Saturday 21 March 2015

Performative Wargames

It is possibly because I have just read a book on speech-acts, but I am coming around to the view, slowly as befits a bear of very little brain, that most wargaming is performative. By this I mean that, in part, the words we say are both descriptive and determinative of what happens, but also the wargame as wargame is a performance.

I suppose the second item above comes from my reading of Gadamer. He considers, as I might have mentioned, art and the aesthetic. As with most considerations of art, ultimately he means pictures, but along the way he considers other art, including the plastic arts and plays.

A play is, when you think about it, an odd sort of thing. The actors have a script, which they follow (OK, some avant-guard plays might be improvisation, but let’s ignore them for the moment). However, the play, as presented, is much more than just the words in the script. Different actors might present different characters in different ways.  The script itself, while not obviously malleable, can be edited, cut down and, to some extent, reworked. The environment of the play, the scenery can be changed. For example, some Macbeths have got heavy duty medieval scenery. Some have been performed on an empty stage with just a crown hanging above it and black hangings around it.

The upshot of all of this is that even though the script is (relatively) fixed, the surroundings make a difference, as do the cast and their interactions with each other and the director, stage manager and scenery people, and so on. To say that there is ‘a’ play, as in a single, unalterable object of culture, is a mistake. There is a script as an object, and there are performances of it.

The point is that each performance of a play, even if the cast, director, scenery and editing of it are the same, is different. For one thing, the audience is different. As with teaching, you might be covering (or trying to cover) the same material in a class, but each time your audience is different. Even if they were the same, their location, immediate experience, reflections and so on would be difference. Even if the same audience went to the same play with the same cast again, they would have already seen the play and their reactions would, at least in part, be different.

A performance, then, is a single, unrepeatable act. Macbeth might die at each performance, but the manner of his arriving at that point is likely to be different, at least in the minds of the actors and the audience. These differences might be very minor or trivial, but they will exist. A performance cannot be repeated.

Now, consider a wargame of a historical battle. We have, if I have to labour the analogy, a cast list, which are the orders of battle of the different sides and armies present. We have some scenery, given in some sorts of stage directions, and we have a script of sorts, which describes how the battle went in its, for want of a better term, ‘real life’ performance.

So we settle down for a wargame, and various things happen during the performance of it. Perhaps the left wing which historically fought on runs away after the first move. Perhaps the rest of the army, which was a bit pathetic in the original, perform heroically and save the day. Maybe we arrive at a vaguely historical outcome, albeit by a different route. What, if anything, can we say about the performance?

Obviously, there are a few things. Firstly, we can consider the rule by which we have arrived at the outcome of the performance which we have. Perhaps the rules were inaccurate on some grounds. Well, in principle we could correct that and re-wargame, but this would lead to a different performance.

Secondly, we can analyse the distribution of luck. Some people, of course, are obsessed by rolling ones or sixes. They might believe, against all the evidence that the dice conspire against them. His is simply the usual function of the human mind. It is pattern seeking, and finds them even where we know they do not exist. As evidence, try listening to a detuned radio on headphones. Is there not someone singing in the background?

The point is, though, that the wargame is also a one off performance. You can refight the battle, but the outcome will, in some way, vary. Perhaps, having fought it once, you have learnt that masking off that portion of the other side’s army with skirmishers might be a better plan than ploughing into then with cataphracts. Even if you do not try a different plan, the die rolls are inevitably going to be different. Similarly, the set up might be subtly different; those two hills might be half a base closer together.

The thing is here that no two wargames are going to be the same, as no two performances of a play are. There are, in both activities, a wide range of variables to juggle with. Not all of these are, at least, within our conscious control. The audience and their reactions is beyond the control of playwright, cast or director. The dice rolls are (we hope) beyond the control of the wargamers. While both might have a script, subtle deviations from it (or, in wargaming, wholesale variations) can cause major differences in outcomes for the performance.

This, of course, reflects back to what I said a bit ago about history and horizons. Macbeth can be almost infinitely re-interpreted, ‘bought up to date’ by directors with a different horizon and view than Shakespeare. Macbeth can be presented as an oppressor, and man with a mission to be king, a dupe of forces beyond his control or simply as a flawed human put in impossible positions by others. But this depends on how the play is read.

And for wargaming? Do we wargame things which are appropriate to our own horizons? Is this what makes wargaming the Roman invasion of Britain acceptable, but wargaming current middle east crises tasteless?


  1. For those of us that wargame as a hobby, I think we normally choose to play within our comfort zone or personally chosen horizon. I have occasion crossed it by accident, failure to fully understand what was proposed or in order to put being social above other concerns or even more rarely, intentionally as an exploration.

    Like plays though that horizon is individual not social/cultural so for some current wars, even "dirty" ones are fine, for others they must be sanitized and disguised and for still others even that is unacceptable.

    As a side comment, one would think that movies would be fixed but since it interacts with me each time I view it and I sometimes see or hear or notice different things or perhaps have had a different experience that causes me to reinterpret it, even movies remain a petformance that is a bit of a different experience each time.

    1. I agree, but I suppose that what might be interesting is how we arrive at that horizon which we find acceptable. I suspect that our personal horizon is moderated somehow by the culture and society we live in, but it is hard to say how, exactly.

      One of the interesting things to do with movies is to watch something link the Aardman 'Chicken Run' film. The watch it again and concentrate on the background. There is a lot going on. So the audience can, in fact, entirely alter the experience of the film, for themselves. No wonder the Oscars are controversial most years.

  2. I had a very cynical friend (now deceased, but - very strangely - he was a professional folk musician) who maintained that the concept of interpretation was a scam invented by conductors and stage directors. I don't believe he was serious of course, but I do believe that interpretation sometimes becomes an end in itself. I have once, for example, witnessed Macbeth performed on motorcycles in the Edinburgh Festival - very much a niche product, I would say, in which the motorcycles loomed rather larger than the Bard.

    A step-through re-enactment (to demonstrate our understanding of a real battle, for example) is maybe slightly different in concept, but a "normal" wargame might correspond to an interactive version of Macbeth where the audience (would they have to be children?) were equipped with dice, and they could decide whether he died, who dunnit, all that. (Now I have thought about it, they would either have to be Miss Bentham's class from Beaconsfield Primary, or else they would have to have paid £30 a ticket for the privilege.)

    I am off now to have my second coffee of the day - I think I shall have it with honey - no - maybe mayonnaise - I shall let the dice decide - and I shall drink it in the style of Oscar Wilde. Aha. Anyone who wishes to watch may do so.

    1. Ooh! we demand at least a YouTube video of that coffee.

      I think there is a high degree of, um, 'luvviness' with performance and interpretation, and a good deal of doing stuff just to shock (like Macbeth on motorcycles) or gain publicity. But occasionally, an interpretation can work and speak into a situation today. Human nature has changed little, even if our politics and technology is different.

      And,.of course, some things can be more radically updated. My favourite is the headline for Othello:
      'Weapons Misuse Inquiry Launched After Death of Officer['

  3. Excellent post. Sorry I'm coming to read it so long after posting. I hope this reaches you.

    What you have written echoes a lot with my thoughts on staging participation wargames. In that the battle or engagement being recreated is really (to borrow your analogy) just the stage. The real performance is not replicating what actually happened in history - the real performance is the game played by the players and other participants. Having a great gaming, visual and social experience is, for me anyway, very much what the hobby is about. And yes, those experiences are subjective (though hopefully influenced by objective hard work - historical research, nicely painted figures and terrain).

    If that approach becomes your focus, the battles being recreated can be looked at in a slightly different way. History then becomes just the starting point for the experience, with the social interaction paramount.