Monday, 8 February 2021

Why We Wargame

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, as far as possible, all the time. 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.


David said...

Wargaming is a huge part of my life. I find the actual act of gaming itself a great stress reliever - you could call it an escape. However researching, planning, painting etc are much more like the rest of my life with many ups and downs. I think most leisure pursuits are like this - we are lucky not to have to put the vast majority of our time and effort into mere survival but can divert a good proprtion of that time into something that, on balance, largely gives us pleasur.

Steve J. said...

An interesting post Keith and one that is thought provoking as always. Wargaming has been part of my life on and off for nigh on 50 years now, ebbing and flowing as these things do at various times. I derive immmense pleasure from my hobby, whether painting (but not as much as before), researching, building terrain but most importantly, playing games with like minded friends. Winning is nice but having fun and a good time is what it's all about.

I wouldn't want to make my hobby part of my job and know some that have and have regretted it. I considered it when I was made redundant and could make some pin money, but at present it's not for me. I want my hobby to be just that, like my gardening is and again I could make money from that if I wanted to, but then it would cease to be as pleasurable and become a bus mans holiday!

So here's to whimsy!

WSTKS-FM Worldwide said...

I simply enjoy the painting, collecting, and occasional gaming with toy soldiers. Fewer things are more satisfying than a nicely laid out table and a fun game for a few hours.

Best Regards,


Ross Mac said...

If I was from a slightly different place/culture and time I might say "Right on Brother!"

 Ashley said...

I like playing with toy soldiers, though over the last few years that has turned into painting and making toy soldiers. It is what it is. The last year has only clarified that for me.

As for your piece. My opinion, worth exactly what you paid for it, I don't agree that one can simply equate 'escape' as you have done here bt conflating a hobby with substance dependence.

Well meant I'm sure, but it doesn't stand up to any real scrutiny.

Alcohol, tobacco, and drugs are consumed and alter one's perceptions, leading to disinhibited emotions and dependence. Wheres as a hobby provides escapism, and at worst might lead to obsession, but that's really not the same thing as implied by your argument.

Keith Flint said...

Ashley, thanks for providing an alternative view. I would say that alcohol and drugs don't always (in fact mostly don't) lead to dependence - depending on the drug of course. I wasn't talking about heroin or crack cocaine.

As I tried to say, escapism is all very well, but I feel we are better off in regarding our hobby as part of our life, rather than an escape from it.

Mark, Man of TIN said...

Interesting post, Keith - my Dad always warned me "Never make your hobby your job. If you do, get another hobby ... fast".

Rereading recently Little Wars, Floor Games, Nesbit's Wings and The Child or The Building of Magic Cities, and their successors (Featherstone was influenced by Wells) such as my favourite book of the lot Donald Featherstone's War Games 1962, there is a great emphasis on the playfulness of playing with toy soldiers.

Looking back over my past blog posts on this value of the hobby and mental health, I find the Models for Heroes charity have a very practical Men's Sheds approach to the value of modelling for all sexes -

They also deal in their YouTube video Piece by Piece and other video with the PTSD / de-stressing angle well in that focussing on the model in front of you - or painting the toy soldier, home casting in metal, basing, undercoating, setting up and playing the game - it is all good focus away from everyday stress and work. It's not work, it's a hobby. It enhances and helps us deal with life, not escape it.

I don't know where escape fits into this Models for Heroes or Wells Little Wars model.

I like the colour and the craft of making and the collecting of toy soldiers. I always have, ever since I can first remember. They were part of my Floor Games type relationship with my late Dad, they have formed many of my friendships at school and now even more so with blogging.

Toy soldiers have taught me much of what I know of the best and worst of people in world history. It guides my reading. It provides something practical and creative, even skilled, with my hands in an otherwise increasingly taptap digital screen age of leisure and work.

What a great hobby, it certainly enhances my life, fills my hours and house and empties my bank balance. As some joke, its reverse alchemy turning hard earned gold into base lead. Money well spent, from pocket money onwards, I think, as I still have something to show for it over forty years later ... unlike the drugs and alcohol form of escape?
Mark Man of TIN

Jonathan Freitag said...

Great response, Mark, and I am nodding in agreement with everything you said. Chuckling too..,

Neil said...

Well, it's my Hobby and I love it. The movie is available on Amazon Prime in the States; is on the UK version maybe?

Shaun Travers said...

Hello Keith,

I am in agreement with all you have written. It is a "nerdy" hobby (a lot of hobbies are - only today discovered a workmate has a fascination with buses as a hobby). Hobbies for some people are escapism, but for most others it is, I think, just the enjoyment.

marinergrim said...

The fact that we can sit at a paint table and have two or more hours disappear very quickly without thinking too much about the stresses and strains that our daily work and domestic routines impose sounds like an escape to me. Albeit that the description of it being an escape relates more to the change from the routine and mundane and a move to something more pleasurable. By engaging in a hobby that can be so immersive it allows the body to release endorphins which help in the relief of stress and anxiety, all good things and to be encouraged. So, for me at least, it is an escape but only in an ability to allow the rest of my world/life to continue without further degradation of my well being.

 Ashley said...

Hi Keith,

Sorry if my reply came off sharper than intended. Should've added some more mellifluous words to frame my point. I have a background in mental health, and no doubt see things differently.

But you're right. The hobby is a part of our life. However, it also provides an escape from the mundane stresses of life too.

It can be both is all I'm saying. Not everything we do has to be important in the bigger scheme of things.

Jim Walkley said...

Hello Keith. An air traffic controller with a spliff :-)
An interesting post but I think that the language used is open to several interpretations. One friend, when his toys splendidly withstood a withering fire said 'They are the marines (not Royal at the time) - they love it'. The rest of us chuckled without any concern that he was escaping from reality in a bad sense. When playing, I don't think 'I am moving these bits of metal over the bridge' but 'The 10th Foot and Mouth are crossing the bridge' and when battle reports appear in blogs they have similar wording. To me this is escapism just as when I enjoy a film or novel. Perhaps I have not fully understood your message but these are my thoughts.
Best wishes and stay well


arthur1815 said...

I wonder if you've not 'over thought' the significance of the use of 'escape' in the film, or in everyday speech, though I do share your attitude towards my own wargaming - I'm simply enjoying myself moving toy soldiers about and trying to defeat my opponent.

In my opinion, wargaming has never worked as a 'spectator sport' - most games move on far too slowly to keep the attention of anyone watching, rather than playing - so a film about wargaming is inevitably doomed to fail to capture the pleasure of actually playing in a game.

Years and years ago I saw a television programme in which a chess game was presented in stop frame animation, so the pieces appeared to move by themselves, with no time for thought between moves, while the players' ideas, intentions &c. were given as voice-overs. The programme moved along quickly and was very entertaining. Recreate that technique with wargame figures, and you might be on to something...

Best wishes,

Keith Flint said...

Arthur - you may well be right. Perhaps I am splitting hairs here. You're even more right about wargaming as a spectator sport. The only people to have really pulled that off are Little Wars TV.

Ashley - no problem. The point of these posts is to promote discussion so I appreciate you taking the trouble to post your own views.

Jim - like I said to Arthur, I may be indeed be overthinking things. But all this talk of escape makes me kind of nervous. What's so bad in our lives that we need to escape from them? But whatever your thoughts on that, I think it is helpful to see our hobby as just as much a real part of our lives as work and all the rest.

david in suffolk said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
david in suffolk said...

Good post , thank you, it got everyone thinking! Maybe a little over-thinking indeed, but equally I suspect that some people who talk about 'escape' are themselves 'under-thinking?' It's a bit of cliche phrase that's very easy to reach for, perhaps without really considering what it means - didn't Orwell talk about language that goes from speaker to listener without involving any actual thought on either part? (now I sound a bit harsh on people, sorry!).
Having said that, a very good friend of mine tells me "I actually did, and do, find escape in wargaming... Normal life as a boy could be bad enough that I would seek escape where I could find it and throw myself into a wargame with that in mind". So I accept that entirely.
You have of course made me think about the 'why' question - why this fascination with warfare, and re-creating it in miniature? I can't honestly say, it's just sort of - 'there', and I'm not a warlike chap. I think the leavening of whimsy that the Grant/Young/Featherstone generation applied is indeed a saving grace - their use of Imagi-nations perhaps emphasises that this is thankfully not real ( notice Grant had 'Red' and 'Black' in WW2 period, not Nazis vs. Stalinists.. ). It's only a game - but a rather fascinating one. Thanks again!

Russ MAY said...

An interesting website I'm very interested in the comments from others in particular your intro that mentioned a VETERAN with PTSD !! I'm an HMF veteran ex RAF Regt /LI reg and TA !! Ok I got into hobby as,a boy and there was NO VALID reason to stop just because I took QUEENS shilling (poss!? Best thing I ever did LOL ) NO Regrets!! I'm now semi retirement (enjoying it and cracking on with MANY long neglected WARGAMING forces kits and assembly etc ) just been reading various wargaming blogs over last few days ... which is helpful end in the motivation side of it thanks!! Time to get back to some assembly ...."ATTACK" just been on TV DIR: BOB ALTMAN stellar cast PALANCE MARVIN ALBERT et al mega film so! Those 28mm BA M3 1/2 trks (previous prep done ) looking good LOL

vtsaogames said...

Why the fascination with the military? For me, an easy answer; I grew up in the shadow of WWII and our American servicemen (and our allies) were heroes. I liked green army men when quite small. Discovering war games rules (Morschauser) at the age of 13 was great, though I bought into calling the figures 'military miniatures' and such. Years later I owned up to playing with toy soldiers. Back in the day I bought Avalon Hill board games that said players pushing cardboard pieces were generals. I outgrew that too. We are not in mortal danger, not exhausted, not dealing with the death or maiming of friends and colleagues, at least not in our games. Yes, it is a nerdy hobby. But I see other folks spend more money jacking up their vehicle to preposterous altitudes, or having colored lights show underneath their vehicles. Each to their own. I like painting, reading and playing. One man's meat is another man's poison.

And oh yes, happy Mardi Gras.

Keith Flint said...

The shadow of WW2. Yes indeed. The war must have seemed very recent to my parents when I was born in 1957. My dad saw combat in Sicily and Italy.
Even in the sixties as I was growing up, WW2 was so much part of popular culture. All those war films! So an interest in military things didn't seem that strange. And then was Airfix - I think in the end it was that company that was responsible for me getting into wargaming.

Tony Adams said...

Sorry I am a little late to offer my simple opinion but I only just found this discussion. I have read the original article and comments with much interest. I am afraid I think it is all a lot over thought. Wargaming and model soldier painting and modelling is geeky full stop and who cares. If we find it a fun thing to do and we harm no others whats the problem. The majority of non wargamers/modellers think our hobby is weird but that's ok. It gives us pleasure and fun, its that simple. There is no need for deep complex analysis trying to understand why. Its just a hobby that we enjoy in its many and varied forms. I long ago realised that my version was seen as "not right" by conventional wargamers/modellers, after all,I must be the only person in the world who paints woodscrews as soldiers. Do I care, of course not. I like it and there are a few out there who seem to find it interesting so that's fine with me. As one of the earlier comments said, there are plenty of people who love to spend all their time under the bonnet of cars, do they engage in mental gymnastics to understand why, of course not. They do it because they like it. We have a hobby that gives us pleasure and we should be grateful. Finally I must agree with the last few comments. I too am a child of the 50's and the war was very fresh in the collective mind so it was inevitable that we children would be impacted. Was that why we grew to like wargaming/modelling, who knows...who cares. Lets just enjoy our hobby and concentrate on creating the next cavalry regiment !!!!!

Keith Flint said...

Overall Tony, I couldn't agree more. I wasn't implying that there was any 'problem' with the hobby - rather the opposite.

However, a lot of wargamers do spend a lot (sometimes an awful lot) of their everyday lives thinking about, and practising, wargaming in its many forms. The same goes for most other absorbing and worthwhile hobbies. I just happen to be one of those people who seeks to understand more fully why this might be. I want to think about why I do what I do, because it is clearly a significant part of who I am.

For example, you and I both agree wargaming is geeky, and this doesn't bother us. So why would some gamers seek to deny this in some way? I find that kind of thing interesting.

Many thanks for chipping in with your views.

Keith Flint said...

Tony, meant to add something regarding your point 'we should be grateful'. An excellent point indeed. A strong sense of appreciation regarding the positive parts of our lives is well worth cultivating and being aware of.

Keith Flint said...

Oops, me again!

"It gives us pleasure and fun, its that simple."

Perhaps the only point of yours I might disagree with. Personally, I find that very little in life is simple, and especially the workings of the human mind.

Armoured Thinker said...

Re-write after my IT skills the event of this being posted twice - sorry. Don’t feel obliged to read it twice, even out of politeness.

Like a good book painting is a simple and constructively peaceful activity that offers a break from other pressures. Gaming on the other hand is an excuse to socialise - strange opposites on a spectrum of interpersonal engagement.

There is another, possibly niche, reason. I am a serving soldier. As such I think about conflict pretty much constantly (my wife is so lucky...). I have run Wargames for my soldiers and officers. From taking section commanders through company scale games to divisional scale actions with all the Battalion’s officer in play. Now, I’ll admit I’m not talking Team Yankee or Bolt Action but still all run with game mechanics that this audience would recognise and could participate in. There is value in thinking through tactical problems and gaming them out.

I’m not suggesting that we be naive enough to consider ourselves better than Lee if, in 6mm, we can break the Federal line at Gettysburg. But, the principles of war are unchanging and ground is still god. In my experience once the jokes about trolls and dice are out the way soldiers respond well to the challenge of an adversarial game.

All that said, I play Bolt Action with another officer with no goal greater than the satisfaction of a good beer, a better chat and a decently dressed table with some averagely painted figures.

Once COVID eases we’re running through the Bolt Action Fortress Budapest campaign. No doubt we’ll over think it; but, it’s a simple pleasure and I’m looking forward to it. Probably all the explanation that’s required despite the rant above.

Archduke Piccolo said...

Fascinating discussion and follow-up comments.

In other contexts we often hear about escapism - in film or written literature, say. But who is escaping - a prisoner or a deserter? There is that about real life that can feel constricting or suffocating, and maybe on that account justifiably from which to step outside from time to time. But if it means stepping aside from responsibility and obligations, that is another thing altogether.

I don't see War Gaming as escapism either way, myself. Rather it presents a whole different world in which one is free to create whatever narrative suits one's fancy - or fantasy. I have a lot of worlds, that I can visit as the mood takes me - and more than once these worlds have taken on a life of their own, not necessarily as I willed it, nor yet consciously 'randomly generated'. Sometimes these worlds collide or merge with each other as their narratives develop over time.

Possibly this colours my attitude to how others present their war games. I can admire finely crafted terrain and lovingly painted troops. Yet such things attract my eye no more than an imaginative set-up, using extemporised terrain, impressionistic (or expressionistic?) models, and indifferently painted or even unpainted figures. The key, though, are figures and models - miniatures. Tokens and blocks just don't have that 'humanising' factor that draws one in.

War Gaming is fun - and, being fun, there are lines I won't cross, or perhaps more accurately: if I cross them, I'll recross them as soon as may be. Possibly one of those lines concerns the Waffen SS. My German army has no Waffen SS in it - not formally. But if a scenario I want to play out calls for SS troops, I have sufficient near-enough 'lookalikes' that can stand for them for the duration of the action. At the close of the action they become 'German Army' once more. Perhaps that is mere casuistry, but where I stand it seems to make a difference.

Ion (Archduke Piccolo) Dowman

ECW 40mm Project said...

I think all wargamers are desperately in need of intervention. Oh wait, that's me!!


Bottom line is that it is a pretty harmless combination of craftiness [terrain and figs], history [research and "realism"] and game playing [sometimes lost on a few people...that it's just a game, but generally...] that is not nearly as appealing without the miniatures and terrain.

Not that there's anything wrong with the many lovely board games around today, they are often just as visually appealing and easier for non-crafty people to buy into. We aren't all retired.

Bottom line, is unless you are neglecting other obligations with the money and time you spend on the hobby, it is harmless like any other hobby. Just a bit more unusual, is all.

Johnny Danger said...

Thank you very much for this thought provoking post.having contemplated my navel for all of three minutes, I am moved to reply.

I agree. Escapism? Maybe.Fun? Certainly! Like every hobby there are pedants/ accuracy/technology freaks, and if there are, so what? Luckily, we can play the way each of us wants (solo) or with like minded friendsb ( really an excuse for socialosing!) . Some like competition, to others it is anathema. Putting the cares and worries of daily life aside for a few hours whilst playing, painting, creating or perusing MUST be good for one's mental health.
If you like it and it is legal.... do it. En avant mes braves !

Brian said...

Just found this post and it really makes me wish that we had another documentary that celebrated the "whimsy" of the hobby.

My partner watched the documentary with me back when it was released in the US on Amazon and remarked how the overall tone was rather sad.

Keith Flint said...

Brian, your partners' reaction has been shared by a number of reviewers. In a way, showing the problems people have encountered is refreshingly honest, but it does run the risk of leaving out the innocent pleasure of a generally light-hearted hobby.

dalethewargamer said...

This is a really interesting conversation, one I just stumbled on in my occasional rummaging around the internet looking for wargaming stuff. The comment by vtsaogames sort of struck home because his wargaming background sounds similar to mine (growing up in the shadow of WW2 - I am a baby boomer in America, playing with little green soldiers, the cardboard markers on boardgames representing generals). Yep, that's me. Only I just "discovered" wargaming as a hobby a few years ago in the middle of my retirement. Since then I have read many blogs, including those of many of the contributors here, most of the books by the big names in the hobby, tried gaming in different periods (I finally am playing at WW2 with Bolt Action and Blitzkrieg Commander rules). What I really enjoyed, though, about this conversation is the true sense of genuine joy you all have in pursuing this hobby. I'm 75 years old and every time I read another book or blog, or try a new set of rules, or even play a new game or create a new campaign scenerio, I feel it too. And I am a kid again too. Oh those wonderful little green soldiers. But now I can appreciate how much more there is to this hobby than I would have known as a kid. And another thing that stands out in this conversation is that there is appreciation of every aspect of it - modeling, terrain-making, figure-painting, studying history, etc. etc., AND respect for those who pursue it in different ways. Tony Adams makes fabulous woodscrew armies, many of you have battle tables and armies of fantastic elegant figures that I drool over. As for me, I am not that artistic and don't have the patience to indulge in that side of the hobby. I will simply admire the wonderful work done by others. My solo wargaming world is played out with cardboard markers and wooden blocks (like Kriegspiel), paper battle maps 17 inches x 22 inches in size, hand-drawn, using many different sets of rules, most of which I have modified in some way. It's perhaps a simpler way to go about it, but I derive all the enjoyment I need out of it. My point is that I agree with all of you. It's about having FUN!

Keith Flint said...

Dale, thanks for taking the trouble to leave your thoughtful and enlightening post, especially as your background and interests in the hobby are different from many of us.

"genuine joy" - what a nice phrase. As you imply, just because wargaming is trivial and whimsical that doesn't necessarily make it less valuable or important as any other part of our lives.