Friday, 9 August 2019

Further Contemplations on Gaming

Thinking about my previous off-the-cuff "rant" I realize that what drove it is something that has preoccupied me for a long time.  As a cultural and military historian by profession, I am conscious about the role that popular representations of warfare in the culture play in "militarizing" society.  A book like Chris Hedges War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning or Joanna Bourke's various books on violence should give us pause when we push around our models.  I know that we are normalizing warfare.  This is why I think it is important that we really consider what we are simulating and why and that our "games" should be somehow scholarly and taken somewhat (and I am very guarded here) seriously.

I know that this is raining on the parade.  I love this hobby and the people I share it with.  My friendships of 40+ years built around a table filled with toy soldiers are important to me.  They are thoughtful people of high moral standards.  I also think that they are aware of the moral problem of the hobby.  But when that miniature unit of soldiers flees, the hoots of victory obscure what that is simulating.

Recently I read a book about war representation in modern culture by Philip Beidler aptly titled Beautiful War: Studies in a Dreadful Fascination (2016).  In a chapter on ACW re-enactors and the making of the film Gettysburg, this US army veteran-scholar expressed his disdain at those who play at war and make it "beautiful" while expunging from their re-creation any of the horror of war.

Now, I know many former military personnel that play war-games.  I also know that some scholars see worth in the pursuit (Phil Sabin most notably -- many others keep it quiet and most military historians are professionally disdainful of it).  I suppose I hold onto the worth of the hobby for its many social, scholarly and entertaining attributes.  I also know that, as the conservative historian Martin van Creveld has asserted, war is a deeply engrained part of human activity.  It seems to be something that we do.  So examining it, in its many forms, is important.  But I would be lying if I didn't struggle with the issues noted above, while taking the game seriously enough (but not too seriously to over-blow its worth) to respect what is being represented.

I would love to read what others think......


  1. I sympathize somewhat with your thoughts and misgivings. When I started wargaming, I didn't play games that were set in WW2 or later, as I felt uncomfortable about the fact that I was playing a game, a mere amusement, about a horrendous conflict that was still quite real for many, many veterans.

    So my own personal ethos has been to mostly avoid games that are set within living memory.

    However, I would suggest that most historical wargamers are quite aware of what their games are based upon, and therefore are perhaps less likely to glorify the military, or at least be much more aware of the terrible cost and horrors of war. Most historical wargamers are interested in history, and usually are quite well read about such conflicts. I think that those that glorify war, are those that are ignorant of the true cost. Historical wargamers are, by and large, well aware of such facts.

    True, we do make a "game" of it, and a bit less abstractly than chess (although I do wonder about some rules; they sometimes have a pretty thin veneer of history!) but as you imply, most of us are reasoned, intelligent men, and are fully aware that of the oft repeated observation that lead soldiers only leave lead widows. By being aware of the vast gulf between reality (or the written reflection of it) and the tabletop, I believe wargamers are quite unlikely to normalize warfare.

    Miniature Wargaming is far from the only pastime that seeks to "simulate" warfare. Movies, books, role playing games, board games, video games, and paintball are all recreational activities that seek to amuse us by portraying the simulation of warfare as a game. Yet, I think, miniature wargaming is the only hobby of those listed (with the possible exception of board gaming) that requires a player to learn, and read, of the period he is interested in playing, and therefore is probably the least likely to be ignorant of what our little lead soldiers represent.

  2. Excellent observations, Tony, and ones I share. The engagement required to play a war-game, especially one that is not "out of the box," can be enormous. Researching, collecting, painting, learning rules etc. must generally result in a significant contemplation about what is being simulated.

    Thanks for the comments!

  3. As a miniatures and board war gamer for nearly 50 years (Gulp, I started "officially" when I was 10 yrs old.... dang, I'm getting old) plus a combat vet and retiree with twenty nine years of service, I agree with much of what Tony says. In addition, I must disagree with Mr. Beidler's opinions on Civil War reenactors as it appears that he made little attempt at understanding how and why most reenactors are drawn to that hobby. His conclusions are I'll founded. On a salient point, most people who would denounce our hobby have little to no understanding of what it is we do and why we do it.
    I will admit that after my deployment during the Invasion of Iraq in 2003, I was at first hesitant to game anything on the War on Terror. That changed quickly however when I remembered how I was running a micro armor game on another unit's action only a few months after my first combat tour in Desert Storm only twelve years prior. I've lost friends in combat and been under fire multiple times myself so I fully appreciate and understand the horror of war and the respect those that served in combat deserve. When I play a wargame, I'm not looking at reliving or reveling in the ugly facets of war but rather simulating to some degree the mental challenges a warrior or leader might face in combat and then overcome those challenges and hopefully prevail over my opponent in a friendly competition. Furthermore, there is nothing wrong with enjoying those challenges and interacting with like minded people in a friendly fashion. I believe part of the misperception comes from those who are completely ignorant of our hobby and misreading our camaraderie and enthusiasm instead as a love for war. Anyway, I hope this helps.

  4. Hi Vincent, Thank you so much for your comments. I agree that many people look at what we do with suspicion or dismiss it as silly men (usually) playing games. But I also believe that too many gamers emphasize just that, the game, and do not wrestle with what is being simulated. Having discussions like these is important, I think. War-games can be profoundly educational and thought provoking. But there has to be a deliberate effort to make them such. The comments of my post flowed from a previous post about our hobby going too much in the direction of vanilla "simple" games. These are surely fun, but war is far from simple. While I am totally onboard with streamlining mechanics to move the game narrative forward, considering the specific characteristics and cultures of war in our games forces us to think more deeply about what we are playing. If everything turns into Lion Rampant (a great game, BTW) our games of history then fail to represent anything much other than killing. Now, this is not to say that players who use the Lion Rampant system are not reading history and contemplating the realities they are representing. I know people who use the engine (and its variants) to make sophisticated scenarios of historical merit. But I fear that many are not.

    Fortunately for me I have not lived war. What I am representing in my war-games are decisions limited by systems and doctrines and put into historical scenarios. But clearly, the doctrines lead to combat which we should know is brutal. Reminding ourselves of this seems like a good idea in a culture that makes war too often an accepted norm and entertainment. The next Star Wars movie is coming soon to a theatre near you.