I Am Spartax

This blog contains some musings on philosophy, games, and the philosophy of games. Feel free to comment; I'd like to provoke thoughtful discussion.
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On definitions and wargames

Sam C
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One question that’s been beaten to death in the wargaming forum is “What is a wargame?” Since I enjoy the repetition, I thought I’d write a little bit on the topic of definitions, using examples from music and gaming.

“That’s not music; that’s just noise!” I’ve heard that comment about various types of music from various people, but for the moment, let’s pick on heavy metal, though I could use avant-garde jazz or twelve-tone art music just as easily. The metal fans reading this will probably remember an incident when they tried to introduce their favorite band to someone new to the genre and heard a similar comment. (For the record, I have nothing against metal. While it’s not a genre I love, I’ll listen occasionally and I appreciate the skill of many metal musicians.)

The statement, “That’s not music,” is generally hard to defend. If someone else thinks it’s music, it probably is, unless the other person just doesn’t understand the word “music”. (For example: “Is that music?” “No, dear, that’s actually a poached egg.”) You’ll have a hard time making a workable, useful definition of music that includes all the music you like to listen to while excluding metal. I mean, what are you going to say? “Music is . . . [blah blah blah] . . . as long as it doesn’t include overdriven electric guitars and blast-beats”? It’s “everything sharing these characteristics except for heavy metal”? You’d do much better to say, “I don’t enjoy that music,” (unquestionable, since it’s a matter of personal taste) or maybe “That’s not good music,” (eminently debatable).

The statement taken literally is not a value judgement, but it is frequently used as such. “That’s not music,” as used by most people, means “That is artistically worthless.” The funny thing is you’ll hear genre enthusiasts say the same thing. “I listen to metal.” “Yeah, me too, I like [insert band].” “Oh, they’re not really metal.” Usually, the band in question is at least somewhere close to being a metal band, but the first speaker doesn’t like that band, so instead of saying, “They’re no good,” or “I don’t like them,” he dismisses them by saying, “They’re not metal.” In this way he is also asserting his superior fanhood, because TRUE fans don’t like those johnny-come-lately bands that outsiders have actually heard of.

Now, such a statement is somewhat more likely to be true of a specific genre, partly because the genre might not be broadly known. “I like to listen to mathcore.” “So is that like Taylor Swift?” “No, not at all. That’s not mathcore.” Here, it’s not a value judgement, but a statement of fact; Taylor Swift has nothing to do with mathcore. Notice, though, that it’s far more common to find music that crosses genre lines than it is something that may or may not be music, though John Cage’s silent piece is an example.

It’s my belief that the best broad definitions focus on the final cause, in Aristotle’s terminology. So, for example, a seat can be defined as something meant for sitting on. Within that, you could differentiate between chairs, stools, couches, etc. according to their formal cause (a stool has no back; a chair does, etc.) Similarly, a definition of music would include the idea that it’s intended to be listened to, with genre descriptions being according to their characteristics: commonly used instruments (if it includes an accordion, it’s probably not combo jazz); harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic characteristics; and so on.

A wargame, by my definition, is a game that simulates a military conflict or conflicts. Said conflicts may be historical (the most common), hypothetical (Nato: The Next War in Europe), or fictional (Starship Troopers).

Thus there are three qualifications a candidate must meet to be considered a wargame. 1) Game, 2) simulation, 3) of specific military conflict(s). Note also that each of these qualifications can be considered a sliding scale, where some candidates fulfill it unquestionably, some candidates are clearly excluded, but some are in between. Following are some examples of “in-betweeners.”
1) Game: this is the least common failing. However, if we say that part of the definition is “intended to be played,” we might say that Campaign for North Africa falls short in this aspect. It probably could be played; in fact, I’ve heard rumors of groups that have played it, but it’s exceedingly rare.
2) Simulation: this one is the hardest to agree on, with the largest gray area. Axis&Allies is clearly World-War-II-themed, but not much of a simulation. Memoir ’44 might score a little higher, Tide of Iron better yet, and so on. One should consider the designer’s attitude and approach as well as the game’s success as simulation.
3) Of Specific Military Conflict(s): Risk falls down here, since it simulates a generic military conflict, not a specific one. Here I Stand is a borderline case, since it does simulate military conflicts, but also political, diplomatic, and religious conflicts. The Napoleonic Wars, which is a close relative of Here I Stand, is more military in focus.

A particularly interesting case to me is Twilight Struggle, which is a frequently debated topic. It is clearly a game, and generally considered a good one (going by BGG rating). Is it a simulation? Well, the designer’s notes indicate that it’s not intended to be a perfect simulation, but I’d say it’s at least at minimal simulation-level; YMMV. Qualification #3, I think, is where it fails. The game includes military conflicts (very much abstracted), but the overall conflict being simulated is more of a political conflict than a military one.

Note that this is not a judgement of TS as a game; it’s actually one of my favorites. I just don’t think it’s quite a wargame, even though it shares a mechanism commonly associated with wargames (the card-driven-game technique.)

You could also take a different approach and try to evaluate the quality of a wargame based on its quality in each of the three areas: is it a fun game to play, does it produce believable results, and is it on an interesting topic?

A last thought: Wargames at the strategic or grand-strategic level are almost always going to include some political, economic, or diplomatic considerations. (They wouldn't be good simulations if they didn't.) I think it's worth considering which elements are there to support which. Is the main focus of the game military, with the diplomatic rules there to help keep the game within the realm of possibility? Or is it a political game with some military aspects?
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