[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]
Niall Ferguson has an article out in the New York Magazine, on the use of computer wargames in learning about history and strategy. (Via ClioWeb). It's a frustrating piece. As a sometime wargamer myself, I do agree with him that they can have their uses. But I think he fundamentally, and strangely, misunderstands what those uses might be.
Ferguson first outlines why he sees a need for such games:
Today we live in a multipolar, multiplayer world. Some players are much better armed than others. In that sense, today's strategic problems are more like those of the World War II era. Sure, the U.S. can invade Iraq. But what will the French do? The Russians? The Chinese? What if invading Iraq ends up benefiting Iran? The question is, where to learn this kind of stuff?
He thinks wargames can help with understanding the big picture, and he may be right. In gaming a battle or a war, things like terrain, supply, position, maneuver, firepower, and so on move from being abstract factors found in books, to concrete parameters that need to be juggled in order to achieve victory. Ferguson (quite fairly) dismisses computer games like Civilization and Empire Earth, which include WWII scenarios, 'since what they provide is such a crude caricature of the historical process'. He then looks at (what he claims is) the previous best attempt, the board game Axis & Allies:
Up until now, the best my sons and I could do when it came to replaying World War II was in fact an old-fashioned board game, Axis & Allies. Similar in its mode of operation to the earlier strategy game Risk, Axis & Allies offers a reasonable approximation to the strategic position in 1942. But I stress approximation. The game vastly understates the economic power of the United States, for example. The best thing about Axis & Allies is that battles are decided by a combination of firepower and luck. Dice are thrown, but the odds are weighted in favor of the player with the most men and hardware. (Each time I play, I'm impressed by the calibration of these weightings.)
Now, I know Axis & Allies well. There's just no way that it is the best simulation of the Second World War there is, or even was. It's not much less of a caricature than Civilization, or Risk. The individual pieces represent -- well, who knows, but they do not vary between nations in either strength or number: Britain can, in theory, have as a big an army as the USSR; German aircraft carriers are just as good as Japanese ones. The world is divided up into irregular-shaped areas -- "Eastern Europe" is one, stretching from Istanbul to the gates of Leningrad. But it can hold no more units than can Guadalcanal; an infinite amount, actually (but only one AA unit). Production of new units is governed by "Industrial Production Certificates", which you get every turn depending on the territories you hold. But any you don't spend in on aircraft production in 1942, say, can be saved up until 1945 to buy tanks, as if industrial production was some fungible thing that can stashed away in a warehouse until it's needed and turned into whatever is required.
I don't want to bash Axis & Allies too much; it wasn't intended to be a hyper-accurate simulation, but just a fun game. (And it is -- it's hard to not to enjoy pushing those plastic tanks and battleships around the world!) And even so, it's not completely divorced from reality; maybe in its cartoonish abstraction it's still teaching its players useful things about how the war was fought on the largest scales. This is certainly one of Ferguson's points, but then he turns to a new computer game which he thinks blows Axis & Allies away, The Calm & the Storm. For one thing, 'it is based on a quite astonishing quantity of factual information about the war':
Like Axis & Allies or Civilization III, the graphic interface is a map. But the level of detail is quite unique. Not just national borders but provincial borders are visible. And all the world's countries are depicted; players can choose from up to eleven governments, including China's.
Here Ferguson shows his limited knowledge of wargames, for there's nothing particularly 'astonishing' or 'unique' about the level of detail described here, even when the discussion is limited to games covering the Second World War at the strategic level. For example, the map for The Calm & the Storm is much coarser than that for World in Flames, which covers much of the world with a hexagonal grid: each hex is 100km across on the European map, and 230km on the Pacific map. And while eleven playable countries is impressive compared with most board wargames, it's not when placed next to another computer simulation, Hearts of Iron II, which has dozens of playable countries, from Turkey to Tannu Tuva.
Ferguson is also impressed that diplomacy is a crucial part of The Calm & the Storm. Again, games like Hearts of Iron and World in Flames (via its prequel, Day of Decision) were doing all this years ago. But this leads to a much more serious problem with his article. (After all, there are worse sins than not being a hardcore wargamer!) He uses The Calm & the Storm to explore a counterfactual history of 1938:
I argue in my new history that confronting Hitler in 1938 would have paid handsome dividends. Even if it had come to war over Czechoslovakia, Germany would not have won. Germany's defenses were not yet ready for a two-front war. So how did my preemptive strategy stand up to a computer stress test? Not as well as I had hoped, I have to confess. The Calm & the Storm made it clear that lining up an anti-German coalition in 1938 might have been harder than I'd assumed. To my horror, the French turned down the alliance I proposed to them. It also turned out that, when I did go to war with Germany, my own position was pretty weak. The nadir was a successful German invasion of England, a scenario my book rules out as militarily too risky.
This is the part I have a hard time understanding. Why does Ferguson trust the results of a computer game over his own historical research and judgement? Wargames aren't magic; they aren't somehow automatically correct, as though all you had to do was program in the laws of war, feed in some data about numbers of tanks and production of ball bearings, and then crank the handle to see what comes out. (Although some might disagree.) They are no better than the historical knowledge used to create them, and possibly worse, in that they often involve assumptions and speculations to cover the gaps in what we know about the past -- a wargame designer must of necessity make judgements that cut swathes through decades of studied academic ambiguity. (So do historians, at times: but wargame designers are not obliged to show their reasoning or their sources.)
So, Ferguson's reverence for wargames (or at least, this particular one) undermines his argument that military historians should be using wargames as research tools:
'What if D-day had gone wrong?' is only one of scores of counterfactual questions historians have asked about the war. What if the Nazis had invaded Britain in 1940? What if Hitler had captured Moscow in 1941? What if the Japanese had won the Battle of Midway in 1942? These are questions that computer games ought, in theory, to be able to help answer. And yet no military historian, to my knowledge, has made use of them. This is doubly surprising. Not only is there a long and respectable tradition of war games within the military academy, but games also played a central role in Cold War strategy, advancing an entire branch of mathematics -- game theory -- in the process.
If historians are going to use wargames for research purposes, then they need to thoroughly understand the models the games are based on. From the article, it is not clear how deeply Ferguson has delved into how The Calm & the Storm actually works. For all we know, the algorithm for amphibious landings might be too generous to the invaders, or the code implementing it might be buggy. And there's no reason to believe that Muzzy Lane's game developers have any greater insight into France's willingness to go to war in 1938 than Ferguson, or anyone else. Do they have access to primary sources that the rest of us don't? It seems rather unlikely. So why he apparently privileges this game over other forms of historical inquiry is a mystery to me. I suspect he is blinded by the sheer density of detail in this particular game, and being unfamilar with the wargame genre, overestimates its novelty while underestimating the potential problems. Creating a wargame is largely an act of historiographical interpretation, interpolation and extrapolation, and any historian following Ferguson's lead would be well advised to understand this.
Investigations of a Dog also critiques Ferguson's article, from a different angle.
Update: another critique, from a fellow former WiFer, and current professor of literature, at AmericanHeritage.com.
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