Saturday 17 January 2015

Serious Playing

For reasons I am still unsure about, I have started reading Hans-Georg Gadamer’s ‘Truth and Method’. My only defence is really that the choice was Kant, Heidegger or Gadamer, and I chose the middle length book. It is still a hefty 600 pages or so, but Kant was 700 and Heidegger a mere 500. In keeping with my experience of most continental philosophy, it refers to philosophers I have not (and probably cannot, for lack of language skills, let alone time) read and is high on the denseness rating. However, Gadamer keeps cropping up in my reading of assorted bits of recent writing, and in keeping with my reputation as the only postmodern wargamer, I thought I had better give it a go.

The second chapter of the tome is about play, which rather surprised me. Continental philosophy, for all its claims to playfulness, has, in my view, a tendency to take itself far too seriously. I mean, someone like Derrida can claim, in a book, that the author does not exist and that all there is in the text. Does he really mean that? If so, I can just ignore his text, surely.

Still, Gadamer does talk about play, by which he means playing in its widest sense. In fact, he is trying to get a handle on art and the aesthetic, but I am going to try to ignore that for as long as possible. But already he has observed some interesting things.

Firstly, play is not about the players. Play is, in itself serious, and someone who is not taking the play seriously is usually called a ‘spoilsport’. The aim of play, albeit as recreation, is in itself a serious aim. We do not play (and children do not play) for frivolity. Play works because we lose ourselves in the play. Hence, a wargame works because we lose ourselves in the narrative, suspense and uncertainty of the game.

Next up, I suppose rather obviously, the play is part of the players, but is not the players. The game, clearly, would not exist without the players, or at least a player (fortunately for me, solo wargamers are not excluded), but the play is not subjective, that is, the game is not wholly a subjective experience of the player(s). The game is a presentation through the players, but not wholly of the players. I am sure this is a bit clearer in the original German.

A characteristic of play is its to and fro nature, even when there is only one player. Gadamer says that play is without strain, without effort and is experienced by the subject (the player) as relaxation. The structure of the game absorbs the player into itself. So, again, the wargamer is part of the game, not simply an external operative of the game. As a player, the game takes over and relieves us from the strain of making decisions.

I am not entirely sure I agree with that in the context of wargaming, as wargamers, of course, are constantly making decisions as part of the game. On the other hand, if we admit that wargamers as players of the game are absorbed in the game, then the decisions that have to be taken are decisions within the game and as such part of the play. I suppose we could easily get from there to the idea that no intra-wargame decision is a serious, and thus stressful, decision. Not metal widows and orphans are going to be created by out in-game decisions.

Now clearly, in a wargame, there are outcomes and, ultimately, winners and losers. This is a part of the to and fro process within the game. A move produces its counter move, and so on. As engrossed in the game, we can be a victor. That, Gadamer says, is the risk of the game. We have a freedom of decision within the game, but that freedom is limited by the game, and the game, or the other players, can out think us within the game and we can lose. If we do not make such decisions, we cannot play the game; we are not playing seriously if we refuse the decision making and the consequences thereof.

The consequences of this sort of view for wargaming should be, I think, fairly clear. It certainly seems to chime in with my experience of the hobby as a whole. It is a hobby, a recreation, for one thing, but something which is taken with great seriousness by its participants. I suppose that, say, football is another such example. It can be taken with great seriousness by its participants and by spectators, but it does remain, consciously, as a game.

However, it is probably with the seriousness in mind that we object, just a little, to describing the hobby as ‘playing with toy soldiers’. I have used the expression myself to remind myself that the hobby is a game, a recreation, and is not, in that sense, serious. But ‘playing with toy soldiers’ may be taken as an expression of not taking the play seriously, of being a spoilsport. I think the reasons the expression works as a reminder of the hobby aspect of the occupation is the various meanings of the word ‘play’.

Gadamer, for example, reminds the reader that the waters of a fountain can play, as can the sunlight on water, children with sticks and mud, and so on. Cats and dogs also play. These various meanings and nuances of the word ‘play’ inform our use of the term ‘playing with toy soldiers’ to remind us of various aspects of a wargame. As with the fountain, the wargame can be an aesthetic experience, and also a dynamic one. As with the stick play, the wargame has artefacts and can reduce to simply throwing mud at each other. As with animals and humans playing, the play can be part of the joy of co-existence (even for us solo wargamers – when I am grumpy with painting, the estimable Mrs P. will tell me to go and have a battle), and also, perhaps most importantly, the game is an end in itself, not something designed of some further or future purpose.


  1. Right - good stuff.

    First off - about the author not existing - I haven't read Derrida (which is fine - he never read me either) so some of this may come down to the exact meanings (and translations?) of words. Suppose you find an ancient treasure map - just below the socks in your drawer, say - it looks authentic, but you have no idea where it came from. This map and the instructions it contains turn out to be accurate, and you become so rich that you are able to replace all your socks. You still have no idea who the author is - as far as you know, you never knew him. Does his text have an existence of its own, independent of him? Does the author's own existence become irrelevant (rather than never having occurred - I'm running out of vocabulary here...)

    Games - it is intriguing to ponder the nature and the utility of games. I agree that we do play with soldiers - any embarrassment this might cause us is largely down to inherited Puritan values about making best use of our time. I'm on uncertain ground here, since this gets kind of medical, but exercising our minds in things like dreams, games, simulations (however serious) is, I understand, essential for allowing our brains to re-org themselves, and allowing instinctive reasoning and thought processes to operate. Mental health may depend partly on our ability to go on holiday in our imagination for a while, to live through a situation - often a situation which we may never find ourselves in, or one which is completely unreal. Small children acquire social and other skills in game play, in a context which is (usually) non-threatening.

    As a quick time-out on the medical bit - I once had some elderly relatives - sisters - who apparently had all taken sleeping tablets for their entire lives. In their old age they all suffered serious mental health issues, and a doctor told me that one contributing element might have been their sleeping pills. These pills inhibit dreaming, which is thought, eventually, to lead to major problems.

    My entire experience of fighting horse and musket wars is from what I've read and the games which I have experienced. Playing games - even imagining stories that we have read elsewhere - appears to be something our minds need to do, to keep healthy.

    1. I like your explanation of the non-existence of the author. I think that Derrida is much misunderstood because he challenged much of what philosophy stood for, if I understand it correctly. Maybe, since he did not exist (!) all that matters is my relationship with the text. The author's is largely irrelevant to my experience of it. This reminds me of some of Stockwell's work in cognitive poetics, where he points out that we cannot know the author. By the same token, the author cannot know the reader. There is only the perceived author (our experience of the text and how we relate to this perceived author) and the perceived reader (the idealised reader whom the author thinks will read their text). Essentially, we are not engaging with the author in any meaningful manner, but only with our perception of that author. Thus, the actual physical existence of the author does become irrelevant. I think.

    2. Oh! I've had to do some thinking about that, and now my brain hurts...

      i think my objection to Derrida is along the same lines as that i have to Hume, the bit at the end of the essay where he consigns most books to the fire. But his book would (by some measures, at least) also be burnt. Thus Derrida, in denying any authority to the author, somewhat stultifies his position, in my view.I would, after all, only read Derrida because he wrote it.

      But I am trying to avoid doing even that.

    3. As to game playing, the implication of Mr foy's comments are that wargamers are saner than non-game playing folk.

      I can live with that, although possibly it is not a widely held view.

      I do think, though, that mental health has a lot to do with recreation (or re-creation as some mental health specialist like to call it; I'm not sure if that is profound or pretentious). And wargaming seems to be a way of engaging imagination, creativity, narrative and craft skills, among other things.

    4. I think that may depend upon your definition of sanity! :)

      I did read some time back that wargaming and battle re-enactments were thought to be a means old soldiers used to help them cope with what they had been through. I don't know to what extent that has any basis in reality, but it rings true to my lay ear.

    5. I think Don Featherstone saw active service in WW2; I seem to recall in his campaign account of the Italian Wars of the C 19th he remarked that the scenery was familiar to him from his service at such places as Monte Cassino.

      Peter Young and Charles Grant were professional soldiers, and I dare say one or two others were as well.

      So I'd agree; often a more abstract rendering of what we have been through helps. I am vaguely reminded of children's play therapy and also recounting terrible things suffered in child abuse using dolls, play and so on. So it probably is the case, for some people.

    6. With tongue firmly planted in cheek, I might also observe that Featherstone's wargaming seems always to have been stacked to ensure the miniature Brits (English) won on every occasion. Definitely an agenda somewhere in the background. In a brief correspondence with him, I learned that Don felt that his experiences in WW2 entitled him to be very contemptuous of "amateur" military historians of all types (including some of those who merely had academic qualifications), so I guess his time in the army shaped a lot of views, which is probably very understandable.

    7. i remember having such an agenda at age 10, I think. Now 'my' side usually loses...

      I wonder if his experience was why he stuck with Burne's 'inherent military probability', even when it possibly didn't apply.

    8. I am now getting cramp in my tongue, but I think it is fairly well accepted that IMP in this context was a jocular euphemism for overturning the house rules from time to time if a particular incident did not suit The Don's game plan - this is hearsay, of course, but the source was a very well known (Yorkshire-based) wargamer in his own right.

  2. I agree with all of that.

    Your last line though suggests to me one way of exlaining why a simulation wargame played as a means of training or demonstration or of testing theories is different from a recreational wargame or playing with toy soldiers, even if the same rules are used (though they aren't usually ). The wargame is not an end in that case but a tool or means and the players are all, to some extent, spoilsports.

    Another example perhaps of a thing being one thing to one person and a different thing to another, depending on use and more importantly, intent.

    1. Yes, I think you are right. an awful lot seems to depend on outcome and intent. Someone who is simply out to win the game is not someone I'd like to wargame with.

  3. This is an interesting post for me. I wonder if Gadamer considered play as training. You don't mention this side of things, but I do not see how you can discuss play in its widest sense without including that. Wargames as play can be, were and are training for real battle. Playing with wooden sticks as swords can be the first step on the road to learning to wield weapons. Much play is not purely recreation, but is actually teaching ways of interacting in society. Does Gadamer cover this? It would be interesting to know if he considered how the word 'play' is used historically, especially in compound forms such as swordplay and various other compound nouns in Old English and Old Norse (plus probably other languages that I do not know well enough to comment on). How do these fit with the general tenor of the book? I suppose I'll have to read it now ... :)

  4. I'm not sure that he does talk about play as teaching; his interest is aesthetics and hermeneutics. But I take your point, although it might be related to Ross's comment on intent. I can learn a lot through wargaming, but the primary intent of my wargaming is not to be taught.

    but you, you should certainly read him. Then you can explain it to me.

    1. I've added him to the list. It might make an interesting article when related to the Viking Age material, if no one else has thought of it first.

    2. He is quite interesting about how we can handle historical 'text', not by trying to make ourselves the original author (impossible), but by merging our 'horizon' with theirs, so we have to read a text with our own concerns as well as the original authors.

    3. That does sound interesting. I think a few people that I have read have picked up on it, but mostly in the sense of trying to understand the concerns of the time/author while being sufficiently aware of one's own cultural perspective to take account of it in the analysis.