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.


  1. Interesting. I think the opposite. Football is a far close analogy to wargaming to my mind than film. Films always have the same outcome as you pointed out, and with most entertainment type films you know the outcome before you've watched it.

    Football however is notoriously unpredictable and full of "luck". Yes the better side normally wins but there's always the possibility of an upset. "Luck" takes many forms in football and inexplicable decisions by officials can rankle every bit as throwing double ones while your opponent throws six after six.

    Football in a way is THE archetypal war game. It's even mirrored the evolution from mass tribal brawl into something performed by paid experts who represent us by proxy.

    1. I guess football has some strong analogies with wargamng, but it doesn't really have a plot. I suppose it has a plot of sorts, but a lot of wargaming seems to be narrative driven.

      Inexplicable event happen in real life, let alone in films, as noted. perhaps real life is just weird anyway.

  2. The film analogy has some validity. Particularly historical films compared to cooperative historical recreation display games. But films lack one attribute which is the heart and soul of most wargames, competition, especially a battle of wits and willpower against an opponent.

    Playing cards can be quite similar in some ways. It lacks the handicraft outlet and the history but serious bridge players for example have been known to study the tactics of past games. I'm not much of a card player but I did join a local group for a short time and it was interesting to see the strategies, the importance of partner cooperation etc as hand followed hand like battles in a campaign as players sought victory in a match.

    I think nostalgia is part of OSW for most people but from a practical pov there were some well educated and very smart men who produced some ideas and rulesets that were very effective on several fronts. Some of them seem naive on the surface, like chess. But once played more than once or twice subtleties rise to the surface that reflect possibly the combination of years of study mixed with practical experience under fire. Form and intent over detail and pedantics or todays curse, the search for novelty for marketing purposes. (ok that might be a bit cynical the search is sometimes for better nite just different)

    Of course other rulesets are as well forgotten or buried with honour for past service.

    1. I think card games might be a useful analogy, but the only time someone tried to teach me to play bridge there was such a bitter wrangle over bidding systems that the whole thing collapsed without a card being turned. That is probably quite close to some wargame rule arguments, of course.

      I think there might be some mileage in wargame reflecting culture, but I'm not sure what it is. The original wargame writers (Featherstone, Grant, Young) were also soldiers, although some dispute might be had as to the relevance of WW2 action to, say, 7 Years War rules. On the other hand, people have not changed that much.

      Subtlety can take many forms, of course. Grant et al did know what they were talking about. The real problem with modern rules is that people try so hard to get around them...