Saturday 30 August 2014

Wargame Empirical Residues

It is a common misunderstanding of science that it all works out really neatly. A hypothesis is generated. An experiment is built. It is switched on. Lights blink. Things hum. All the white coated scientists stand around, white knuckles gripping their clipboards. Lights flash. Suddenly something goes ‘bing’, there is much applause, mutual back slapping and the chisel chinned hero scientist embraces the pretty female one as the frontiers of human ignorance are rolled back a notch or two.

Actually, as I am sure you know, or at least could guess, science is not like that at all. By definition, more or less, research experiments are at the outer edge of what is actually possible. Bits of kit that go ‘bing’ when the correct answer is obtained are not purchasable off the shelf from any reputable manufacturer. And, in all my years at the sharp end of science, I only ever wore a white coat once (it didn’t help; I still burnt acid holes in my trousers) and never used a clipboard.

Science, like any other human activity, is driven by a number of things, such as technological possibility, fashion, opportunities for funding (see previous item) and, from time to time, the burning desire to get the answer first. Richard Feynman (the Nobel prize winning theorist) waxed eloquent about being the only person in the world to know something that he had just worked out. Science is not all about cold eyed and cold hearted rationality.

Feynman also has an interesting description about two laboratories he considered working at. The first one was pristine, with white coated technicians moving quietly about their work, directed by besuited scientists in the control room. The second, and smaller laboratory (I forget where they were), had technicians and scientists all in the same room, scratching their heads over leaks and electronics. It had wires strung from the ceiling, drops of vacuum grease on the floor and was, frankly, a mess. Nevertheless, this was the laboratory that was producing the interesting results.

Feynman, of course, opted to work at the latter laboratory. The people worked as a team, solving the problems together as they went along. If the cyclotron sprang a leak, they all worked to fix it, pooling knowledge of the device (which they had built) to fix the thing and get back to producing science as soon as possible. The fact that the laboratory was a mess was actually a sign that things were going rather well. A tidy laboratory is often the sign of either an imminent health and safety inspection or a lack of creativity.

Now, what, you might be asking by now, has this got to do with wargaming. The point I want to make is that the environment made no difference to the science. Modern science, to be modern science, actually ignores a whole lot of stuff, as it could not cope otherwise.  Science abstracts away and ignores issues such as the time of the experiment, the place the experiment was conducted, and the people who conducted it, and so on. These are of no interest to the science or scientist and are usually left in what can be called the ‘empirical residue’.

Modern science, of course, developed when the existence of the empirical residue was recognized. Some things are important, and some are not. Some things (like the number of Volts generated per Amp) are significant. Some things (like the colour of the experimenter’s underwear) are not. The latter are ignored as not being interesting or useful. The former are not.

Wargames, like it or not, are an attempt to produce a model of a battle, and hence, with our language of shooting and morale, close combat and rout, we are trying to reduce a complex system to one that is tractable and intelligible. We create, one way or another, ways of classifying what is allowed and what is not, what is within an acceptable manifold of outcomes and what is not.

The thing is about a battle, of course, that we cannot separate out an empirical residue very easily. We might argue, for example, that the colour of the soldier’s coats is part of that residue, but then some bright spark is likely to come along and point out some of the occasions upon which a unit’s coat colour has led to misidentification of the unit, often with serious consequences to one side or the other.

The separation out of the empirical residue is one of the triumphs of modern science; as I have mentioned, science would not really get going without the ability to separate out the important and the trivial. But in battles we cannot achieve that. What might be important in one battle is not important in another.

In terms of writing wargame rules, therefore, the author is left with an almost impossible task. We have a whole bunch of battles in which different things appear to be important. How do we tell which is which? How can we unscramble whether or not we need rules to cover mistakes revolving around coat colours?

Despite the attempts to cover most wargame rules with fig leaves of respectable models and understood dynamics, there is this rather unpalatable truth: we cannot identify the empirical residue of a given battle.

What we can and do do is to extract the things that we think are important. For example, we know that troops advanced, and so we can create a rule for that. But do we know at what speed they advanced? Is it important? Should they have different speeds, or is one quite sufficient? One decision, such as ‘the troops will advance’ has thrown up three more questions. On the face of it, this is not going to end well.

Of course, we do escape from the trap, because the human mind is very adept at dealing with this sort of thing, and just inserts a ‘good enough’ cut off. But the cost is, of course, having to accept that we cannot define a ‘scientific core’ to the rules, except what we have decided is core. Everything else is a residue, but not a well defined one.


  1. Since it is essentially about human nature I prefer to have at least as much Art as Science in my wargames, if not a little more. Even more so when they are a form of entertainment.

    1. I agree, but I do wonder if there is a problem in that firstly we have a culture that only accepts science as true knowledge, and secondly a hobby that attaches numbers to human activities, wargaming.

      The two may well push us in a slightly unhealthy direction.

    2. "culture that only accepts science as true knowledge"

      I wonder what that would be like?

      As far as I can see we have a culture that only accepts faith as true knowledge. True for some that faith is science, for others religion or profit is a source of truth and far too many their faith in tv is such that it is the only source of true knowledge. .

    3. I think that a proper answer to that would take several blog posts, if not a three volume academic treatise!

      But we have a society which regards everything s opinion and as relative unless it has empirical backing, hence Prof Dawkins can argue that God cannot exist as there is no experiment to prove that he does. We also see it in that many sociological subjects are trying to claim 'science' in their titles, as in 'social science' or 'economic science' (known in the 19th c as 'the dismal science', by the way).

      But the statement 'it is all relative' rules, even though it is internally incoherent.

    4. Yes I suspect you are right about the length of the discussion. I see a lot of lip service to science but not much actuality in the general culture. Not from our government which muzzles any of its own scientists whose research doesn't agree with their agenda and uses the word scientific to describe agenda based policies which contradict scientific findings, and so on.

      But not the place for a prolonged discussion. There is no denying that we want the name and claim on things.

    5. Well, one of my pet despairs as a scientist is the way science is portrayed. It annoys me, because science is not really a separate human activity from all other activities, but a particular specialism and methodology which most people (particularly policy makers and politicians) have little or no understanding of. I think that there are few UK MP's for example, who have a scientific background, which does not bode well for understanding of science and setting national science agendas.

      But no-one seems to care, really.

      Fortunately for my sanity and the blog, no-one has ever accused wargaming of aspiring to knowledge or truth. fun, perhaps, or even a passing acquaintance with 'history', but not scientific truth....

  2. I'm afraid I'm with the politicians. I thought that 'empirical residue' was that gunge you were left with in a test tube after a chemistry experiment.

    1. It probably is...

      But the issue is that wargames try to create rules for one off historical events; scientific experiments are (suppose to be) reproducible. The gunge is the same each time.

    2. Sorry. Flippant attempt at a play on words. I now feel like a musketeer with burn marks over his face!

      The way I now rationalise the wargame as experiment goes back to the point you made in a previous post. That different rulesets model different facets of the same real life war.All might be equally valid. I might have one version of 18th century rules that show what happens when one side opens fire at longer range as it advances and the other side reserves its fire, suffers some casualties in the meantime but has a potentially greater hits:shots ratio from its remaining muskets. In another I might just have a more abstracted model of infantry combat that adequately reflects the combat's importance to the overall battle. Both might be "accurate" but one helps me engage more with the narrative but it would bog me down with minutiae that prevent me from being anything but a brigadier.

      Which one I choose ultimately comes down to "art" (and probably all my cultural baggage). Either way I want my "science" to serve my culture. That's not to say I don't want to engage with the hard work.

      Again in an echo of the point you made previously about (re)engaging with primary sources I read some fascinating quotes in an appendix to an American Kriegspiel from the 1880s that made me think again about firepower in some situations. I'd always assumed that as ranges got longer performance falls off all the time. One reference from the Russo-Turkish War of 1877 showed that at long range Russian casualties were higher than say at medium range because the steeper fall of bullets allowed the Turks to pick off the Russians hiding behind boulders. Probably not news to some but a fascinating revelation to me.

    3. Flippant remarks are always welcome.

      But yes, I think that what is modelled in a given set of rules is what is perceived to be important, the rest is either abstracted away or ignored - thus DBA ignores training. Accuracy is a relative term, in this case.

      The problem with original sources is that you then have to deduce the importance of the revelation - does it need (or should it be) modelled. that, perhaps is where the art really kicks in; the is no method I know of of deciding that.