When it comes down to it, this hobby is ultimately about playing with toy soldiers. However much we try to dress it up, a direct line can be drawn from the group of kids playing with action figures, making gun noises and arguing that your man didn't shoot theirs because theirs jumped out of the way at the last second, to gaming clubs and tournaments. The only change is that the arguments that my soldier couldn't be hit because he's a ninja and can dodge all guns has been replaced by long, weary message board arguments about game balance.
The more knowing and, usually, experienced wargamers realise this. Some even go so far as to describe their hobby as 'playing with toy soldiers.' While many teenage gamers loudly insist that they collect miniatures, the truth is that for many, if not most, of us wargaming was an excuse not to stop playing with toys when we reached our teenage years.
The reason I raise this well known, if not always admitted, truth is the toy industry is changing and, it is probable, that this will have profound implications for the wargaming hobby. Wargamers who are also parents may be aware that children are losing interest in toys at a younger and younger age. This is not, despite what the tabloid press might believe, because children are becoming delinquent alcoholics and drug users before they reach double figures, but more because of video games. Take a look at this report, it makes for interesting reading.
This is an interesting and potential worrying trend. If much of the hobby is made up of toy soldier collectors who never quite grew up, or rather didn't see growing up as a reason to get rid of their toys, a generation with limited interest in toys presents a poor pool to draw recruits. But the implications might be greater even than that.
The 1980s and 1990s produced a generation of children who wanted tactile contact with their heroes. The advent of Star Wars, which spawned a more extensive range of toys than had ever been seen before, and the relaxation of the US law that prevented toy companies funding cartoons (effectively allowing 25 minute toy adverts) enabled children to acquire toy versions of just about every major character going. Children wanted to be able to touch, hold, interact and collect their heroes. I can't speak for every child of the 1980s, but, for me, having a decent range of toys was an essential prerequisite for me taking an interest in a range of characters. The principle reason I never became very attached to Marvel comics was because, in the UK at least, their were no action figures until the 1990s. I wanted direct, physical contact with my heroes.
But we are now producing a generation of children who have grown up with video and computer games. Or at least have grown up with half decent ones in which the on the screen characters can be recognised as being something. I grew up with the Spectrum 48K and, as good as some games were, the appeal of moving single coloured blobs around the screen was never likely to be a substitute for my Optimus Prime toy. In contrast, children now are used to characters all but indistinguishable from the ones they see on TV being directly under their control. Their ways of playing have changed and they have a less tactile relationship with the characters.
Though 'less tactile' is possibly not the right phrase to use. They expect tactile contact through, controller, mouse key board and, increasingly, touch screen. This article suggests that this new generation will expect their entertainment to be interactive and that traditional television and film may well be in trouble.
For a long time computer and video games were dismissed by the wargaming community. Games Workshop famously referred to them as a 'pass time rather than a hobby.' Which was reasonable. Video games were fun, but failed to replicate the sense of control or achievement experienced by wargamers assembling and painting an entire army. Developments in video gaming technology, however, may mean this is no longer the case.
Take World of Warcraft, famously addictive time sponging MMORPG. The scope of player behaviour in this virtual environment is vast. As well as creating and advancing their characters, players can form guilds with other players, creating badges and charters, acquire through combat, quests, purchase or trade hundreds of different items of equipment and customise their characters appearance endlessly. The game now features items of equipment that have no effect on the way the character plays, only on their appearance. When 'the Wrath of the Liche King' expansion was released, the ability to customise haircuts was trumpeted almost as loudly as the new continent. The bottom line is that players can spend as much time customising their characters as the wargame armies.
Games that more directly compete with traditional wargaming are also moving in this direction. Warhammer 40,000 spin off Dawn of War II allows players to design colour schemes for their online armies. It's no match for painting a whole army yourself, but how long, in a world where computer sculpting is already becoming standard, before whole wargame armies can be created and painted from scratch before being launched into a virtual environment without any physical model ever existing?
Such a development would probably be no substitute for traditional wargaming to most of the current generation of wargamers. But what about a generation that has no expectation of being able to physically hold their toys? Or is used to an entirely different method of interaction with them?
So what does this mean for traditional wargaming? I think it's in no danger of dying out yet. But we could see its audience skewing older and more specialised. Just as the comic industry has moved to favouring older and more die-hard fans as its audience has shrunk. Meanwhile, the mainstream may have to find new ways to appeal to new audiences, just as comic companies have pushed films, television and video games. Games Workshop have already demonstrated the value of licensing with Dawn of War and Warhammer Online. Online versions of Field of Glory and AT-43 already exist. The future of wargaming will be shaped by a generation of wargamers who, instead of keeping hold of their toy soldiers, choose to keep hold of their control pads.