Saturday 30 November 2013

Wargame Communities

At the risk of sounding far too postmodern for my comfort, there is an argument that knowledge is socially mediated. By this is meant that what we know is a product of the various communities of which we are a part. We are raised in such communities, obtain access to them at various times of our lives, lose contact with them, and so on. But, the argument goes, what we know is mediated by these communities.

So, for example, I am a member of the wargaming community. This community, as I have tried to suggest here, has some boundaries in both what is acceptable to the community and what counts as membership of that community. Putting a unit of World War Two SS on the table is acceptable, dressing up as and role playing SS is not.

By its very nature, by the fact that this community is one which has a defined interest, it must have boundaries. We can, of course, as a community of wargamers argue as to what is acceptable or not acceptable behaviour of our members. We can also discuss where the ethical edge of our chosen interest it, or whether something (say the ‘Princess Diana Demolition Car Chase’) counts as a wargame or not.

The point here is that the community actually, if we in any way associate with it, starts to determine the sorts of things we think and talk about. This is not necessarily a bad thing, of course. By defining what counts and does not count as an object of interest to us, we can build up our community into something which does have knowledge about the subject in question. To use MS Foy’s recent comment, a community of Napoleonic wargamers may well know, or at least have some idea, what time Wellington gave up on having lunch at Salamanca.

This idea, inevitably, can be taken to extremes. Some postmodernists argue that all knowledge is socially constructed. That is, the argument is something like all knowledge, everything we think we know, is in fact created by the communities we belong to. The knowledge of Wellington’s lunch, on this view, simply becomes a construct of the community of Napoleonic wargamers, part of the story they tell to validate their community and its knowledge.

Now, far be it from me to denigrate anyone’s hard fought for theory, but this, even though I have been accused of postmodernism myself, looks suspiciously like specious twaddle. I am, after all, at heart a physical scientist. I cannot see an electron, but I can point to a sizeable body of evidence that they exist, or, if they do not exist, that something very much like them must. After all, if electrons do not exist, the Internet and computers probably would not work. The existence of electrons is not wholly socially mediated knowledge. We do have reasonable grounds for the justified belief that they do actually exist.

This does not mean, of course, that such knowledge is not, in some part, socially mediated. I was, at some point in the past, a member of a community that thought long and hard about the phenomena that, today, we call electrons. I could access the evidence, and even (in theory, anyway, if not in practice that often) reproduce it myself. Despite the best efforts of philosophers like Paul Feyerabend to show otherwise, science is not wholly a social construct.

We could, I suppose, imagine a physics that is different from our own, which calls electrons something else, which has classified objects in the real world (oops, lots to argue about in those five words) in a different way. The bottom line here, however, is that the results of such a physics would be in agreement with those of our physics. Even though the social and philosophical milieu from which it had sprung would be different, the answers it gave would be similar, sufficiently so to be able to identify the objects within it.

When we move on to other areas of human intellectual endeavour, however, we can see how social constructed ideas become more important. Consider, for example, ideas we have of nationhood. We know what a nation is, with particular citizenship, borders, laws and so on. But unless we are extreme nationalists, we would mostly have to accept that our nation could be otherwise and, more to the point, that it is a human construct. Similarly we could argue that, for example, our governments are human constructs, or even such aspects of life as race are.

For the wargaming community this is something I think we should note. Our wargames and the community are human constructions. The question is, therefore, what are they founded upon. I suspect, when we look into the details, the foundations in reality are a bit slender.

I think, in the final analysis, the question of reality in wargames come down to the normal two aspects of any theory of truth. Firstly, the wargame has to be internally coherent. As I have tried to indicate before, the models of, say, a set of wargame rules have to work together. An incoherent set of rules, one where, for example, the outcomes of ranged combat do not affect the losers of that combat in any way, is likely to be, quite rightly, rejected.

The other aspect of truth bearing is the correspondence of the knowledge to the external reality. We know, for example, that dispersed infantry caught by a cavalry charge are likely to come off worst. How do we know that? We have examples from history. Our rules have, therefore to correspond to that knowledge from history.

Of course, this can involve us in yet more complexity, because our knowledge of historical events is itself mediated by both our circumstances, that is the historical communities of which we are members, and also those communities in the past by and for which the historical record has been made.

At some point, however, we have to stop this potentially infinite regression into communities, never touching bottom, never finding reality. Events in the past did happen, even if the record of those events is heavily mediated by social constructs.


  1. Good stuff. It occurs to me that even the record of historical events is itself the product of social constructs, not to mention vested interests. There are quite a few eyewitness accounts of Wellington's lunch - or at least the end of it, and no two of them agree on the time or what he said, as far as i know. The record comes from the memoirs of ageing men who have polished the story for decades at dinner, and may even have (unconsciously?) adopted a regimental legend as their own. In the Napoleonic world, Marbot and Coignet and a bunch of others are to be taken with a very large pinch of salt. How do our manipulative communities handle source material which is distorted at the outset?

    1. I suppose the question comes down to 'do I believe this story'. Of course, we can doubt radically, but then we have nothing left - we have sawn off the branch we were sitting on. In the case of Wellington's lunch, we can say that, when he stopped, significant things happened. What we cannot say is when that was or what, precisely, was said.

      Unless sometime we find a precise chronology, we are going to have to put up with this uncertainty and, perhaps, try to design models which would give us some ideas about the relationship between the events.

      Bags I'm the one eating lunch, by the way.

      This sort of thing can only suggest a particular chronology, not make a decisive decision in favour of one. But I guess that is the problem with history. It only has one time line, but we can usually only guess at it.

  2. I think it is rather dodgy to assume that wargaming is "a" community. To take a relatively extreme example (stop me if I've told this one) near the end of the last century I was part of a Volley & Bayonet discussion group which got off topic and onto whether or not sci-fi wargames ought to be allowed at HMGS cons (for those not familiar: Historical Miniatures Games Society - a US association that stages conventions amongst other things).
    One chap declared that people playing a battle with minature starship troops were in a completely different hobby despite the superficial resemblance ( as in painting miniatures and playing tabletop battles) and he would have nothing in common with them if he met one but that someone playing board or computer wargames were in the same hobby despite the different methods used and formed a community of interest because of the military history. I on the other hand, based on personal experience had found that even not including those many sci-fi gamers who are also interested in historical games, I would almost always find something to talk about with a miniature gamer of any kind, if only painting techniques, I often found I was unable to carry a conversation with board or comoutergaers unless we happened to share an interest in a particular historical event or had outside interests. The inescapable conclusion was that I and this other fellow could have sat down opposite each other to play a game of V&B and yet we would each be indulging in completely hobbies as we played the game.

    But yes there are some facts and there is even more evidence of the existence of more facts but which requires interpretation and this is done by societies and the interpretation varies to suit our views and beliefs and thus shifts and changes.

    1. I think we are probably looking at a set of communities lying within an overall 'wargaming' community. As with most of these things, the boundaries would be fuzzy and, as Chris suggests, determined by the individual.

      On the other hand, you could belong to a 'painting miniature soldiers' community, as would your SF gamer colleague, while you belong to a NB one and he doesn't; while the computer gamer might belong to a computer gamer community, while you both could belong to a Napoleonic Wargaming one.

      It gets complex and a lot, I suspect, is driven by context. but there is a community of 'Polemarch blog' readers, and one of 'blog commenters', and they would certainly over lap, so we're not looking at exclusivity.

      Although the human mind often wants to impose a 'them and us' mentality, this is rarely helpful.

  3. To what extent are our communities defined by the boundaries we set ourselves as individuals, do you think?
    I had a slightly surreal conversation recently with the chap at the local boardgames shop. I said I was a miniatures wargamer, rather than a boardgamer; he said he did both. However, he didn't do historical games, as he didn't see the point - we know what happened, so why recreate it? (No, I didn't question that assumption - that was a different argument, I thought.) I don't do science fiction wargaming as - you've guessed it - what is the point?
    We discussed rules ideas, which was fairly common ground, but the pro- and anti-history stance was a huge barrier, so while we had things in common there wasn't a feeling of community with each other. Personally I think there should be more meeting across boundaries - we can learn from each other to everyone's benefit - but there were definitely boundaries that had to be crossed.
    I sort of get the impression of a cluster of communities, if you like, but individuals set their own boundaries of which ones interest them, which they consider themselves to be part of, and which they absolutely avoid. These boundaries can change and can be easily crossed but sometimes the language can be a barrier.

    1. Slightly odd, I guess. What SF people rarely like to notice (not gamers, I don't know any, but fans of SF in general) is that their literature is grounded in the present. Some of the best SF is 'about' the writer's present.

      A Canticle for Leibowitz was written from the experience of bombing Monte Cassino, for example. The Forever War was written from experiences in Vietnam. And so on. SF is rarely completely ungrounded.

      We do have to be open to other ideas, though, and this tends to be rather difficult. If i can achieve nothing else but suggest that we can think a little harder, and be a little more open to new ideas here, than the blog will have achieved a purpose.