Talk at University of Maryland

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 SimmonsNapoleons 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.


  1. Chris Baer said,

    October 30, 2008 at 12:37 pm

    Sounds like it was an interesting talk. Any chance there’s a podcast or webcast available?

    And I’ve made a note to grab Third Person when it comes out next year. Essays on continuity in Dr. Who and on wargaming? Sign me up!

  2. Troy Goodfellow said,

    November 1, 2008 at 5:11 pm

    “Unexplored question: what’s the difference between a war game and a violent game?”

    Increasingly I am finding reference to war themed First Person Shooters (like Call of Duty, Medal of Honor and the like) as “war games”, so eventually the ludic language will be so confused as to make this question even more annoying.

    Not that this was ever easy in the computer world. Jim Dunnigan, after all, considered flight sims to be wargames even though both have very different mechanics, goals and means of immersion.

  3. Nate Combs said,

    November 8, 2008 at 9:16 pm

    I like the conceptualization of board wargames as “paper computers” – however, I wonder if it is the case that they be better thought of as a program that runs on such a computer. The distinction is that their mechanics represent something : history, social representation. Furthermore that representation is in terms of the medium – and worth thinking about as its own software.

  4. Matt K. said,

    November 9, 2008 at 11:44 am


    Thanks, that’s interesting. Something I want to think more about.

  5. Ross Mahoney said,

    December 23, 2008 at 7:00 pm

    You might be interested in this unit that is now being offered at my alma mater, the University of Wolverhampton, entitled ‘Virtual Warriors: The Evolution of War Gaming’


  6. Zzzoney said,

    May 26, 2009 at 10:59 am