Wargamers on the whole appear to be an intelligent and sensitive bunch. News of the Russian invasion of Ukraine seems to have sent a bit of a shockwave through our niche community with many bloggers expressing feelings of guilt, distaste, even a little shame. I myself have been turned off exploring my own Global War in my Deathzap setting after anxieties around the possibility of World War 3 surfaced this week.
What is it that bothers us about enacting real or imagined conflicts in miniature?
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was released back when I was at Bible College. It caused a little bit of a stir if you remember due to a mission in the game where you played an undercover CIA agent working within a terrorist organisation. The level called ‘No Russian’ saw you attempting not to blow your cover as the group gun down hundreds of civilians in a Russian airport.
I noticed three responses people had when they played the mission, the first response was where people would attempt to kill the terrorists, which only ever resulted in a failed mission. The game will not progress when you do that, you cannot stop the attack. The second response was where people would go through with the attack but would not shoot any civilians. The game does progress when you do this (although you still will occasionally need to kill a security guard or police officer). The third response was to murder unarmed civilians with glee.
As time has gone on, and I have reflected back on that experience, it’s not the third response that I’ve found the most disturbing it is the second. This is simply because the second response suggests that there is some connection between imagined digital violence and real catastrophic evil. The third openly and blatantly preaches that fake violence has nothing to do with real life tragedy, which is why normal people can commit digital murder.
This puts me in a tough spot, since I had that second response. It must be that same inclination now that pushes me away from thinking about wargaming on that global scale.
Growing up in the 90s and being a generation removed made the Video Nasty scare this mysterious and tantalising thing. As an adult I have found and watched many, generally the response I have is confusion, confusion as to how anyone would outlaw a film, even more confusion as to why people would risk prosecution to protect peoples right to watch crap. I understand the larger principal of freedom of artistic expression, I’m just saying there are hills to die on and Blood Feast is not one of them. Maybe the most notorious Nasty was the film Cannibal Holocaust likely due to criminal charges being brought against the film’s director Ruggero Deodato first for obscenity and secondly for rumours that he had actually killed several of the actors involved (which he obviously hadn’t). Despite that, there is no guilt or shame involved in watching something like that, at least for me. I think this is possibly due to the fact that film is considered an art form and that pays for a lot and maybe equally because you don’t really participate in a film, you press play and then the film happens.
Despite attempts to prove otherwise there is no connection between violent films and real life violence.
Killing digital people or watching a massacre in some Italian horror film from the 70s doesn’t hurt my soul nearly as much as the moment I find myself having to kill a spider because it just won’t go under the cup.
I couldn’t imagine killing even a small animal for survival, let alone a human being in the context of a war.
So why do we feel guilty about our wargames? Plastic people don’t even die, they come back for the next game, otherwise it would be a terrible waste of time and money.
Maybe the main reason we struggle is time invested. A video gamer doesn’t feel the impact we do when they engage in refighting a historical battle because the time they invest is so much less. Playing a Call of Duty game from start to finish would take about as long as it would take you to paint a squad of figures for a wargame. It’s also not just in the painting, its in the historical research and learning that isn’t required to play a video game. If you were to play a WW2 game and play the German side it would be hard (at least for me) to completely mentally divorce those little plastic men on the table from their real life counter parts especially if you had spent a long time researching uniforms, reading about campaigns and being unable to avoid the war crimes that came about as a result of those actions. Playing the SS and winning a scenario, I couldn’t help thinking about that village off of the edge of the table and what they might get up to there. But that’s just me, and it would be naive to assume the allied squads although considered the ‘good guys’ didn’t occasionally get up to things they shouldn’t have. Good and evil in real life is rarely that black and white.
Maybe another reason is that the military also play wargames. They no doubt play video games and watch films, but wargames are actively played by officers to develop and test strategies and tactics and to predict trends. So there is a real military connection at least but they’re not playing Bolt Action, Chain of Command or Warhammer 40k for that matter. There’s an obvious difference between the exploitation of real people by bankers and a game of Monopoly at Christmas., wargames are no different. Regardless of all that we might think, and whatever reality we imbue our little plastic men with we have to acknowledge that there is obviously no connection with real life war. The weapon ranges aren’t even remotely accurate.
So don’t feel guilty.
Wargaming as a hobby has a profoundly positive impact on my own mental health, and I’m sure that’s true for many. When the world has looked scary it has been a great distraction. It has been a lifeline through a global pandemic.
Wargaming is historical preservation. It helps us to honour and empathise with the men and women that fought and died. It reminds us of the lessons of the past and prevents us from repeating them but wargaming teaches us more than just history, it also teaches strategy, tactics, problem solving, art, model building, engineering, geography, politics, economics, philosophy, mythology and theology. As a learning tool wargaming is huge.
But for those still feeling uncomfortable (including myself), although I don’t believe we should, there are alternatives:
Non-Violent Wargames being promoted mainly by the Man of Tin consist of kids throwing snowballs or the various wide games played by the scouts. They present similar but also different and interesting tactical decisions to violent wargames. There’s a batch of snowballers on my painting desk right now, and I’m looking forwards to giving a little skirmish a go.
Fantasy or Sci-Fi games are often a go to for those put off by the historical hobby. My own interest in this area is because of the lack of research involved in getting up and running, but on the ethical side of things no-one bats an eye at war crimes committed against zombies, orcs or bugs from the planet Zog.
No matter your conclusions or feelings, keep calm and carry on wargaming.