For my sins, which must be very many, I have been doing a little reading on deconstruction. As I am sure that you all know, deconstruction is broadly associated with the French thinker Derrida. Despite Derrida’s claims to the contrary, it is true that deconstruction has become a major tool of literary criticism, and its influence has been a bit limited elsewhere. Partly, I think, this is because Derrida was French, and therefore widely ignored in Anglo-American philosophy. Further, I think, it is because he draws on a philosophical tradition which was (at least) not widely understood (or translated) in that Anglo-American tradition. Thirdly, it seems, a common understanding of deconstruction is that it, in fact, lands you up precisely where you were before, just more confused and with no map of where to go.
Those warning shots fired, I propose to consider what a simple (and simplistic – I am trying to avoid reading Derrida) approach to the languages involved in wargaming through a form of deconstruction might look like. Of course, in the confines of a blog post I can only hint at some of the issues, but I hope it might give an interesting view on some of the knotty problems that do lie beneath the surface of wargaming.
Firstly, we have to ask what sorts of language are there being used in a ‘wargame discourse’ (an ugly term, but I cannot think of a better one)? Off hand, I can identify three main ones: history, rules and narrative. Now, even in deconstruction these language do not need to be in competition, but the aim of deconstructing them is to see what power claims might be being made through privileging one or the other.
So first, we have history. Historical wargaming, obviously, and, I submit, other forms of wargaming not so obviously, are all reliant in some form on history. As I have said endlessly here, we, as wargamers, read a historical text, and we read it in a certain way. We are not too worried if, for example, the Marquis of Montrose started to write dodgy poetry at times of stress in his generalship. We simply want to know what he did, how good he was, how many men he had and how they were armed and organised. Nevertheless, there is a way in which the historical discourse controls wargaming. We privilege the language of history, because that is what happened and, therefore, in a wargame, that is what should happen.
Secondly, we have the language of the rule set. Each is different, of course, although they tend to overlap. The rule set discourse consists of things like definitions of units, ranges, time frames and so on, and defines the interactions between these things. Thus you can get a discourse of wargaming which has almost entirely abandoned, at least on the surface, any semblance of historical discourse. Thus we can hear (and I have heard it) “My irregular knights(I) will charge your Reg Ps(S)”. This is, of course, gibberish to anyone who does not also speak the language of the rules. It is also nonsense to anyone who is speaking a historical language. Irregular Kn(I) are, in fact, say, chariots. Within the model and discourse of the rules this nomenclature might make perfectly good sense, but not outside it. In this way we can see that different discourses within the wargame can compete. The rule set discourse language can, for some wargamers, out compete the historical discourse. Perhaps, in those circumstances, a historical wargame is no longer being played, as such.
Thirdly, there is the narrative language, that of the game itself. As I noted before, often this is formed in play by a series of speech-acts and actions – ‘My chariots will charge your skirmishers’. The outcomes, determined by the language and model of the rules, then determine the next set of speech-acts and actions. The wargame continues, with interconnected speech-acts and actions, until the end, the whole forming a narrative. The precise form of the narrative varies, of course. It can be informed by either of the other two languages. Usually they do not mix – we rarely get ‘My Kn(I) charge your skirmishers’. Perhaps our narratives actually reveal which of the other two discourses we are using, which we are thinking in terms of.
Deconstruction is not really used to make any advance. Part of its function is to reveal hidden ideological and political biases. Thus feminists can use deconstruction to reveal underlying male biases in our language and hence, since it is thought that language determines much of our thinking, underlying patriarchy in our thinking and thus in the structures of society.
My aims here are rather more modest than that, but I do think that there is an interest in stopping and considering that wargaming we see about us and the sorts of discourses involved. The discourses I have outlined are not, of course, exclusive, and the weight we give to them will, of course, very from time to time and game to game. I think, though, we can see how broadly wargames vary.
Firstly, you have the gamer that switches readily from one period to another without really worrying about any historical discourse associated with a given game. The game is the important thing. Such a player will be using the rules – narrative theme of the discourses of wargaming I have suggested above. Similarly, I suspect (although there will always be exceptions of course) tournament gamers will tend to land up in this strand.
Naturally, we can all land up as gaiter-button counters, and this might put us into the realm of the historical discourse, although often it simply lands us in a different world, that of pedantry and not being able to see the wood for the trees. Nevertheless, a second type of gamer we do see is the historical-narrative type, for whom the historical verisimilitude is more important than the exact execution of the rules. As regular readers of the blog might infer, I would tend to place myself in this category. What about you?
I think you've left out a discourse, the Romance narrative, probably closer to the History narrative but less concerned with history and rather more with the story line that emerges, what heroic units and characters emerged, what villains or cowards, what turns of fortune, what epic struggles, what missed opportunities, how did the players interact, what was the moment of crisis and what the resolution? Did it broadly adhere to the setting whether historical or fictional? Did it all hang together with brilliant highlights to make a good tale to be related over a pint decade later or were there jarring departures from the narrative or worse, was it boring or tedious?ReplyDelete
Yes, good point. I think the romantic view is widespread, as a sort of 'movie' view of the wargame, or with favourite units performing (or not) and so on. I suppose some of it might be akin to the gambler's fallacy as well - its got to happen because it is right in terms of story.Delete
Rather like RPG-ers who can't believe they don't roll a critical hit when they need it. But that is truly a romantic storyline.
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I had visions of triangles as a diagram with points for the discourses and explanatory text on how to plot your position as a wargamer within the triangle. A hangover from years ago when we had a manager who loved everything presented as a triangle. Then I got better.ReplyDelete
p.s History first, then narrative, then rules. I like Ross's Romance narrative discourse - that is probably me.
Ah, the joy of simple and simplistic managerial tropes. Shame the world is a bit more complex than that.Delete
With the romance thing, i keep thinking about Sellars and Yeatman's 'Cavaliers were wrong but wromantic, Roundheads right but repulsive....'
But it is probably just me.
Another interesting post. Thank you. I like Ross' suggestion of the Romance narrative, although I feel that it is more readily present in the playing rather than the reading of the rules.ReplyDelete
Regarding where I stand, I am not sure I can privilege one discourse over any other, although, upon reflection, it all has to start with the history, so perhaps that comes first. I like my historical rules sets to correspond to my sense of the history of the period. That requires the rules themselves to take account of history rather than being a generic set to which historical elements are bolted. The narrative of the rules then needs to reinforce the sense of history. Referring to Kn(I) punches a hole in the fourth wall, as it were, whereas stating that my personal retinue is charging the peasants in front of them does not. The romantic narrative follows after all this over tea and biscuits as we discuss the story that unfolded on the tabletop. I guess that does mean I think of history as the first step with the rules and the narrative discourse coming close behind.
Well, perhaps the romantic narrative is a bit of a post-wargame activity? maybe that is why I find it hard to engage with blogs with wargame reports on them, even with lots of photographs. Mind you, I think it does take some decent writing to make an after action report interesting to non-participants. Or perhaps I'm just odd.Delete
Interesting idea of the fourth wall in wargaming. The narrative can be suspended, but not punctured? I'll have to think about that a bit.
Surely any wall can be punctured. Its true that narratives can be and often are drawn from imagining the game afterwards but the best ones take place with an appropriate set of players who will subtly modify their actions/decisions to pursue a developing narrative mid game. The sort of thing where say a Commander has rolled dice that indicate that he will act cautiously (or boldly etc) often enough that the player will imbue the figure with those characteristics and avoid having him act rashly or boldly even when the rules/game/dice whatever would allow it. A form of roleplaying can enter in where it is not prescribed or intended. (In multiplayer games this can drive some team members crazy if they have a different approach)Delete
True; honest role playing can drive a lot of more rules discourse players crazy. It is the perfect antidote for munchkins, who think that role playing is gearing up with the biggest weapons and reducing everything to mincemeat.Delete
Usually it feels better to have lost for the right reasons rather than won for the wrong ones, unless you are said munchkin or someone for whom winning is everything.
For example in my 360 BC campaign, one of the kings of Sparta is in dispute with his colleague. he is right, but an unpleasant character, and his army deserted him. No battle. Was it a wargame? It was possibly true to life, truer than a hoplite shoving match to settle the outcome.
For us, there is certainly an element of role-play, but the romance narrative tends to come in both before and after the games. When we write the story up, we rationalise the actions after the fact. This then feeds into the next scenario, and we frequently have discussions about the state of affairs between our two nations, and what they are doing between games, so that we have a context for the next game. It wasn't always this way, but has evolved out of the banter as we invested more of ourselves in our forces.Delete
I guess this is a difference between more narrative / campaign oriented wargamers and the more pick up game wargamers. The former look for context, the latter for a game.Delete
Sometimes I think there is a 'ne'er the twain shall meet' aspect to this, even though most articles and many rule do try to describe context.
I suspect it is a spectrum. People can play and enjoy pick-up games at the local club (DBx being a classic example) while still focusing on the story for other games. How the gamer gets their games in probably affects this too. If you go down to the local club and play a different person each week, the story may never start. If you play solo or with only a small group, there may be a greater tendency towards the romance narrative. I wonder how true this is.Delete
I imagine that is correct; occasionally you do see a report about a pick up game with non-historical sides which can be interesting and can give the romantic view. But it does not seem to happen too often.Delete