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.

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