Saturday 27 September 2014

The Problem of Genius

“In a very different subject-matter, Napoleon supplies us with an instance of a parallel genius in reasoning, by which he was enabled to look at things in his own province, and to interpret them truly, apparently without any ratiocinative media. ‘By long experience’, says Alison, ‘joined to great natural quickness and precision of eye, he had acquired the power of judging, with extraordinary accuracy, both of the amount of the enemiy’s force opposed to him in the field, and of the probable result of the movements, even the most complicated, going forward in the opposite armies… He looked around him for a little while with his telescope, and immediately formed a clear conception of the position, forces and intention of the whole hostile array. In this way he could, with surprising accuracy, calculate in a few minutes, according to what he could see of their formation and the extent of the ground which they occupied, the numerical force of armies of 60,000 to 80,000 men; and if their troops were at all scattered, he knew at once how long it would require for them to concentrate, and how many hours must elapse before they could make their attack.’” (Newman, J.H., An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, (2013 [1870]) Assumption Press, p 219).

I have to confess, that that was a somewhat unexpected paragraph in Newman’s book for me, at least. In the passage in question and its surroundings, Newman is pondering the nature of genius. He observes before it that, for example, Newton had a tendency to simply write down answers to mathematical physical problems without working them out or proving them. It then took several generations for the rest of the academic community to catch up and prove that he was, in fact, right. I believe that someone once claimed (with what accuracy I am unsure) that for every time that the mathematician Carl Freidrich Gauss wrote ‘it is obvious that’ or ‘clearly it follows that’ or similar phrases, someone has obtained a PhD for showing it to be so.

Newman continues after the passage just quoted: “It is difficult to avoid calling such clear presentiments by the name of instinct; and I think they may so be called, if by instinct be understood, not a natural sense, one and the same in all, and incapable of cultivation, but a perception of facts without assignable media of perceiving.”

The problem is this: as ordinary human beings, we have little idea of how geniuses proceed, and, in general, cannot cope when they do. If Napoleon was a genius at warfare, it is little surprise that his opponents, no matter how competent, struggled to cope with his manoeuvers. Even Wellington was humbugged by the Corsican, even though the latter was not at his best during the Hundred Days. The fact that the Allies won and Napoleon lost was due more, perhaps, to Wellington’s planning and positioning of his forces during Waterloo, and the Prussian ability to support him than any military genius on their side.

All through history we can see military geniuses, alongside those in other fields, turning received wisdom upside down and winning battles, or solving problems, in ways that were thought impossible. On the military side was can name, for example, Marlbrough, Alexander, perhaps Caesar, Hannibal, Scipio and so on. Some others might be in the running as well, such as Gustavus Adolphus or Maurice of Nassau, but in general I am sure you can see my point. The geniuses were not coped with by the normal military institutions of the day. Until those institutions adapted to cope, victory went to the genius.

This then is a problem for wargaming. Unfortunately, few of us are geniuses; perhaps fortunately, most of us will never need to get involved in major warfare for real. But the problem is how we, as wargamers and wargame rule writers, can cope with these geniuses who upturn the conventional wisdom of warfare. For a set of wargame rules, almost by definition, must represent the normal, conventional warfare of the time.

There is an additional problem, of course, in that we have a splendid dose of hindsight to add to the mix. When Napoleon is facing the Allied army at Waterloo, we might want to explain to him the fact that most of the enemy army is over the ridge and a grand battery, no matter how grand, just is not going to cut the mustard. We also might like to point out that the army closing in on his right is not reinforcements but an army he thought were thoroughly beaten. Thus there is here a question of epistemology (to give it an overpoweringly posh name). Napoleon may not have known these things; somehow he had lost control of the campaign.

The issue is, in terms of wargame rules, firstly, that of course Napoleon, if he had been aware of these facts, might have taken different action, although the politics might have made this difficult. These are issues beyond a simple set of rules to deal with. But the real problem is, if I may call it such, the ontological one of genius. The being of a military genius on the battlefield cannot, I think, be handled as it is mostly by a ‘+2’ on the command rolls, or some other sort of fudge factor to enable the wargame to come out in a vaguely historical manner. The genius who can just ‘see’ the solution, the Marlbrough who marches half an army across the battlefield to obtain tactical surprise, cannot be subsumed within a simple addition to a command rule or radius. These rules and their fudging simply do not reflect the process of the genius winning the battle.

I do not think that there is in fact, any legislating for such genius. Firstly, even Napoleon had feet of clay, or at least had to odd off day on the battlefield. If we construct rules for military genius, then we would also have to construct rules for the genius not having had his morning coffee. And that way, I think, wargame rule writer’s madness lies. Secondly, genius is, well, genius. It tends to operate outside the box, which would mean, more or less, it might well operate outside the framework of the rules. And I cannot think of a rule set that can allow that.

Saturday 20 September 2014

Conceptual Archetype Wargames

Whenever I start pondering models in wargames, or indeed, start to ponder the idea of models in any sense at all, I often stumble across references to the work of Max Black, who seems to have been one of the first philosophers to have a go at thinking systematically about models and metaphors. Indeed, his main book is entitled ‘Models and Metaphors’ (1962), and I have finally got around to reading a chapter or two.

Of course, given that he was one of the first thinkers in the game, much of what Black says is fairly familiar, so I shall try to focus here on a few pages at the end of chapter 13, where he discusses what he describes as conceptual archetypes. As Black observes, other people give these conceptual archetypes different names such as ultimate frames of reference or ultimate presuppositions, but I will stick with archetypes, as Black does.

By an archetype Black means a set of ideas which a person uses to describe another situation to which those ideas do not immediately apply. Thus the thinker is engaging in some sort of extension by analogy. We have a framework of ideas about how, say, the solar system works and we project that on to another system, say that of an atom. There are analogies here – a central massive body, lighter objects orbiting it in an inverse square law, and so on. But we are also aware of the limitations of the analogy; fortunately for human life planets do not jump from one orbit to another. The archetype helps us to think about a new situation, but is not the new situation itself, nor is it anything except a sketchy model of what is going on.

The analogy is drawn, however, to help us to think. Hopefully we understand the domain from which the analogy is taken tolerably well, and thus the analogy can give us some ideas about how (in my example) the atom might ‘work’.  Thus the analogy, the projection from the original realm of understanding, is used to help start thinking about how the objects in the newer realm of thinking might be understood.

There are dangers with this approach, and from time to time many people fall into them. We can, for example, mistake the analogue for the reality, and forget that the analogue actually started off life in a different domain. While the Bohr model of the atom can be used to solve many problems in atomic physics, it must always be borne in mind that atoms do not work like it suggests, and, in fact, it is an incomplete model.

A similar problem can be found in our fundamental frames of reference. The framework can become the only way of thinking, so that the consequences of the use of the framework is to remove from consideration any challenges to that framework. Thus, in my encounters with Creationists I quickly lose any credibility because I am not a Creationist myself.  Only someone within the Creationist framework has sufficient credibility to comment on that framework, at least for those whose world view is built upon it. The response of a Creationist to anyone commenting on creation (theist or not) is, in my experience ‘are they 7 day creationists?’ If not, they can be ignored.

What has this got to do with wargaming?

Well, I think that, with wargames we do have archetypes to work within, and it is very difficult to think outside them. With historical wargames, we have, broadly speaking, a set of periods, a set of troop categories, and a set of models which go together, one way or another, to make a wargame. We might differ on exactly which category a specific historical solider fits into, or exactly how we use morale rules, but more or less we have a wargame archetype and we stick within it.

It is actually quite interesting to note that some of us struggle with concepts which do not fall exactly in our archetypical expectations of wargame rules. The Polemos: SPQR orders system is not, in my view (but then, I did write it) all that difficult to grasp – you give orders to units to advance, hold or skirmish and if you want to change them it costs you Tempo Points. However, a number of people have commented or complained that it is complex; I suspect that they mean that it is outside the ball park.

Similarly, there are negative reactions to card driven rule sets. While they are becoming more widespread, they do seem to come in for a lot of flak. Often this is put in terms of either playability, where I suspect the gripe, deep down, is a loss of the wargamer’s control over his toys, or inflexibility, because other stuff could happen than what is on the cards. But I think that the basic problem is that a card driven game does not fit in with the basic paradigms of how we expect a wargame, or a set of wargame rules, to be.

I have commented, in passing, before that often,  it seems to me, what we mean by an ‘accurate’ wargame is one which chimes in with our prejudices and / or expectations. This often means that the game proceeds to a similar outcome as it would do with our favourite set of rules, and that favourite set of rules is often the set which we first encountered in the period of interest. This sort of thing, therefore, set up the archetypes of wargaming which we come to expect. The problem here is that the archetype can become a self-authenticating myth. We can start to exclude views and information which challenge our archetype of wargaming.

The upshot of this is that as responsible wargamers, we should not stop trying out the new. I know that there are many gamers out there who do, but equally there are lots who, it seems to me, just want to keep on plodding on with 350 point pick-up games with the same rule sets (or at most, very similar rule sets). There are even some who want the same basic rule set for all periods, and just add a bit of chrome (muskets or bows) to specify the period. That, I think, is a really solid and unfortunate archetype.

Saturday 13 September 2014

Verfiying Wargame Models

I think I have written sufficient so far so as to suggest, quite strongly that a wargame is a collection of models which all, more or less, fit together to produce something approximating to a real, historical, human situation, a battle. Now, of course, we are aware of the limitations associated with the modelling of a battle. While the models, for example, might acknowledge the flow of human emotions that exist within a battle, through the morale rules, they do not attempt to actually portray these directly, but merely to suggest them through abstract and collectively applied rules.

Modern day models are found, most frequently, in the sciences, and so it might be a useful tack to try to identify the sorts of things models are used for, and the sorts of limitations we find with them. Here, however, is the first of the warnings which must be placed in front of this exercise. Science is often flagged as being the exemplar of truth in our current culture and society. Whole fields of human activity, such as sociology and economics, attempt to grab the ‘science’ label, to give a fig leaf of respectability to what is, in the case of economics, at least, usually a waffle of unverifiable opinion. Anyone who disagrees can point to three examples of independent economic forecasts which have been right in the last ten years or so.

Caveat at the ready, the way science proceeds is to take a set of observations and attempt to understand them. However, as with a historical battle, the real physical world is a complex sort of place and does not easily lend itself to being understood in any reasonable, intelligible and predictable manner. I do not mean here, of course, the normal world humanity moves in, although that is a lot more complex and difficult than we usually give it credit for. What I do mean is, in physics, the scale of the very small or the very large, the very fast or the very slow. As a colleague of mine once remarked ‘If in quantum mechanics you get a counter-intuitive answer, it is probably right.’

However, as scientists we still want to understand and predict the sorts of things that might happen. Thus, we need to construct a model and the model we construct has to have, broadly speaking, two criteria. Firstly, it must be intelligible. A model which is not intelligible is not going to help. Secondly, the model must bear some resemblance to reality, hopefully in ways we can at least be aware of or, better, be able to define.

As an example, consider spectral line broadening in the solar spectrum. We know that the normal spectral lines of hydrogen are to be found – the Ryman, Balmer series, and so on. But we also find that they are broadened out, are wider than we would expect from the Bohr model of the atom (which has them as spikes) or from the Doppler effect. So we try to model, mathematically, what is going on.

To this end we can write down the Schrödinger equation for an atom in a fluctuating electric field, for that is what the environment of an atom in the sun is. And we can also write down an equation for the distribution of energy of the electrons passing by which set up part of the electric field, and another for the much slower moving ions which add extra electric field. But there we stop.

There is a joke in the physics community: in classical mechanics you cannot solve the three body problem, in quantum mechanics you cannot solve the two body problem, in quantum field theory you cannot solve the one body problem and in quantum chromodynamics you cannot solve the vacuum. And we have hit precisely the second issue here; we cannot solve Schrodinger’s equation for the situation we have at hand.

The way this problem is tackled is to make approximations. We can approximate the ion electric field as something that is static, while we calculate the effects of the electrons, and then we can calculate the averaged values of the ion fields over all the possible configurations of ions and then we can (effectively) add the two lots up. Admittedly, this is a lot more complex than it sounds (a proper explanation takes a decent sized text book) but it can be done.

However, we now need to verify our models, and so it is back to the experimental apparatus to check that our calculations, with our approximations, are correct, and, if they are not correct, by how much and in what way they are incorrect. For example, even by my simple explanation above, you might have thought ‘what if the ions are not that static?’ and, indeed, that is a good point, which has to be addressed by an extension to the model called ion dynamics. The point is that the whole model complex has to be verified by contact with the real world and, occasionally, the fit is not that good and further work is entailed.

So, the analogy with a wargame should be obvious. A set of wargame rules and other models should be capable of being verified against real world activity. A French column advancing against a British battalion in line should, on the whole, be forced to stop and be driven off by a bayonet charge. If it is not, then perhaps the model needs tweaking.

Of course, in the real world both the scientific process and the wargaming one I have described is unattainable. Experimental difficulties abound, as do questions of the interpretation of historical events. But the process, while hard, is not impossible; however, the temptation is to take short cuts.

Finally, a scientific model usually asks further questions. I hinted at one above – what if the ions are not static? What happens in this case, or at that limit which we excluded from our model because we could not incorporate it? Most wargame rules that I have seen in use, however, are treated as some sort of holy grail, some untouchable mechanism. I know there are notable counter examples, but do you think that on the whole we treat rules with too much respect?

Saturday 6 September 2014

An Analogy for Wargaming

One of the things that makes wargaming a bit tricky to think about is that fact that, so far as I can see, it is fairly well unlike any other occupation or hobby. For example, football (soccer) is a game of skill (and absurdly high pay) and the element of luck, while present, is not really part of the discourse of the game. While there is an unfolding narrative, and certain points might be determined as crucial in hindsight, the result is the important thing; few people remember that particular goal at the end of the season.

The thing about most other hobbies is that they are focussed on some sort of output. Sewing, for example, is aimed at the output of a garment or decoration. Picture painting is aimed at the output of a picture (no, really?), fishing the catching of fish. I know there are noble examples to this, where, in fact, the point of fishing is the process of fishing, not the end result, but without the possibility of catching fish, fishing is not fishing, but sitting by the river (or whatever; I’m trying not to get hung up on the details).

The point is that wargaming, while narrative driven, is dynamic, and involves a significant degree of acknowledged chance. The situation in a wargame a few minutes ago is not the same as the one now. The game moves forward, develops, and the prospects for each side vary as it does. Therefore, an analogy of a wargame, something to aid thinking about it, needs to be dynamic as well, and the outcome needs to be, in the main, not foreseen.

The closest I can think of at the moment as an analogy for a wargame is a film. If you consider the audience, the file is a dynamic medium, full of tensions and conflicts, without a known outcome. The plot twists and turns; random events, chance meetings and so on can influence the outcome, and on the whole it resolves nicely. A film, in general, has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and proceeds, fairly logically in general, from one to the next.

Along the way, the film presents its heroes with challenges, inversions of fortune, puzzles and problems to resolve and so on. There is also, as I mentioned, conflict either between the heroes themselves, or between the heroes and the others (the bad guys, the apparent bad guys, fortune in general, etc). There is tension – will Harrison Ford get the amulet before the bad guys do – and so on.

Not only this, but there is the possibility of catharsis, the emotional cleansing we feel having suspended our disbelief and engaged in the fictional world of the film. The film (if it is a decent one) can mirror, in some way, our this-worldly stresses and strains, concerns and fears, and in doing so can help us in understanding our concerns, in contextualising them and reducing our fear of them, even if only temporarily. Aristotle thought this was the function of Greek tragedy, at least.

So a film and a wargame have, at least, some parallels. As audience, a film watcher does not know the outcome and can get concerned about the fictional characters (a friend of mine once bit through her T-shirt while watching Aliens, do deep was her tension over the action). This is, obviously, similar to the position of the wargamer. The film proceeds by scenes as the story develops and a wargame does so by turns (or similar mechanisms). Hopefully, both come to a satisfactory, or at least intelligible, conclusion.

Of course, films and wargames are different. A film, if watched again, will have exactly the same outcome. Wargames will not, because of the increased use of chance. In this sense, therefore, wargames are more flexible. Additionally, the authors of the film will know the outcome of the story; it is usually pre-defined and the scriptwriters have to work out how to get from the beginning to the end. In a wargame that aspect unfolds as the wargame proceeds, much as it does to the audience of the first showing of the film.

However, I think the analogy of the film to a wargame can help us think a little more about the meanings that might be associated with wargaming. There is the unfolding of an unknown narrative in both, in wargaming because it is unknowable in advance, the film because it is not known. Both can have tension and emotional swings to and fro, and both have plots which have to be (saving some avant guarde film) in some way, at least in principle, intelligible. A bad film is one where the outcome, or rather how it is achieved, is disappointing. A bad wargame might be one where one side deploys a superweapon and simply blows everyone else away.

Another way of looking at film is that a film represents to us some aspect of our culture, and therefore is material for reflection on that culture. I think I mentioned before the making of a film about The Eagle of the Ninth where the legionaries in Scotland were portrayed in a similar fashion to US troops in Afghanistan. Similarly, the wartime film of Shakespeare’s Henry V carefully excluded the Southampton plot, because talking and showing treason was not a good idea in the culture and society of the day.

How about wargames as cultural items? Do our games reflect something of the surrounding society?

In a sense, given that rules are written and games played by members of the society, it would be a surprise if they were not reflections of that society.  I think we can see, for example, creeping scientism (science is the only true knowledge) in some of the models of wargaming we have, mostly in some of the earlier ‘plus one if English sea=dog’ type of rule. But that does not absolve ‘modern’ wargaming of such influences, they might just be harder to spot. But Old School wargaming is, I think, an expression of nostalgia for a lost age of innocence, and some of the simpler rule sets written in the last twenty years or so could also be a craving for simplicity. Alternatively, they could just be a turn away from our increasingly complex real lives to a world where the decisions are easier. Catharsis again, perhaps.