Ethics in wargaming isn’t a new topic. I’m old enough to remember the arguments in the 1970s and 1980s in the hex and counter community about games such as Squad Leader fetishizing the SS with black counters and special “super-soldier” abilities. So while it covered well-trodden ground, there were three things that made Jay Arnold’s Wargaming Ethics Roundtable podcast and panel discussion interesting and refreshing.
First, the podcast was a conversation rather than a debate. Rather than framing it as an argument with those who might say “this is all a game, why are you ruining our fun by taking it so seriously and being so judgey?”, a conversation that Annie Norman of Bad Squiddo Games said she has had her fill of, the tone was thoughtful and respectful. All the participants agreed that this tone should be the quality we take around our gaming tables. Admittedly there might be some people who reveal their true colours (eg, wearing a “Adolf Hitler European Tour, 1939-45” concert style shirt) and who thus might be best avoided, there are issues that we could raise in friendly, conversational, and non-accusatory fashion, so thanks to the participants for modelling that tone in their discourse.
Second, the participants addressed the question of the representation of suffering which can be the elephant in the room for wargamers, so I was grateful for their honesty. William Tecumseh Sherman wrote to a friend that “ I am tired & sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine. Even success, the most brilliant is over dead and mangled bodies”. Like Jay Arnold I served in the military, and as a chaplain I’ve tried to help others with moral, physical, and psychological wounds. I’m an avid student of military history. I have, or should have, no illusions. Yet here I am, with painted and cardboard armies of many periods in my house. My collections include casualty figures, which Jay’s guests confessed some discomfort with. So what’s my excuse for persisting in this hobby?
Dr. Samuel Johnson once said that "Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea." He was, I think, pointing at the mystique of the profession of arms, its celebration of heroism, gallantry, and self-sacrifice, the glamour of the dress uniform, that encourages many today into the phenomenon of “stolen valour”. That mystique has waxed and waned over the centuries, but it persists. I grew up in an Army family, with a decorated veteran father who was sparing with his love but still inspired me and some of my brothers to become soldiers. The paintings of a Lady Butler or Don Troiani, like our favourite war movies, capture the aesthetic of war, even while antiwar movies (Paths of Glory), novels (The Good Soldier Schweik) and art (Dali, Dix) are difficult to ignore. I think it’s fair to say that wargamers are under the spell of the aesthetic of war, even while knowing at some conscious level that it is a species of enchantment.
For example, I can look at a photo of a dreadnought of the Great War, at speed and guns blazing, and find it inspiring, even beautiful, while knowing something of what a fourteen inch shell could do when bursting in a confined space, or how the money spent on these behemoths could have benefitted millions of slum-dwellers. Every glamorous image has its shadow side. All this to say that I would happily play a dreadnought game, knowing (in order of active cognition at the time) first that it is a game, second that it might teach me something about history, and thirdly knowing something of the reality underlying the game. That’s the best I can do with the issue of the representation of suffering.
Third, I’m grateful to the participants for their focus on who we represent. Their conversation touched on issues of race, gender, and how history is far more complex than it is in our representations. For example, a Crusader army would have included soldiers from what we would today call the Middle Eastern countries, so why paint all Crusaders as Caucasians? We might do so because if you’re like me, your default flesh tone is Citadel’s Cadian flesh, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Why is representation important, and not just a kneejerk response to trendy diversity requirements? Because many of our games lend themselves to narratives of race war with an overlay of civilization versus barbarism. My blonde elves and Rohirrim resisting tides of dark skinned monsters may just be an innocent fantasy trope, but it too has its shadow side.
I will never forgot trying to get my wife to watch the “Men of Harlech” scene from Zulu, a film beloved of wargamers. To my horror, all she saw was white soldiers mowing down black men. “I could have lived the rest of my life without ever watching that”, was all she said. That was a shock, but it reminded me that what to us are gallant episodes from Queen Victoria’s Little Wars just look like colonial massacres to others. Jay’s guests didn’t have a solution to this, and certainly didn’t advocate the cancellation of colonial gaming. However, they did suggest that we at least think about the common practice of recycling native figures to sustain the game, and what it represents, or to educate ourselves and others about the complexity of indigenous cultures in order to tamp down the “civilization vs barbarism” narrative. These battles are more imbalances of technology than they are of civilization. As Hillaire Belloc mordantly noted, “Whatever happens, we have got / the Maxim gun, and they have not”. A little more self-awareness along these lines is all that the panelists were asking of us.
A final thought about who we represent. When I was an American Civil War reenactor, I belonged to a group that usually portrayed Federal infantry, and I was okay with that, because they were the good guys. When I went down south to American events, the Confederate reenactors grew more and more numerous and were often very political. You would see bumper stickers in the event parking lots with slogans such as “North 1, South 0: Half Time”. I didn’t want any part of that, but once, I was persuaded to don gray and go to an event as a Rebel. I’ll never forget passing by a group of African American reenactors portraying US Coloured Troops, and how I felt a moment of visceral shame to be marching under the Confederate battle flag. I couldn’t divorce the politics and history of the present from the history we were supposedly bringing to life. That being said, the Civil War is a passion of mine, and I have a large and growing collection of figures, including numerous CSA regiments, because I game solo usually, and for that you need both sides. If I was at an event, where I met a fellow with a tooled up Confederate army, wearing a grey kepi and a Robert E Lee t-shirt, I would at the very least want to have a respectful conversation with him about who he was representing and why. Hopefully it would be educational, and not confrontational.
As I bring this to a close, I am aware that I have just laid out a game about RAF night bombers flying over the Third Reich, and I’m also aware that the anniversary of the bombing of Dresden occurred quite recently. There is a terrible paradox there, and as I write these lines, I realize that I don’t want to solve the paradox one way or another. I acknowledge the incredible bravery of those young men who flew for Bomber Command, as well as the reality of what their actions did to those living in or near their targets. I love the lines of a Lancaster bomber while I’m haunted by the photos of gutted German cities. Perhaps all I can do as a wargamer is to live with that tension.
Thanks for reading. I'd love to read your own thoughts.