I’m afraid that this weeks’ column is going to be rather less about board games and somewhat more personal than usual, hinging on issues that are only tangentially related to gaming. A clue to the nature of said issues is in the title. So if you’d rather not delve into the deeper realms of my psyche, or participate in discussions about morality, now is the time to click away. Don’t come whining to me if you get to the end of the piece and discover it’s not to your liking.
When I was a small boy, I played with toy soldiers and toy guns and got into playground fights like every other boy and, being small, didn’t stop to think about the wider ramifications of what I was playing. That attitude didn’t change until I came to study the history - and literature - of the First World War at school. When the appalling conditions endured by soldiers at the front became clear, and I gradually came to understand that these conditions, alongside the most ruinous casualty rates in any modern conflict, were endured by ordinary people largely in the name of perpetuating the imperialist delusions of their political masters, I was deeply shocked. Very quickly my attitude to violence and the depiction of violence changed from one of not really caring to one of profound pacifism.
At round about the same time, I found myself being drawn into the gaming hobby. My starting point was fantasy role-playing games, many of which glamourised violence to an extreme degree. I found this relatively easy to justify with my new-found pacifism: the games took place in an entirely imaginary world and depicted forms of aggression that were, in most parts of the world, largely consigned to history. It was pretend, nothing more than a game and so it was easy to tool up a fighter with a two handed sword to go out and slaughter a hundred orcs and still proclaim myself a pacifist. Choosing forms of entertainment that include fake violence does not, in my opinion, make an individual any more likely to be violent.
But as you’ll all no doubt be well aware the gaming hobby is a small community and it’s hard to get your toe in the door of one sector without being exposed to others. And so it was that from fantasy role-playing games I got into fantasy war games. And from there it was a relatively small step to historical war games - the contemporary Avalon Hill and West End Games titles were regularly advertised in White Dwarf magazine. At the same time as my friends and I were exploring that particular dimension of hobby-space, several of them became deeply interested in militaria and military history, designing and playing world-war 3 scenarios in the computer games of the time. Then came the first Gulf War and we found ourselves sitting round the television, discussing the tactics and hardware used as Operation Desert Storm unfolded.
Whilst I was obviously a willing participant in all of this it sat very poorly with my position as a pacifist. I didn’t make much fuss about this: as a teenager I found myself unable to resist my peer group. And in truth I didn’t care much: I found myself torn rather badly between a deepening interest in state-sponsored violence and a deepening sense that it was equally a disturbing and bad thing to be interested in. Whilst one can make a case that many people make a career out of following the more brutal side of humanity without wanting to become actively involved in it: policemen, for example, don’t usually approve of crime, that justification rang false for me. I wasn’t just being a dispassionate observer of the military. I found myself approving wholeheartedly of the minutiae of regimental tradition, glorying in the victories and famous last stands of soldiers down the ages, all the while trying desperately to divorce the admiration I felt from the inevitable end result of death, destruction and suffering on an untold scale.
I even toyed with the idea of joining up, after someone I knew suggested it. It’s a damn good job I didn’t: I was never born to be a warrior. Whilst I was a pretty good athlete when I was a teenager my speciality was mid-distance running: in almost every other area I was exceptionally weak and feeble. Worse I have no head for decision making under serious pressure. With a good academic background and a modicum of physical fitness it seems plausible I could have made it to Sandhurst and come out the other side a junior officer who would, very quickly, have become a real-life example of the “lions lead by donkeys” caricature of the British army. Let alone the psychological damage I’d have endured from entering into a career that involved me doing things I fundamentally disapproved of.
When I originally adopted a position of pacifism, I rapidly moved into quite an extreme stance and would declaim that, as a good pacifist I would willingly submit to a beating from others rather than lift my hand in violence. That position was never put to the test and since that point my attitude, as with many of my political and moral principles, has mellowed considerably but remained basically intact. It now seems to me that armed conflict is, on occasion, inevitable and so potentially destructive that nations must maintain armies even during times of peace in order to have the capacity to meet prospective threats. But I still believe that war is basically wrong and to be avoided whenever possible. But I still retain enough of my original convictions to make this area of my life a rather difficult case of trying to square a circle. How could I be a pacifist who had once entertained the concept of a career in the armed forces?
I eventually got my answer when I read a book called Dispatches, the autobiography of journalist Michael Herr of his years covering the Vietnam War. It's part military history, part memoir and a superb book which I highly recommend to anyone even casually interested in the subject matter. Reading the book, I gradually became aware that Herr had clearly been through something of my own struggle to reconcile a fascination with the process of warfare with a revulsion for its results. It was never stated directly, but communicated from the tone of the book. It would flip from sustained outrage at the inhumanity of warfare to an easy chatter about the glamour of guns in the space of a couple of pages. It seemed that the author had solved his own personal conundrum in this regard by becoming a military journalist rather than a solider, but could the book offer me any clues as to how I could balance my own skewed sense of morality on the subject?
I thought about this deeply while I read the book. And eventually I came up with an answer. What the book seemed to be saying to me was that it was crazy to suggest that warfare wasn’t glamorous and exciting. It’s no co-incidence that many older people in the UK view the privations and suffering of the second world war, whether in Normandy or at the home front, as a high point in their lives. Even bypassing the fascination many people have with big machines and big explosions, which warfare can satisfy many times over, it seems there is something deeply fulfilling on a personal level about the extremes to which warfare pushes a society. It may be that the people on England hadn’t endured such suffering in their lives before but that suffering simultaneously brings out the best and the worst in people: society pulls together, everyone is bound by a common cause into unlikely friendships and ordinary people become heroes. And over time, the pain is forgotten and all that people remember is the sense of duty, of comradeship, of giving your all to the collective good. My pacifist assumption that all war is suffering didn’t stand up to scrutiny: war is both suffering and fulfilment at the same time and like the yin and the yang you can’t have one without the other.
But it seemed equally clear to me that the level of privation endured during combat was entirely unjustifiable by the relatively small gains that people might have had from their experiences. Anyone, even the most ardent militarist, who has ever been shocked at a horror story from one of the world’s conflict zones will immediately see that to be true: and, tragically, such stories are ten a penny in both history and the modern world. Besides which one cannot, ultimately, disconnect the activity of prosecuting warfare with its results and in those results the misery and woe inflicted on untold millions of innocents far outweighs any emotional satisfaction gained by participants, many of whom were willing volunteers. And so, ultimately, I remain a pacifist, albeit one who has succumbed to the lure of the military dream. As a pacifist I have to ask the question what can we do, as a society and what can I do, as an individual, to further the aim of peace in our time?
I don't think you need to be any kind of ardent biological determinist to accept that it tends to be men who have an easier time seeing the glamour inherent in warfare, or that males are to some extent hard-wired to indulge in violence. I believe that this is true, and I believe equally that as reasoning, civilized creatures we alone of all the living things on the planet have the capacity to rise above our genetic programming and make rational choices such as: it's better not to fight. I don't propose that masculinity is in any sense an excuse for violent behaviour. But it seems to me that it would help in the quest for peace if people who found themselves attracted to warfare for whatever reason had something more constructive to work towards in its stead. Something to replace actual combat which could offer a modicum of the glamour without any of the terrible consequences.
Exactly what that replacement would be depends on what, exactly the individual is seeking in terms of wanting to go to war in the first place. For many, I suspect, something along the line of extreme sports would make an excellent substitute: the sorts of activities that modern-day adventurers and explorers indulge in. For others some sort of re-enactment might fit the bill, be it something as disconnected from the original as Lazer Tag, or something as comprehensive as a full military-run combat or training experience day. For a minority, including me, our replacement is learning military history and replaying that history through the medium of war games.
And that, ultimately, is how I came to feel at ease being a pacifist who plays war games. Because it seemed to me that if I hadn't found some sort of activity to replace warfare in my life I might, as I almost did, have felt the need to experience the real thing instead, undoubtedly to my great personal detriment and possibly to the detriment of many others as well. If you want peace, it seems, you must prepare to wargame.
Matt is the founder of Fortress: Ameritrash. He is also a regular columnist for Board Game News.