Saturday 31 March 2018

Maps of Wargamer’s Minds

‘Geography’, the old graffiti joke goes, ‘is everywhere.’ From my position on the edge of academia, in the “modern” neo-liberal university, the Department of Geography is the one which is aiming for hegemony. There seems rather little that Geography does not cover. From my school days, geography was a fairly innocuous subject to do with maps, climate and why tea plantations were not found in Scotland. Today it is a bewildering array of intertwined subjects relating to everything from philosophy to madness (some people would argue that these are fairly close together anyway), including some fairly mysterious forms such as health, social and cultural geography.

A few days ago I was trying out a new toy which our institutional librarians are very proud of. It is one of those integrator sorts of things which searches more or less everything. It was launched with a massive fanfare a year or two ago, and has just been made to work reasonably properly (although for my money it still has annoying ‘features’). In an idle moment I typed ‘war game’ into it, and had a look at what was returned.

Inevitably, there was a load of stuff on how games of various sorts are used by the military-industrial complex to prepare itself for the next round of proving how vital it is to the survival of humankind. There was also a fair bit of stuff on non-military wargames in the business community, proving to themselves how vital their activities are to the neo-liberal capitalist project they are already committed to (and commit the rest of us to; don’t get me started). In desperation I added to word ‘hobby’ to my search. This brought the numbers down to the easily manageable less than sixty, but also turned up an interesting paper:

Yarwood, R., 'Miniaturisation and the Representation of Military Geographies in Recreational Wargaming', Social & Cultural Geography 16, no. 6 (2015), 654-674.

I thought this was worth a look, and so, in time honoured fashion I downloaded and printed it (I find reading on a screen rather trying after a while, particularly for academic stuff). I hope that the journal in which the paper was published explains the link between the first paragraph and the rest, by the way.

There is, apparently, some interesting work on miniaturisation which has been done. Miniaturising a scene gives the observer a degree of power after it. Yarwood cites, among others, the Siborne model of Waterloo, an enormous panorama of the battle. It looks and feels convincing. We have power over the battle, an all seeing gaze, which the participants did not. However, Wellington insisted that the Prussians were not represented. The discourse was that Waterloo was a British victory. The model represents but distorts reality.

In a similar way, Yarwood argues, models of ships and planes celebrate technology and industrialisation. The model is shaped by political and economic factors which shape both it (as, say, a mass produced Airfix model) and the original. Reality is presented by the model in a semi-detached (at least) way.

On the other hand, model making, such as building kits or painting toy soldiers, is a craft. The power of a model is only realised through someone doing something with it, be that looking at it, painting it or playing with it. The artisan imbues the model with their own self. A quick browse of assorted modelling and wargaming blogs will verify this to the reader (aside from this one, of course. If I imbue my models with anything, it is the characteristic that I am not very good at painting them).  

Playing with a miniature animates it and creates a new world. The imagination is reinforced by the three-dimensionality of the model. In play, space is transformed. A wargame is a miniature, separated world which is still linked to the wargamer and their ‘real’ world, but is different to it. Playing with miniatures can bring new understandings and experiences. The question arises as to what these new meanings might be rooted in, and how they reflect the wargamer’s own perceptions of the world, both as physical geography and as mental geography, political, economic and technological realities.

I have not enough room to do justice to the paper in a single post, so I shall have to continue with this summary and discussion next time. However, the next point Yarwood makes is a kind of interesting one, so I shall finish with that. Yarwood observes that there is a fairly long tradition of using games in military training. There are thus two sorts of linked wargame – one driven by the military and one by recreation.

Simulation of war has been undertaken at least since the inception of Kriegspeil in the nineteenth century. These sorts of thing also get scaled up, so the military uses life sized built up areas and real actors to generate ‘realistic’ war games as training exercises. Sometimes the distinction between a training exercise for the military and a game for recreation has become blurred. Some authors refer to a ‘military – industrial – media – entertainment’ network, where film, game, war reporting and training exercise blur. Insofar as this might actually take place, civilians are ‘recruited’ to the military; indeed, occasionally this might happen in real life, even though war is not a video game (except, perhaps, in the hands of drone controllers).

Miniature wargames have largely been ignored by the military. They have developed, largely, from playing with toy soldiers and do not have the same sorts of hang-ups as the military might do over accuracy, authenticity and, of course, contemporary relevance. Yarwood does note later on that some of the foundational figures in miniature wargaming were soldiers on active service and that, perhaps, wargaming was a form of catharsis for them. Thus, for this academic interest, that of examining a miniature world and its imaginative interactions and performances, unlimited by the boundaries imposed by makers of game software or the exigencies of the military-industrial-media-entertainment network, miniature wargames are, perhaps, a purer form of imaginative world and thus worthy of study in and of themselves.

Still, there is more to come, hopefully next week, unless the MIME network have got me.


  1. Thanks for the reference I found this very interesting

  2. Found a copy of the article- I look forward to reading it.

    Thanks for highlighting it.



  3. Very interesting and thought provoking. At least we are supposed to have fun playing miniature wargames, a lucky thing as we do.

  4. Agreed! I'm going to track down a pdf of this article too.

    Best REgards,


  5. Interesting blog article especially in view of the recent MOD pdf book on the use of wargaming in staff training shared by Bob Cordery. I think there is a string Borrowers sense of imaginatively bringing these figures to life in many miniatures games including RPG games.
    There is an excellent book on the Siborne Waterloo Model called Wellingtons Smallest Victory by Peter Hofschroer (who used to write for Miniature Wargames 1980s?) The ageing Wellington dies not come out of it too well.

  6. Where might one find a copy of this article without paying $42USD for 24 hours' access?

    1. Probably at your local university library or by document delivery service from your local public library (should you have either of these left). Finding a friendly librarian is often a good idea - they have all sorts of ways of getting people stuff.