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.

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