I love historical games, and I want everyone else to love them too. Fortunately, our hobby seems to be moving in that direction--I am starting to see tons of references to war games and historical games mixed in with conversation about "more mainstream" games, and this warms my heart. This rise in wargame chatter has also led to the renewal of a conversation that happens cyclically in this branch of the hobby. Are wargames controversial? Under what conditions, if any, are we ethically allowed to enjoy them?
I have mixed feelings about these discussions. On the one hand, they mean that people are talking about wargaming and introducing even more people to my favorite part of the board game world. On the other, I find these questions frustrating. Why? Because asking them in this way is indicative of broader--and troubling--attitudes about games, what they are able to do, and where they culturally belong.
As game designer Volko Ruhnke mentions in the Punchboard interview linked above, we ask questions about the legitimacy of games in ways that we would not ask them about other forms of media. It is no more questionable to enjoy a wargame about real-world events, including tragic ones, than it is to watch a film or read a book about an intense topic. If you watch the Oscars, you'll know that most critically acclaimed films are often emotionally brutal and focused on challenging aspects of history and culture. Historical dramas about WW2, slavery in America, and even current events are all fair game. We are also very comfortable with watching movies that center human suffering of all kinds. (I'm actually not sure I will be able to watch The Whale because of the intensity of the main character's despair.)
The same is true for literature. David Diop's At Night All Blood is Black won an International Booker Prize and is a brutal novel about war, colonization, death, and madness. R.F. Kuang may write fantasy novels, but her storylines are based on real-world history and its atrocities--and The Poppy War was one of the best trilogies I have ever read, while Babel was easily my top book of 2022. I have read and enjoyed a number of books with heavy subject matter over the past couple of years, including Schindler's List, I'll Be Gone in the Dark, and Death in Mud Lick. These were books on serious topics, but I absolutely enjoyed reading them.
I'm not saying that you can't question/criticize any of these works. Actually, reflecting and having conversations about art is... part of the point of art. I personally have questions about how much true crime is too much, and I would never assign something like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas in a literature class--not because the subject matter is too brutal, but because I don't agree with how tragedy is depicted in that novel. But I think most of us wouldn't dispute these works' general right to exist. (Unless, of course, you're an enraged culture warrior obsessed with defunding public libraries.)
But somehow, when the conversation turns to games, the rules change. What makes games different from other forms of artistic expression? I think that this pivot comes from the same place as my absolute least favorite comment about games, which I am sure many of us have heard before: "Don't take it so seriously, this is just a game! Just have fun already!" This always comes up as a way to dismiss the hard questions... and is thus closely related to the assumption that games can't or don't ask them.
Games are absolutely fun, and too few adults--especially in the United States--assign enough value to play. Our work culture teaches us that games are for children, and that they are a waste of time. There are endless self-help books, magazine articles, and YouTube channels always ready to tell you how to use your time better, how not to waste it, how to get more done in the hours allotted to us on this earth. Play is often seen as frivolous. The first time I got a lot of views on a post on this very site, I excitedly told a colleague about it. She responded with, "Liz, you're so smart, why don't you write about something important?"
I think I am writing about something important. Sometimes I have to stop myself from apologizing for my love of games, for the fact that I prioritize gaming when I will only be alive for an unknown-but-limited period of time. But when I stop and think about it, I don't regret my choices.
Fun is not frivolous. Enjoyment is not childish. Sometimes, "fun" just means "engaging"--and engagement is what games can offer us when we are trying to examine challenging historical topics. To ask whether it is okay to be engaged in this way is to dismiss gaming as a shallow, unreflective activity. Yet, the very things that prompt new wargamers to ask whether historical games are "controversial" are actually part of their value--player engagement and agency pull gamers into the subject at hand, and offer them ways of approaching historical problems that no book or film can provide.
This is why games make fantastic teaching tools, even or especially when they focus on controversial subjects. Games are, in fact, taken very seriously in more circles than ever before. University professors who adopt Reacting to the Past see amazing results in their classrooms. Professional wargamers bring real-world problems to life to help military leaders learn more about modern conflicts and possible responses to them. CMU's Center for Learning Through Games and Simulations has begun to publish games that are vetted like other academic publications. And, of course, you should be listening to the Beyond Solitaire podcast to learn about all of this and more. ;)
There are a lot of ways to game, and a lot of ways to have fun. But play is the first and truest way to teach and to learn. The real crime would be to dismiss it.