On June 24, 2016, six of Zones of Control’s authors turned up at CNA Corporation’s Arlington offices for the federally-funded Center for Naval Analyses. Coincidence? No, they were there for a book launch with volume editors Pat Harrigan and Matthew Kirschenbaum.
As we trust many readers of PaxSims know by now, Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming is a big footprint book recently published by the MIT Press. With some 60 essays by nearly 70 contributing authors, the volume weighs in at over 800 pages with 100 b/w illustrations. While no one book will encompass wargaming in all of its historical and material diversity, we try hard to cover the bases, with pieces ranging from tabletop game design to the mathematical underpinnings of operations research and systems design to the ethics and politics of wargames as radical forms of play; and contributors who run the gamut from hobby luminaries to some of the foremost professional and academic authorities in the world on their subjects.
For the launch event, however, we were especially concerned to introduce the volume to its potential audiences in the DC-area serious games and policy establishment, and so CNA provided the ideal venue. Panelists included bestselling author Larry Bond and his collaborator on Harpoon and other Admiralty Trilogy games Chris Carlson; Brien Miller, who has worked on everything from statistical recreations of the US submarine campaign in the Pacific to Red Orchestra; Peter Perla, who literally wrote the book on the subject, his indispensable The Art of Wargaming (1990); Volko Ruhnke, lead designer for GMT’s COIN series; and PaxSims’ own Rex Brynen, the only non-‘Murican in the group who thus had to brave additional levels of security to get past the lobby. Much missed were likely DC-area (or frequent visitor) suspects Ellie Bartels and Yuna Wong, both of whom had conflicting obligations, as did Elizabeth Losh, based in nearby Williamsburg.
The fragility of any potential for gender representation—let alone gender balance—on such a panel is, of course, indicative of professional and hobby wargaming at large. For many reasons, the entire ZOC launch is usefully juxtaposed with a recent panel on feminist wargame design held at the Electronic Literature Organization conference in Victoria, British Columbia and featuring some of the best rising academic voices in game studies, notably Stephanie Boluk, Diane Jakacki, and Anastasia Salter, as well as ZOC’s own Losh and panel convener Jon Saklofske. (Though the need for cross-disciplinary and cross-professional conversation is rendered all the more acute by the way in which the term “wargames,” in that venue, tended to be employed mainly as shorthand for first person shooters.)
Back to Arlington. There were some 25-30 people gathered in the room (a few hobby stalwarts, numerous suits), along with a well-stocked table of refreshments and a sales display for the book, ably overseen by DC’s Reiter’s Books. After opening remarks from Pat and Matt contextualizing the volume, we turned things over to our panelists. The discussion was as wide-ranging as you might expect, and we have hopes of making an audio recording available soon, so we won’t attempt anything like a comprehensive summary. If there was a dominant theme, however, its terms were set by Ruhnke, who noted that here we sat, the morning after the UK’s Brexit vote, and shouldn’t wargames—broadly construed—have a role in inculcating the kind of complex systems thinking so obviously necessary for citizenship in a 21st century globalized society? Or wargaming as a counter to what some commentators have recently dubbed “post-factual democracy”?
This is a powerful argument, and nicely encapsulates the underlying ethos and rationale for a big book devoted to wargames: it’s not about the war, or even the games per se, it’s about what Howard Rheingold, writing in a very different context, once called tools for thought. To that end, Matt introduced the example of Ruth Catlow’s three-player chess variant inspired by 2003 Iraq war protests, discussed in Mary Flanagan’s ZOC essay, in which one player controls white’s royal pieces, another black’s, and a third the pawns on both sides who attempt to bring the game to a stalemate. As Flanagan notes, Catlow’s variant “provides an alternative model of a wargame that introduces a new interested party, the pawns, who know they will bear the brunt of any war in terms of military services, economic challenge, and sacrifice.” (Meanwhile, Brynen mused, “In the aftermath of Brexit someone really needs to develop a board game about a small, insular little island where people trade brick, lumber, wool, grain, and ore.”)
There was also a bit of news to announce at the event: ZOC has sold through its first printing, but is happily once again available from the Press and other quality booksellers. Given the widespread public interest in wargaming at the present moment—typified by the vigorous public discussion around RAND’s recent wargames on Russian intervention in the Baltic—we believe the time is right for an inclusive volume collecting multiple, indeed often conflicting, perspectives on the messy but continually compelling form of play known as “wargaming.” We hope Zones of Control meets that need, and even more importantly that it becomes the impetus for further discussion and debate, all the more so in places where its gaps and silences are the most palpable.
We are grateful to CNA for generously hosting the event, and for assistance from Reiter’s Books and the MIT Press.
Matthew Kirschenbaum and Pat Harrigan