Saturday 28 March 2015

The Authentic Wargame

I mentioned a week or two ago the idea of the authentic and the kitsch in art. Real art, I claimed (or at least, quoted Roger Scruton as claiming) represents reality to us. Kitsch invited sentimentality, the turn inwards to observe and admire our own emotions and enjoy ourselves as being civilised, sensitive people.

I also noted, in passing, that modern art, in its many forms, simply seems to set out to shock. In fact, some art bureaucrats often seem to think that something is art if the general public do not like it. It can then be sold at a vastly inflated price for someone to put on a gallery wall (no one in their right mind would actually want these things in their own living room, would they?). Shock, the public outcry garners attention, if nothing else.

Now, harking back to vaguely remembered bits of Gadamer, I think we could claim that, in some senses, wargaming is art, or at least has some features in common with some art forms. The art form in particular that I have in mind is theatre. Now, of course, there are clear differences. A play has a set script which, except in some more modern plays, the actors tend to follow. But there are some helpful resonances as well, I think.

Firstly, a play is repeated a number of times, both in its current production and in revivals, and also in different productions, with different casts, directors and so on. Furthermore, a play, as the instance of this particular performance, is unique. This set of actors, this room, this audience is specific to this one off event of a play. As with teaching, this version is a singular event.

Wargames, too, can and are played and played again. Again, each event is different. The wargamers might be different; they might swap sides and be informed by what happened last time, and so on. The rules might be known more or less well, the terrain set out slightly different. The details, which do actually matter in a game as well as a play, vary.

Now, the point to which I am painfully iterating is something like this. Some plays are done well, some poorly. Some are shut down by mobs or the secret police. Some mock the establishment and some the population, and so on. Good theatre, then, brings us face to face with reality, or at least a recognisable depiction thereof. In some sense, we could argue, a good wargame should do the same.

Consider a fairly simple case of a classic role playing game such as Runequest or D & D. Good and evil are fairly explicit in the rules. A character in D & D can be evil, good or neutrally aligned. In RQ chaos is everyone’s enemy and the Lunar Empire is suspicious because of its ambivalent attitude to it. Thus, most of the time, there is no moral question which arises. The baddies must be defeated. Perhaps the nearest theatrical equivalent would be a modern pantomime, where we can safely Boo the baddies because, well, they are baddies and because we know they will be defeated in the end.

At the other extreme there are some theatre productions which do simply set out to shock. I vaguely remember a controversial production, I think of ‘The Romans in Britain’ which featured a scene of homosexual rape. For its time this was outrageous and widely condemned. What it had to do with the plot or what the play was trying to say I am not sure (I’ve not seen it, nor can really be bothered to find out more about it), but the fact is the outraged a lot of people (who probably had not bothered to see it either; outrage is like that).

The wargaming equivalent of this is, well, what? Would a wargame of an uprising in a concentration camp do it, or of the Warsaw uprising? The Princess Diana demolition derby, where the players as photographers chase a car until it crashes (bonus points for pictures of the maimed occupants)? These are certainly tasteless, but would they produce the outrage?

I think what I am trying to get at is that an authentic wargame is one where we can see, or feel the emotion, the reality, reaching out towards us. If we did have a Warsaw Ghetto game, it would be only authentic is we could find in it the desperation of the fighters in launching such a desperate battle, and the destruction which befell the city. Anything else, perhaps, would be less authentic, less respectful to the original situation and battle.

Given the difficulty inherent in constructing wargames with even a slight degree of the real historical outcomes, are we therefore condemned to inauthentic wargames, ones with little or no contact with any real historical world? And if we are, are we not more comfortable with the idea that they do not correspond to any sort of reality? After all, a wargame which does confront us with reality would, in many cases, hardly be a recreation.

So, finally, what of wargaming the ultra-modern, the Taliban, IS or conflict in Ukraine? Are these merely shocking and tasteless, or are there deeper currents moving? Given the general inaction of politicians and widespread near to apathy of populations not directly involved, would a tasteless, provocative wargame of Kaderia, Donetsk or a border post in Sinai at least get people talking about it. Could a wargame, like art, hold up a mirror to the world and attempt to get us to stop ignoring it?

I think to suggest it would is, probably, yielding far too much to the idea of a wargame as in any sense powerful, politically or morally, whereas a play might be. I am as much against the idea of painting toy soldiers in the form of IS and wargaming with them as the next wargamer in the street.

But I do wonder. Could a wargame of the British NW Frontier of India, or Alexander’s problems in Bactria hold up a mirror to the times? Or, like science fiction, a non-historical wargame actually be ‘about’ today? But, maybe, I am starting to take the whole idea of wargaming way too seriously.


  1. Not material to your point, but just to enlighten you, I have seen 'The Romans in Britain', and can confirm that the whole and only point of the play was to shock. It seemed to be trying to draw a parallel between Caesar's foray into Britain and the British in Northern Ireland. If there is one, I couldn't make out what it was. The homosexual rape was as vital to the plot as anything else in the play, which was total drivel.
    I think the wargaming equivalent was a competition game - 1000 points, my 100YW English against your Hittites, but with the English naked from the waist down.

    I do agree with you that the idea of wargaming certain conflicts transcends acceptable good taste, but also think that everyone has a different tolerance level. Personally I shudder at the thought of wargaming WWI, but there's lots of it about at the moment. I just wonder what the objective of the company producing ISIS figures might be if it's not just to shock. I mean, how many are they likely to sell?

    1. I bow to your superior knowledge of dodgy British theatre....

      I, too, have doubts about WW1 wargaming, but there is a lot of it about, due to the centenary. I do wonder if it becomes more acceptable the fewer people who remember it (but see Ruaridh's point below). In 100 years time or so, ISIS wargaming might be acceptable. Either that, or we'll all be living under a caliphate and wargaming will be banned.

      As I recall from the Agincourt campaign, weren't some of the English archer naked from the waist down anyway, through dysentery?

  2. All this talk of authenticity makes me want to do a Sartre, yell "RADICAL FREEDOM!" and just get on with the gaming that I enjoy! :)

    More seriously, I wonder if feeling the emotion and reality of the battle we are gaming would not turn most of us off wargaming. I stopped playing AK47 Republic when I became too aware within myself of the reality on which it was based. I dealt with that initially by making up imagi-nations with their own acceptable morality, but the reality of modern African wars crept in and made the game tasteless and no fun. On the other hand, I know veterans of modern wars who are more than happy to game those wars. I've mentioned the idea of catharsis and wargaming before. This may be that, or it may be honouring lost friends or a combination of both, or even just something else entirely.

    As far as wargames holding up a mirror to the times goes, it may be worth considering that much historical research is founded in the concerns of the times. It came as no surprise to me that the idea of Viking berserkers taking drugs was a central tenet of research into them in the late fifties and the sixties. Perhaps our gaming reflects our times in the same way, but it is only likely to become evident after the fact, when we have enough distance from the times to see them more clearly.

    1. There does seem to be an emerging theme of 'distance' between ourselves and the events we wargame. But the size of that distance has to different for each wargamer. My tasteless game might be your passion. I don't think we can define anything much more tightly than that.

      History does speak with today's voice, which is partly why there is so much focus on, say, Greek homosexuality (look, classical studies, they can't all have been homosexual, because otherwise the Greeks would have died out, OK?).

      I do still wonder how much our gaming might unconsciously mirror either the world, or the world as we would like it to be (or to have been). Perhaps WW1 gaming is hearkening back to days of Empire, power and clear right and wrong?

    2. I can certainly believe that there is an element of harking back to 'better' times in some colonial wargaming. Similarly, there can be elements of wanting to get the outcome right this time around. Wish fulfilment cannot be denied, and wishful thinking is often present in research for wargames, or so it seems to me when I read some of the posts on wargaming forums.

      WW1 gaming could be a case of harking back to Empire, but it can equally be a case of memorialising that past and the family members that endured it. The tastelessness or not of WW1 gaming has been discussed before on this blog, and, as was pointed out then, one's sense of its tastelessness could be a function of one's historical knowledge, as well as the myths with which one grew up.

      On a slightly different tack, I recall a large refight of the D-Day landings that happened some years back. The gamers said they were commemorating the landings, but a veteran of those landings was quoted as saying that their idea of commemoration was tasteless and offensive, while another veteran said he was pleased that people were remembering what he and his fellows went through. I'm not sure where that leaves the tastelessness issue, but it may have to do with how the individual perceived the events.

      Could we argue that taste is like fashion and that it changes with the times based on variables and modern concerns? If so, perhaps we should not consider taste but rather whether there is an ethical or moral imperative not to game particular wars. Are there any wars where you could objectively state that they were morally or ethically ungameable?

    3. I am sure that taste varies with a variety of things. something tasteless today could well be acceptable (if not regarded as tasteful) in ten years time or so. remember the first same sex kiss on Eastenders? Wildly controversial then, commonplace now.

      However, I have not really found a good moral / ethical reason for not wargaming anything. Some things are simply not games, such as Saddam using chemical weapons against the Kurds. These would be morally offensive, but they are also bad games (too one sided).

      The problem seems to be that if we say 'X is ethically unacceptable' we land up with deciding that most (if not all) wars contain X and must therefore not be played as well.

      So, for example if we argue that cavalry charging peasant rabble is unacceptable, then any war when that happened, for example where a routing unit was so charged, would be unacceptable. It might also rule out Agincourt, at least from the French point of view.

      I also have a vague suspicion that, in moral terms, wargames are simplified. I think we've discussed before the acceptability, to some gamers, of shooting civilians and so on. Even then, it might be arguable as to whether that is morally unacceptable, or just bad taste.

      As to harking back, I think it does happen but is not the overriding reason for gaming something. It does seem to depend more upon narrative interest, which itself is probably a function of context, history and interests. But this is getting more complicated.

    4. It sounds like you have more grist for your posting mill then. I agree that there are no simple answers, and that the tastelessness issue is relative to the individual, their philosophy and their life experience. Still, it is interesting to discuss.

    5. Aye, well, I think there is a bit of thinking still to do; most of the posts are thinking out loud. But I shall keep on posting to the crack of doom anyway...

    6. At least it is interesting thinking out loud! :)

    7. Good stuff, and yes, keep thinking out loud.

      As an extra aside regarding tastefulness of wargames. Many years ago, our club did a display game of the 1689 siege of Londonderry at Sheffield Triples. One visitor commented that we wouldn't have been able to show that game anywhere in Northern Ireland - after 300 years, it was still too close to home to be good taste.