• Robison Wells

The Ethics of Historical Wargaming

Having grown up my whole life entrenched in Games Workshop, it wasn't until a few years ago that I ever played a historical wargame and got involved in that community. But once I was in that community, and particularly in the online communities I came upon two things I found difficult to process about historical wargaming.

The first thing I encountered online were the trolls (which shouldn't surprise anyone--every online community has trolls). The particular breed of trolls in historical wargaming that I found were the ones who 1) liked to paint swastikas on all of their German units, even if those units never sported a swastika in real life, and 2) liked to engage in "what if" scenarios and make arguments in favor of armies--and ideologies--that were objectively evil. (Nazis, Pol Pot, etc.)

But the second thing I found difficult to process, but which was ultimately beneficial to me, was that these online communities contained people from all corners of the globe. So when we were discussing World War III: Team Yankee and the guy on the other end of the conversation was a former tank commander of the Soviet Union, it makes the discussion harder, but more interesting.

But those conversations also served to humanize the "bad guys". Of course, they were always human. Nazis were human. Atilla the Hun's men were human. The Mongol Horde was human. But when you're actually talking to the guy who was formerly in the crosshairs on your sniper scope, it changes your perspective.

Why Do Some People Dislike Historical Wargaming?

Every other Sunday morning I am eager to get up and watch the Every Other Sunday Show that is put on by Uncle Atom at Tabletop Minions, and though he is often complimentary of historical wargame--it was his positive reviews of Bolt Action's unit activation system that got me to pick that game up--he also has said that he doesn't like to play historical wargames. The reason that he always gives is "I don't like to be playing someone's grandpa."

This isn't a position that is all that uncommon in wargaming, and it may be the reason why science fiction and fantasy (SF&F) wargaming is so much more popular, despite the fact that wargaming has its roots in the reenactment or visualization of real battles.

After searching the internet and gaming forums and Reddit threads, I have come up with the following reasons why people find playing historical wargames distasteful. (And note, I'm not ever talking about rule systems or play style. We're just talking about the concept of playing real world vs. SF&F.)

I Don't Like Playing Someone's Grandpa

Many people are uncomfortable with the idea that, however nameless a figure on a board may be--or even a token--it represents people who were really in war. When you play a wargame about The Battle of the Bulge and you've got the Germans attacking Bastogne, you know that the units you're playing with are in the 101st Airborne, and those were real people. You've read stories about them, seen interviews with the veterans, watched Band of Brothers. These people aren't nameless anymore, because you know their background.

Some people find that invigorating and some people find it disturbing. It's not uncommon in large-scale wargaming to play a general like Rommel or Patton, but when Warlord Games released a miniature of Lieutenant Dick Winters (the real-life hero made more famous in Band of Brothers) that feels, I admit, a little bit different. While there's no doubt that Patton and Rommel's lives were in danger, we all know with clarity the times when Winters was under fire, about when he was wounded, about his life after the war. Does that make it easier or harder to play him?

Perhaps the problem with playing a real historical person is that you are, by nature of the game, either rooting for them or rooting against them. If you're playing the Germans who are attacking Bastogne, and your American opponent is fielding Dick Winters as their commander, you're putting mortar fire on Winters as soon as you can. Is that something that you can stomach? When your sniper kills Winters do you clap your hands and laugh?

One thing that complicates matters even more is when photographs are involved. In many of the posts that I read researching this, it was photos of the historical figures that really sent problematic waves through the players. It's one thing to have a model tank and know it's being driven by Staff Sergeant named Walter Burmingham. It's another thing to have a card for that tank with a photograph of Staff Sergeant Walter Burmingham looking back at you. It can make people uncomfortable.

This raises the issue, then, of when does it become okay to play historicals? Because, after a certain number of centuries has passed, it's not really as easy to humanize the characters on the battlefield. Yes, we know that if we're playing Winters that literally is the grandpa of someone who is still living, but what if the person we're playing is long dead?

For example, the military leader who is nearest-related to me, according to FamilySearch.com, is Ulysses S. Grant, who is my 6th cousing 4 times removed. Not very close. I admit that I don't think I'd have a hard time playing him on the tabletop--or playing against him and trying to beat him. What if he was my 6th great-grandpa? Would that be different? Maybe. What if he was my 12th great-grandpa? That's getting questionable. It's reported that Genghis Khan had so many children that 0.5% of the entire population OF EARTH is related to him. Do we have problems with playing for or against Genghis Khan?

My Ulysses S. Grant question brings up something interesting, though: while I personally may not feel a great tie to Grant, there are a lot of people who feel a great tie to their Civil War ancestors. It's one reason (among others) there are so many Civil War reenactors. While I, living halfway across the country and only being a 4th cousin might not have any affinity for Grant, there may very well be some direct descendant of Robert E. Lee living in Virginia who may have an entirely different opinion.

Does the opinion of that Lee descendant affect the way that that I play my Civil War wargames, even if I don't know that that person? To some people it doesn't matter, but to some people it matters very much. Just the knowledge that you're playing a game rooting for the defeat or death of someone's ancestor is enough.

I Don't Like Participating In Civilian Casualties

This is an interesting one, because I had never thought of it before researching the topic, but many people seemed to hold this opinion. While there are few games (if any) in which you would intentionally harm civilians, there are a lot of historical situations where you know that innocent civilians were killed. For example: the Allied bombing of Germany in World War II killed tens of thousands of civilians. Another example: Sherman's march to the sea.

This is a bigger deal in large-scale wargames typically: games that let Germany fire the V-2 rocket, or games that let Americans capture a Vietnamese village. The civilian deaths are present in the history, but they're not played out by a roll of the dice or counted for points. (If there are games that are like this, please leave them in the comments, because I'm interested in hearing about them.)

Overall, while I find the death of civilians in warfare to be a horrific thing, I have never thought about it in the abstract of a game. All warfare is horrific, and while some people may distance themselves from it through SF&F, other people may distance themselves from it in time. A bigger question comes when you can't distance yourself from it at all: when playing games of modern warfare, such as wargaming the Iraq War. It's hard to find distance from that.

That said, there's a fascinating episode of Little Wars TV where they play a wargame based on Americans fighting insurgents in Fallujah, and four of the players are military vets, one of whom did three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He, a man named Woody, says that he enjoys playing the games, even (sometimes especially) when he plays as the insurgents because he likes the challenge of seeing from their point of view. He also says that he is intrigued by playing modern warfare games against players who do or do not have combat experience, and seeing their reactions and tactics.

I Don't Like Playing an Army That Has An Evil Ideology

I heard this complaint from several people and, as expected, most of them referred to the Nazis (though some--including many people in Britain--referred to the American Civil war this way).

One of the players, who is an avid World War Two gamer, says that he will even be willing to play as the Germans as long as the units are not SS or Hitler Youth. (There aren't many games where Hitler Youth are present, but Warlord Games does include Hitler Youth models in the Battle of Berlin boxed set.) (Warlord Games also sells Waffen-SS, as do many manufacturers.)

This question of the morality of the soldiers themselves--of their ideology--is an interesting one to me, especially because in many wars the soldiers on the ground are not particularly ideologues; it's the leadership that makes those decisions. I suppose this is why people don't like playing the Waffen-SS: because to be in the SS soldiers were more fiercely ideological. In the Nuremburg Trials, the Waffen-SS was found to be, across the board, a criminal organization.

The other place where ideology was mentioned in these ethics discussions was in terms of war crimes, which I personally had never imagined to be reflected in games. However, one player told of a club where they gaming a revolt in a Jewish ghetto, with one side playing as the German guards and one side playing as the Jewish partisans. I can definitely see where that kind of game would get uncomfortable for a lot of people.

On the other hand, if we take a step away from the Nazis, many wars don't necessarily have one "good" side and one "bad" side. Most wars are neither just nor unjust, despite the way that propaganda may market them to the public. In most wars, there are self-interested parties on both sides, there are soldiers who are "just following orders" on both sides, and there are soldiers who abuse their power on both sides.

I remember when, as a history minor in college, a professor said that the worst insult a historian could be called is a monocausationalist--a person who say that an event is the result of a single cause. He was making the point that you can't simply say that this war is solely about freedom and that war was solely about expansion and this other war was solely about money. All wars--even World War Two, with its irredeemably evil ideological roots--had multiple causes. The question, I guess, is what you're willing to overlook and what you're willing to allow in a game.


In the end, I am not particularly swayed by a lot of these arguments, though some do make me pause. Time and distance do a lot to take away the sting of historical wars, in my mind. I don't have a problem moving a model of a bomber over a map of Germany and declaring that it is dropping its payload on Berlin, even though I know that, in reality, civilians would have died during that air raid. I don't even have a problem seizing a crossroads in a tactical game while playing as the Waffen-SS.

I do see some problems with playing with the figure of Dick Winters, though I don't feel the same way about playing with a figure of Patton, and I don't know what that says about my mindset. I've watched both men dramatized in movies, and I've read books that both of those movies were based on. Perhaps it's Winters' lower rank, or--more than likely--the fact that I've seen him as an old man who was alive while I was alive. I saw him as a human being, whereas I've only ever seen Patton as a historical figure.

Perhaps one of the things related to ethics in wargaming that negates a lot of the problems are the alternatives. Most SF&F wargames have ideologies that are much worse than the ideologies of even the Nazis. Take Warhammer 40k as the most obvious example: it is a universe where "in the grim dark future of the 41st millennium, there is only war." And why is there only war? Because every single faction is evil (yes, even the T'au). Space Marines, particularly the Ultramarines, are generally portrayed as the good guys, despite the fact that the Space Marines are TERRIBLE. They worship a God-Emperor who survives by sacrificing a thousand psykers to his Golden Throne every day.

I admit that there are some games with people who can be considered "good" and "evil". Age of Sigmar obviously has literal angels fighting literal demons. But I have a hard time understanding why someone would willingly play Khorne ("Blood for the Blood God, Skulls for the Skull Throne") when they wouldn't play Waffen-SS.

Ultimately, I don't have a definitive answer--did you expect an objective right and wrong in a discussion of philosophy? Every person has to make the decision for themselves as to what games they'll play and which they find distasteful. In the end, all war is bad, and the reasons that we play at it can range anywhere from entertainment to therapy to education.

I have found, as I travel from one game to another--and especially as I travel from one gaming community to another--that all games have issues and all communities have problematic participants. I've found good in virtually all of them, and found bad in definitely all of them. The key is to find a group of friends and community that share your values, whatever they may be, and enjoy your time together.

Do you play historical wargames? Why or why not?

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