Wednesday 22 June 2016

Liyla and the Shadows of War - human impact and the purpose of wargames

Some time ago, I went to a book event in London where Paul Mason was interviewing Molly Crabapple about her book Drawing Blood. Paul was also promoting his book on Post-Capitalism. I found the experience a little surreal, as I usually attend Sci-fi and Fantasy book launches, and the audience was very much a mix of social activists and artists.

When talking to Paul after the event, I mentioned how at times Molly had mentioned "the artists here will know..." or "the activists here..." and that how my brain had got to thinking that as probably the sole wargamer in attendance, it was rather unlikely that there'd be a reference to "the wargamers in the room".

Paul said something that will stick with me for a long while.

"I haven't wanted to wargame since the last time I went to Gaza."

So, it turned out that Paul knows Richard Barbrook, who is a member of Class Wargames. (My wargaming readers might recognise one of their other players - the name Mark Copplestone jumped out at me!) They use wargaming as tool for teaching about their political beliefs and explore games to further their understanding of the world.

I was reminded of this more recently, when I spotted on twitter a bit of a kerfuffle about the computer game Liyla and the Shadows of War. In short, Apple originally refused to publish it as a game on the grounds that it was political, but did reverse this decision on appeal, and you can now download it here. (Android had no such problems and it's available on that platform here.)

While it's a computer game, there is very clearly a purpose and a message to it as well. It is very much from the perspective of civilians caught up in a modern war. If you stop to think about how easily your character dies if you make a mistake, it can make you stop and think about the reality of what being caught in a modern war as a civilian might be like.

I've also been reading Lost Battles by Philip Sabin recently. Professor Sabin was one of my lecturers when I was in university, and he explores using wargaming from an academic perspective to look at ancient battles where details are scarce or believed inaccurate to get a better understanding of what may have actually happened.

So, I can see the 'value' of wargaming, outside of the fun it can be, in the learning it can bring, either in terms of understanding ancient history, or in helping understand or communicate modern political issues.

And yet.

"I haven't wanted to wargame since the last time I went to Gaza."

I don't play historical or modern games - I'm entirely a sci-fi / fantasy gamer. The fantasy and science fiction games I play are for the tactical challenge or the artistic aspects (particularly world creation). Death and suffering are understandable high stakes or hold an emotional weight that underpin those aspects. But I am starting to consider - are we trivialising these things?

War is innately horrible, and in our games which we play to amuse ourselves, we downplay that, because we are not monsters. We don't dwell on the loss, the gut-wrench of the death of a loved one. Even the 'dark' games are sanitised from the real experience of war, because a real war is not fun.

I don't have an answer to this. It's something I'm still thinking about.

I didn't ask Paul what he saw the last time he went to Gaza. I didn't want to know the answer.


  1. I have to be honest this is the reason why I do not play military (?) wargames. I do dip my toes into SAGA but even then I steer it towards fantasy settings. I particularly steer clear of games set on events within living memory. It just seems to trivialise the actual event.

    I am not judging people who do and have no problem with those that do (in any way, shape or means) but it's just not my cup of tea.

    1. I'm really not sure about living memory wargames for entertainment. If they're for education or politics, I'm broadly in favour.

      Historicals have never really appealled, although I've often been inspired by historical accuracy in my wargaming. At one point I had a bonkers idea to try and use the tactical advice from Machiavelli's "Art of War" to make an Empire army.

      (Machiavelli was OK as a politician but awful as a general. His advice in Art of War was terrible and wrong.)

  2. This is definitely something that's been on my mind for some time, since Sinsynn over on House of Paincakes posted about the time a friend of his was murdered, and how those memories and feeling interacted with his wargaming.

    When all's said and done, I stick with it, because for me, it's far and away the biggest thing that has me actually interacting with other people and not becoming a complete recluse (and probably, soon after, keeling over and being eaten by my cat), and for me, that connection that it provides is worth enough that I stick with it despite my concerns. If it weren't the thing that was keeping me at least tenuously a part of human society, I'm really not sure I'd keep it up.

    On the other hand, I also know quite a lot of veterans who are really into wargaming of various sorts, and I've heard some of them talk about it as actually being therapeutic, helping them come to terms with stuff that they did or that happened to them, again, sometimes to the extent of literally being life-saving.

    On yet another hand, I really, really don't like the way GW glorifies so much of the violence in their Games, especially when it comes to forces like Khorne or the Orks/Orruks.

    It's a hard question, and there's no one answer.

    1. I agree about there not being one answer. I'm not sure if Games Workshop glorifies the violence - certainly the fiction makes clear how awful it is pretty regularly. Their IP is a strange beast that has grown organically over the decades, so it's also been pretty inconsistent in tone over time.

    2. They definitely do vary. The stuff in the Khorne and Orruk BattleTomes was pretty disturbing to me, while the Horus Heresy Novels, I felt, did a much better job of showing that there is a serious cost to all the violence. Just to pick a couple of examples from each end of the spectrum.

    3. Ah, those are two I haven't read, so I can't really comment. I'll have to take a look at some point.

  3. Well, I'm with riot ville; NW Europe is littered with the graves of my relations, people who raised me were the brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews of those men, so they are very real to me. So FoW has never appealed. Some of my friends are still 'in' so I couldn't play ultra-moderns. My recollections of the 70's are such that I'm not going to be playing any winter of discontent games.

    So where does that leave my 40K habit ? Just about here:

    Would I play a computer game about being a civilian in a modern war ? No. Would I play a computer game about twentieth century Palestine ? No, either of those is in poor taste, IMHO. If someone writes a game about being a civilian in a modern war in the middle east to prove a point ? Bravo. But I do wonder about the audience.

    1. I re-read your post, and recalled having read it the first time around. I absolutely agree - doing little things about diversity and inclusivity within the game is an important step and not one to be missed!