Chris Israel Barker, 5 April 2021
Wargaming at the hobby level1 has had an issue, both real and perceived, regarding the bad guys. Are players actually identifying with, self-associating, or at least sympathetic to the Nazis, Confederates, etc? As the accusations come and go since at least the 1970s2 and as people interested in the hobby clearly state in the 2020s that a major blocking point to enter the hobby is that they don’t want to play or be seen to play the bad guys3, nothing has changed.
In the same way as we struggle with terminology, consim instead of wargame, counterfactual instead of “what if?“ to strive for acceptance and legitimacy, how do we address the problem of someone has to be the bad guy? Recent suggestions have included teaching that there is no absolute history, including ‘both sides’ history lessons in game manuals, and automating the bad guy role as part of the game mechanics so no one has to play as the bad guy.
The idea of no absolute history/both sides history lessons has issues.
- The bad guys believed they were in the right
- The bad action may well be part of the standards of warfare of the time and place
- The victory conditions of the game may include atrocities by present day standards
- The political & social motivations for the conflict are often too complex to be included as a summary in a game manual
As these issues tend to be inter-related, this article does not follow them in order.
Belief in the justness of one’s own cause is a basic aspect of human nature. This isn’t idolizing any possible warrior ethos, nor is it a matter of justifying any part of history, merely a basic explanation that no group of humans expends blood and treasure to fight another group without the basic belief that there is legitimate reason to do so. This applies to even the most distasteful cases of human conflict.
How then to abstract the actions required for potentially horrible way to win from the player themselves?
Certainly it is possible to include motive in a game model in any number of ways. The difficulty is that all game models assume the player has goals whether or not the game mechanics are specifically about victory conditions. To phrase it most simply, a player plays to win, however winning is defined. How then to abstract the actions required for potentially horrible way to win from the player themselves? From the start of commercial wargaming, the advertising has featured the appeal of “now you are the general” as if to say the player themselves takes on the role of the particular leader of one side of a conflict. At times rules allowed for one side to be automated for solo or multi player games. While enabling solo play has always been a point of appeal, this is still problematic.
If the bad guy is abstracted into game mechanics, players will play to the rules, AKA game the system, a long-standing winning strategy of wargaming. Classic examples of this are forcing unrealistic combinations to achieve a 3:1 ratio on the CRT, or ZOC conditions which don’t represent reality in the slightest. Game mechanics are just that. They are design choices which balance playability vs some form of accuracy. Few games can capture the cultural/political aspects, and also the tactical battle aspects within the same design. Designers who go too far afield from existing design formulas risk alienating both publishers and consumers. Additionally as long as a game system allows for players to game the system, they will. To automate the socially unacceptable removes human agency; it reduces the impact and learning potential of playing the bad guy. It just isn’t possible that an automated system will be able to check a human player’s strategy as much as a human player will.
While most published wargames cover the period of Western history where laws of war are not too dissimilar to the present, current standards of etiquette and concepts of laws of war certainly have not always applied and in different cultures, what was ‘right’ and ‘honorable’ differed drastically from those same standards in the west. Total war no longer considered acceptable yet has been the standard for most of human history and can certainly be found in recent times. Wargames often ignore the presence of non-combatants within the field of conflict. This may be mostly due to the focus on tactical games and the difficultly to model non-combatants in strategic games. However the idea of separating combatants and non-combatants isn’t universal now, in the past, or across cultures.
The concept and actions of total war historically include actions which are highly repugnant by current standards. Some readers may be familiar with the Warring States era of Japanese history and may have heard the name Oda Nobunaga from video games or Japanese cartoons and comics. Some wargamers may have played commercial games covering the battle of Nagashino where the Oda forces fought the Takeda forces. Some may know him as the first of the great three warlords involved in the process of unifying the nation. As a military leader he basically invented the concept of an organized defense industry, innovated tactics which weren’t developed until decades later in the West, and as a result changed the face of Japanese warfare.
The reason Oda Nobunaga is relevant to this discussion is that his military campaigns included not only battles against other warlords, but also against armed religious groups who refused Oda’s national peace and at times attacked the capital city of Kyoto. One particular case, the Siege of Mount Hiei, was resolved by Oda’s forces setting fire to an entire mountain and killing an estimated 20,000, including non-combatants like the wives and children of the Tendai warrior monks. This is very clearly unacceptable by current standards (and wasn’t exactly popular in 1571 either) but in terms of wargaming, can this be modeled? The Oda goal is national unification, stability, and peace. Other forces opposed to him seek to maintain independence and influence by various means. In terms of modeling this conflict, who are the bad guys? Any operational, strategic, or tactical simulation will have to directly address the brutal methods used by all sides as that was the standard of the time and place.
To take a look at a more recent conflict, an anecdotal check of five different games on the Yom Kippur War4 (three boxed, two in magazines) was interesting in that none of them explicitly stated that Syria’s goal of the conflict was ethnic cleansing of Israel. The two magazine games had extensive articles covering the types of armament and overall troop movements, etc. as expected. One of them had an overall timeline of Cold War events and did mention that Syria’s strategic goal differed from Egypt in that Syria’s preferred end game was the complete destruction of the Jewish state5. An investigation of games modeling the conflicts of the stages of dissolution of Yugoslavia would be interesting to see if ethnic cleansing was explicit in the designers notes or history summary as well. These two conflicts are mentioned because they’re both relatively contemporary and in the aftermath of WWII, these sorts of things weren’t supposed to happen ever again.
It is currently fashionable to say that history can’t be absolute, to focus on the various sides of any conflict, and acknowledge the “rightness” of each. Far be it from me to challenge professional historians, but as this is about wargames, that means someone has to play the a side they may not be comfortable with and acknowledge their goals of pursuing war. Note that the idea of “no absolute history” opens up the jar of spiders of “no absolute ethics” but that is beyond the scope of this article. That said, nation states engaging in historical revisionism or disinformation campaigns for the purpose of war is hardly new, yet can we wargame any of the kinetic or non-kinetic aspects of the Cold War without actually engaging with these actions?
Considering all these issues, is it reasonable to expect those new to wargaming, or those who might be interested in getting into wargaming to learn enough history before picking up their first game? Perhaps not. Nor is it really the responsibility of game publishers to include enough of a history text with every game to cover the potential moral issues and sensitivities of the player. Aside from the fact that it would double the cost of every game, clearly lots of people shy away from history books that take hundreds of pages to explain one particular battle. If wargamers complain that 30 pages of rules is too much, will they read a dense history text before play? That said, do we already have enough WW II/US Civil War games which are known to alienate people with an interest in wargaming? Absolutely. Yet still since these tend to be the high-selling genres, publishers can not be blamed for satisfying market demand. Is there then a market for wargames which don’t include Nazis or Confederates? While that’s part of the issue, perhaps it isn’t the core issue.
Part of the core issue may be confusing player with character, assuming that wargaming is role play and that players of wargames are assuming the identity of the side they are playing. If so it is perfectly natural that newcomers just might not want to play the side fighting for slavery or the like. While we rarely see the “Now YOU are the general” marketing any more, we have seen that in its time; it almost encouraged role play rather than the decision-making aspect of wargaming. Various sources have explained the problems with the early Avalon Hill opponents wanted section of The General magazine where some players or groups submitted ads that were increasingly distasteful even against the sensibilities of the 1960s & 1970s6. Past and present day images of wargamers who enthusiastically cosplay period uniforms while gaming doesn’t help either. Yes, that’s actually a thing some people do.
It may be possible that games sold as low-complexity or introductory games make clear that wargames do not require role play, and that we as wargamers don’t take on the identities involved in a conflict. A player certainly has to keep a side’s actions and goals in mind but that doesn’t mean assuming the identity of that side. Perhaps there is a space for introductory wargames that don’t just rehash the American Civil War or WWII or don’t have to be historical at all. There are those of us who are enthusiastic wargamers who did not get into the hobby with historical games. The early 1980s market included lots of science fiction, fantasy, ahistorical and sometimes just plain silly, fun wargames which seemed to draw in players who weren’t interested in history. This may be something which could be done again.
Another positive effort currently underway is the Zenobia Awards which seeks to encourage new and different perspectives of wargame design. It is entirely possible that we really have enough of the same wargames on the same battles that have been published over and over since the 1960s. Perhaps something different is needed to keep the hobby alive and growing.
The above two suggestions aside, wargaming isn’t for everyone, in the sense that there are people who just won’t ever enjoy the hobby. For those who are curious, who have an interest in the idea of wargaming but aren’t comfortable with all of it, your personal red lines are OK. Not every game is for everyone in the hobby. For those who might want to gatekeep on this, consider this a humble request to step aside and make space for those of us who might not share the same idea.
Thanks to Chris for allowing us to present his guest column here at Armchair Dragoons.
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- Most of this article assumes that “wargame” means a simulation of a conflict that actually happened. This is of course not true at all.
- See Fire & Movement #3 p20-23 but only if you have a very strong stomach. The title and contents of the article are definitely offensive. We can’t just say “times were different in 1976” the level of vitriol and racist language weren’t acceptable then either. This is presented in a historical context not as any form of agreement with the cited article.
- There have been many online discussions about this, one Twitter thread by Katie’s Game Corner included hundreds of responses where people clearly stated they were uncomfortable playing the side that represents a position which is against current morals.
- A check of BoardGameGeek shows over 20 different published wargames on this particular conflict.
- Additionally, Fire & Movement #2 July-August 1976 devoted 20 pages of coverage to SPI’s Modern Battles Quad including the two main battles of the Yom Kippur war including designers notes for both games. Here again, the political goals of the war were not covered. Let me be very clear, this is not to find fault with F&M (nor any of the game publishers), this is only a statement of fact.
- Playing At The World p6-9, etc and various online discussions