Posted by: markfender | July 3, 2013

Righteous Wargames

Why are their so many WWII wargames?

wargame_european_escalation-dlc2_05Amongst the historical wargaming community, there are certain wars that show up over and over. The Napoleonic Wars. The Civil War. World War II. There are a ridiculous number of these games out there to such a high degree that I doubt that it would be possible to play all of a certain wars games in one lifetime. But there’s hardly any Vietnam games. Very few Boer War games. What fires the imagination about certain wars more than other wars?

I think it comes down to whether a war is “righteous.” Is there an obvious bad guy? I think most of us can agree that slavery is a bad idea, so the Civil War is a righteous war, fought for a noble cause. It doesn’t necessarily matter that certain people are on the “losers” sides, just that war itself has clear end goals that were positive. I think we can also all agree that Hitler was bad news, so World War II obviously is pretty “righteous.” We can paint our hordes of Tiger tanks in playing the Germans but with the obvious knowledge that we’re on the “wrong” side and, may win the scenario, but will not the win the war.

But Vietnam? Not so righteous. Why were we there? “Burning the village to save it” doesn’t really ring out as an endorsement for either our methods or our reasons. Why did we invade Cambodia? Did we just lose all sense of righteousness after the Tet Offensive? I won’t hazard a guess. But I think most of us would agree that the Vietnam War had murky reasoning, poor strategy, and murkier actions. Which might explain why it doesn’t get games a lot. I’ve seen a number of Desert Shield/Desert Storm wargames, which has another conflict with a set bad guy performing regrettable actions that we can justify, but I’m not seeing anything on the current conflict. Our reasons for going were murky, the conflict has had no clear winners, and our noble intentions are not translating. It’s not “righteous” and therefore loses the thin veneer of respectability that we need in our wargames.

I don’t mean to politicize here (there have been treatises about Vietnam or Iraq with far more information than I’m abstracting here), but it does seem like, for entertainment’s purposes, we need a righteous war. Because, if you really stop and think about war and the thoughts that go into turning that activity into a game, things can get a little squicky. It’s a murder simulator. I don’t think that most of us are okay with that. But, we can apply higher motivations – honor, glory, stopping a common enemy – and justify deriving entertainment from such a, in the big picture, awful practice. And I’m certainly not disqualifying myself from that. I like simulating the murder of other human beings just as much as the next person who’s ever played a computer game. The more that die to my virtual hands, the better. And I think fiction can easily justify that. It’s when it becomes historical that our motivations get on thinner ice and the need for righteousness enters the picture.

Which explains the Call of Duty Modern Warfare problem. Despite that these are all set in a modern world, they fantasize the actual participants. Made-up countries and dictators, mercenaries driving the economy to its knees, and other made-up things are the source of conflict. The drama villainizes these made-up groups, separating it from the current conflict in the Middle East. As fiction, we’re more okay with that than an actual game about shooting Afghan rebels in the head. But, if you go back to the Call of Duty World War II games, it was totally cool to shoot Germans in the head, in actual battles modeled on real events. Because we stopped a bad man and that somehow justifies it.

I pick on the Call of Duty series because it’s covered that gamut, even though it’s not a wargame. Personally, I don’t have much interest in historical wargaming. I like robots and dragons too much to develop much interest in pushing cannon around. But, instead of complaining about the huge glut of WWII games, I thought it was more interesting to ponder why that is so.

Happy Independence Day.

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