- Board with Meaning:Reflections on Game Design and Historiography
In his essay on the board game Twilight Struggle (TS) from Pat Harrigan and Matthew G. Kirschenbaum’s 2016 collection Zones of Control: perspectives on wargaming, Jeremy Antley notes that “wargames are synthesized reflections of the past situated in the present mindset of their creation,” and concludes that TS is “in effect, both a secondary source about Cold War history and a primary source about modern reflection on the Cold War experience. Because of this, Twilight Struggle, and by extension the wargame genre as a whole, holds tremendous promise as an investigative source for use in historical scholarship and pedagogy” (Location 10727). In the same collection, designer Ted S. Raicer, comments on the nature of Card Driven Game (CDG) systems and how “having a hand of cards allowed for a certain level of advance planning, while lack of knowledge of the opponent’s hand introduce an element of fog of war and the random nature of the draw Clausewitz’s ‘friction’ (‘In war everything is simple, but the simple things are difficult’)” (Location 3852). I write in support of these notions, not only to further explore them inside the design of TS and their ubiquity and applicability in other game designs, but also to consider the broader ramifications of this line of academic enquiry.
Feeling through Agency
The proposition here, then, is that wargame design is not merely an expression of an attempt at thematically appealing entertainment that may introduce the subject matter, or further familiarize its audience with it, within a commercial framework. Wargame design is also an expression of how the world works—or how the world worked (or is felt to have worked). Given the seriousness with which games have increasingly been considered in recent years (with, for example, the advent of “serious games” and the increase in the study of game design and theory within academic frameworks), it seems fitting that we might also consider the potential for games to impart meaningful lessons to players. In those systems, players, by virtue of their participation within a game system, are effectively engaging in a methodological enquiry, whether they realize it or not.
Further, in recent years, we have come to the recognition that feeling a story, through the experience and agency of playing it, is not the same as watching or reading as it unfolds before the audience. Perhaps we might [End Page 110] also consider that there is something highly potent in the experience of “playing” history and engaging with it through circumscribed agency. Playability and commercialization may pull a game’s methodology in multiple directions, perhaps even at times contradictory. Yet is not written history also susceptible to the impulses of readability and commercialization? (Or if not always commercialization then it is subject to other editorial biases.) We should, of course, not lose sight of the different all-too-apparent masters that game design attempts to serve, and we must acknowledge the compromises game designers may be compelled or willing to make to satisfy them. But we should also bear in mind that game design is an entirely valid and potentially rich medium within which to effect historiography, or philosophy, perhaps with far greater capacity to impart memorable lessons than other less experiential media. By doing, players are feeling, and so therefore most memorably learning.
It’s as facile to suggest history is merely either accurate or inaccurate in a work of written history as to suggest a game is either accurate or inaccurate with regards its simulation. Historically informed game design is also enacting historiography; it’s an expression of a viewpoint, prejudicing not just certain design and commercial considerations over others, but also, by default, some view of history over others. Theme, after all, as I tell my writing students, is more than mere subject matter; it’s a viewpoint upon a subject matter. ‘Relationships,’ for example, is not a theme in a work of fiction, but ‘relationships are hard’ is. ‘The Cold War’ is not a theme, but ‘the Cold War was a knife-edge ride constantly threatening to bring about mutually assured destruction’ is. Whether history-themed game...