Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Taste and Decency

This blog post will be something of an unfocused ramble. I have had a number of thoughts on a particular subject, but not really a coherent line of argument. This post will be more about raising questions than answering them and I will have to apologise in advance for not reaching any definite conclusions.

Some readers may be aware that I have been building a fantasy Chinese army for Hordes of the Things. My goal is to build several armies all capable of battling one another in a Fantasy world loosely based on Medieval East Asia, much in the same way that the Warhammer world is based on late Medieval Europe.

With that in mind I toyed with several different ideas for armies. In particular, I wanted a fantasy analogue for the Mongolian hordes of Genghis Khan that swept through Asia and Europe during the 13th centuary. Games Workshop had done two ranges of Hobgoblins in the past that had a very Mongolian look, with similar armour, weapons and facial hair, but they are long since out of production and not easy to find. Instead, I decided to use Games Workshops current range of Fantasy Goblin Wolf Riders, as they were easier to obtain, relatively inexpensive and still had a number of design details that echoed the Mongolians, such as their hats and shields. The fact that I could do an entire army of wolf riders was also pretty appealing.

Having gotten hold of my first wolf riders, I decided to try and make them look a bit more like the classical image of the Mongolian army by adding some moustaches and beards with green stuff. It was only when sticking bits of green stuff to their faces that the thought occurred to me that this could be taken in a different way than I was intending. I was always planning to post pictures of these on my blog and it has left me wondering what people might think. Could my sticking green stuff on goblins to make them look 'Mongolian' be taken to mean that I thought Mongolians look like Goblins? Or that all it takes to make a Mongolian is a droopy moustache? Worse, what if this really did say something about my subconscious attitude to Mongolian culture?

This was probably a huge over-reaction and I doubt anyone would be sensitive enough to take offence. My army was inspired by Mongolian culture, but not meant to say anything about it. Readers would understand that.

However, this whole line of thought was disconcerting to me, because I was bringing ideas and attitudes to my wargaming that I usually leave outside. As a self-consciously 'woolly liberal' I spend a fair bit of time on blogs and messages boards getting unnecessarily irritated by people's casually prejudice and racism, and self examine my own beliefs, opinions and attitudes for signs of prejudice. If anything, wargaming is an antidote to this, an area that is just for fun, where I can leave political debates behind.

But once I had started thinking in this way I couldn't easily stop and it made me think some more about other 'odd' aspects of wargaming.

Take the example of the Nazis, largely regarded as one of most evil regimes in history.* Yet, plenty of us have no qualms about collecting armies of World War 2 Germans. What does this say about us? Does it say anything? Somehow the regime has developed a kind of pop culture split personality, where the are regarded as some of the worst criminals in history and simultaneously pulp fiction baddies. This is not unique to wargaming, but is also present in film and video games.

I have a German army for Secrets of the Third Reich in which World War 2 Germans rub shoulders with Vampires and Werewolves. This does not mean I sympathise with their ideology even the smallest amount. I only collect that army because my little brother wanted to collect Brits. But I wonder how I would feel if, say, a Jewish person who had relatives who died in Holocaust saw them. Would I defend them? Would I feel the need to?

My Grandfather fought in World War 2 and was heavily involved in operation Market Garden. My Dad still has photos to prove it. I have seen battles in which he was involved made into wargaming scenarios. I'm not really into World War 2 historical games, but if I were, how would I feel about recreating those battles? Would I include a model of my grandfather? Would that be disrespectful? Or would it be more disrespectful to leave him out?

That's a conflict still in living memory. But what about conflicts still going on? Osprey is publishing 'Force on Force', a set rules for modern warfare from Ambush Alley. The Assault Group and Black Scorpion make US and British troops and Insurgents. Isn't it a bit odd to be turning conflict in which people still dying into game? What would you say to relatives of soldiers? I don't think these companies mean to offend, or are doing anything morally wrong, again, when I think about it in this way, it just feels odd.

Our hobby involves simulating conflicts in which thousands or millions died. Is that weird? True, the history of the world would have been a lot less bloody if conflicts had been resolved with wargaming instead of war. But they weren't. Does our hobby trivialise this? Or is it just a bit of fun? Is treating it as a bit of fun distasteful?

It would be too strong to talk about bringing questions of morality into wargaming. I don't think any of these questions are serious enough to warrant the term. But maybe taste and decency? Would that be appropriate? I raise all this stuff only because my slightly silly wobble over my 'Mongolian' Goblins made me think about wargaming from a different perspective.

As I said at the start, I don't have any conclusions to draw, just a bunch of questions. Including the question 'Does any of this even matter?' I can't pretend to have an answer to that. All I can say, is that it has made me think.

*I would say the most evil but that would probably start an argument with someone siting Stalin's precise casualty count and begin a debate begins over numbers versus intent, so suffice it to say if we listed worst regimes in history they would be near the top.


  1. Is it kind of odd that a staunch liberal would even be playing wargames? Shouldn't you be at peace rallies or union meetings instead? You're being disloyal to the party and will be harshly disciplined! LOL!

    Ah, you're worrying too much. As I tell my PC-obsessed college students who are always fearful of offending someone: "Your fear of offending me offends me!" :-)

    Keep up the good work. I love the blog!

  2. You need to think yourself back to the point where this is all make believe and you stop trying to analyze the Freudian reasons you play with toy soldiers.

  3. Why would someones opinion be more or less relevant if they were Jewish?

    Fancy a game? Should it look like I'm losing I can pretend I'm someone else and claim victimhood... you get to feel guilty - I get a victory... win/win!