Wednesday 12 January 2011

How modern is too modern?

'Modern History' by XKCD
I saw this webcomic recently and it got me thinking about a subject that has corssed my mind several times before. How modern can a conflict be before it becomes insensitive to wargame it? There are a slew of wargames and boardgames covering recent history from Vietnam to the Gulf War. Is it insensitive to game these? And what about re-enactors who don army surplus or replica uniform and 'live' the history. Are they glorifying war or exploring history?

It could be argued that all wargames are essentially making entertainment from death and destruction. I don't agree (obviously) but its a conclusion that is all to easy for the outsider to arrive at. This is one of the reasons why I think wargaming conventions and Living History shows are vital. I look on these events as outreach for our hobby, a chance to engage with the general public and show them that we are not weirdo's living in our mom's basements and subsisting on crisps and coke (or Cheetos and Mountain Dew).

My own personal definition of 'Modern' is anything after WWII, and for me the closer you get to current events the more uncomfortable I would be playing a game in that period. I personally would be uncomfortable playing a game based on the current conflict in Afghanistan for instance. Having said that I also have little interest (beyond a current affairs perspective) in modern conflicts and I'm therefore not likely to wargame them.

Wargaming isn't about recreating moral decision making and it is certainly not a simulation of events in graphic detail. I think many gamers would consider their hobby an intellectual exercise and a gateway to history. In essence all wargames are just chess with better playing pieces and nobody suggests that grand masters are warmongers. So what would you consider to be too modern to play? Or are you comfortable playing any conflict?


  1. Not insensitive at all Lee. Countries wargame with their own armed forces so I see no problem in armchair generals having a bash.

    In a related topic, I heard that the US Armed Forces held a $200m wargame recently to test their most up-to-date electronic gadget armed force (Blue) against a less technologically advanced foe (Red)

    Lieutenant General Paul K. Van Riper (born July 5, 1938) is a retired officer of the United States Marine Corps. Since retirement Van Riper has served on several advisory boards and panels. He is currently the Chairman of the Board of Directors for the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation.

    Millennium Challenge 2002 (MC02) was a major war game exercise conducted by the United States armed forces in mid-2002, likely the largest such exercise in history. The exercise, which ran from July 24 to August 15 and cost $250 million, involved both live exercises and computer simulations. MC02 was meant to be a test of future military "transformation"—a transition toward new technologies that enable network-centric warfare and provide more powerful weaponry and tactics. The simulated combatants were the United States, denoted "Blue", and an unknown adversary in the Middle East, "Red".

    Red, commanded by retired Marine Corps Lt. General Paul K. Van Riper, used old methods to evade Blue's sophisticated electronic surveillance network. Van Riper used motorcycle messengers to transmit orders to front-line troops and World War II lighting signals to get airplanes off the runways without using radio communication.

    Red received an ultimatum from Blue, that was essentially a surrender document, that Red must respond to within 24 hours. Given that Red knew that Blue was coming, by the second day of the exercise Red used a fleet of small boats to determine the position of Blue's fleet. In a preemptive strike, Red launched a massive salvo of cruise missiles, overwhelming the Blue forces' electronic sensors, destroying sixteen warships. This includes one aircraft carrier, ten cruisers and five out of the six amphibious ships. The equivalent of this success in a real conflict would have resulted in the death of over 20,000 service personnel. Soon after the cruise missile offensive, another significant portion of Blue's navy was "sunk" by an armada of small Red boats carrying out both conventional and suicide attacks, able to engage Blue forces due to Blue's inability to detect them as well as expected.

    Using old school tactics, he totally undermined and beat the biggest and most expensive military surveillance and tactical operation in history. The US authorities had to restart the entire exercise and changed the rules to ensure the "blue" team won, in order to justify the monstrous expense put into the project.

  2. I will wargame anything. Actually playing a game is a small part of the hobby. The rest is reading about the conflict and men involved, learning about their uniforms and the battles. I see it as a way of actually learning about what these guys have done. Better than ignoring them.

  3. Its a very good point but I would wargame the more modern conflicts and as Beccas said you learn more about the conflict through reading and researching and talking with others.

  4. I find it 'uncomfortable' to wargame recent conflicts, by recent I would say that anything from The Falklands to present day.

    I have nothing against others wargaming these or other scenarios, but personally find it difficult.


  5. Phil - Great story and it just goes to show that Tech doesn't necessarily confer an advantage. Have to admit it made me laugh... I can't help thinking about General Ripper from Kubrick’s 'Dr Strangelove'. Lol.

    Beccas/Lurker - I'm interested in modern conflicts but not as a gamer. I'm seeing them through the lens of current affairs. Don't get me wrong I'm not saying they shouldn't be gamed and I'm certainly not looking down on those that play modern conflicts. Its just not my thing.

    But I do think we should think about the morality of playing modern conflicts, if only so we can defend and explain our interest to the ill informed layman! I'm primarily thinking of those reporters that stereotype all gamers as dangerous loners and social misfits.

  6. It depends on who is present and how they might have been affected by the war in question. I don't think you can generalise. However, if there are people alive who were adversely affected by the war in question then delicacy is called for.

  7. I agree BigLee, I'm really not interested in gaming anything after WW2. As you say, each-to-his-own, but for me its about the heroes and villains of antiquity, the great historical battle, the colourful uniforms and the theorising about how men fought in those times. The modern conflict is too well reported, there is no mystery. Sure we don't hear about all the conflicts, but it would seem more like reenacting current affairs to me.

    Oh, and who listens to what reporters say anyway :)

  8. As you said, Lee I would classify any conflict after WW2 to be modern. The weapons range and style of warfare do not make for a good game, (in my opinion), unless you use skirmish rules. I would play upto date conflicts but i think it would leave bitter taste in my mouth, if one of my pals took the time to buy and paint up some figures then I'd have a go, but would never buy them myself.
    Good post!!

  9. Interesting post, Lee. I’ve gamed a lot of “modern” periods over the years.....Vietnam, Falklands, Arab-Israeli Wars, NATO/WarPact. I think that the context of the game makes a big difference, at least for me. Yes, you want to have a game which is fun and entertaining, but I also want to learn something, to gain a better understanding of the conflict once I’ve played the game and to respect the actual combatants. As an example, for years and years I had no interest at all in the Great War – who on earth would want to recreate gas warfare, senseless attacks and carnage? But wargaming that War made me read about what members of my family went through, and appreciate their experiences and their sacrifice a lot more than if I’d just avoided the Great War altogether as a period. As Beccas mentioned above, a lot of wargaming isn’t just about the game, but all the work and the background research which goes into getting you to the wargames table.

  10. I feel no discomfort in playing out conflicts in modern settings unless the people I am playing with cross a certain line.

    I'll sit and watch a film about a modern conflict, so why not actually take an active role in entertaining myself with the setting rather than sitting back and just watching.

  11. Very interesting article and something to get my addled mind churning this morning.

    Personally, I would be uncomfortable playing a game based on the current war in Afghanistan seeing how my brother will soon be going back to that wonderful place at years gaming that scenario wouldn't be much fun for me personally. As for Vietnam, Gulf War and anything along those lines, I'd be completely fine with it.

  12. although i dont wargame, i see your moral dilema, phil b brings up an interesting point aswell however, interesting read all around

  13. Interesting....what modern wargame is too modern? It depends on the scenario. A wargame depicts a conflict between two or more sides, whereby (as also in chess) the target is to remove the opposition.
    Who is protrayed, what period and what weapons they are using are pretty irrelevant.
    The results and reasons for the fighting and the effects are IMHO not.

    Would a scenario whereby tutsis and hutus fought each other be acceptable??
    Are suicide bombers acceptable??
    Are some of the other terror tactics used in real warfare acceptable and here I don´t mean just the killing/maiming of the opposition.

    I mean, would someone actually come up with a set of rules that included mass excecution and rape as as means of demoralising the opposition.?? I think not and a lot of pretty recent conflicts, the balkans war to name but one, had these as very prominent events within them and to make the game historically correct could not be ignored.
    How could "terror" be added to a wargame??


  14. I have no taste for "modern" wargaming, having experienced it myself when I was in the Army. However, I do not see a problem with people roleplaying it by wargaming, as long as they are appropriately respectful to those who participated.

  15. I see modern as right now, not future like call of duty likes to do, but current.

  16. Back in the early 80's I gamed a fair bit of then modern with my army buddies. I have computer gamed first and second gulf wars with SPMBT. These have been more tactical explorations than true games. I played a lot of Harpoon both miniature and PC - a lot of that was due to early Tom Clancy.

    For just kick some posterior gaming, I prefer ancients. While I enjoy WWII gaming, I find the SS fetishism disturbing.

    As FoxPhoenix135 says a respectful approach is a good thing and I would add, regardless of the period.

  17. SS in WWII gaming is something I find I don't want to game as well. Even though I have play with russians with Commisiars and they commited plenty of war crimes as well. odd.
    It is far easier to think of it as Just a game.
    I don't really have any interest in gaming modern warfare.


  18. It's a fair point Lee, and one I would have felt too a relatively short while ago.
    That if you were wargaming a conflict that someone you would meet could have fought in, or meet the relative of someone who died in - it would seem too close to the bone.
    One thing that did change my mind was the attitude of the guys over at Ambush Alley Games, who show a huge amount of respect for those in service. A large proportion of the active forum members are current/reserve/ex servicemen.
    I accept it may still be raw or too close to the bone for some (though I know some who feel the same way about the World Wars or Vietnam).
    Steve-the-Wargamer pointed out that Don Featherstone had no qualms about gaming WWII, so I guess the bottom-line is to game whatever you feel comfortable with.

  19. Very good question and certainly something to think about...especially is today's politically correct environment (though I think we have become too PC over the years to the point of absurdity).

    However, I do not see an issue with wargaming current conflicts. There have been numerous movies and video games (with questionable value beyond pure entertainment) depicting modern warfare. They have all done quite well and have elicited very little controversy from those who have served in these conflicts. At least with wargaming, a large majority of us engage in the activity with some propensity to learn something about the history and issues behind the event itself. In my opinion, there is some intrinsic value in roleplaying/wargaming a scenario as opposed to sitting down behind an Xbox and shooting "bad guys".

    For those that find wargaming current conflicts uncomfortable, I wonder how many watched Black Hawk Down or Jarhead? How many of these same folks have played Call of Duty or any of the other "Modern Warfare" titles out there? Out of curiosity, of those that do one but not the other, what is the difference? The reasoning behind such decisions would be a most interesting read.

    One of my main reasons for supporting gaming in modern settings is that in an age where it can be fashionable and trendy to not support our men and women in the armed services, I think it vitally important to bring more exposure the conflicts in question. Whether it be movies, video games or wargames, perhaps younger generations taking part in these activities will grow to have a better understanding of what these men and women sacrifice for their country and learn to respect and support them (you can disagree with the war but our soldiers should always garner our support.)

    Finally, just to make sure I wasn't too far off base, I spoke with my best friend who recently returned from Afghanistan with a career ending injury. After discussing the issue at length, he came to the conclusion that exposure is certainly better than avoidance by far. Even if the conflict is a bit glorified on the gaming table, at least people back home will get some sense of what it's like to be in harms way.

    Thanks Lee for bringing up such a timely and interesting topic.




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