Saturday 12 July 2014

Wargames and Power

It is, I think, largely impossible to read very much in the arts and humanities, probably particularly in theology and philosophy without encountering the idea of power, its use and abuse. In fact, in some areas of both subjects, you run across quite a lot of analysis and polemic about the fact that, historically, white, heterosexual males have largely run, or at least been seen to run, the show. This perceived domination and its concomitant oppression of everyone who does not fit the bill is now the subject of a good deal of argument. For example, we have liberation theologies, which shade into feminist ones, which shade into queer theologies, which themselves borrow from queer philosophy, and so on. To someone who was bought up in a more or less straightforward, white, straight context, the whole gamut of voices now being heard is a bit bewildering.

However, not being one to be deterred by my own bewilderment, I started to ponder on the power structures of wargaming. It is quite possible that, in fact, there are no such things, but the human condition being what it is, I doubt that. Nothing, it seems is above the general flawedness of humanity, its propensity to argue, exclude that which it does not understand and so on.

So, then, who has power in wargaming? Firstly, I suspect that, in many circumstances, it can be one player in a game or another. An early memory of wargaming was with someone who seemed to think he was actually Napoleon. I, of course, was given the British, but I was not given a sight of the rules. I confess that I was deeply suspicious of this, particularly as no longer-standing members of the club were involved in the game. Given the option of walking away before the set up (in both sense of the word) was completed, I did. Obviously, the guy with the figures and the rules has a certain amount of power, the only problem being that they cannot exploit it too nakedly because if the other party walks, there is no game.

At higher levels than the individual, can we suggest some places where power in wargaming exists? I think there are some obvious candidates, such as figure manufacturers, magazine publishers and rule writers. All of these people could exert considerable influence over the direction that the hobby takes.

To take a perhaps extreme example, Games Workshop does show something of such an influence. When White Dwarf, many moons ago, stopped being a general role playing game magazine and became a vehicle for GW products, influence over the hobby was felt. Similarly, the figures they produce and the rules they sell influence the hobby in its broadest sense, although the target demographic is, perhaps, less influential in the overall hobby.

Nevertheless, figure manufacturers could be power holders in the hobby. After all, they make the products that we play with. As I recall from the hobby thirty years ago or so, if the figures did not exist, it was hard to have the game. These days, of course, this influence is less, due to the plethora of manufacturers and figures for almost any conceivable conflict in history being around. As an aside, however, I still cannot find any nice Roman and barbarian civilian figures to have a skirmish game with, at least, ones that fit my pocket.

So figure makers have, probably, less influence over the hobby than they used to have. What about rule writers? I suspect a similar thing has happened here. It used to be that Wargames Research Group pretty well held the field in many periods. They were always held up as the gold standard, as I recall. However, more and more voices have entered this field as well, and there are now so many rules for a given era that it is hard to know where to begin, let alone to start assessing ‘accuracy’, ‘historicity’ and ‘playability’, whatever those somewhat contentious terms might mean.

How about magazines? Well, recent changes in the landscape suggest that magazines are not as influential as they used to be. Most printed media is having difficulty with the transformation from print to digital, although the death of the book is, I think, overstated, usually by vested interests. But magazines, as with figure makers, have to sell their products to people like you and me, and so their freedom to operate (or in feminist, queer or liberation terms, their ability to oppress) is limited. If we do not like the articles (which, after all are sourced from individuals within the hobby) we do not buy the product, and it fails or folds.

So where, then, does power in the hobby lie? Perhaps I am not looking in the right place. Possibly, except in some situations like the one I described with ‘Napoleon’ above, or in wargame clubs (where politics rather than wargaming can take over) there is no power to be held in a hobby. But I somehow doubt that; as my explorations of various aspects of the hobby hopefully have shown, wargaming is an intensely human activity, and so political factors, or even simple personality clashes will come to the fore.

I suspect that power in the hobby does lie in the bulk of wargamers, the ones who have wargamed this way for twenty years and see no reason to change. Even after a couple of decades of 6 mm wargame figures, for example, I still seem people at shows walking past and sniggering at them. This, perhaps, is the power, but it is a negative one, a power of derision and belittling the different.  Any wargamer not conforming to the dominant paradigm, which, even now seems to be big figures in small numbers, seems to run the risk of a certain amount of public derision.

I think, also, that it applies to wargamers who take a slightly different view of history. History, as interpreted by wargaming, seems to be a history of great and bad generals, good and bad units or armies, and so on. This, possibly, is the oppressive power in wargaming that I have been wondering about.


  1. I'll confess up front that I am not up on theories, views etc of Power or Influence and so am, once again, "talking through my hat" as 'they' say.
    It seems to me in the examples above that these are very limited degrees of power. At most they are attempts to influence rather than compel.

    Since they failed in the examples given, the conclusion must surely be that the real power is that of the ability of the individual to choose to carry on tbeir hobby as they please. Clannish followers of a sub cult may sneer at the 6mm gamer but they do not have the ability or power to stop him.

    Particular events may be exclusive to particular sub genres or particular commercial events but this only affects those who have chosen that sub hobby or who allow themselves to be coaxed into it and since it excludes a much wider audience it is anything a refuge of the threatened rather than a show of power.

    In the absence of a governing body with the authority to implement limits and enforce them, the power remains with the individual who may if desired, write his own rules, sculpt and cast or convert his own models, however crude, and plays his own game, by himself if needs be.

    1. I agree with you, Ross: we can all choose to conform to a group or to do things our own way, so in that sense we are not oppressed unless we choose to be. That doesn't mean that there aren't power structures in existence though, just that we can choose to buy into them or not :)

    2. I suppose the thing that might concern me here is that we do not necessarily all think as individuals, and so a sort of 'mob rule' might develop within the hobby, so certain parts thereof, which could be construed as exerting coercive power, even if through negativity and closing out rather than outright oppression.

      I don't think this happens, but it is a possibility. I suppose that if I am trying to do anything here, it is to encourage my colleague wargamers to think for themselves, not just run with the pack.

  2. Interesting. I suspect that there would be power structures within clubs and wargames groups. In interactions with online communities there is certainly an obvious exercise of power in terms of including/excluding members by engaging / not engaging with them, supporting / denigrating them, accepting their behaviour or banning it.

    The wargaming forums at boardgamegeek, consimworld and the miniatures page are all interesting in the way that they approach the inclusion / exclusion of participating voices. There are different currents of thought in each of those places, and occasionally these will come into conflict with each other. When they do it tends to be that one group leaves, becomes less visible, or, in rare cases, both sides are able to put it behind them and carry on as before. Yahoo groups based around rules sets or periods or scales often have similar structures, but as the owner is a clear dominant voice those who don't follow the same principles tend to leave or get chucked out.

    One area where power is in clear evidence is in what is considered to be 'politics' and out of bounds. On TMP, for example, it was not unknown to see opinions forthrightly expressed in threads about events in Syria and other hotspots allowed when similar comments if applied to events or people with US or European involvement would not.

    On boardgaming sites there is often something of a bias against miniatures wargames, unless they have been converted into a boardgame format, so power structures exist everywhere, I would say.

    Good post as always. Thanks, Polemarch!


    1. I guess any group of humans create some sort of power structure; I suppose that what follows depends on how it is used.

      Of course, a blog is inherently unequal - the writer has the power to silence (or at least remove comments) that he or she doesn't like. Fora and email lists as slightly more democratic, but only slightly.

      And the internet is supposed to be democratising....

      However, I can post here whatever views I like, however cranky, and you can democratically choose to ignore them. Maybe power is just fragmented down to the level of the individual blogger / list owner etc.

  3. Well, seeing as we're talking through our headgear, here goes ...

    My first thought was to wholeheartedly refute any incidence of power games in wargaming at all - not us, Guv. But then I remembered that I used to see power play, maybe twenty years ago and more, but not any longer.
    Then it dawned on me that it's not wargaming that's changed; it's the way I do it. Most of my wargaming these days is with the same half dozen blokes who have been wargaming together over 30 years. No-one tries to exert any power and we all know each other's strengths, play to them and enjoy the collective experience. I get the feeling from talking to people at shows that a lot of wargaming is done this way now, by long-standing groups of mates who probably met through clubs but often don't attend one now. Others, like you David, prefer to play solo. I wonder now if this is because we are all avoiding the power play - it ain't worth it, let's just enjoy the game.
    We should also celebrate that this is the only game I know where you can declare UDI like this and do things your own way. If you don't like the rules your tennis club uses, it's a bit difficult to play on your own.

    1. I think I'd follow Groucho Marx here, and not belong to a club that would have me as a member...

      But yes, I opted out of clubs at an early age, largely due to the politicing, sneering and general unpleasantness going on in them. Quite likely my wargaming has been hamstrung by that.

      I suspect your analysis of the drift away from clubs to groups of mates gaming is probably correct, but it does ask questions about the ability of the hobby to welcome new members. But on the other hand, if it is all politics (or significantly about politics) and / or power, why bother with a club?

    2. It's a poser, and no error. Obviously, not all clubs are like that and it sounds like you had a particularly bad experience, but I wonder if the power games are what attracts the members of that club? Perhaps they actually enjoy that sort of thing? What feels like a pain to us might be seen by others as just lively banter and 'fun'.
      I don't know - are we actually deterring new members by this sort of thing? I can imagine a constant bombardment of in-jokes and comments only intelligible to those in the know would get very wearing indeed if you're not one of the initiated. How many don't decide to become solo wargamers and just take up another hobby?

    3. I have occassionally been a part of formal clubs but luckily none that were dictatorial or oppressive, generally they were just about providing a place for gamers to meet to do whatever and for newcomers to take part and develop an interest. The majority of games took places out side the club umbrella. There was obligation on a willing few to do the work to organize but very little power even of influence.

      Control of allocation of time and space might have become a source of power if there had ever been more volunteer organizers than space but we never got there.

      I did get involved this year in a discussion panel at a convention where the subject of what should and shouldn't be allowed came up and I confess to being slightly disturbed by a few of the suggestions which were about enforcing various personal prejudices, luckily not many. My observation over tine is that enablers are more useful than controllers when it comes to recreational social/public events or venues.

    4. I suspect that any formal organisation can firstly rely on a few who do the bulk of the work, or provide the arena for politics or prejudice. Often the former is a smokescreen for the latter.

      i guess the problem with any organisation is that it can be inward looking, rather than outward. So the challenge for a club or group of friends wargaming is what happens is someone new appears - in jokes and the cold shoulder, or warm welcome and making and effort to include.

      Which just goes to show that wargaming is simply part of the human conditions, I suppose.

  4. I suppose one could speak of political power and economic power within the hobby.
    Political power works at the player level - the personalities that control clubs, the bandwagon types who buy into gaming trends and take others along with them (hard to do 6mm Napoleonics if everyone in your club is caught up in the 28mm Victorian steampunk craze), etc.

    Economic power works at the manufacturer/publisher level of the hobby, and is seen in the big players like GW and Battlefront, expanding and consolidating players like Warlord/Osprey, and their homogenizing influence on the hobby because of their marketing influence. Oddly, while many gamers decry these large companies, they also seem to want the economies of scale that larger companies should be able to deliver, as opposed to smaller publishers, who rather like the vendors at a farmer's market, make what they like and charge what they like.

    One of the happy mediums I've found in the hobby is what one might call the "collective" model, where a niche group of gamers gather around a smaller scale publisher/manufacturer because they like the design philosophy and can contribute to product development through online forums - the groups gathered around Richard Clarke (Too Fat Lardies) and Sam Mustafa are two examples, I am sure there are more.

    It will be interesting to see how current trends in fundraising and crowdsourcing (Kickstarter) and manufacturing (3D printing) will change the course of the hobby - they may have a democratizing, or at least, diffusing, influence.

    Good thread.


    1. Come to think of it, Eureka miniatures in Australia have been doing some sort of crowd sourcing in their 300 club since before crowd sourcing was trendy.

      i like the distinction between economic and political power (and should have thought of it myself). Mind you, many wargamers seem to flit from one idea / ruleset / period to another, so I'm not sure how stable these collectives might be.

      I am looking forward to the first £D printed little soldiers, though. But I doubt that I'll be able to afford one any time soon.