which is the wargame table and terrain. The army tokens and the terrain are in some sort of relationship; the latter can influence the movement and history of the individual tokens in the army symbol sets. Similarly, the individual tokens in the army symbol sets can interact with each other, in a way which is mediated by yet another set of symbols.

This next set of symbols is typically written, and is the rules of the game.  These specify how the army symbols and tokens may move, when they may move, and how they interact with the terrain symbols and with each other. The rules usually incorporate some sort of randomising factor as well, and delimitate the possible outcomes of the interactions of the army tokens.

At this point it may be worth mentioning the three level model of the wargame which I have written about before. Essentially we can see a wargame as a table level, a rules level and a real world level. The wargamers inhabit the real world, but are also actors in the table world, in so far as the army tokens are not going to move themselves. The interaction between the players as wargamers and the tokens is via the rule set, which mediates real world decisions to the table, and relays table information to the players. I am not saying that this is how it works consciously, but it seems to me to be a reasonable description of how a wargame does happen.

So, on the table level, we have three sets of symbols, the two armies and the terrain. At the rules level we have another set of symbols, the written ones which constitute the rules. At the top level we have the wargamers, who act on the table tokens via the medium of the rules, as well as acting directly by moving the toy soldier tokens around.

I do not think that this is a particularly radical understanding of a wargame, but it does have some implications.

Firstly, as I think I have mentioned before, we tend to collapse the levels when we play the game. Thus ‘the French Grand Battery opens fire’ becomes ‘my cannon shoot you’, to the possible consternation of passers-by.  This is the cause, I suspect, of some of the suspicion which occasionally accrues to the hobby, along with accusations of glorification of violence and so on. However, on this model it is simply a packed up use of language.

The second implication is a bit more serious, at least in theory. In a historical wargame, at least, the symbol sets relate, in some way, to the real, historical world. That is, our army symbol sets relate to the English at Agincourt, or the French at Waterloo, or whatever.  I think that there are two implications for this. Firstly, we expect our armies to represent or model the original, and secondly that they behave, tactically, in the same way. There is also the issue of the terrain to consider, as well.

These last points are, of course, where the rules symbol set comes in. It specifies how the tokens move and interact with the terrain and with each other. Again, we expect the rules to reach out beyond the table to a historical context where “what really happened” is normative for the rules, and the rules and other sets of symbols can, in some sense, model the outcome.

This, I think, is where the other ethical issue might arise, and it is a little more important than ‘my guns open fire at you’. As rule writers and wargame players of a historical bent, we have to have some eye on what really happened, so far as we can know it. It is, therefore, perhaps our ethical duty to ensure, so far as we can, that what really happened in the original battle is at least reproducible in principle on the wargame table.

This is, I think, a cause of some unease among some wargamers and members of the public. What if the RAF was defeated in 1940? It can happen in a wargame; indeed, half the players of such a game would probably be hoping that it will happen. The idea of clearing the path for a Nazi invasion of England might well cause some to hesitate before winning.

On the other hand, there are plenty who would cry ‘it is only a game’ and get on celebrating the victory of the Luftwaffe.

This is, of course, something that I have vaguely explored before, and I might come back to it again. But I hope it is a long time before I have to type the words ‘symbol set’ quite as often.