Saturday 11 November 2023

The Scope of Wargame Ethics

Quite a long time ago I had a run of posts on the ethics of wargaming. I am not sure that I came to any useful conclusion, but the thought has returned to my head after a recent post on the Palouse Wargaming Journal. I do not wish to recount the content of the post (you can, and should, read it for yourself) but, in summary, it is about the Eastern Front in World War Two and whether, for example, a board wargame should incorporate elements of the Holocaust, diverting units to round up Jews, and other rear area activities like executing partisans, whole villages and anyone who got it the way.

The subsequent discussion is also interesting, and I will not try to summarise it here, either. In a sense there is no ethical question here: it is a matter of historical accuracy and whether we view the Wehrmacht as being ‘clean’ or not, that is, whether the German army was involved in the atrocities or ignorant of them, or simply decided that it was none of its business. That too is a historiographical minefield as, as the Cold War developed, interest grew in the means of German resistance to Soviet tactics, and some of the participants could get their memoirs out and also attempt to whitewash themselves and their army.

Even without these difficulties, which are real, and the problems that most accounts of the Eastern Front are from a German perspective, simply because the said Cold War denied Soviet archives to historians, there is a bit of a non-ethical (I think) scoping issue here, at least as far as wargaming goes. As a comment notes as wargamers were have the usual historian’s problem – what is to be included and what ignored. We cannot include everything; we are creating a model of a historical situation. Including everything would be recreating the original which is not something we really wish to do.

The scoping problem is then what do we include. At, say, a squad level this might not be too hard a problem. To the question of whether the average German soldier was a Nazi in 1941, 1942, or whenever, the answer is that in a skirmish-level game, the specific ideology of a given solider might not matter too much, except that they may be, I suppose, more or less motivated by the cause.

At the other end of the spectrum, a campaign covering the whole of the war, the syphoning off of units onto other duties might matter quite a lot, both in terms of numbers available at the front and also in terms of suppressing partisan activity and achieving the political goals of the highest levels of command. Whether this was palatable or not is not at issue here (it was not and is not) but whether it should be represented and, if so, how.

There are no simple answers, I suspect. Ignoring the rear areas problem (a nice euphemism for mass murder, I know) might mean that we are ignoring, or at the very least, downplaying the slaughter and mayhem the German invasion brought. On the other hand including these items could be glorifying the very same thing, which is also an unpalatable outcome.

To an extent, these issues are usually ruled offside by wargamers. We know they happened, and we believe them to have been very, very, wrong, but we do not want these facts to get in the way of a good game. There might also be some interest in trying to work out how these two deeply unpleasant regimes fought each other and why one of them won. There are tactical and strategic points of interest to be examined and assessed and, to do so we have to make some compromises and exclusions elsewhere.

The question arises, therefore, if we rule that the rear area murdering is out of scope, are we then really creating a historical wargame of the Eastern Front in World War Two? Are we not, in fact, queering the pitch even by calling it the ‘Eastern’ Front, given that that implies a German-centric point of view?

Again, the question returns to scoping and what we think we need to include and what to leave out in order to create a playable and believable game. There may also be the issue that we would rather not, as nice Western liberals of the Twenty-First Century, no engage in the mass murder, pillage, and rape that the armies engaged in. As I noted before all my wargame armies are well-behaved, pay cash upfront for their food and lodging, and never so much look at a local girl. I would like to wargame, not bog myself down in an ethical and historical quagmire.

Therefore, most wargamers would prefer, I suspect, to ignore the rear area mayhem. If any cognisance is taken of it, it is simply to reduce front-line strength by so many troops who were deployed to other duties (another nice euphemism, well done – ed). We simply rule such activities out of court, or at least out of our wargame.

One way of conceptualising ethical scope is to view it as a series of concentric circles. Innermost is ourselves and our nearest and dearest. Next are our broader families, neighbours, and communities. Then come other items of concern, such as nations, other people (those we do not know), those in far-flung places (relative to ourselves), and then other things such as animals, the environment, and such like. Part of the idea of considering our ethics and attitudes to to widen our ethical scope, to consider more of the items in the circles beyond the closest ones.

Possibly the original post and the questions it raises are related to this. As wargamers how far and how wide does our ethical scope go. We can retain a tight focus on the battle itself and ignore the political, social, and other ramifications of the conflict, or we can, perhaps over time, widen our ethical concerns for what these activities meant in the real world.

I am not sure there is a final answer to that. It might depend quite a lot on who we are and how we are engaging at the time. After all, as wargamers, we want wargames, not historiographical and ethical mazes to navigate.


  1. Thoughtful post as always. Thanks, Aaron

    1. Thank you. It raises interesting issues which still need some thought.

  2. This is really an excellent follow-up and extension to the discussion you linked to above. As I watched the GUWS presentation, later recounted a brief summary in my blog post, and then finally engaged with the commentators, many of the thoughts you bring forth here were turning over in my mind.

    It is good to look at our hobby with an outside eye from time to time.

    I appreciate your interest in this topic. Thank you.

    1. Thank you, Jonathon. It is an interesting topic, and to see what non-wargamers see can sometimes bring us up short as to what we are actually representing and how. On the other hand, wargaming is a game and we don't want to handcuff ourselves to strictly ethical warfare, because there isn't any...

  3. Yes, it is an interesting hypothetical exercise but it's not something I ever really worry about too much. At the level of all my gaming, the impact of troops diverted to (insert euphemism here) isn't really relevant - they just aren't there!
    28mm figure manufacturers (and other scales no doubt) make French, Russian, Yugoslavian and other resistance fighter figures, presumably to pit against German or other Axis troops, but as I said in my comment to Jon re the holocaust, I could play a game where SS or Wehrmacht troops fought against a partisan ambush without then playing a follow up where the Germans rounded up and shot 100 villagers in reprisal.
    If we are going to take these kinds of situations into consideration, they can be extended back through the entire history of warfare - there were massacres of civilians and innocents in the 30 years' war, during the Napoleonic wars in the Peninsula, in the middle and dark ages and right back through the Romans, Greeks and Persians etc. No one seems to worry about what the Roman legions were doing in the rear echelon areas while suppressing Vercingetorix or Boudicca, do they., or the implications for the local civilian population of a different Christian faith of the outcome of a battle between Gustavas Adolphus and Wallenstein.
    If you got too hung up on the ethics of any particular conflict, you might be forced to conclude, you should not play wargames at all and I for one won't ever be reaching that conclusion!

    1. Agreed - there is no ethical warfare for us to represent on the table. I suppose that everyone has to decide for themselves where their lines are to be drawn. Some wargamers, for example, will not play games set during recent events in Afghanistan. Some will.
      As I recall from the last time I thought about this it is mainly a matter of taste rather than ethical concern. Partisans vs Axis might be a good game, but if the task of one side is to execute the civilian population of a village and of the other to stop them then we may be veering into bad taste, at least, if not into an ethical problem.
      After all, it is only since the Nineteenth Century that laws of war have been enforceable. More recent conflicts have shown how little difference it makes in practice.