Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Wargaming and representation


At Vice, Rob Zacny published a thoughtful piece yesterday on representation within wargames (both digital games and serious manual hobby games), specifically regarding the sometimes sympathetic portrayal of the German army during WWII.

The issues with responsibly depicting German combat forces in World War 2, and their connections to Nazi crimes against humanity, are well-known at this point and have been a point of increasing discussion and debate among historical hobby gamers for years. EA’s flagship shooter might be on the cutting edge of mainstream video gaming, but its naive politics are years behind the state of historical research. The argument that a character fought bravely and heroically for Germany, but not the Nazis, isn’t just naive, but it’s one that was aggressively promulgated by German war criminals themselves.

There are two major tenets to the whitewashing of the Wehrmacht, one more reprehensible than the other. The first and worst is that the Wehrmacht was by and large the German army but was never a Nazi army, and did not participate in the crimes against humanity that was the bedrock of Nazi governance and expansion. This was false: Particularly on the Eastern Front, the Wehrmacht worked fist-in-glove with the SS to round up and exterminate Soviet Jews, Romani, and other groups the Nazis systematically persecuted and murdered. Whatever the different experiences and actions of the millions of soldiers (volunteer and conscript) who served in the Wehrmacht, the institution of the Wehrmacht was both complicit and participant in Nazi atrocities on a wide scale.

The second tenet is that the Wehrmacht was, in a word, awesome.

We’re not going to stop making and playing World War 2 games. For whatever reason, there are countless people (myself included) who are endlessly drawn to revisiting and refighting its battles. But that narrow framing of the history, that exclusion of all the crimes and murders that surrounded the actual fighting on the front lines, serves things beyond the purity of game design. It burnishes and reinforces myths, it divorces warfare from politics, it elevates the soldier—no matter what they serve or advance—as a kind of secular hero. And it gives cover for the idea that there was something admirable and heroic about waging war for Nazi Germany.

For the full depth and nuance of his argument, you should read the full article.

One can disagree with parts or even all of Zacny’s argument, of course. It is pretty clear, however, that he is very much writing about games, game design, game play, and the possible role of games in shaping popular culture. You would think that this would be and issue that serious wargame hobbyists would want to engage, right? After all, as Clausewitz argued, politics is central to warfighting. Moreover, many hobbyists pride themselves on their love of military history and argue that wargames offer insight into real conflict.

Except that’s not exactly what happened when well-known wargame scholar Matthew Kirschenbaum shared the piece to the large ( 11,000+ member) “Wargamers” group on Facebook.

The posting immediately sparked a heated discussion on how culpable the average German soldier was for Nazi war crimes, and some discussion of how to portray atrocity and evil in games. Sadly, however, it also quickly provoked comments that showed how unwelcoming the hobby community can be:

  • The first “snowflake/social justice warrior/political correctness” insults appeared around 15 minutes after posting (ironically, by those arguing that the topic shouldn’t be raised for discussion).
  • A racist and homophobic “Pepe” meme was posted after 24 minutes.
  • After about half an hour there were calls to lock or delete the thread because it was too controversial or divisive (that is, to discuss game design in a gaming group).
  • Less than an hour in, it was suggested that the article was part of a broader socialist/globalist/Soros conspiracy. A little later on, a couple of posters implied that this was all part of blaming white people.
  • A transphobic comment was added at 57 minutes, as well as one linking the discussion to feminism and/or insufficient testosterone.

Within two hours, the thread had been shut down by the group admins. A follow-up thread lasted about an hour. Threads were also shut down in several other gaming groups.

Now, it is important to point out that the most offensive posts were from a very small handful of people, out of the several dozen who contributed. It is also important to remember that internet discussion tends to bring out both extremists and uncivil behaviour.

Nonetheless, anyone who happened to be female, LGBTQ, liberal, a visible minority, or Jewish might well see in the thread a rather unwelcoming hobby. They would have been even more dismayed by how few people spoke out against the bigotry and insults. “Discussions” like this one inhibit growing the community, inhibit greater diversity and inclusion, and discourage thoughtful discussion of serious topics.

Sadly, this isn’t the first time we’ve encountered this at PAXsims, of course.

Professional wargamers—those in the national security community whose gaming is intended to enhance security or save actual lives—tend to be far more supportive of addressing these sorts of issues. I’ve discussed issues of wargame ethics, sensitive topics, and representation in lectures I’ve delivered to defence audiences around the world, and without exception have found them receptive and reflective. These issues are also frequently raised and discussed at Connections conferences, in the US, UK, and elsewhere.

There’s a lot that serious gaming can learn from the hobby. However, there are also some bad habits and prejudices that remain far too persistent there—and which clearly need to be resisted.



6 responses to “Wargaming and representation

  1. Rex Brynen 15/05/2020 at 4:02 pm

    Michael: VICE has published some good stuff and not so good stuff, but Zacny himself is an established and respected game commentator, and his piece ought to be judged on its merits, not on where it appeared.

    The issue of attitudes within the hobby isn’t just discussed at VICE, moreover–it is discussed all over the place, especially in professional contexts. I’ve known it to be raised in multiple defence ministries, multiple professional wargaming conferences (in multiple countries), among wargame designers, etc.

    Moreover, almost all of those who express concerns over this are hobby wargamers themselves. Heck, even the comments above include Brian Train, one of the most influential contemporary wargame designers around. They’re not outsiders, any more than Zacny is an outsider.

  2. Michael Dorosh 15/05/2020 at 9:28 am

    It may be possible for someone to write a completely accurate article about wartime Nazi Germany and manage to capture all its nuances, and do it in just a few paragraphs. But any author that manages the feat will not be working for VICE. Rex, you’re being disingenuous about the reaction on Facebook – though honestly, it’s hard to understand why you would report on it at all. If a scholarly journal or even a hobby magazine had been doing serious reporting on the VICE article, one might take that seriously. But to report that VICE managed to inflame passions on the internet – sorry, that’s a bit like telling us the sky is blue. You seem unfamiliar with VICE’s mandate – they make money on a crusade of exposing anyone they think is an “extremist”, and if they can’t find any, well, it’s easy to paint anyone whose hobbies lie outside the mainstream (wargamers, reenactors, sport shooters, etc.) as just that.

  3. Kenneth Hall 06/08/2019 at 7:17 pm

    The previous commenter, Krenn (one wonders if the one is of the line Rustazh) offers interesting ideas, at least at the operational level of game. An equivalent at the tactical level could be: “Companies B and C have lost a platoon each because they were seconded to support the Einsatzgruppe operating in your sector. Remove one platoon from each company before play begins.”

    What the Times article describes isn’t the only instance (set of instances?) of things that (a) should probably be thought about more in wargames, and (b) are hard to think about because of where they lead. Start with the general premise: Here we sit, in our HQ or command post or the cupola of our command tank or whatever, making decisions that are going to lead directly to the deaths and maiming of young men under our command.

    This was driven home for me years ago, in a really well-designed miniatures scenario set in 1944 in which my German infantry battalion was tasked with defending the firing ramp for the Karl mortar (which was supposed to waddle up the ramp and lob some shells in the general direction of Antwerp). The frontage I had to hold was really more than my rather-the-worse-for-wear battalion could cover, and I had too few anti-armor assets to deal effectively with the quantity of Allied armor coming my way.

    About halfway through the game, as my casualties began to mount, I started thinking to myself, “I am responsible for these German boys being ground to paste and pink fog for the benefit of some ***holes in Berlin who want to satisfy their scientific curiosity about whether Karl is good for anything.” Toward the end I had just about talked myself into saying to hell with it, pulling my battalion out of the line, and home to Germany, but in the end I decided I owed it to the other battalions holding the line to stay and fight on. Our club’s “refgod” (gamemaster — we take turns putting on games) outdid himself that day. It was a profound experience, and I hated every minute of it at the time.

    Another example is found in the older Avalon Hill generation of games. The rules typically required that all adjacent enemy formations/units be attacked, so players would have one defending unit attacked at something like 1:6 odds in order to get better odds against the defending units where the main effort was to take place. It had a name: “soaking off.” Okay, I understand blocking forces and spoiling attacks, but the whole thing smacks rather of Task Force Smith to me. Going in against odds may be necessary, but I always want those under my command to have some kind of chance to come out the other side in one piece. I had already started thinking about this a few years ago (better late than never), but the enlistment (US Army) of my own older son last year plus a visit to the Great War memorial in Edinburgh Castle got me thinking a lot harder about these issues. I started working on an article — haven’t had time to get very far — for the club newsletter, said article to be titled “You Will All Be So Kind As to Lay Down Your Lives,” about the morality of the soak-off attack.

    It’s hard to handwave past it once you start thinking about it — you (the editorial you) are doing your best in service of what might well be a very poor cause (the Confederacy, Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, pick any side in the Great War you care to), and even if your heart is pure and your cause just, a lot of other (metaphorical) people are going to foot the ultimate bill for you.

  4. Krenn 01/07/2019 at 9:32 am

    Maybe some sort of atrocity card deck, drawn from at the beginning of each turn? one deck per side, but strongly based on historical precedent, so the historically more atrocious side generally gets more atrocious cards?

    Things like “Orders from high command direct you to devote 1 brigade to massacring civilians. -1 victory point if you disobey, -1 supply if you obey, and obedience requires at least one brigade to spend one turn in a city hex, taking no other in-game action”

  5. MM 28/06/2019 at 3:40 pm

    It’s ironic, the wargames group is kicking people out of the group just for sharing this story
    What a bunch of children

  6. brtrain 20/06/2019 at 2:10 pm

    Well said, Rex.
    And not for the first, nor the last time….

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