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?


  1. I suspect a good 10% of gamers (ok I picked that number out of mid air ) have seriously considered such aspects when deciding whether or not to build a given army/unit. Even less on taking a part in someone else's game. Perhaps more if looking at actions in a game such as a Viking raid where raping and murdering non-combatants might be worth victory pts.

    The real answer is of course that I shouldn't have promised Fred anything until I had found out what I was promising. The next best thing would be to adopt the "it was about states' rights not slavery" argument. Reduction of cognitive dissonance.


    1. It is a tricky question about where we locate the ethical issues around wargaming, given that we do wargame. In the above I was wondering if the real ethical questions (whether addressed or not) are in fact outside the wargame itself, and are to do with the pre-wargame decisions that we make.

      The Vikings example may well suggest that it is the case, but I'm not wholly convinced.

  2. Leaving aside the moral question of whether one should be playing wargames - and thus trivialising war by making its miniature recreation into an entertainment, risking glorifying war &c., - if one has such moral qualms about fielding toy soldiers that represent regimes/philosophies one finds repugnant, should one, by refusing to command said army in a wargame, force one's opponent to do so, which may offend his moral sensitivities?

    The solution, IMHO, is ImagiNations, whose fictitious monarchs go to war for unexplained or trivial reasons, where no dubious morality - other than the recourse to arms to settle international disputes - need trouble one for a moment!

    1. I'm becoming increasingly of the opinion that in fact, most of our wargames are using cleaned up versions of the originals, who do not steal food, enslave populations and so on.

      The distance of this from an imagi-nation is not great, and I suspect that, mostly, this is what we do, consciously or not. It does, at least, avoid some of the nastier or more violence glorifying issues that a wargame would otherwise present.

  3. In the end, does creating an imagi-nation C18 or C19 army enable any further moral distance to be created between their historical counterparts and the toy soldiers on the tabletop merely by a change in uniform and nomenclature?


    1. Interesting question.

      All I can really say is that it seems to create some distance. I guess that an imagination, with imaginary battles makes us able to cope better with the issue of, for example, battle casualties. There are no lead widows and orphans and, in an imagination, no need to even consider them (whereas most narratives of historical battles end up with casualty lists).

      All this is speculation, of course. I suspect the main reason for imaginary countries is to have wargames. It was in my case, anyway.