Thursday, July 14, 2011

Wargames, politics and ethics #1: Ah, that old bugbear

Reality bites
They're just games, yes?
At some time or another, many wargamers will have found themselves pondering the political and/or ethical implications of their passion for revisiting the past, present and future battlefields of the world with their maps and little counters. This reflection leads some to create boundaries and/or preferences: periods they won't game, sides they always prefer to play, and so on. For me this began in my teenage-tankie youth, when I drew a boundary at 1945. My reasons for this were twofold:
  • In the late 70s and early 80s- with Thatcher and Reagan's 'second' Cold War at its height, modern warfare was too closely linked to the spectre of global thermonuclear holocaust for it to have any appeal to me.
  • I felt uncomfortable with the idea of playing games about wars the casualties of which would be actual people living in my own time.
I abandoned this boundary as I grew older. That's not to say that I 'grew out of it', because that would be to imply that there's something immature about the choice to draw and to exercise such boundaries. I've no wish to be so insulting to others who've made these choices.

Who's to say this
isn't a bridge?
No, for me the decision to abandon such boundaries was driven by much more personal imperatives of simple mental survival. That might sound grandiose but it's true. Y'see, in my early days as a student, I got into a conversation about philosophy – as you do – with a guy I met in a student flat. The end result was that I became a convinced strong sceptic; ie. I took seriously the notion that we can't take the evidence of our senses for granted, to the extent that I confronted the proposition that reality was essentially unknowable. This might sound like just another cockeyed bit of undergraduate Philosophy 101. It was. And so it would've remained but for the later emergence of the delusional phase of my bipolar disorder.

Dreams into nightmares
"Pass the dutchie..."
The dangerous confluence of this cod philosophy and my declining mental health began with another typical undergraduate mind game, this time about roleplaying. Following the ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi and his famous quote "I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man", we used to ask whether we were ourselves roleplaying our PCs, or our PCs roleplaying ourselves.

Apparently somewheres,
I have a readership
of millions!
I took this further, applying the question's method to my games of Squad Leader to ask whether I was just pushing around cardboard counters or actually giving orders to real men who were living and dying at my command. Once I'd thrown the many worlds interpretation of quantum theory into the mix, I was caught on the horns of a real dilemma: radical scepticism meant that I couldn't be sure that I was just pushing cardboard counters around on a map (or playing at being "a renegade ninja who has set out to destroy the evil that spawned him"); and the many worlds interpretation of quantum theory meant that the very act of asking if I was actually giving orders to real men on real battlefields meant that somewhere, I actually was.

Patent bollocks
At this point my survival instinct kicked in and common sense took over: strong scepticism was patent bollocks; Zhuangzi was just an poetic old dreamer; and the many worlds interpretation of quantum theory? Well that just has to be pseudoscience, doesn't it? With my maps and counters restored to their real status as cardboard tokens, I decided too to abandon completely my old boundary, which had become a bit porous in the intervening years in any case. This may seem an, erm, eccentric (yes, let's call it 'eccentric', eh?) way to introduce the topic of 'Wargames, politics and ethics'. I guess it is. I believe though that it serves one useful purpose in particular: it shows that no matter where I take this analysis, it's founded on a firm grasp of reality. Quite literally.

Back in black?
Sometimes you can't
help but wonder...
This frankly bizarre route to the formation of my personal outlook on the ethics of wargaming aside, readers will readily imagine the one subject above all which brought political and ethical questions about wargaming to the forefront of the minds of a group of pals in whose company I- as a long-time teenage-tankie and WW2 wargamer, felt right at home. That subject was all-too-familiar popularity of the Germans among WW2 gamers. And, naturally enough, that special fetish held by an uncomfortable number for the 'Übermensch' of the Waffen SS, with their inevitable legions of Tiger tanks. Our discussions in those Edinburgh days led us to the obvious conclusion: that some of these types were more than just a bit dodgy. Beyond that? We just mocked them for their historical inaccuracies

"They had the
better looking
All of which brings us almost right up to date. Early last December, someone started a thread on BGG's Wargames forum entitled 'WW2 SS Counter Colours' (observant readers who follow the link will notice that said thread now resides in the Religion, Sex, and Politics forum, whence it was consigned when the topic unsurprisingly strayed from the 'straight and narrow' of a discussion about wargame counters to the wider political issues of fascism). The OP was asking if-  in his 20-year hiatus from the hobby, wargaming had gone PC to avoid offending "Euro Wargamers", because SS counters in wargames are now grey instead of the "correct" black.

No, not that 'counter-culture'
PC gone mad?
It's not my purpose here to revisit that thread's discussion in any degree of detail, because I'm only referring to it to show that certain fundamental issues about the wargaming hobby are evidently every bit as live now as they were 30 years ago. For the sake of a taster though, its 344 posts across 2 months can be roughly summarised thus:
  • It's PC gone mad (I put my oar in on this issue).
  • Actually the Waffen SS didn't wear black uniforms, so black counters are ahistorical anyway (sounds familar).
  • They're just games, so you're dumb if black SS counters bother you.
  • War is brutal; all sides commit atrocities to a greater or lesser extent; so:
  1. Why make a special fuss about the SS and our cool black counters?
  2. Precisely because the SS were the cutting edge of German war crimes on the Eastern Front, it is dubious to make them look specially cool for no good reason (I commented on this issue- function versus decoration, too).
Those were the main issues around which circled the debate about counter colours before the thread polarised into mud-slinging between liberal anti-Fascism and rampant anti-Communism. So you can see that this familar old issue is not just alive and kicking, but is positively explosive.

And that's it for now. When I return to this topic I'll be looking more closely at the whys and wherefores of wargames, politics and ethics; and the benefits our hobby might enjoy if we were more attentive to these issues, whether we like it or not. ;)

Wargames, politics and ethics
- #2: Politics? You can run but you can't hide
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