Saturday 17 December 2016

Putting the History In

We forget, often, as wargamers, I suspect, that there is such a thing as history. I do not really think this is unique to wargamers, but it does happen quite frequently in wargaming. We can, and do, argue over whether, for example, the French Medieval Ordonnance army would triumph over the legions of first century Rome. Whether this is a sensible question or not is rather moot, but given that we can find the argument, it must be at least an intelligible question.

We are not alone. History is one of those strange things that pops up rather more often than we suppose, and can quietly modify our positions, or be modified by them. The spate of ‘false news’ planted during recent elections is a case in point. As George Orwell put it in 1984, he who controls the present controls the past, and he who controls the past controls the future. False news is an attempt to control the present. It is, in postmodernist terms, an attempt to make the present conform to how you would like it to be. Whether the item is true or false is irrelevant here; if we remake to world to our taste, the tool we use to manufacture it is not important.

Of course, over history, people have always attempted to make real their own beliefs and desires. Even in medieval times (referring back to Sumption’s Hundred Years War books) the various sides, at various times, issued manifestoes which they believed would bring all right thinking people onto their side. We, they say, are the true rulers of this or that territory, and our claim is just and based on these facts. That the other side could and did do the same was neither here nor there.

The historian, as I have said before, is thus faced with a ‘two frame’ problem. They have to understand the world viewa of the original protagonists, and then match that into language from their own world view. These things vary in space and time. History is always going to be written and rewritten. There is no such thing as a total, accurate and complete history.

Wargaming, of course, adds another frame to the pile. We view history in a certain way, through high politics, strategy, war, campaigns, battles, armies and generals. We add also other constraints, such as wargame figures, tables, dice and so on. Our view of a battle can be constrained by what we can place on a table, or represent in rules. If we are not careful with our history, the rules can become that history, the toys can be the actors, and we really do launch out into some sort of fantasy and alternate history.

There is nothing wrong with that per se, of course. But it is a good thing if we do at least recognise what we are doing. When we start to design our army according to a given army list, we are starting to flatten history out. Each army comes from a given context: a time, place, set of circumstances. When we reduce that to something like zero to six mounted knights, we are reducing that context to something else – a set of marks on a page, which only mean something in the context of a set of rules.

We have to do this sort of thing, to an extent at least, in order to cope with the sheer complexity of the past. I would defy anyone, at least in the English speaking world, to really get a grip on the history and politics of the German states in the medieval period. Some sort of simplification, if not case based study, has to be undertaken here. Otherwise we would be bewildered and unable to achieve anything, let alone a wargame.

Yet this very flattening of the historical complexity leads us, perhaps unwittingly, down the road of comparing legions with Medieval French. Once we do start to flatten out the contexts, the comparisons become easier. I start to compare, not one army with another, but one set of sorts of bases with another. Within the context of the rules the comparison is sensible, or at least intelligible. Within the context of history, of course, it is liable to be laughed at.

Wargamers, then, sometimes unwittingly, sometimes deliberately, flatten out the context of history. I do not really have a problem with that, so long as we realise what we are doing. If we want to have a game of Aztecs against Ming Chinese then there is no real issue: in this case, the game is the thing as we know that it is a game, at least as long as we have some idea about history and geography. When we start to lose that knowledge, we are probably heading into dubious waters.

The problem is, of course, that we cannot simply compare the battlefield performance of different armies from different periods or times. The Aztecs had a different view of what a battle or a war meant from the Ming (I imagine they did, anyway). The cultures from which the armies arose were different. They had differing world views. A battle, in short, meant different things. Who won could be less relevant than the meaning of the affair. Losing well could be, for example, more noble and therefore acceptable than winning by subterfuge.

As wargamers we are apt to forget these sorts of nuances. We could, in fact, be accused of clinging onto a classical world view, whereby there is one culture and everyone else is a barbarian. If they do not follow our rules, our precepts, our world view, then they should jolly well have it imposed upon them. We flatten out the cultures to our convenience. In wargaming terms, everyone gets treated like, say, Napoleonic British infantry, only more or less bad. The fact that the Aztecs would not have even recognised such a style of warfare is neither here nor there.

By our flattening out of history, therefore, we are imposing a kind of cultural imperialism on the past. It is made to conform to our rules, our expectations, our world view. We could argue that this is inevitable, and to an extent I would agree.  But it is only really acceptable when we recognise it for what it is.


  1. Yup. Define your frame. Acknowledge its limitations. Recognise that you are playing a game based on your frame, and not on history 'as it was'.

    Thanks for another good post that brings together various topics that have been discussed before. Does all this mean that we can now start talking about wargaming as an intersectional social science? :)

  2. "Who won could be less relevant than the meaning of the affair. Losing well could be, for example, more noble and therefore acceptable than winning by subterfuge."

    Even if true, how would/could we know this?

    1. To take one simplistic example, look at the ideals of heroic society in the early medieval period. Reading the literature gives us an idea about those ideals which include standing beside one's lord even after his death, and thus not retreating, and dying beside him. Write your game to allow victory points for doing this, and you have already weighted it in favour of the historical period. You can also look to law codes of the period and other written evidence that indicate how people viewed battle. It'll never be a perfect simulation, but you can certainly get a feel for the ideas of the time and apply them to your games. For the early medieval period, Halsall has written a bit about this (in 'Warfare and Society', I think) and others have addressed the issue too. For a more recent period, I am reminded of the WRG Moderns rules that we used in the eighties. They applied a -1000000 victory points penalty to the first person to use a battlefield nuke which seems appropriate given the fear of nuclear war at that time.

      The evidence is there for a lot of periods, and we just have to interpret it in game terms.

  3. I personally am pretty sceptical of such things - that one read across from heroic literature to actual battlefield behaviour. One might be able to prove that some warriors were more likely to conciously choose to stand by their lord's body after death than others for cultural reasons, but I'd need some persuading.

    1. That's fair enough, although I did state at the outset that it was a simplistic example. The literature represents the ideal, and, as Jesch noted, might be considered an instruction manual to teach young warriors what is expected of them. Reality usually does not live up to that, but you get a feel for what the period considered to be the ideal and that is your route into the mind-set of the past. Once you start doing that, you realise that the motivation for performing certain actions was not always the same as it is now, and that the mind-set of the past is quite alien to us now.

  4. My point being it isn't to my mind obviously more accurate than using a relatively universal model of combat, after you have weighted for training, situation and equipment and so on.

    1. I don't actually think you can come up with a universal model of combat that does justice to the different periods of history. Barker did it in DBx with his 'a warrior with a spear and shield is the same throughout history and so counts as a stand of Spears' and I was not convinced at all. More importantly for the original blog post though, I think the focus needs to be on victory conditions, and perhaps pre-battle actions that can influence the outcomes. Finding a way to model the ancient mind-set by setting out different ways of judging victory (taking heads, dying heroically, whatever) would be the key to addressing this aspect of the game. This is why I am very much in the camp of period-specific rules.

  5. "I don't actually think you can come up with a universal model of combat that does justice to the different periods of history. Barker did it in DBx with his 'a warrior with a spear and shield is the same throughout history and so counts as a stand of Spears' and I was not convinced at all"

    On this, I think I am extremely agnostic, at least in terms of the actual fighting. I just don't believe that the necessary work has been done to prove this one way or the other, particularly when looking at the specifics of actual combat. And it may simply be impossible.

    However, I think you are quite right about the importance of (very?) period-specifc detail in terms of organisation, command options, objectives and such-like.

    1. I totally agree. There's a definite issue with the lack of source material for the specifics of combat, despite some interesting experimental archaeology in that direction coming out of Denmark at the moment.

  6. Interesting, in all sorts of ways. The post wasn't meant to be a summarising of the last few, but probably turned out to be so.

    Anyway, the example I had in mind were the Meso-American 'Flower Wars' of the Aztecs and others. The meaning of the combat was very different from that of the battle, although some of the results could influence it, such as cowardice and losing a number of your elite troops.

    I suppose a similar sort of thing was the European joust, where, while death was an option, the really important thing was honour, glory, victory and political points scoring.
    While I'm not sure about the Aztecs, victory in a joust could point to whom God was favouring at the time, whose cause was just, even though war was not taking place.

    That is a very different mind-set from today, although I recall the Karpov - Kasparov world chess championship tournament in Iceland as a similar sort of thing - the free world versus the communist automata, even down to coded messages sent via the colour of the yogurt. God wasn't involved, I don't think, but glory, the victory for right thinking people everywhere and so on were.

    I am not entirely sure that we can draw a distinction very easily between the mechanics of fighting and the world view of the fighters. We can, however, guess as what the former might look like - there are only so many things you can do with a pointy stick, after all - and so we can make a stab (pun intended, of course, it is Christmas cracker season) at some rules for it, while the latter is much harder to define, let alone model.

    I'm reading some interesting stuff at the moment about who can legitimately interpret a text. While this is to do with the Bible and faith communities, and whether the former can be interpreted outside the latter, I think the problem carries over into historical texts and wargaming. Wargamers interpret texts in a certain way because of the community they live in, not because that is the way that the original authors or readers of the text would interpret them.

  7. I did think of the Flower Wars when you wrote the post. I was reminded of an old article in MW or WI about them. I remember it because the writer advocated making a little abacus with skulls/heads on to keep track of your victory points.

    We can certainly guess at the basic mechanics of individual combat. Re-enactment and experimental archaeology have something to say on this within certain limits.

    The point really with the technology is that unless you are playing a small-scale skirmish game, individual combat techniques are much less important than the cultural mode of employing them en masse. World-view and culture will dictate the unit tactics in this case.

    Who gets to legitimately interpret a text? That's a huge can of philosophical worms! It also returns us to the framing issue. There's so much I could write on the subject, but I'll save you that for now!

    1. I think the point about technology is true, but also that most sets of wargame rules focus more on what you can do with a pointy stick, rather than what your culture allows you to do with it (OK, OK, a very crude statement of the point). Thus wargame rules such as DB* claim that one man (or big group of men) with a pointy stick is the same as one centuries later. The point is that this bit is easy to model. the culture that forms the group of pointy-stick armed men is a lot more difficult, varies widely and, largely, inaccessible even to specialists in the period.

      But I guess you know that.

      As for text interpretation: yes, big can of worms and one that most wargamers, certainly, don't want to get involved in. If only Herodotus had written proper army lists, history would be some much more useful to us.

    2. That's a good point about the focus of wargames rules. Rules authors don't get much recompense for their work, as far as I know, so why not take the easier route when it's just for a game?

      I guess we've sorted out your next post now: interpreting texts. :) I'm quite interested to hear about who can legitimately interpret texts. What is the book you're reading about it?

    3. Someone once said to me 'you don't write wargame rules for money, you write them for poverty...' But I do think that it is hard to capture the worldview in a rule set written from another world view.

      I also think we might have stumbled upon a few posts for 2017; I doubt it will take one. the book is nicely obscure: Brian Brock, Singing the Ethos of God: On the Place of Christian Ethics in Scripture (Eeardmans, 2007). The first part is about how we can read the Bible at all - as text, as Scripture, and who can read it: as academic, as faith based, as faith community. So far, all the lines of reading have run into self-contradiction. My guess is that the author will have some different way forward in due course.

    4. Perhaps 'reflect' rather than 'capture'? If you can give a taste of it, then you are doing well.

      Thanks for the reference. That's another one for the book pile. There's a few books in my period that cover this topic, but seeing how others address the issue will be interesting.

    5. Yes, 'reflect' is better. more long windedly 'show the impact of culture on battles.' But that is a huge claim. Perhaps 'nod in the direction of showing the impact of culture on battles' would be better, but even longer.