Saturday 11 April 2015

Disciplining Wargames

It is interesting, from time to time, to consider what wargames might be, if things had developed differently. This might appear to be a rather pointless exercise, but the history of wargaming is as contingent as anything else, and presumably therefore could have turned out differently.

Of course, fundamentally, wargaming would have been rather different if warfare, particularly western warfare had been different. If, for example, the highest point of western warfare had been something like the Flower Wars of Central America, then we would not be frantically painting up hordes of Napoleonic infantry for our Waterloo anniversary games. We might be carefully finishing our exquisite figures of Wellington, Blucher and Napoleon for the re-enactment of the show down a La Haye Saint, and perhaps adding in a few spectators, but aside from that we could not be worrying about the mass.

There is also the issue, I suppose, that wargaming, as a human activity, has all the advantages and disadvantages of the nature of human activities. If you look around the world, you will see that society, and the different bits of it, organise themselves in distinct patterns, and these patterns often reproduce themselves.

For example, I pay taxes. I do not much like doing so, but I do so because if I do not I will be punished. My society does not tolerate people who do not pay taxes (unless I have clever accountants and lawyers employed to help me avoid taxation liability.  In which case the rulers tend to wink at it because they are doing the same thing.) I am disciplined into paying up; more so, I am, in fact, paying up even before I see the money, because my employers kindly remove it from me before I see it. Again, if they do not do that, and I do not declare my income, we would probably all land up in prison.

And that is part of the point, of course. If no-one paid taxes, the government which demanded the tax could not, in fact, put everyone in prison. After all, there would be no money to build and staff prisons, and no staff anyway as they, too, would be of the criminal fraternity at that point. Given that there would be no health services, education, mass media and so on, it is probably as well that this does not happen, but the point it that we collude, consciously or not, with the prevailing culture. We have been trained or disciplined to do this.

In a democracy, of course, this is all well and good. The defence that the government cannot spend my taxes responsibly is only a partial one. Various people have tried, for example, withholding part of their taxes on the grounds that they disagree with government policy over, say, nuclear weapons. The courts have not upheld these cases. Where self-discipline fails (or, worse, people start to think for themselves) punishment steps in. To add insult to injury, the people still have to pay, even when they are let out of prison.

By now, I expect that you are starting to wonder what all this has to do with wargaming. Possibly you will have spotted the link already, but I shall try to be explicit. The same sort of thing happens in wargaming, although obviously without the punishment associated with the judicial system. Nevertheless, we are still disciplined, consciously or not, by the wargaming system.

A minor example of this might be role playing games. Now, many wargamers are, or have been, role players, but not that many actually admit it. RPGs appeared in the 1970’s and were deemed to be insufficiently wargaming for many wargamers and their clubs. Role playing was banished to back rooms or out of the clubs entirely. It developed its own culture, and probably started to discipline its own members in a similar sort of way. The role players learnt that their sort of behaviour was not acceptable in serious wargaming circles. Many wargamers who have or still do play RPGs simply keep quiet about it.

I am not saying, of course, that there is no overlap. Wargames do pinch ideas from RPGs and vice versa. I know of Flashing Blades campaigns which have landed up with big battles fought out as formal wargames. Often, role playing lands up with the individuals engaged in far bigger actions than RPGs can cope with. A change of scale is required. Similarly, wargames are often focussed on specific individuals, be they commanders, a particular squad, of whatever. While we, as humans, like our categories, the boundaries are a lot more fluid than we give credit for.

Be that as it may, there are still accepted norms within wargaming which we have to work within. We need figures, and rules, and dice, and measuring devices. If we try to create a wargame outside of these things, we are probably no-longer recognised as wargaming. The activity defines itself as having these things, and not having them is exclusive. By the mere fact of its existence and the activities associated with it, wargaming disciplines itself. It has no power to punish (except, perhaps, by ridicule), but it does know what wargaming is and what it is not, even though there are some grey areas.

As an individual wargamer, then, I self-identify with the activity of wargaming, which is determined by the activities of painting toy soldiers, reading military history, and playing games designed, roughly, to represent that history. Stepping outside the accepted norms is usually no longer accepted as wargaming. There are some exceptions, of course. Innovations do count, and take time to be accepted. A couple of decades ago, for example, 6mm figures were only vaguely on the fringes, except for micro-armour. These days, they are much more accepted, although not totally so. The point is that these things come into the culture, and can be accepted or not.

As I might have mentioned before, there is no overall locus of control or power within wargaming. But I think the point of the ramble above is that there does not have to be. We are trained to discipline ourselves within the hobby. And if we step outside it, we cease to be wargamers.


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  2. Fascinating. A key word in there is "acceptance" - social or fashionable, acceptance is very similar in effect to legal enforcement, since non-acceptance is a form of punishment. I have been on the receiving end of a fair amount of disapproval over the years for not going about wargaming in the generally accepted way - my use of hex grids, simplified rules, bloody-mindedly sticking with defunct 20mm scales - all that. It is very easy to find you are doing it wrong. There is a tangible defensiveness about what doing it right is held to be at any moment - the geeks like to strike some form of community direction - there is a fair amount of hysteria discernible from time to time for or against DBA, Warhammer, whatever. It's about belonging. The need to belong is particularly important in a community which at heart is worried about how weird it might look from the outside. We know we are strange as wargamers, but look how many of us there are (fnarr fnarr). That boy over there isn't the same as us, so let's make fun of him, to take the attention away from what kind of oddballs we are in the first place. Etc.

    For some reason, this reminds me of the age old issue of fashions in school uniform. I am old enough as a parent to have been through a number of iterations of the old argument that school uniform is an imposition on the individuality of the kids, it has a whiff of the paramilitary - all that. The fact that schoolchildren can be seen to behave more appropriately when they are dressed as schoolchilden (i.e. in uniform) is ignored - the counter argument is that the kids must be able to wear what they want - within reason. Left to themselves, of course, the kids will institute an unofficial uniform of their own, and they do it by rejecting anyone who does not conform. Addition of marketing influences and label competition makes the whole thing even more expensive and less practical than a conventional school uniform would have been. What have we achieved? - we've replaced one set of regulations with an unofficial set which are just as restrictive but less sensible.

    The relevance is maybe getting a bit strained at this point, but my point might be that us big children who fight wargames are keen to apply fashions (rules, periods) and labels (DBA, Perry, GW) in just this way to ensure that we fit in, to comfort ourselves that we belong, that we are doing it right.

    1. It does seem that there is a human tendency to the moral panic. I suspect we saw gentle versions of this with RPGs, DBA and the GW stuff. There is a tendency to rush around shouting 'this is the beginning of the end' when something happens that we are not sure about. In education, this has been most recently about the "Google generation". How dare students look stuff up on the internet? It must be stopped etc.

      perhaps all we mean is that they should suffer as we did.

      As to wargaming, like anything else, it goes in fashions, and does become more diverse over the years, I think. And it is very easy to identify those who are not us (nearly us, but not us) and pick on them, rather than, say, on knitting circles, who are definitely 'other' but about whom we care little (and they for us, unless anyone is knitting toy soldier cosies).

      Doing it 'right' is interesting and something I struggle with. But what do we mean by 'right'. I feel another post coming on.

    2. Ref knitting circles - let's not be hasty here - see

    3. I like the idea of wargamers stomping around their living rooms with those on, making 'bang, bang' noises and arguing about who is dead...

  3. Some excellent points here.
    Also useful to see your reference to RPGs. I've recently been reading Jon Peterson's 'Playing at the World', where the development of D&D from wargaming in the 70s is examined in great detail. I think we see both points of view even then - the stuffy dyed in the wool wargamers vs the guys who want to try something new, though then it was D&D.

    Fast forward t today, where I have been publicly told that 'I am not doing it right' when I try some new rule or way of doing things. There is a visibly tribal aspect to almost all human endeavour, and wargaming is not exempt of course.

    What I did see in Peterson's book however, in the era before GW and the 'buy in' that many of the more commercial games expect of their players (buyers), was the degree of experimentation that was both 'in the air' and positively fostered by certain clubs. I think the 'old school' style rules made this happen to a large degree. Rules were hand crafted 'cottage industry' style affairs, with comments and adaptations the 'rule' rather than the exception.

    Business and competition (both GW and DBM to an extent) has turned that focus off to a large extent, and there are far fewer 'tabletop historians' - their numbers slowly dwindling in the face of the 'shiny model masses'.

    I get shot down for instance for considering boardgame (hex and chit) mechanisms when I tinker with rules, but that's where wargaming started, and really - with their emphasis on historical research - where we should be now. It's sad that we aren't, but that won't stop me 'doing it wrong' in the face of adversity. It's our hobby, and deep down, we know what we're doing is right in terms of our own enjoyment and the knowledge and results that we get back. I'd rather have that any day, than be forced to buy the next army, faction or codex, because some half assed entrepreneur tells me to.

    (I love this blog by the way. Please keep posting.)

    1. It is amazing how often we are willing to criticise the 'other', something we do not really understand. Mind you, I remember an edition of Battle in the 1970's which had a great deal about RPGs. it must have been before everyone fell out.

      Commercialism is an apparently inevitable part of the modern world. I'm not sure how much wargaming beyond GW is commercial. I've not exactly got rich from writing rules and most manufacturers seem to do it for love rather than profit.

      I think innovation still happens, but there is a much larger core base of rule users for whom change is strange and unwelcome. And part of feeling that we are doing it right could be related to feelings of community with other gamers.

      But now I seem to be making this even more complex, so I shall stop.

  4. Another interesting post. There is huge and sometimes debilitating debate in boardwargaming circles (or at least the internet version of those circles) around what constitutes a wargame as opposed to a war-themed '.game, a conflict-simulation, an 'Ameritrash' game etc, etc. I've not seen that same level of legalism or acrimony amongst miniatures gamers on similar grounds of 'wargame or not'. I guess it must happen, but not in my experience, thankfully.

    1. I suspect that a miniature wargame might be easier to define than a board one, and so there are fewer arguments over whether a game counts or not. but there are few things that, ultimately, determined humans cannot argue over.

      Mind you, I've no idea what an 'Ameritrash' game might be.

  5. Not sure how much of this is cross ocean cultural differences and how much just me and maybe being too isolated but I'm trying hard to think of a friend who just does historical miniatures as opposed to some mix of minatures historical or not, board wargames, computer games, RPG's, matrix games, etc. Haven't been able to think of any. Still I do see the pressure to conform to various standards on line and in magazines.

    As an irrelevant aside, having learned my hobby from books by Featherstone et al, to me, Wargaming was miniatures on a table top. When a wargames club was formed at college I was a bit put out to be told that wargaming was done with counters on a map, that board games were things like Monopoly and din't include wargames and that playing with miniatures or toy soldiers didn't really count as wargames at all. Had to recruit more people and take over the club to get that fixed.....

    1. I'm not sure how many people would be a single game type player. Lots seem to cross over, but we do seem to categorize. I wonder if we do this internally?

      Usually by going to play soldiers I am either writing blog posts, painting toys or conducting a wargame. But I might be running a map based campaign game, trying to figure out how to use campaign management software, or, as DF says somewhere 'pondering the movements of red's left wing'.

      All of this is wargaming as I construe it. But others might construct it differently. If you can fix it as you did by recruiting like minds, that is all to the best. Too often we just argue over it (perhaps the internet encourages that).

  6. Interesting post about 'othering' each other. I wonder if this means that we define ourselves more by what we are not than by what we are. I've seen the sneering and snide remarks at clubs and online and find it beyond the bounds of good taste, but I play all sorts of games. Fortunately my regular gaming partner is more about the rolling dice and talking shite than about the specifics of the game, so we are alright.

    1. I think that 'othering' is fundamental, as is the real distance between the other and ourselves. After all, most Protestant churches fall out with other Protestant churches, not really with the Roman Catholics. the bitterest fights are with those nearest to us.