Saturday 2 December 2017

Unintended Amusement

Occasionally, out in the Internet and associated social media platforms, most of which I avoid like the plague, one can come across the odd gem that just, simply, tickles one's humour buds. Admittedly, this does not happen very often, and it happens even less often in wargaming circles. Wargamers appear to be a fairly serious bunch. We take our pleasures without smiling, on the whole.

Still, sometimes some of the stuff I write and post, and a few people read, gets posted by some kindly soul, to the ‘Utter Drivel’ message board on The Miniatures Page. Now, I do not, in general, read TMP, although I did have a very, very, peripheral hand in setting it up in the early days. I certainly do not frequent its message boards. On the occasions I have looked, it has reminded of nothing but the flame wars which used to characterise most of the old Usenet news group.

Anyway, I can see in the statistics for the blog when a link to it has been posted, and I usually drop in to see what it is and what a different set of people think of my deathless prose. It does not particularly bother me one way of the other, of course. I have seen and heard of enough abuse on the internet to know that, unless it is illegal, it should be ignored.

A few weeks ago I blogged about ‘Method in Wargaming’, and it sparked a degree of interest in the comments, and also got a link posted to the ‘Utter Drivel’ site. Part of what was posted included the sentence

“About half of my occupation is doing fairly silly things with reading stuff around education, theology, science and philosophy.”

This actually elicited very little response, but one comment did nearly make me fall off my chair laughing, and alarmed my colleagues at work (for it was my lunch hour). The comment, in full is:

“The guy needs to read about Science, requires definitive assumptions and data. Only sad folk can usefully comment on things they don't understand. Try making useful comments on napolinic drill without understanding drill manuals or studying human capabilities.”

I could, of course, make comment on the English, spelling, capitalisation and grammar of the post, but that is not what amused me. Unfortunately, we have had to become used to the poverty of modern means of expression and accuracy of the written word.

What made me laugh, and out loud too, was the non-sequitur, suggesting that I need to read about science (I beg your pardon, ‘Science’) when the sentence quoted quite clearly states that I was reading about the subject.  Furthermore, I reflected that perhaps I need to contact my alma mater and ask if they wish to rescind my first degree and PhD in physics. Or maybe I simply need to reassure the clueless poster that I do know something about science, have read more science than you can shake a stick at, a fair bit of philosophy of science to boot, and that science does not consist of ‘definitive assumptions and data’. Only people, believing something called ‘scientism’ as a matter of abuse, think that. It is a view which is heavily popularised but largely ignored in academic circles, and in fact should have died out no later than the 1960’s.

I have spent, perhaps, rather a large number of words over a trivial incident on a trivial forum over a trivial blog in a small, un-regarded corner of the Internet. It did amuse me for a few seconds, and probably only did so because it rather tickled my sense of the absurd. But I suspect there might be something a bit deeper going on, which does affect historical wargaming.

I find, in my teaching work, that people are finding it harder and harder to understand text. Now, we all come to texts with our prejudices intact, and that means that we read a text in a certain way. In this case the text could be anything – a historical source, a secondary source, a set of wargame rules. For example, when Polemos: ECW came out we discovered that people were rallying routed troops, and doing so, under the rules as they read them, very easily. Unfortunately, this was read-through from other rule sets where it is perfectly possible to rally the routed. It is just that in PM: ECW you cannot do it. Somehow, people read the text they think is there, not what is in front of them.

Science has mostly captured the moral high ground of knowledge. ‘Scientists have found…’ is a sentence which often starts a news story. Yet science is an interpretative scheme or, if you will, a certain way of talking about the world – a small part of the world, in fact. Other forms of knowledge are still possible, including historical knowledge and knowledge of wargame rules. It is just that, too often, our pre-judgements about what is there get in the way. This, too, happens in science, where a given interpretative scheme is pressed beyond its limits until it collapses, but the scientists who have worked upon it refuse to believe the evidence of collapse presented. Scientists can even adjust, invent or modify their results to prove their point. It is a human activity with the usual human flaws attached.

The point is that nothing in human knowledge, broadly defined, is that certain. Hypotheses in science are universally under-determined. Nothing, in fact, can be tested exhaustively. Similarly in history the next document might be the one that shows that King Arthur defeated the Norman invasion in 1066 and reigned in secret for decades, or indeed that England has been invaded successfully many times since 1066. Historical hypotheses are, perhaps, a bit flakier than some scientific ones, but all human knowledge is contingent, everything we think we know might be wrong and (in fact) quite a lot of it is.

This has, sadly, become quite a serious post. The upshot is that no set of wargame rules is ever going to be definitive. I suspect that we already knew that. The other outcome is a plea for careful reading. We all make mistakes, but in the age of the Internet we can parade our ignorance in public and that is probably not a great thing to do, in general.


  1. I avoid TMP these days. It's become a toxic place dominated by anti-intellectualism, in my experience. The respondent you mention is a fairly typical example of what I have experienced in other areas of TMP. Sad!

    On the rules front, and in reading generally, I totally agree. People read things that are not there, because they expect them to be present, or misread them because they expect them to be other than they are. This has led to some 'interesting' discussions about the rules over the wargames table in the past.

    1. Of course, discussions over the wargames table could be between two different misreadings of the rules.

      'The rules mean what they say and say what they mean.' Phil Barker, I think, but the problem is that no language actually expresses the author's intention.

    2. And this returns to the theme of the rules and the progress of the game as dialectic.

      I find it amusing that Phil Barker wrote that, given that the example of an 'interesting' discussion that I was thinking of related to the interpretation of a rule about recoiling in DBM and which units had to.

    3. A lot of the 'discussion' on the old DBM list did seem to turn around millimetrics and who you could wipe out by recoiling them into another base.

      Funnily enough, the best players seemed to concentrate on winning games, not measuring sub-millimetres.

  2. I don't know whether to shake my head sadly in agreement, smack my forehead multiple times in frustration, or emit a silent scream to the heavens as I run laughing maniacally and naked into midday foot traffic in a large city center somewhere. The ability of people of all ages to misread/misunderstand "texts" in the broadest sense is astounding.

    Best Regards,


    1. I think you should do all of them, but can we have video, please.

      I am not above criticism - I have misread some rules for years and, sometime, ignored the fact that I have read them correctly because the other way feels more natural by then.

      Strange thing, the human mind.

    2. I am reminded that for 20 years I played one of the rules relating to Russian commissars in Advanced Squad Leader incorrectly. I only realised my error fairly recently when teaching a friend to play. Doh! At least I shall not forget that rule now.

    3. I think a nice lie down in a darkened room might help....

  3. This has, seriously, become quite a sad post. But well done you, anyway.