Archive for January, 2007

But There Could Have Been: Possible Worlds Theory and ASL

So the rubble was still settling in the aftermath of some hard-fought actions in the streets of Stalingrad when my adolescent self, lo these many years ago, turned to the fine print at the back of the original Squad Leader rules booklet and read the following in the Designer’s Notes: “Any knowledgeable wargamer will see at a glance that the terrain of SQUAD LEADER has been abstracted to better capture the ‘feel’ of infantry combat. . . . The Dzerhezinsky Tractor Works alone was an immense complex that could not be accurately portrayed by 8 of our city mapboards! Indeed the Germans didn’t succeed in breaking into the Tractor Works until . . . 200! German tanks had assaulted the outer defenses.” Though I had been playing hex and counter wargames for several years and probably instinctively understood that realism was a problematic word applied to dice and cardboard and CRTs, this was the first time I had seen the concept of “abstraction” so unabashedly articulated. Suddenly my team of crack assault engineers storming into the Tractor Works under cover of smoke and HMG fire didn’t seem like such an achievement—the “factory” was only a piddling little cluster of hexes. I played SL and the rest of the series happily for many years afterwards, but that discrepancy always nagged at me. Maybe, I thought, I could get 8 or 10 more city boards and 200 tank counters and make it right?

Of course Red Barricades, the first module in the historical ASL (HASL) series proceeded to do exactly that not too many years later. Historical ASL—even the name is telling—exposes some interesting tensions in the game system. Most ASL scenarios are played on generic or so-called geomorphic map boards, whose layouts depict a “typical” village, forest, piece of a city, etc. Despite the fact that the historical basis of the geomorphic scenarios was usually carefully established, the geomorphic map boards themselves—literally the foundation of play—were always a conspicuous abstraction. HASL was, in effect, the game system’s clearest acknowledgement of this phenomenon, substituting depictions of actual terrain (the Red Barricades maps were derived from aerial reconnaissance photographs taken by the Luftwaffle).

ASL Geomorphic Board, Urban Terrain The Red Barricades Map Stalingrad, Luftwaffle Reconaissance Photograph

Urban terrain depicted with an ASL geomorphic board (left), Red Barricades (center), and actual aerial photograph of Stalingrad during the fighting.

One of the more brutal and bitter fights that occurred during the combat in Stalingrad in late 1942 concerned a Soviet stronghold that had come to be known as “the commissar’s house.” The ASL system features two scenarios that recreate this particular action, one using the geomorphic boards and one played on the Red Barricades map. Both are ultimately abstractions—the “historical” map includes stone walls whose 60-degree angles follow the outlines of the hex-grid, for example. But some interesting observations can still follow. In particular, I’m interested in whether wargame scenario design can be fruitfully mated with an area of analytical philosophy known as possible worlds theory. Possible worlds theory has in turn spawned applications in domains like narratology. Surely it is relevant to the design of interactive simulations, electronic or otherwise. In particular, I’m interested in thinking about possible worlds theory in relation to immersion or suspension of disbelief. When we play a geomorphic ASL scenario called “Counterstroke at Stonne,” we know that board 3 isn’t meant to be the small French village of Stonne, not exactly . . . but it could have been, and at a certain point we’re willing to suspend disbelief. Using a desert board, by contrast, would certainly be enough to break the illusion as would a major geographical feature like a river. But what about the chateau that’s depicted on one of the geomorphic boards used in the scenario, which, the story goes, is there because the designer read about a “chateau d’ eau”—a water tower. Whoops. A glitch, but one that has no real impact on the integrity of the scenario—after all, there could have been a chateau just outside the rural French village of Stonne, right? Had the false chateau appeared in a treatment of the battle based on actually terrain (like Red Barricades did for Stalingrad) it would have been regarded as a far more serious matter. But given that all such maps are still ultimately abstractions, how then can we account for the difference? Can possible worlds theory help here?

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Achtung Schweinehund! (Just Published)

A correspondent sends word of the following, apparently just published:

Achtung Schweinehund!

ACHTUNG SCHWEINEHUND is about men and war. Not real war but war as it has filtered down to us through toys, comics, games and movies. It is about blokes who spend their leisure time dressing as Vikings, applying transfers to 1/32nd scale plastic models of armoured personnel carriers or re-fighting El Alamein with stacks of cardboard counters. Take a journey into a darkened backroom where HG Wells, a secret service assassin and the Bronte sisters rub shoulders with men called Dave who can identify 376 different WW2 camouflage patterns; a world where the apparent polar extremes of masculinity – brutal violence and the obsessive desire to memorise code numbers and create acronyms – co- exist peacefully in an atmosphere rich with the hallucinogenic fumes of polystyrene cement, cellulose thinners and bright orange corn-based snack foods. ACHTUNG SCHWEINEHUND is a book for any man who can’t smell enamel paint without thinking of the Airfix 8th Army set, who remembers watching Rat Patrol, reading Battler Briton and playing Escape From Colditz. Or for any woman who has ever asked herself why the first thing most boys make from Lego is a sub-machine gun. 

I don’t see it on Amazon yet, but a UK outfit seems to have it in stock.

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New Media and Social Memory

I will be out in Berkeley next week for this day-long symposium on New Media and Social Memory.

Unfortunately, however, I will still not get a chance to meet Stanford’s Henry Lowood, who despite being a games scholar, digital preservationist, fellow Kittler reader, and fellow wargamer I’ve yet to encounter f2f. (Henry, as it turns out, will be busy hosting John Unsworth, with whom I wrote my dissertation. Sigh.)

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Board Wargames Published in 2006

Comprehensive list of board wargames published in 2006, compiled on behalf of the International Gamers Award Historical Simulations Committee. Over 100 items on the list.

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Living Rules

Remember the scene in The Matrix where they’re slotting cartridges into Neo’s head and he sits up and says “I know Kung Fu”? That’s every wargamer’s dream, except they’d want to sit up and say “I know ASL.” You get a new game, you pull off the shrinkwrapping, you unfold the map and fondle the components, but then there are the rules, oh man, the rules. Wargamers spend a lot of time with rules. Rule books often run 32 or 48 pages; anything 16 pages or less is considered “short.” Not surprisingly, wargamers have a different relationship to rules than most gamers. Reading rules it not “fun,” not exactly, but it’s part of the hobby and not without intrinsic interest and even art.

Games often have learning scenarios or programmed instruction sequences so players can gradually absorb a complex rules set, playing the game and layering on a new rules section every time. Some gamers set up a game and learn by pushing the pieces around, others like to give the rules a complete read through first. (There’s an ethnographic gold mine here for anyone interested in procedural learning.) Many games borrow and re-use similar concepts, and part of the interest of the hobby is viewing the rules as a window onto how designers are thinking about their subject and where they’re choosing to innovate. Yet many rule sets are ambiguous, poorly written, or otherwise open to interpretation and variants. Given their scope and complexity, wargame rules almost invariably have errata. In the old days, you would get the errata by sending a SASE to the publisher or maybe through one of the hobby’s house organs or zines if you had a subscription or were lucky enough to catch the right issue. Nowadays, of course, errata is available over the internet, and this distribution platform has changed the way rules are developed. Game companies have evolved the practice of “living rules,” where the ability to use the Web to electronically distribute rules means that a rules set is not necessarily fixed and inviolate once a game is published. Some gamers consider this a mixed blessing, partly because the rules can change under your feet, but also because the availability of living rules can sometimes become a crutch for shoddy playtesting.

Living rules turns out to be any interesting bit of phrasing, given the conventional wisdom that game rules are absolute and inviolate. Certainly this holds true for traditional games like Chess or Scrabble, but even contemporary Euro games tend to have very stable rules sets. One notable exception concerns the scoring of farmers in the popular tile laying game Carcassone, but even there you have variants rather than a living, evolving rules set. Wargames, by contrast, offer a game genre where rules sets are often malleable, based on player feedback, the deisnger’s changing intentions, new historical research, or all of these. Rules are therefore social texts, at least sometimes determined by the experience of a player community. (I would hasten to distinguish this from games played as part of folk traditions, where rules and variants are passed down orally.)

In the comments below, E Holmes says:

games are not static objects but are living, evolving structures that begin and end with human experience and involvement

With this I agree absolutely, but I have to depart from him on the next point:

Games are a human experience and reflect human experience; they do not operate on formal laws existing in any external ‘reality’.

In fact I think what’s unique about games is precisely that they operate on formal laws that arbitrarily impinge on our own reality. This of course is the well known concept of the “magic circle,” after Huizinga. Wargming underscores the extent to which the magic circle is a social construct, the product of a particular community of experts and enthusiasts. But to deny the formal ontology of games seems to me to deny the possibility of game play itself as anything other the unstructured make-believe play of a child. Or Calvinball. Agreeing that games (and their rules) are living, evolving artifacts seems to me to restore a useful social and material dimension to game studies, but it does not follow that we have to deny the formal ontology of game play.

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Note: ZoI will sometimes cover subjects other than board wargames; I intend to make good use of Categories to make different facets of the blog as accessible as possible.

I just came across this online copy of Henry Melton’s “Catacomb.” Originally published in 1985 in TSR’s Dragon magazine, this short story is a remarkably prescient anticipation of contemporary MMORPGs, also including obvious elements of interactive fiction and MOOs/MUDs. I remember being enthralled by the concept at the time, and thinking that I’d be lucky to ever live in a world where such things were possible. The most striking aspect of the story today are undoubtedly the cash pay-offs the characters receive, a brute force literalization of the more elusive virtual economies charted by Castronova. Anyway,the story holds up quite well and is recommended reading for anyone interested in game studies and new media—indeed it should be accepted as a notable historical text in those fields, and is surely one of the earliest pieces of fiction about computer games.

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“The Look”

Like John Keegan, I have never been in a battle.[1] All of the warfare I have “seen” has come to me through the audio/visual channels of global media. Not owning a time machine I’ve certainly never seen any battles of the Napoleonic era, one of my favorite periods to game—I’ve “seen” only representations and abstractions of them. Representations and abstractions in history books, novels, paintings and other illustrations, re-enactments, movies, and of course, games. I am also willing to venture that I am not unique in this regard. So when someone says such and such a game (or painting or paragraph) captures the essence of Napoleonic warfare, what they must really mean is that it comports well with other, already familiar and established representations and abstractions of the actual events.

Take maps. The maps in a book such as Esposito and Elting’s West Point A Military History and Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars are masterpieces of abstraction. This is not to imply that they are faulty or prima facie misleading, only that they work through artificial yet collectively agreed upon conventions for capturing the chaos of lived experience through a set of formalized, explanatory depictions (see Mark Monmonier’s classic How to Lie with Maps). Games are likewise abstractions. Not two-dimensional like maps, but three- and four-dimensional, the fourth dimension being time. Visually wargames borrow many of their conventions from battle maps and military cartography. Yet in many wargame systems, once the first die is thrown and the temporal dimension is set in motion—once the abstraction has become interactive—any resemblance to a military battle map tends to degrade rather quickly. The battle doesn’t end up looking very Napoleonic, which is to say it doesn’t end up looking much like other representations of Napoleonic warfare.

From Esposito and Elting, Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars

Battle map from Esposito and Elting.

All of this is game designer Bowen Simmons’ explicit point of departure in Bonaparte at Marengo (BaM), the first in what will apparently be a series of games combining mechanics from blocks, area movement, traditional wargames, and even chess. Simmons sets out in search of what he terms “the Look”: the distinctive appearance and visual flavor of linear warfare promulgated by 19th century battle maps, especially in their use of blue and red rectangles to track troop positions. “The Look” survives today in popular military history books like those published by Osprey.

The physical position occupied by a game player, looking down at the units spread out on a map on a table, affords a kind of omniscience that would be the envy of any historical commander. This is particularly acute in games that depict small unit engagements, where a player directing his platoons has a battlefield perspective no squad leader squatting in a foxhole could ever hope to attain. But the effect is dissipated somewhat at higher scales, where the affordances governing a player’s literal experience can largely mirror that of his historical counterpart. Nicholas Palmer, in The Best of Board Wargaming (Hippocrene 1980) suggests that a wargame becomes more realistic the further it is abstracted from the actual events of the battlefield:

Remover yourself even further, to general or C-and-C status, and the environment of your room becomes more and more suitable: a strategic [2] game gives you a map, knowledge of your forces and their capabilities relative to the enemy, instructions on overall objectives, and peace and quiet to analyse the situation—just as the strategic planner has in real life, at least by comparison with the front line leaders. (43)

Part of the significance of Simmons’s work in BaM was thus to realize that his game was not depicting the battle of Marengo, but that it was depicting depictions of the battle of Marengo, namely the maps and symbolic conventions military cartographers used to create a visual record of the events. His game does not recreate the reality of the lived experience of the battlefield (impossible, by definition), but the stylized experience of its representations:

Bonaparte at Marengo (Simmons Games)

A game of BaM in progress.

The game’s visual conventions are thus a clever bit of bait and switch that replaces the traditional design conundrum of the player’s Olympian perspective with a graphic experience that most players will find familiar and appealing from the historical literature they have already spent many pleasurable hours poring over. That this is done self-consciously, with reference to a tradition that dates back to the original Kriegspiel (the 19th century Prussian staff officer wargame, played by laying wooden bars across a map), only makes the outcome more satisfying. This is seen in other games too, such as Lee-Brimmicombe Wood’s The Burning Blue (GMT Games), about the Battle of Britain, which attempts to model the experience of RAF air controllers at their plotting tables:

Mockup of Battle of Britain-era RAF Plotting Table

The Burning Blue (GMT Games)

Mock-up of an RAF air controller’s table, and game in progress of The Burning Blue; note the time clock on the wall in the room, sectors keyed to squadron sortie rates, replicated in the upper left-hand corner of the game map.

“The Look,” as articulated by Simmons is interesting to me in the context of game studies partly because of the way it addresses itself to the player’s experience of the game as an artifact in the world. The game space is a “magic circle,” yes, but it manifests an explicitly articulated relationship to the stylized representational spaces occupied by the player’s historical counterparts. Games are situated within material histories as well as formal conventions.

[1] The reference is to the opening line of John Keegan’s classic of military history The Face of Battle (1976).

[2] “Strategic” here is used in the specific sense of a high-level wargame; see the definitions in Anatomy of a Wargame.

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