Saturday 29 November 2014

Top Down and Bottom Up

There has been some discussion recently about the top down and bottom up views of rule writing, and the implication of this for the design and functioning of the rules themselves. I suspect (and will attempt to show) that this is a cultural thing, or possibly just another case of the ‘scientific worldview’ invading other areas.

So far as I recall, the bottom up view of rules was the first out of the blocks. Certainly, I remember reading, I think in Charles Grant’s ‘The Wargame’ comments about speed of movement. These were along the lines of a normal person can walk at about four miles an hour on a flat, level, hard path. Thus a unit can move however many inches determined by the ground scale and time scale of the moves. This, again as I recall, is arbitrarily reduced to something reasonable, on the grounds of having to keep in line, the various bits of a unit having to march around blackberry bushes and so on.

So this is a bottom up design of movement rules. We take an individual and assess his capabilities. Then we work out what implications there might be of loading him up with eighty pounds or so of equipment and expecting him to keep in line with his fellows. Even then, we obtain a number which might be a long way from anything with is either reasonable in wargame table move distances, or historically verifiable. Units moved slowly, relative to an individual.

So, of course, Grant (and he was not alone; he is just the author I remember) was well aware of this and fudged the results. In the end, then, it could be argued that despite his explicit bottom up approach to rule writing, he resorted to a top down approach to get the ‘right’ answer.

Such trajectories could be multiplied. For example, there were results of tests around (from, I think ‘Firepower’) of shooting muskets at unit sized sheets, and working out the effectiveness. Despite the author’s charges to the effect that this was an absolute, theoretical maximum, I fear some wargame rules dived in with the idea that muskets were something like 60 – 80% effective, and the body count in wargames rose as a result. Even though the effect of being in battle, being under fire, accidentally shooting out your ramrod and so on were commented upon, rule writers took the headline figure and worked with it.

Now, the people who did these things were not stupid. The thing is that they look as if they are scientific. We all like numbers; they give such an air of authority. A recent incident at work indicated this rather well. A student had done a very nice project and got some clear qualitative data. This was insufficient for her supervisor (who really should have known better) and she was told to do statistical analysis to prove the point. The problem is that statistical analysis on qualitative data is, well, asking to have the numbers made up for you. But numbers have authority where words do not.

Part of the reason for this is, I think, the success of science. Science give numbers; when I was a student you would derive a formula and then ‘plug the numbers in’ to get the required answer. Of course, what everyone knew and tacitly ignored was that the numbers were made up to make the answer pretty. As with so much, even at an undergraduate level, the experiments and problems are fixed so that they ‘work’. That, after all, is how science is supposed to be.

Real life, however, is messy. As an experimental physics researcher, plugging the numbers in became a game a bit like accountancy. If you ask an accountant what the values of a fund is, one of a set of possible answers is ‘what would you like it to be?’ So it is with experimental physics. The question is not ‘what is the answer?’ but more along the lines of ‘how can we get an answer, and how reliable might it be when we have it?’ Numbers, even the outcomes of equations, give us spurious confidence. As someone told me once, ‘it isn’t the answer that is interesting, it is the error’.

So, in wargame terms, we are probably better in going top down, in looking for how a body of men actually performed under battle conditions, be that in movement, shooting or whatever else. This, too, has its dangers, of course. Firstly, the evidence is, to put it politely, patchy. Mostly it does not exist. Where it does exist, we are probably back to those parade ground performance figures which are a guide to a perplexed young officer, but not much use to the old hand sergeant. He knows from experience, and it is not written down in a book.

The problem is, then, that we can neither be purely top down nor purely bottom up. Our records of unit performance are based on individual observations, and may not be valid for all units, let alone all times and space. Top down views are therefore contaminated by, at least, particularity. This unit did this in this battle, so we universalise an individual performance. Of course, bottom up is no better. It takes no account (except through fudge factors, as already noted) of emergent behaviour and bears even less relationship to real life than a top down approach.

But perhaps the major difficulty with the top down approach is the fact that such views of the world are frowned upon, culturally. Science, or at least the perceived method of science, is king. And science is irrefutable (nearly) reductionist, and hence bottom up. The ‘Great Chain of Being’ with everything in its place from worms to slaves to women to men to angels and then God himself has irretrievably broken down (I’m not saying that this is a bad thing), and the legacy of that is that everything now has to be bottom up.

It is just that for writing wargame rules, it doesn’t work very well.

Saturday 22 November 2014

Essential Wargames

One of the dangers of western ways of thinking is that of essentialism. We start to think that there is some essential property of something that is shared by all the somethings to which we give the same name. Thus, we think that there is some underlying notion of, for example, a wargame, that is common to all wargames; there is some essence of this thing that is a wargame which is in common with that thing which is also a wargame.

The problem with this is, as I might have alluded to before, that it is very difficult to see what this thing in common is. For example, a historical wargame involves some sort of simulation of combat in a historical setting. Science fiction wargaming involves some sort of combat in a non-historical setting. Role-playing games can be regarded as a sort of wargame, but do not necessarily involve combat. Board games have a setting (usually historical, but not always) but the combat is usually abstracted to a table and a dice roll. Yet all these things are wargames of some sort. Do they really have anything in common?

Of course, the other way of looking at this is that the use of the word wargame defines it. Thus, there is no essence of a wargame at all. If the community determines that it is a wargame, then a wargame it is. Thus, all sorts of things can be ruled in or out by simply looking at the word in the context of how people use it.

This too is fine, and indeed a lot of the philosophy in the Anglo-American tradition has been based around this idea. It originates from Wittgenstein, in Philosophical Investigations. His example there is of the word ‘game’, and he points out that there are loads of definitions of ‘game’ and it is hard to see what they have in common except being described as a game. For example, a soccer game and a game of solitaire with cards are both called games. It is hard to see what common ground these have; both could be called ‘pastimes’, but, of course, there are professional soccer players. One is competitive and one is not. And so on.

So, in the more narrow focus of a wargame, we can examine what we mean by that and attempt to decide, perhaps[s as a community, or at least by listening to the community, whether something is a wargame or it is not. Of course, there will be grey areas. Chess, for example, is often described as a wargame, or at least wargaming is described as chess with a thousand pieces. Often wargames have an element of chance build in, which chess does not have. So, is chess a wargame?

We can go further. Why do some businesses run ‘wargames’? Are they wargames which the wargaming community would recognise? Almost certainly not. The conflicts that business wargames are concerned with are not what most hobby wargamers would recognise. There may be some vague organisational similarity, in terms of having sides and umpire, goals and some sort of rules, but the goals and outcomes are different.

Of course, this can run to narrowness in a different sense. A wargame is what I determine a wargame to be, as I am the wargaming community. Thus what I do is a wargame, what you do might be a wargame and what they do is not. You can see this around the place. I wargame properly with my 25 mm Napoleonic armies and detailed rules and beautiful terrain. You might wargame, with your tiny 15 mm modern figures and some sort of rivet counting random rules. They cannot be wargaming with their role playing, no figures and scraps of paper to record stuff. Plus they seem to having way too much fun.

This relates back to what I was trying to say a week or two back about the discourses of wargaming. What a wargame is conceived to be is, of course, a part of the particular discourse a wargamer has. To have a discourse at all is, by the nature of discourse, to rule some things in and some things out. Once I start to say something I close off certain routes, certain things which I cannot now say without contradiction or inconsistency. So, for example, if I say ‘wargames use miniature figures’ I have already ruled out board and computer games as being what I mean by a wargame.

The situation is, of course, slightly worse than that. My Napoleonic wargamer, above, could stand accused of simply criticising the ‘Other’, the mass of people he does not understand. As he has ruled them out from his community, they are simply there as a potential object of ignorance or derision. By the nature of the discourse (and, quite likely the discourse of the role playing gamers, as well) there is an implied decision not to engage, not to see what it is about, to draw lines of demarcation as to what a proper wargamer might be about.

To some extent, by human nature and the nature of our language, this is inevitable. As I said, by saying something we rule some things out, and we have to say something or we cannot create a community at all. But language is often a lot more flexible than our categories of thinking allow. In fact, a bit like the universe, language is infinite but bounded. There are loads of things I can say, many of them intelligible which can break the categorization of which I, as a human, am so fond.

So I think it is beholden on all of us to examine our own discourses of wargaming (including, of course, this one). The powerful narratives of what we think a wargame is are such as to marginalise at best, other sorts of wargame which might prove to be enriching. It is to exclude, or worse, to try to silence other voices that might be worth hearing. And, possibly, to relate back to one of the more popular posts on the blog, it might be why I no longer buy wargame magazines.

Saturday 15 November 2014

Developing Wargames

I suspect that most of us, at some time or another, think that we could do better than some wargame that we have just seen. If only, we muse, I had a bit more time, I could paint those toy soldiers, create that terrain, write those rules better, more clearly, more authentically, and the whole thing would come together to provide an aesthetic and satisfying experience, which, perhaps, provides also some deep insight into a historical battle.

This aspiration, of course, remains simply that. Even if we did have more time, the perfect wargame would be out of reach. We have to settle, as finite beings, for the good enough, something that is sufficiently satisfying, aesthetic enough, and so on. We are both empowered and constrained by our language, for one thing. We can only think certain things, as those things we cannot think about we cannot articulate.

I am currently reading Rowan Williams’ ‘The Edge of Words’ (2014, Bloomsbury). This is not a project I have undertaken lightly, as the good former Archbishop of Canterbury has a certain reputation for impenetrability and, I have to confess, I have read occasional bits of his former works and emerged from as bemused as I went in. Anyway, thus far, The Edge of Words has proved to be a lot more readable than I was expecting.

The point here is that at one place (p. 57-8) Williams muses on our inarticulateness. A scientist moves the subject forward, he suggests, by puzzling over discrepancies. This is not a stimulus response mode of language, although the scientist is usually dealing with objects that do respond in that mode. What is meant here, I think, is that the scientist usually deals with such things as rocks, which when thrown behave in certain ways; these ways are independent of the scientist observer.

Within the stimulus response mode, then, there is no role for inarticulateness, but in the development of science, there is. Some scientific phenomena are not immediately intelligible. Indeed, one of the biggest tasks that science, as a whole, faces is making its deliverances intelligible, either within the scientific community or, what is even harder, in the wider community who, after all, foot the bill for most scientific research.

However, such bafflement with language is not limited to science. We have probably all found ourselves ‘lost for words’. Williams’ example is that of Cordelia at the beginning of King Lear, who cannot articulate her love for her father.  That love cannot be tied up in words to satisfy the King’s need for love. There are, at least, some things we struggle to say.

Moving on, we can note that, of course, King Lear is fiction. The point here is that in a play (or, I suspect a film or even a football match) we cannot intervene. For example, in Terry Pratchett’s Weird Sisters there is a highly amusing bit where one of the character does intervene in a play they are watching, indicating the guilty party in a murder mystery and shouting ‘He done it!’ (or words to that effect). The humour is in the fact that the corpse is not a dead body, the murderer didn’t hurt anyone and intervention is from outside the world of the fiction. In Williams’ words ‘And so I am brought face to face with what I do not want to grasp or apprehend – my own limits as they border on the limits of agents who are absolutely and inaccessibly other.’

And so to wargaming. In a wargame the figures, the scenario, the rules and so are, in fact, other. It was suggested recently that a good analogy for a wargame would be a football match, and I agree. In a football match, the players and referee are other. I, as a spectator, can do little to influence the match. I can cheer or boo, but that might make me feel that my views are, at least, heard (or that I articulate them) but that has little or no influence over the outcome. It is unlikely that the referee will reverse a decision over a penalty just because a section of the crowd is catcalling him.

However, I think that one of the engaging features of wargaming that makes the analogies of film, play or match strain is, in fact, that as wargamers we are involved. Our decisions influence the outcome of the game. If I decide not to move the Grenadier Guards into line and thus the attack stalls, that is my decision affecting the game. In this discourse, taking language in a wider sense than just words, my actions influence the outcomes on the table.

Thus, alongside the fact that I am cut off from the activities on the table by the intervening layers of rules and models, I am also involved at quite a deep level. The words I use about table-top activities also imply that. I do not refer to ‘The French Grand Battery’ but to ‘My guns’. The relationship is mediated, admittedly, through the interpretation given to my actions and activities through the rules. The situation I am responding to is modelled on the table top, and that feeds back to me as decision maker. But the bottom line is that as a wargamer, I am involved in the table-top activity. It may be other, but it is also influence by me.

Those of you with very long memories might recall that I proposed a three layer model of a wargame: the real world of the player, the mediating layer of the rules, and the wargame table layer of the game. Again, this seems to work in this sense, except that the model does not seem to reproduce this level of involvement. This personal involvement, incidentally, seems to be what worries those few who regard wargaming as glamorising war (or have similar viewpoints; I’ve written quite enough about that previously). But the involvement of the players is a vital part of making a wargame worthwhile.

So, perhaps, we could regard a wargame as analogous to a film or football match, but we would have to admit that, even in the latter case, our involvement in a wargame is more intense, has a bigger influence on the outcome and, (to purloin a footballing phrase) at the end of the day is more personal.

Saturday 8 November 2014

Powerful Discourses

I have been reading, for no wargame related reason, a book about the problem of housing in rural areas in the UK. The problem is, as you can probably guess, that the prettier rural areas suffer from wealthy people moving into them, buying up the housing stock and forcing the prices up. The poorer paid local people and their children thus cannot afford to live in their local area anymore and have to either move to urban areas and commute back to their poorly paid jobs on the land or hope for some low cost housing to be made available to them.

The essay on housing, however, makes some interesting comments about the power of discourses over our views of rural housing. The dominant discourse is that the countryside is to be protected, and this is agreed by everyone, indigenous rural population, incomers buying up farm houses, planners and politicians.

The policy of protecting the countryside benefits some of the people above. Thus, for those who can afford to move to pretty country villages, it ensures that property prices stay high and their investment remains valid. They can claim that the communities they move into do not suffer from urbanisation because their pressure keeps development at bay. It also gives local planning officers, local politicians and national figures something to do, in that they seem to spend a fair bit of time considering planning applications for huge sprawling edge of village or town  estates that no-one in their right mind is going to accept.

The interesting thing about this discourse of protecting the rural landscape, communities and way of life is that everyone, whether in one of the benefitted groups or not, accepts it. The rural poor, who would in fact benefit from more housing (thus being cheaper) and bigger local towns (bringing more jobs and amenities to a nearby location) are just as clear about not wanting development as the richer, more powerful voices. In short, the discourse of protection has been swallowed, hook, line, and sinker.

Now, while this might be an interesting debate over the rural landscape, I think it does pertain to wargaming. Not, I hasten to add because there is any sort of politicking going on in wargaming; I think it is too disparate for that, but because I do think there are some dominant discourses within wargaming which the hobby might benefit from examining.

I dare say that I have banged on about a few of these discourses over time, but it might do no harm to have another bash. Writing the blog, in fact, trying to describe my own ideas and thoughts on the subject and also to see what others think.

I think my biggest beef with most wargaming, at least of a historical nature, is how out of date much of the history is. Wargaming generally seems to be stuck with its sources in the A. H. Burne and Sir Charles Oman. Now, don’t get me wrong, both did sterling work in their time to write history, and specifically, history of conflicts, in an appropriate manner for their time. But historiography does move on, and I cannot really believe that I am the only wargamer who gets frustrated (and possibly slightly depressed) when I see another article or demonstration game which is based on their interpretation of the sources.

For example, the battle of Neville’s Cross is, for a medieval action, quite well documented. But the most recent wargame interpretation of it was exactly that from Burne. Burne seems to have been unaware of some of the sources (not necessarily his fault). The upshot is, of course, that we present to ourselves, and to the public who might have a look, a wargame which has little relevance to the actual original conflict (insofar as we can know it) and also little relevance to modern research and consideration of more recent concerns. In short, our discourse of wargaming here is woefully out of date.

Now, we might argue that this does not matter, because the game is the thing. However, the devil is, I think, in the detail. If we claim that the wargame is historical, should it not be so to the best of our ability? We can comment on the niceness of the figures, the accuracy of the heraldry and so on, but when the action on the table is based on an account of the battle written nearly a century ago, some question over its actual historical accuracy might need to be raised.

Often, I think, well-meaning wargamers fall for these powerful discourses. We want our battles to be full of colour and activity. The line of least resistance is to take down Oman from the shelf, leaf through to the relevant chapter, and start recreating the battle. But we recreate Oman’s view of the battle, which is likely to have been superseded.  Oman, fine writer as he was, is not the last word on the subject; it is not that hard to find more modern accounts of battles and the circumstances leading up to them. In the case of Neville’s Cross, the differences can be significant.

So I think that one of the discourses which silences some wargamers, in the same way that powerful interest groups silence the rural poor and actually make them agree to things which are not to their benefit, is that the game is the thing and that historiography does not change that much. This argument implies that the interpretation of the sources can only be the same today as it was nearly a century ago. Thus, all we need to do is to make a table that looks like the present state of the battlefield, bang out a few nicely painted figures and, bingo! we have a historical recreation.

Present company excepted, I am sure, this does seem to be the dominant view among a significant set of wargamers. It might not even matter that it is historiographically impaired. But as a discourse that potentially silences other voices, other ways of wargaming and more recent historical research, I think recognising that it does happen might be a helpful thing.

Saturday 1 November 2014

Reality and Multiple Models

I may well be repeating myself here, but I would like to ponder something that has come up again in recent discussions here. The thing is, in a wargame, we are taking multiple complex reactions to a human (and very stressful) situation, breaking them into models, and then reassembling them into some sort of intelligible, usable whole to play a game.

I think I would like to leave aside, at least here, the ethics of doing this. I have considered them elsewhere, but I do confess that the above description of what we do in a wargame makes me feel slightly uncomfortable. However, I shall simply ignore that for the moment and consider the actual problems of the reductionism that we employ and the possibilities of reconstruction that we hope for.

So, firstly, reductionism. We have a set of accounts of battles for a particular period, say, plus our imaginations and a framework for what we can produce as a workable model and what we cannot. So, for example, I know that my model, in order to be intelligible and tractable, is going to have to result in some sort of arithmetical operation, a dice roll for a bit of chance and some sort of outcome based on the numerical result. This may not be the only way of resolving wargame events, but it is the most usual one. We could call it a paradigm model of event resolution.

Now, in our accounts, in our imagination, various factors come into play. The men, for example, might be confident or treacherous (think about Bosworth, for example). The leaders might be, or might be considered to be, competent or not, careful with the lives of the men or not, and so on. The weaponry the armies are issued with might be effective or not; the tactics employed could be such as to amplify or supress the usefulness of the weapons or not, and so on.

I think the issue here is that, in real life, these things are all presented as a mass. Generals, I guess, do not go around thinking that if only they deployed their archers in hollow triangles they might be more effective. These things are largely dependent on tradition, training and other things that happen off the battlefield. Generals, deploying their armies, have to use what they are given. The men are armed in a certain way, trained in a certain way, have a set of conceptions and expectations about themselves, their comrades and leaders, and, probably, the enemy as well. But these are all of a mass; the men, their officers and generals do not necessarily split them into different categories.

Furthermore, of course, all these ideas and conceptions interact. I might be confident in the performance of my long bow, but nervous about the fact that my sergeant is incapable of hitting a barn with his bow, or that there seem to be an awful lot of Frenchmen about wearing heavy duty armour. Thus, my confidence, which might be high in one sense, could be low in another, and dependent on my own mental outlook and physical wellbeing (the fact that I have dysentery might add or subtract from my confidence). In short, there are all sorts of factors making up the outlook of one individual and, of course, many individuals whose outlook is a factor both in my individual outlook and in some emergent outlook of the unit, or the army, as a whole.

There is no way in which this can be handled as a whole, I think. In order to make a set of wargame rules work, we have to reduce this mix of personal outlooks, physical capabilities and so on to a set of models which reproduce certain aspects of the whole. Thus, I have a given model for the effectiveness of the bow. I have another model for the impetuousness for the French knights. I have yet another model for the use of crossbows in a skirmishing role, and probably another for the effectiveness of crossbowmen ridden down by those impetuous knights, and so on.

In short, what I have done is taken all the formally distinct bits of the world of the archer before Agincourt, and turned them into separate models. The thing is, though, that those models are only formally distinct. How well the ‘real’ archer shoots might well be a function of whether he thinks his weapon is effective at a given range against a given target, as well as his state of health, how confident (or scared of) his leaders he is, and so on. The different models in fact represent different bits of reality that we can think about separately. Reality itself is unitary.

The next step is to model these things as arithmetic calculations. This introduces another level of abstraction. The simulation is now grainy. Reality tends to be more gradual, more graded than simply reaching, or not, a numerical threshold. As wargamers we have to accept this as a consequence of attempting to wargame at all. Although there are sudden collapses of units, usually this is the cumulation of a set of circumstances and events in the recent past. While a sudden bad dice roll might reflect this, it also washes out that slow disintegration of the individual and communal morale.

Now, we attempt to put these models together in some sort of order, to reflect the reality which they are trying to simulate. But note that we have, in fact, changed things considerably. The continuous and fairly smooth behaviour we witness in real life has been replaced by a step-wise and clunky function depending on dice rolls, among other things. The integration of a person, their environment and world view has been replaced but a set of models for each of them, hopefully statistically derived for a mass of people. And so on. The models we use only reflect some formally distinct aspects of the reality we try to model.

We do, of course, gain some advantages. The models we use are tractable and intelligible. If a unit runs away we can give reasons, which the real life equivalent might struggle to do. But we do need to be aware of the things we have to sacrifice to obtain that intelligibility and tractability.