I gave a talk at the University of Maryland today (that’s where I work) as part of its “Semester on War and Representations of War.” A little odd to come out to friends and colleagues as a (war) gamer, but generally an interested and receptive audience. I had copies of several different games out to show, including Avalon Hill’s hoary Afrika Korps and something more recent, Bowen Simmons‘‘ Napoleons Triumph. One of the byproducts of the event was getting to meet a couple of new local gamers, including the gent behind Flash of Steel, where there is a nice write-up of the proceedings. From there I also stumbled across this entry on Soren Johnson’s Designer’s Notes blog (such an obvious title for a game design blog too—now why didn’t I think of it?).
I offered three reasons for my interest in table top wargames in an academic setting:
- that they are a forgotten piece of ludology, the lack of knowledge about them today disproportionate to their historical influence and market share;
- their function as “paper computers,” that is open systems (or models, the term I prefer) to take apart and put back together again, very different from computer games where source code and the underlying model is often out of reach;
- finally, the new spaces they open for representation and rhetoric, to which end I briefly discussed War on Terror, as well as the computer game September 12th.
Of course what goes unstated in such a setting are the other reasons we play games, which have a lot more to do with sociability and something called “fun” than these higher minded rationales. But it was a good discussion, if a bit scattered at times—lots of people wanted to talk about first person shooters, for example. (Unexplored question: what’s the difference between a war game and a violent game?)
Lots of good feedback afterwards, including people asking if this is something I write about. Speaking of which, I see Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s Third Person, in which I have an essay on board wargames, is listed as out in May 2009 from MIT Press.
Jimmy Maher has some good things to say about wargames (and is kind enough to cite a couple of posts here on ZOI) in his paper “Toward Games That Matter: The Promise and Problems of the Storygame,” read recently at the ELO’s Visionary Landscapes conference. Here’s a quick taste:
Wargames have been published covering virtually every conflict in human history; in levels of complexity ranging from almost childishly simple to bewilderingly complex. Some, such as History of the World, give each player complete control of an empire, and have each turn represent years of real time; others, such as Advanced Squad Leader, are resolved at the level of the individual soldier, and have each turn represent seconds. Wargames have been created to simulate conflicts in hypothetical science fiction or fantasy universes and even professional sports, an interesting example of a three-dimensional game being used to simulate a two-dimensional game. Wargames are not storygames, as they do not in any real sense ask their players to play a role inside their storyworlds; but those storyworlds can be very compelling, and can almost seem to have a life of their own. Although most were designed for ostensible play as two or more player, agonal games, a surprising number of players play alone, moving each side in turn and letting the conflict unfold in their imagination. . . . Given the fascination these simulated worlds hold for their players, the next step – going “inside” these worlds to play roles there, rather than observe from the outside – was perhaps inevitable.
I take up similar issues in an essay that will be out next year as part of the Third Person collection from MIT Press, edited by Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin; I make claims about the significance of wargames as ludic vehicles for narrative or, more properly, narrativity, largely on the basis of procedural granularity—that the intricateness of the typical wargame’s rules and procedures is generative from the standpoint of storytelling, as evidenced by the popularity of so-called “after action” reports retelling game sessions (a tradition that goes back several centuries at least).