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


gnome said...

A brilliant and thought provoking post indeed. Thanks a ton!

Oh, and today's suggestion: Epicure. He was an eye-opener, he was.

"A bit political on yer ass!" said...

So, the gnome of all people likes this post. Colour me surprised- not! If you liked that, just wait till you see what I've got in the pipeline.

As for this guy Epicurus?

"For Epicurus, the purpose of philosophy was to attain the happy, tranquil life, characterized by ataraxia, peace and freedom from fear, and aponia, the absence of pain, and by living a self-sufficient life surrounded by friends. He taught that pleasure and pain are the measures of what is good and evil, that death is the end of the body and the soul and should therefore not be feared, that the gods do not reward or punish humans, that the universe is infinite and eternal, and that events in the world are ultimately based on the motions and interactions of atoms moving in empty space. (Via Wiki, naturally enough.)

That all sounds good, but I particularly like his bit about the infinite universe. Finite universe cosmology is one of my pet bêtes noires. ;)

gnome said...

He was after all one of the very first proper materialists, building on the work of -mostly- Heracletus. Mind you, Marx's PhD focused on the comparison of the duo's physical philosophies.

Shockingly, the Wiki got its basic rights correct!

"A bit political on yer ass!" said...

I think I used to have a copy of Heraclitus' On Nature when I was a young man. I know I read most of it, at least; although I can't remember much about it. I've read Marx's doctoral thesis too, and must confess that it too left little imprint on my mind. I do remember thinking that it was interesting though.

And I'm sure Wiki is better than people are wont to give it credit for. I imagine that there have been a few notorious examples of error which have served to give the whole thing a bad reputation. Either way, it's still typically my first port of call for basic facts. ;)

Scotty Dave said...

Hello John

A very promising beginning. :)

I have had my say on some aspects of this topic recently, in Battles Magazine #5. That article ("Sleeping with the Enemy, Pro-German Bias in WW2 Wargaming") gave rise to a veritable landslide of comment on various fora, most of which was hostile. To my great surprise,it has also been nominated for a CSR award. If you have not seen it, I would be happy to send you a copy.

As you say, this is not a new debate. There are a few recent wrinkles though. Smelser and Davies' book provides a compelling explanation of the "how" of German bias, I think.

In addition, it seems to me that there has been a seismic shift in wargaming in recent years, towards, lighter, faster, less detailed games (perhaps driven by acquired tastes for Euro games.) "Fun" rather than simulation is increasingly the objective of designers. In a world where "it's only a game," the real life implications of symbology may seem an irrelevance to players.

On the other hand, one of the more thoughtful responses to the article contended that pro-German bias was on the decline. The author then set out to demonstrate this by an analysis of about 10 years worth of gaming history. While I think the basis for the analysis was flawed in a number of respects, it does provide further grist to the mill.

Anyway, I enjoyed your very thoughtful post - and your contributions to the referenced BGG thread.

"A bit political on yer ass!" said...

Welcome to RD/KA!. Thanks for your comment and your kind words.

I went and checked out Battles Magazine (link for the benefit of my other readers). It looks interesting. Is it the mag which is up for the CSR, or have they added a category for articles now? In any event, I'd love to read your article, so please do send me whatever you can. I'd also be interested in reading the online discussions, so if you could direct me to those websites I'd be grateful. My current schedule for #2 of this series means that reading this could prove useful.

And it's funny that you should mention Smelser and Davies...

As for the state of the pro-German bias? Well I don't know if it's stronger or not. But here's a quote from a reply to my crossposting of this article at RD/KA!@BGG: "Black SS counters, to me, fall into the realm of little touches that help evoke a little authenticity." The irony of this evocation of authenticity in the defence of inauthenticity is so clearly lost on the poster that you have to wonder if some people are willfully blind to the facts on this issue.

I guess it'll be interesting to see the reaction to #2 of this series when it goes up. ;)

Scotty Dave said...

John, the majority of the debate took place in the Battles folder on Consimworld, starting here:

and continuing for almost 1,000 posts. As this is CSW, there is no threading, so there are other topics along the way, but for the most part the article was the topic.

I sent you a copy of the article by geekmail.

Both the magazine and the article are nominated - indeed, the magazine won best professional magazine last year, in its inaugural year. The article is nominated in the category Best Historical or Review article, even though it is neither!

I agree that this is a topic where, more than most, gamers turn the Nelsonian eye.

Look forward to part deux...

Pulp Herb said...

I commented on the second in the series first, but I do remember the "Germans are cool" attitude back then (Palmer complains about it in either his general board games book or the Complete Book of Wargames at the time). As I said, I got a bit of it but mostly avoided it. Call it being from the US, I always played "the good guys" meaning the US. If they weren't in it the UK or Commonwealth nations, which I really didn't distinguish between, and if worst came to worse the French.

Although until just now I never realized how strong that was. As I was typing this I was going to note how I was so annoyed that SL's first expansion was all Russians and Germans and even the second didn't have the US.

I guess maybe I just completely missed (due to age) the Germanphilia that kept us from getting GI: Anvil of Victory first because that would have muddied up all the "ooh, cool German tanks" stuff.

Alan said...

Hi guys,
Interesting comments for sure, BATTLES magazine looks excellent. WOW a wargaming mag that covers BOARDGAMES ????!!!

isnt that sacriledge or something? :.)

Oh, cheers again John for the deal on Panzergrenadier (looking forward to it) defintely walking away from miniatures, never thought I would say that but such is life