Do any of you enjoy the odd glass of wine? Or appreciate a pint of ale? Maybe some of you might also partake of the odd spliff. I think most of us would say, no harm in that. But if you find your friend looking at a bottle of wine and saying "that's my escape", alarm bells would surely start to ring. So why does it seem such a comfortable cliché to talk about wargaming (or any other hobby for that matter) as an 'escape'? I want to argue that we ought to avoid that cliché and think a bit harder, and perhaps as a result see the hobby in a clearer and better light. And maybe even avoid a bit of damage along the way.
Where is this coming from? Well, I've been checking out the trailer for the documentary 'Miniature Wargaming - The Movie. Sadly, the film is not yet released in the UK, which is disappointing as it's essentially a British production; but one presumes there are valid reasons for the delay. Nevertheless, some of the comments from the main participants in the trailer are very interesting.
First, there's the idea that wargaming and 'the real world' are different things - that your hobby is somehow separate from your 'real life'. "In this world, you're a general on the battlefield". I've used this idea many times myself, on this very blog, and I now think it's a mistake. When I wargame, I don't think I'm a general on a battlefield - I think I'm Keith Flint, along with some of my mates, having some fun playing with toy soldiers. This is an extension of my life which is in no way separate from any other part of it. It is me being me.
And then - "people say it's nerdy and geeky - it's just because they haven't tried it". Well, I've been trying 'it' for the last 50 years, and you know what - it is nerdy and geeky. That's the fucking point of it, you bonehead. We arrive at that realisation if we substitute some good old British English for the American slang. Let's not say nerdy - let's say 'whimsical'. Whimsy is a much underestimated approach to many aspects of life. There are some great definitions of whimsical out there - "playful and unpredictable rather than serious and practical"; "unusual and strange in a way that might be funny or annoying"; but especially "lightly fanciful". There is no better word to get to the heart of what a hobby like miniature wargaming really is.
This explains why railway modelling is much closer to wargaming than the often mentioned and supposedly 'brother hobby' of re-enactment, which isn't really like wargaming at all. No matter how much time I spend researching the Napoleonic period, 'lightly fanciful' must be kept firmly in mind. Otherwise, we cannot properly separate our hobby from the real thing, and that way madness (and moral degeneration) lies. It is obvious from their published works that the early creators of the modern hobby (especially Don Featherstone and Charles Grant) grasped this completely. Triviality and whimsicality contribute to the peaceful nature of the hobby - and more on this below.
The trailer saves the worst for last. "Its an escape. For those few hours I can forget who I am". This comment comes (I believe) from an British Army veteran who appears to have found in wargaming some relief from his PTSD - which is great, and I don't want to be impolite here. But I've already mentioned this, and here also we return to the bottle of wine analogy. The bad news is, you can't escape from your life, and you can't escape from who you are; and it is very important to understand this.
Now then. Of course wargaming is a chance for some relaxation, for kicking back and chilling out. But it gets much better than that. The valuable (and now thankfully common) concept of mindfulness tells us that life will never give us peace - we must create our own place of peace, and carry it with us. With this in mind, wargamers can view their hobby as part of their 'place of peace'. This, however, is not somewhere we escape to, but somewhere we inhabit in a positive frame of mind. It is somewhere that should be part of our everyday life. Taking up your hobby is an advance towards yourself, not an escape from who you are. To understand your hobby is to understand yourself, or at least one part of yourself - which ultimately is the reason why I am writing this piece.
A number of reviews of the film dwell on the fact that it's not particularly cheerful - it doesn't seem to bring out the fun of wargaming. One reviewer on TMP entertainingly remarked that if you weren't depressed when you started the film, you would be once you'd seen it. I think this derives from the film's emphasis on the 'industry' side of things. In the past I would have said that making your hobby your work is always a mistake. These days, I'd say that making your hobby your work is usually a mistake. People as driven and motivated (and talented) as Rick Priestley or the Perry twins seem able to pull the trick off, and good luck to them. Having work that you find both fulfilling and worthwhile is a great achievement. But maybe for a lot of more ordinary people it remains a bad move - all the fun very rapidly goes out of things. This seems to be the experience of one participant in the film.
I myself have earned a small amount of money from the hobby, but this was always pin money to be re-invested in buying toy soldiers and books. You can be more involved than me (say, as a small-time figure or terrain maker) and still retain the concept that it's all just part of your hobby. But if you start to rely on that income - watch out. The film seems to explore this experience, and I think that is worthwhile.
This is not a film review, but from what I have seen I really want to watch the whole movie. I think it could be really valuable in trying to illuminate what a good hobby is, what it consists of, and how people relate to it, as well as reminding us of how important hobbies can be to people and what a positive influence they can have. Paradoxically, and intentionally or otherwise, the film partly demonstrates this by introducing us to people who don't seem to understand the true nature of a pastime like wargaming with miniatures.
You need to understand what you're dealing with to get the right result, and it's never a good idea to just accept the lazy clichés. So I will conclude by saying that wargaming has brought me many moments of peace, and it constantly reminds me who I am.
Go well everyone. 'Til next time.