Skip to comments.Wargames - Computer Geeks and War
Posted on 10/01/2001 8:14:21 AM PDT by jalisco555
Wargames Computer geeks and war.
By Dave Kopel & Glenn Reynolds . Dave Kopel is research director at the Independence Institute. Glenn Reynolds is professor of law at the University of Tennessee, and writes for InstaPundit.Com.
America is hearing a great deal about the martial society of the Afghans, about their extensive experience of warfare, their great skill with firearms, and their tradition of humbling foreign militaries. All of these things are (mostly) true, though a visit to almost any shooting range will turn up Americans of astonishing shooting skills, and the military experience of the United States is hardly to be sneezed at. And a lot of bin Laden's troops are Arabs, not Afghans, and the Arab world hasn't produced a great military leader or fighting force for a very, very, very long time.
Yet we have repeatedly heard that Americans not so much our military, as our overall society don't have the right stuff for warfare. Americans, too wedded to technology and commerce, know nothing of war, some say. The public will not understand the considerations involved, the risks, or the nature of the conflict.
In fact, the opposite may be true. As a population, the American public probably has more deep expertise concerning serious military history than any previous society. This expertise has been acquired steadily over the past four decades, and it has happened largely without notice from the media, academics, or the punditocracy, and in spite of the removal of most military subjects from the mainstream educational curriculum, and despite the p.c. movement's success in driving military history out of history departments.
One reason that this military education has gone unnoticed is that the people acquiring the expertise are mostly techno-geeks, the very people that some commentators point to as evidence of our unmartial character. Yet to anyone who knows it, geek culture is full of military aspects.
Military history is widely admired among geeks. So is skill with firearms. As an article in Salon noted a while back, geeks tend to be strong gun-rights enthusiasts, regarding both computers and firearms as technologies that empower the individual. Geeks, who know that they can program their VCR, also believe themselves capable of cleaning a gun safely.
Some geeks take their enthusiasm further, engaging in massed battles with broadswords and maces as part of the Society for Creative Anachronism's popular rounds of medieval combat. Though the weapons are usually blunt or padded, injuries are about as common as in rugby and football, and the rules are far less refined. Geeks also read military science fiction, by authors like David Drake, Jerry Pournelle, S. M. Stirling, Eric Flint, and Harry Turtledove, in which war is not glorified, or simplified, but presented in surprisingly realistic fashion.
But the biggest source of geek military knowledge comes from that staple of geek culture, wargaming. Ever since the introduction of wargames in the early 1960s by companies like Avalon Hill and Simulations Publications Inc. (SPI), geeks have made wargaming a major pastime. The games, once played on boards with cardboard counters, now often run on PCs, and realistically reflect all sorts of concerns, from logistics, to morale, to the importance of troop training.
Wargaming, like chess, has always been an activity mainly for intelligent males. At the peak of board-based wargaming, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, most good high schools had a wargame club. And you can be sure that the average member of that club ended up with a job and an income far ahead of the average student at the school.
Board-based games attracted a smaller set of the geek population in subsequent decades, as computers became a new way for geeks to have fun, and as Dungeon & Dragons (originally just a small part of the wargaming world) grew massively in popularity, spawning scores of imitators.
Avalon Hill, the founding father of the industry, nearly destroyed itself through a bad lawsuit, and ended up getting taken over by Hasbro, which has junked almost all of AH's once-formidable catalogue. Today, Decision Games is probably the leading wargame publisher, with the flagship magazine Strategy & Tactics (a military-history magazine with a game in every issue), and with a catalogue of board and computer games ranging from Megiddo (1479 BC, the epic chariot clash between Egypt's Tuthmosis III and the King of Kadesh) all the way to the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.
Today's computer format for games works better at creating "the fog of war," since the computer can hide pieces. The computer also makes it easier to play solitaire and solitaire was always a major form of wargame play; the players were attracted by the ideas, not by the chance to chat while playing Bridge.
How well have wargames taught war? Well enough so that several wargames have been used as instructional or analytical tools by the United States military.
Over the years, game designers learned how to playtest games before publication, so that players would be forced to address real strategy and tactics, as opposed to manipulating artifacts of the game system. No game could possibly simulate everything realistically, but the best games pick some key challenges faced by the real-world commanders, and make the players deal with the same problems. For example, the many games depicting the 1941 German invasion of the U.S.S.R. find the German player with near total military superiority in any given battle but always wondering whether to outrun his supply lines, and conquer as much ground as possible, before the winter set in. Other games make the players work on the delicate balance of combined arms learning how to make infantry, tanks, and artillery work together in diverse terrain, and learning what to do when all of sudden your tanks are destroyed, but the enemy had 15 left.
Some wargamers prefer purely tactical games, such as plane-to-plane, or ship-to-ship combat. These players come away with amazing amounts of knowledge about submarines, or fighter planes, or Greek triremes, or dreadnaughts. And since real wargamers like lots of different games, many wargamers learn a lot about many different military subjects.
Even the least successful games teach a good deal of geography and history. And they always demonstrate how the "right" answer to a military strategy question is usually clear only in hindsight.
The wargaming magazines are all about military history, naturally, and most wargamers end up reading military-history and strategy books too. If you ask, "Who was Heinz Guderian?" most people will guess "A ketchup genius?" Wargamers will be ones who answer: "The German general who invented modern tank warfare, and who wrote a famous memoir, Panzer Leader."
Most people who wargame don't become real warriors although the games have always been especially popular at military academies. But anyone who spends a few hundred hours playing wargames (and many hobbyists put in thousands of hours) will soon know more about the nuts and bolts of warfare than most journalists who cover the subject, and most politicians who vote on military matters.
So here's the funny thing. While the official American culture around, say, 1977, was revolted by anything military, a bunch of the nation's smartest young males the "leaders of tomorrow" were reading Panzer Leader and Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart's Strategy, and of course Sun Tzu's Art of War which wargamers were reading long before it became a business-school cliché.
This was no accident. Many of those who founded the wargame publishing business feared that, with the anti-militarism caused by the Vietnam, and (later) with the adoption of the all-volunteer army, American society would become estranged from all things military, leaving ordinary citizens too ignorant to make meaningful democratic judgments where war is concerned. They hoped that realistic simulation games would teach important principles.
We've never really tested the societal effect of having such a large number of knowledgeable citizens. The Gulf War was too short, and too much of a set piece, for public military knowledge to play a major role. But there's reason to believe that it will be different this time especially as the favored geek mode of communication, the Internet, is now pervasive, meaning that geeks' knowledge, and their knowledgeable opinions, will have substantial influence. They will be able to put the military events of any given day into a much broader perspective, and they may be opinion leaders who help their friends and neighbors avoid the error of thinking that the last 15 minutes of television footage tell the conclusive story of the war's progress.
The phenomenal educational effort of the wargame publishers has ensured that, despite the neglect of matters military by most educational institutions, important aspects of military knowledge were kept alive, and taught to new generations of Americans, in a fashion so enjoyable that many didn't even realize they were being educated.
Some of our favorite wargames:
Reynolds: Mechwar 77 (NATO vs. Warsaw Pact, company-level tactics), France: 1940, Tobruk, Terrible Swift Sword (very detailed recreation of Gettysburg).
Kopel: War in Europe (huge division-level recreation of WWII in Europe and the Mid-East); Sinai (Arab-Israeli wars of 1956, 1967, 1973), Guadalcanal, Chaco (Bolivia v. Paraguay, 1932-35).
Just the geographical knowledge that all those years of gaming have given me has proven both profitable and personally rewarding.
I feel so sorry for all the people who can't handle a good wargame.
Last games played: Kharkov '42, War in the Pacific, Operational Art of War, Century of War.
Manual games recently played: Invasion: Taipei (PRC invades Taiwan, includes a very good cyberwar module), Vietnam Battles (actually two games: Hue City and Khe Sanh, I played the latter), and Napoleon's First Battles (I played the Marengo scenario--a very see-saw game).
Computer games recently played: The Operational Art of War, Century of War edition (20th Century operational-level conflict, very detailed treatment under the interface, you can design your own scenarios if you have a detailed enough order of battle and maps).
BTW, what's your favorite scenario on TOAW:COW?
I'm doing a port of the manual game Arabian Nightmare: Kuwait War to TOAW:COW. The map is mostly done--just need to add some urban locations and finish the last touches on the road net (heck, I did most of the Saudi road net when I drew in the Tapline Road).
Seems Mrs. Booster thinks that I have other things to do for 6 hours at a time.
Still, one of my best memories was playing "Diplomacy" with my son, who was then about 6 or 7. Just the two of us, so we played together against all of the rest of the countries. No cheating allowed, and we talked about every possible move and every implication thereof.
I was astonished and so proud of his insight into the "why" of making a move.
My dad taught me chess when I was young. We played until I could beat him every time.
My son can beat me at nearly any game we choose, if it involves strategy. He will make a fine programmer one day.
My only regret? Not learning to let my dad win a few games, so the matches could have continued even after I left for college.
Admiral (5th Dagger) Lazamataz, Commander of the Klingon Expeditionary Force, Star Fleet Battles (Task Force Games).
Motto: When you are down to your last E-4, THEN bug out. But not before.
War in the Pacific is unplayable. Well, unfinishable. I met a group of gamers in Toronto that had the 3rd floor of a gaming shop completely taken over by tables and tables of maps (W.i.t.P.). They had been playing two nights a week for MONTHS. That was back in 197-something.
I imagine they are not finished even yet.
General "Grey Steel" Lazamataz, Army of North Virginia.
There was a very interesting game called 'Kingmaker' that I enjoyed.
It's only a matter of days before Civ III is released! Not a proper "Grognard" game, but one of my all time favorite games is Civ II, so I have high hopes.
I know it's a few years old, but it rocks! I've only got the European Theater/Battle of Britan, but I've been playing it all summer, and am still not tired of it yet.
They make a Japanese Theater version, but my motto has always been "Buy hardware, not software". Haven't found a copy yet.
I would so totally kick your ass, flathead.
Admiral (5th Dagger) Lazamataz, Klingon Expeditionary Force.
Motto: "Humans are a waste of skin, but serve the Empire as fun targets."
Urinating on a grave honors the ground, flathead. Corpses are merely empty shells. Do with them as you will.
See you in Stov'l-Kor! To the Glory of Battle!
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