Friday, August 26, 2011

Wargames As Educational Component

There's no question for me that the most compelling iPad app for me (besides GoodReader for rules PDFs and Netflix for, well, Netflix) recently has been Ascension, the excellent implementation of Justin Gary's excellent deckbuilding game. What has been a little surprising for me is how effectively I think that this game could be included in a class on critical thinking, probably at the early secondary school level (in the US, this is right about the time the kids are 12-13 years old). I'll write more on that later, but for now I'll limit my comments as to how that's gotten me thinking about a lot of things educational, one of them being wargames.

Wargamers like to think that they learn a lot about history from playing these games, but I think that's not quite accurate. I've seen more than one posting online from people who state that the game itself isn't going to give you nearly enough information about a conflict so that you have any greater idea of what caused it, what went on off the battlefield, or what factors not present in the game led to the historical outcome. For anything dating before the 19th Century, getting an accurate and unbiased account of the action is problematic, and anything prior to the 18th Century is largely guesswork (these dates are intended to be very general). I met a man from Turkey once who told me that the problem with getting good information about that country's statistics from the Great War are not due to poor recordkeeping but rather because there is too *much* information poorly organized. Which sounds like good recording and poor keeping, but there you go.

In other words, there is a lot going on that isn't on the board. Considering the amount of information and research about the Order of Battle (OoB) that goes into a game to make it historically correct, that's pretty amazing. Certainly the various mechanisms can be enlightening (usually at the tactical level - see Fields of Fire for an excellent primer on the challenges of getting a group of people to perform acts that go directly against their sense of self-preservation), but in the end there isn't much that you learn about combat itself from rolling dice or moving cardboard squares.

It's arguable that the point of the game, aside from recreation, is to collect research on the OoB, the area, the situation, and the design process, and put it into a form that allows accessibility. I've never been a gear head when it comes to military matters - I can't tell you the variants of the US Sherman tank (although I *could* go to Patton's Best and get some sense of the variants), so the OoB has never really interested me. Whether a particular MG battalion actually saw action in the Caucasus in 1942 is not why I play games.

As for the situation, that is much better explained through textual description, which is often included in the Designer's Notes. These may also, along with the Developer's Notes, give some insight into wargame design, which I *do* find interesting, but at the same time I think few wargamers are in the hobby because they are interested in design and the challenges it brings, which are very different from the historical nature of the game. To be honest, that's why I became interested in wargames and how I became interested in military history, but I think for most people the initial appeal is exactly the opposite. In any case, even with a card driven game that includes more information about the surrounding geopolitical situation, or games with an economy (which tend to take the history even farther afield), you are given a very brief taste of the situation at best.

So what is left, aside from learning that the road network or lack thereof played a huge role in the Battle of the Bulge? In all cases, a student (whether in a formal setting or just learning for it's own sake) is not going to get more than a very introductory education from most wargames.

Most of the comments I've seen think that the main educational value of wargames is that the designer *has* done research and thus is able (hopefully) to provide a good bibliograpy that can point people to various points where they can actually learn something in something approaching "depth". If it's a particularly good bibliography, it will be annotated so that people understand the pluses and minuses of a given text, as well as it's scope. Anyone who has done serious research understands this (as well as understanding that on just about any topic there is more information out there than is possible to list, much less digest, much less assess).

While I obviously appreciate the bibliography, at the same time I think that wargames provide one thing that you cannot get from a text or the rules or anything else about the game - they can teach you about how geography and topography affect history, and how that affects the movement and combat effectiveness of armies (or soldiers, if we're at that level). In other words, it's about the maps and how the units move along them.

For those of us who haven't been in the military, or even for some who have, it's easy to think that here you have the German Army, there you have Paris, and a lot of open ground between them. What you don't understand is that in 1914, the infrastructure is such that there are challenges in even aspect of the operation and that they are largely dictated by the land itself. Watching the Schlieffen Plan evolve on a map of Western Europe is by far a stronger learning experience than looking at a few static maps in a textbook. You see just how tenuous the logistical "tail" running through the Ardennes forest was, how many things had to go right in order for the operation to be successful.

Nothing I've ever seen other than animation, and usually it's a cursory treatment, goes into great depth on how a battle evolves over the ground and how that ground affects that evolution. This, to my mind, is where the wargame is most valuable to the student of history. To this day I find myself looking for good maps in a military history book and finding them almost universally lacking. Even atlases of military history fall short in comparison. But having a wargame set up in a classroom that slowly demonstrates how the battle or war plays out over time gives the student a chance to absorb the conflict in a way that text and maps just can't.

What a good designer will also demonstrate is how hard it was to communicate with an advancing army when there was no effective wireless communications. When air recon was in it's infancy. When there were no mobile operations other than cavalry. How critical a logistical buildup was - amassing all of that artillery and, equally important, all of those shells. In WW2, also the fuel.

The problem is that few who play wargames want to be logistics officers. Moving a bunch of crates from point A to point B is for those "weenie" Eurogamers (and I am one of them), something less interesting than the action of running an offensive with tank spearheads with breakthroughs and encirclements and surrendering enemy troops. Most wargames do have supply rules and a nod to this issue, but in general it's largely abstracted out quite a bit. Those wargames that *do* try to create realistic situations are labeled as "scripted" or "chrome heavy" and largely dismissed. In the end, wargamers want tension and the ebb and flow of armies but beyond that it's about gaming more than simulating. Even with ASL, which arguably has the most detailed OoB in the hobby, the idea is about shooting shells more than can you get your soldiers to fire in the first place (I'm talking pre-breaking here, before anyone even *starts* shooting) and it certainly isn't about getting them to *stop* shooting, which is apparently also a bit of a trick in the real world.

There are wargames that do these other things, and they are typically well regarded. Those are important lessons to learn if you want to understand military history. However, for most of the hobby, it's about the game or about the OoB and the "real" learning comes from the bibliography and the dynamic elements of the game. Were I trying to teach history using wargames, that would be the role I'd see them playing in the classroom - how we got from point A to point B (literally) and why it went that way instead of over here. That's true at almost any level of warfare, from the tactical to the grand strategic. It's a valuable tool that you can't find anywhere else.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Goodbye To The Geek

No, not *me*. Silly.

I'm not sure exactly why I seem to spark so much "controversy" over at BoardGame Geek, but I do. It seems I can't put anything up without someone taking offense or massively misreading my motives or making a stupid suggestion then complaining about me calling it "random" (instead of just "dumb") and then taking me to task for my word choice.

I think the thing that drove me the craziest was Mr. Skeletor, responding to a question about what I doing wrong in a Mansions of Madness scenario as the keeper, suggesting that it was just a case of me being a sore loser. This from the guy who, when he reached the same point I did with BGG, asking to have all of his postings and files removed. Hilariously, another poster on the same question was harsh enough that someone else mailed me privately to say that he was "just like that" and really not a bad guy. When other people feel they have to apologize for you (people that I am extremely unlikely to ever meet) I know that we're pretty far off the ranch.

And then there's the outright crazy people. Mr. Crazy Steel Wolves Guy, I'm talking to you. After the third private mail where he told me my motivations for every word I used in suggesting that the game was going to be a much more pleasant experience in VASSAL, I asked him not to contact me again, and he didn't.

I did, however, take a great deal of pride in being called a "Review Nazi" by a guy who didn't seem to understand that Castle Ravenloft is at it's heart a solitaire game and thus must have a balance of randomness (to keep it from being a puzzle) but still reward good play (to keep it from being a ride). He never did get the concept, but being told I was a Nazi for suggesting that his opinion was not as fully baked as he likes to think did give me quite a good laugh. He didn't get Godwin's Law, either.

I'm very sorry, but I am not interested in spending two paragraphs couching every possible point I make as a) valuing your opinion, b) giving my gaming resume to "allow" me to comment, c) valuing your opinion, d) reminding you that you are entitled to your opinion and no one can take it away from you. Oh, and valuing your opinion. That should all be implicit.

As an engineer who has spent some time in academia, it's clear to me that the rigors of debate and critical thinking are simply beyond the capacity for the majority of people involved in the site. That's a shame, as I think I've contributed some value. But when I point out that the GMT version of No Retreat includes a free download of the solitaire package from the VPG site and a way to use the cards without needing to actually cut them out, only to have someone suggest that you could just as easily pay for the "finished" kit (which, actually, you already have purchased) and then repeatedly complain that I called their suggestion "random" without a *single* word discussing why their idea is better, I know it's time for me to find another way to spend my alone time than continually unsubscribing from threads.

I'm also amazed as some of the reasoning that goes on. One guy said he thought that Quarriors deserved exceptional levels of hate (Qhate, as he put it) because (in a nutshell) he saw a lot of people playing and enjoying it. Really, how do you deal with morons like that? You can't argue with them. You can't even have a discussion with them. They. Don't. Make. Sense.

So I'm done posting. Which is a shame. I like posting. I'll probably do more of it here now, which is nice except for the occasional marketeer who puts up a link to their site (I take those down as soon as I hear about them). I'll still use the 'Geek for reference, but even a simple question turns into a shouting match and it's just not good for my hypertension.

So, to all of the wonderful people on the Geek who made my time there so pleasant, a hearty Spock You. May your children turn out to be miscreants, may you enjoy your small and angry little lives, may you enjoy couching every barb in "It sounds like you..." style writing rather than just saying "You're an idiot." Which I cannot say on the 'Geek because, you know, it might hurt someone's feelings.

Really, I don't know what I was expecting. It's the Internet. No crazy here.

So now, it's just reading the BGG news and seeing if someone has already been roundly criticized for asking a question about a game. To everyone who has been damned decent on the site and thanked me for my efforts (and there are a few), Thank You and You're Welcome. I really do like facilitating gaming and people's enjoyment of it, but the confrontational people have simply driven me away.

Unlike Mr. Skeletor, I will not be taking down every file or comment I ever posted. Maybe you'll find something interesting.

I will also continue to contribute to their fund drives. The site does play a useful role. The forums, however, are no longer part of the "fun" for me.

I'd also like to thank Octavian, the main admin, for his work. When I got flagged for telling someone they were an angry person (saying "you seem like an angry person - OK), he was great about firmly telling me the rules, which I understand, and also for saying that my particular transgression was about as mild as he sees. I stand by my theory that online forums are promoting passive-aggressive behavior, but I understand the need to draw a line somewhere. Matt, you do good work and I thank you again for your time and effort on the behalf of the community. I really don't see how you do it.

Now to see how long I can actually keep away...

Monday, August 08, 2011

Mark O. Hatfield, RIP

I think that a lot of my worldview was set at a fairly young age. Traveling with my parents to visit my sister in the small Andean town of Popayan, Columbia, where her husband was doing post-grad work (or possibly grant work, I was only 9 at the time) in anthropology - getting to go to and meet people from both the barrio and the landowners was a gift I didn't appreciate for a very long time.

However, there was another event that I'd completely forgotten about until this very morning, when I opened up the paper and saw that perhaps the greatest statesperson Oregon has ever produced, Mark O. Hatfield, died. He was respected by politicians on both sides of the aisle, and had a reputation for being the cleanest politician in Washington.

When I was young, my family attended a small Presbyterian church. This was a pretty liberal church - not a lot of talk of Hell and damnation, not a lot of focus on getting punished for doing wrong, much more focus on just doing the right thing. I know that a few of you who know me personally are going to be amazed that I went to church at *all*, but it's true. Didn't stick much - by the time I was 13 or 14 I was doing my own passive resistance movement when it came to Sunday mornings by simply refusing to get out of bed. My mother finally gave up.

One Sunday we were fortunate enough to have Senator Hatfield give the sermon at our church. The subject of the sermon was one that literally changed my view of the world. Back in the late 60's and very early 70's, especially in my little corner of suburban Portland, things were pretty homogenous and stable, at least in terms of what the neighbors were aware of. I definitely believed in God at the time, and was under the impression that as the best and richest country in the world that America was definitely favored by God.

That wasn't the sermon Senator Hatfield gave us. He told us that we were *not* the new Israel, that we were *not* favored by God. We were a good country trying to do the right thing, but we were just as much the children of God as anyone else on the planet, no matter what their faith or worldview. Understand that I was probably about 11 years old, so to have an adult tell me that we were, in essence, just getting along like everyone else was a real shock in some ways, although it wasn't until much later that I really started to understand what a shift in my thinking that was. My parents were still perfect, remember, at that age. Teachers were always right. There were a few kids at school who acted out, but in general things were pretty much Leave It To Beaver in my neighborhood.

And there was nothing special about us except the fact that we were human.

Over the course of my life, I've tried to understand as many sides of an issue as I could. Recent experience has taught me that there are a lot of people, perhaps a majority of people, who are about as interested in that idea as of eating dirt. I trust my leaders so much as they earn that trust, which is increasingly smaller every year at most levels of government. I believe that if the world is good, it's because we make it good, not because some higher power's idea of good is at work. Most of all, I try very hard to avoid acting like a spoiled brat with an overdeveloped sense of entitlement when things aren't going the way I'd like them to. OK, I have my moments, but I like to think there are relatively few of them.

All of these things I can trace back to a lot of things, including some good role modeling by my parents and family and some very good friends growing up, but I can also trace my these things to one famous man speaking in my church and laying the foundations for responsible adulthood in my mind.

Senator Hatfield was not well the final years of his life, and he died in Bethesda, MD, far from his home. I think that's a shame for a man who left such an indelible stamp on the state he called home.

My thoughts are with the Hatfield family tonight, but Mark lived a good life, doing good things. He was a model that many if not all of our "statespeople" today could learn a lot from - work with your opponent, get to know them and their point of view, find compromises that achieve your goals as well as the goals of your opponents. We don't have to all join hands and sing Kum Ba Yah, but we also don't have to call each other vermin and Nazi with such gusto and with so little provocation.

Thank you, Senator Hatfield. You probably had no idea you had such an effect on a young boy sitting in that little church, and there's no question that what you said that day also had a big effect on me not being actively religious (and certainly not Christian by most people's standards, although I'm always astonished at how bigoted some Christians are against other people who wear the same label), which is probably not what the pastor at my church had in mind. That said, you made me a better person with more perspective, and I hope that you, sir, are in a better place. One where we can solve problems without the main idea being winning the next election or meeting this month's financial projections. We miss you.