Wargames in a Digital Age

panel / roundtable
  1. 1. Matthew Kirschenbaum

    Department of English - University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland Institute for Technology and Humanities (MITH) - University of Maryland, College Park

  2. 2. Patrick Juola

    Computer Science - Duquesne University

  3. 3. Philip Sabin

    King's College London

Work text
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Wargaming is an applied tradition of interactive
modeling and simulation dating back to the
early 19th century or, if one counts more abstract
martial pastimes like Chess and Go, all the
way to antiquity. Why a panel about games
(tabletop as well as computer) that spotlight war
—surely the most inhumane of organized human
endeavor—at a digital humanities conference?
First, we assume that wargaming as both
a descriptive or predictive tool as well as
a recreational pastime transcends specific
technologies of implementation. For example,
when a tabletop wargamer moves troops across
the battlefield to attack an enemy, they are
enacting a specific procedure that is defined
against a larger complex of procedures and
systems which collectively aspire to represent
historical reality within a range of probable
(or possible) outcomes. The abstraction of
combat, movement, supply, morale, and other
basic military considerations into algorithmic
process or a numerically expressed spectrum of
outcomes—randomized by die rolls within the
parameters of a situation—makes the genre a
rich source for anyone interested in the formal
and procedural representation of dynamic, often
ambiguous, literally contested experience.
Second, we are concerned finally not with
wargames for their own sake, but as exemplars
of simulation as a mode of knowledge
representation. As a genre, wargames offer some
of the most complex and nuanced simulations
in any medium. A typical tabletop game might
have many dozens of pages of rules, defining
procedures and interactions for hundreds or
even thousands of discrete components (unit
tokens) across as much as twenty square feet
of map space. This places them at the formal
and physical extremes of ludic complexity.
Almost from the outset of the personal computer
revolution, meanwhile, wargames (as distinct
from games with superficial militaristic themes)
became a major software genre. Popular
tabletop wargames were rapidly translated to
the screen by companies such as SSI, with crude
artificial intelligence crafting opposing moves.
Other games dispensed with the conventions
of their manual predecessors and (much like
flight simulators) sought to recreate an intense
real-time first-person experience. Harpoon
(1989) placed a generation of early armchair
enthusiasts in the Combat Information Center of
a modern naval frigate, with countless variables
in weapon and detection systems to master.
We believe that the digital humanities, which
have already embraced certain traditions of
modeling, might have something to learn
from an exploration of this particular genre
of simulation, which has proved influential
in both professional military and political
settings as well as the realm of popular
hobby and recreation. (We also find it
suggestive that several long-time members of
the digital humanities community were “teenage
grognards,” suggesting that the games were of
a piece with other elements of a particular
generational path to computing.)
Kriegsspiel as Tool for
Matthew Kirschenbaum
University of Maryland
Kriegsspiel of course is German for (literally)
“war game.” In 1824, the Prussian staff officer
Georg von Reisswitz formally introduced the
game (versions of which had been kicking
around in his family for years) to his
fellow officers. “This is not a game! This
is training for war!” one general is said to
have exclaimed (Perla 26). It was quickly
adopted, and became the foundation for
the German institutionalization of wargaming

which persisted through World War II. The
von Reisswitz Kriegsspiel was played by laying
wooden or metal blocks across maps to
mark troop dispositions (Figure 1). Games
were conducted on actual topographical maps,
often terrain anticipated as the site of future
operations (for example, the 1914 Schlieffen
plan was subject to extensive rehearsal as a
Kriegsspiel). By the middle of the 19th century
the “game” had evolved two major variants,
so-called “rigid” and “free” Kriegsspiel. The
latter attempted to replace the elaborate rules
and calculations with a human umpire making
decisions about combat, intelligence, and other
outcomes on the battlefield.
In this paper, we take the twin traditions of rigid
and free Kriegsspiel as our point of departure
for thinking about simulation gaming in terms
of what Howard Rheingold, in the context
of computing, once called “tools for thought.”
Indeed, the fork in Kriegsspiel’s development
history anticipates much about both manual
and computer simulation design. Dungeons and
Dragons, the progenitor of all tabletop role-
playing systems, grew from a set of medieval
wargaming rules called Chainmail. The original
developers (Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson)
added the magic and monsters, but they also
replaced much of the game’s rules apparatus
with an umpire dubbed “dungeon master”
whose job it was to adjudicate the outcomes
of various actions, sometimes with the help of
tables and dice, but just as often “freestyle,”
relying on judgment and instinct. Wargaming
itself has largely remained divided along the
same fault between rigid and free systems, with
the former attracting hobbyists who buy pre-
packaged games (several thousand have been
published) to try their hand at Gettysburg
or Waterloo and the latter the domain of
professional consultants who stage elaborate
role playing exercises of the sort originally
conducted at thinktanks like RAND but are
today as likely to assist a board in planning a
corporate merger as a military staff in planning
a mission.
As the above suggests, wargames are also
both predictive and retrospective in orientation.
On the one hand, hobbyist games are often
marketed promising insight into the past,
tempting a player into believing that with
sufficient study and canniness he or she
might out-general Napoleon and rewrite history
(Dunnigan). In this sense, wargames align
with certain strains of academic counter-factual
history (Ferguson, et al.). Yet Kriegsspiel was
attractive to professional planners precisely
because of its predictive value: an accurate
formal model of some battlefield dilemma would
presumably allow commanders to rehearse their
tactics and continually alter the parameters
of the situation to arrive at solutions to the
military problem. Often, in fact these dual
orientations were pursued in tandem, with a
historical outcome from a game serving as the
control case for subsequent prediction: if a game
can restage Midway according to the trajectory
of actual events, then in principle outcomes
from its hypothetical situations might be equally
There is yet another way of thinking about
wargames though, one that does not assume
naïve faith in their capacity as either predictors
or descriptors of real-world phenomena. One
great virtue of tabletop games is that, by
their nature, their rules systems are absolutely
transparent. Everything the players need to
play the game must be in the box, and the
quantitative model underpinning the game
system is thereby materially exposed for
inspection and analysis. Many gamers collect
and compare dozens of different games on the
same subject to see how different designers
have chosen to model and interpret events. The
hobby is filled with vigorous discussions about
designers’ intents, as well as house rules and
variants, because part of what comes packaged
with the game is the game system. (Indeed, the
term “game designer” originated at SPI, one
of the hobby’s premier wargame publishers.)
As one wargame enthusiast shrewdly observes,
“What wins a wargame is but a dim
reflection of what wins a battle, or a war.
Sometimes, what wins a wargame doesn’t reflect
reality at all” (Thompson). In this view, the
game engine is a procedural instrument for
producing an outcome whose value lies in its
potential for provoking counter-factual analysis.
A wargame--either manual or computer--may
permit Napoleon to win at Waterloo: the salient
question is not whether the game was “right”
but in the questions it exposes about whether
Napoleon really could have done so (and if
so, how). This viewpoint actually comports
with that of professional wargame facilitators,

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2010
"Cultural expression, old and new"

Hosted at King's College London

London, England, United Kingdom

July 7, 2010 - July 10, 2010

142 works by 295 authors indexed

XML available from https://github.com/elliewix/DHAnalysis (still needs to be added)

Conference website: http://dh2010.cch.kcl.ac.uk/

Series: ADHO (5)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None