Saturday, 7 January 2017

Is playing wargames a positive thing for children?

In the course of thinking about writing this blog, I assumed that playing wargames for children is a positive thing for children to do - and as most people reading this blog will probably be wargamers I assume that most of my audience would agree with me. However, I am aware that not all people may share this assumption, because lets face it, even the term 'wargame', sounds, well, not good. It is possible that someone may come across this blog with a negative view of wargames - and thinks playing them would be a bad thing for children to do.  Because of this I thought I would spend some time considering exactly why I thought playing such games were positive and then laying out my thoughts on the subject. As well as being a parent, I am also a primary school teacher, so thinking about children's development is a professional concern for me, and I run a games club in my school - so thinking about what games children should be playing is something I do as well.

First, a definition of terms - what I actually mean by a 'wargame', as this is a term that has a somewhat precise meaning to those that use it to define their own hobby and a different more mobile meaning to the public in general. I am using the term wargame to mean primarily games played using toy soldiers on a modeled surface to recreate conflicts from history in a competitive but friendly social setting - or 'playing with toy soldiers'. I will also stretch the term to use those games that use cardboard counters on maps to recreate militarily conflicts as well (although there are some that would argue that these are boardgames and therefore different, for the purposes of my arguments they are similar enough). I also include those toy soldier games that represent conflicts from fantasy or sci fi settings. What I am not including are computer games that represent conflict, 'paintball' type games where people run around and actually fire things at each other, or younger children pretending to be soldiers and 'playing war'. I am not excluding these types of 'wargames' because I think they are automatically harmful or because I think my hobby is superior, but because I think they are different enough from 'toy soldier' based games to need to be considered separately.

What are my reasons for saying playing wargames are a positive thing for children?

Wargames are a social activity

With this point I am thinking of comparing tabletop wargames to computer based games. Now, I do not automatically think computer games are bad, they are a popular type of game and I feel that any assumption that computer games are bad is slightly odd - why would playing a digital game be automatically worse than playing a game with pen and paper? They are just different technologies. One particular problem that computer games have though is they tend to encourage solitary play. Itself not a harmful thing within reason, but overall I think it is preferable for children to spend most of their playtime in social activities as it helps them develop social skills. Wargames are very useful at this - as you spend your time with at least one other person sat on the other side of the table. It is also fairly common to have a game with more than one person aside, requiring discussion and agreement of plans. Any activity that requires children to discuss, negotiate and agree joint action  is highly beneficial to a child's social development.

Wargames develop critical thinking skills

This is a big claim but I think a fair one. When playing a wargame it becomes a natural process to analyse a situation systematically and work through possible outcomes before committing to a course of action. At its simplest is the thought process 'if I do x, then y will most probably be the outcome, therefore my opponent may do a, or b, if they do, what may then happen?'. Wargames teach systematic habits of thought because it is effective way to win, so children do it naturally, not because they are told to. This process also requires a child to consider what their opponent may do, to put themselves in their opponents shoes and consider things from their point of view. Anything that can help a child develop empathy can only be a good thing.

It is great for developing maths

Playing wargames is a constant exercise in arithmetic. Wargames rules call for regular use of arithmetic to solve outcomes of combat and movement. Probability is also a constant theme, dice are a near constant in such games and having to work out probability is a standard skill. At its simplest, knowing how likely it is to get say a 5 or 6 on a 6 sided dice. The complexity quickly ramps up with the use if differing dice, calculating the outcomes of an opposed dice throw (my opponent and I both throw a D6, I add a two and he adds a four but he needs to double my score where as a simple win would be useful for me, is this a good risk?). You want your child to use maths not because they have to do homework but because it is useful and fun? Get them playing wargames.

It makes them want to read

Anyone that plays wargames ends up reading more or less voraciously. When playing battles in an era, reading about them is more or less a given. Ah you may say, but it is only reading about battles and war and stuff, which is something I don't want my child to be focused on. Which up to a point is fair enough. However, I would respond with two thoughts. The first is that reading is a habit, so get children reading (almost anything) and reading then becomes something they do and their range of reading will naturally expand. Secondly, although an interest in military history is quite narrow, it leads almost by osmosis to an interest in and learning about political, social and diplomatic history. For example -  if a person was interested in the English Civil War and therefore starting reading about it. This reading could almost not fail to include learning about the causes of the war, the issues involved and the outcomes. So anyone interested in the ECW is going to have a far better knowledge of the development and functioning of the British constitution than the general population. The same could be said in the U.S. with reading about the American Civil War and Revolution. World War 2 is a popular period to wargame - and I think everyone could do with knowing about the lessons, whys and wherefores of that conflict. Not only does wargaming encourage reading but there is a need with wargaming to find out about how units were organised (so as to know what and how many toy soldiers to buy) and what uniforms were worn (so as to know how to paint what you have brought). This is the start and development of research skills - which a child will learn because it is what they are choosing to do with their free time. Do you want to hear your child say things like 'the books I would like for my birthday are.....' or 'can we go to the library this weekend?' Encourage them to play with toy soldiers.

But wargames glorify war!

This I think is the main reason (spoken or unspoken) about being worried about wargames, that it teaches war is a 'good thing'. This is a fear which is one that I can understand. I think it is a bit of a red herring though as it is just not born out by reality. People that play wargames have wildly varying political and world views. Some have a background in the military, most don't. The only common threads is an interest in military history and an enjoyment of playing cerebral competitive games. Without these two factors you would not play games based in military history. As I said in the preceding paragraph this leads to reading about war and the history of war. The thing is, the more you learn about war, the more it is obvious that it is a bad idea. OK, we may all agree that some wars needed to be fought - WW2 being a good example but people that play wargames would not think WW2 was a 'good thing', most would have it down as a necessary evil. Another example, the second Gulf War (the Bush and Blair one), everyone I knew at the time who played wargames, and therefore had a bit of knowledge about warfare and the history of conflict in the middle east, was of the opinion that it was a bad idea that would probably end badly. Knowing how wars tend to play out I think does not on the whole lead to an idealization of war - but a recognition of what war truly is.

OK, so there is probably far to much text on why I think playing wargames can be a positive thing for children. Do you agree with me and think this article is fab? Let me know. Do you disagree with me and think wargaming is a negative past time - I am even more keen to hear your comments.


  1. It is an interesting question, but ultimately I think it is just best parked up and to move on with gaming. I suppose I give out mixed messages, as I love wargames for their own sake, yet do not game current wars as I find it hard to see a 'game' in current misery. I am only just getting to a point in which I see the Falklands as being gameable and even that is not without reservation.

    I will play a boardgame or such in which there is an SS unit as part of the historical order of battle, but have no interest in collecting an SS figure force or fighting / designing pure SS based scenarios.

    And yet I will happily game other battles in which death and destruction and misery are present in equal terms - it is a sort of double standard but not something I dwell on.

    Some years ago, I played a boardgame that included nuclear strikes, a city was nuked, the counter was put on the city hex and I felt a substantial degree of unease that I still easily call today. Nuclear escalation led to more strikes. The game did not get a second outing.

    I tend not to try to rationalise my gaming, other than to see it as a game, simply because I know at the personal level I see war as abhorrent and the death of wasted generations and displacement of people as a terrible thing.

    I think it is the mechanics of a game and the application of method to achieve a goal that engage me with games and to that end I largely stay detached from the question of is this right.

    As for kids, your passion is your passion and always will be, that fact that you can share that with a child and spend some quality 1:1 time with a child is a precious thing. As they get older, for most people, I think that stops anyway as kids find their own passions and take selfies and all sorts un non-understandable things.

    One of the thing about pastimes that I often muse about is that as a kid, I grew up in a culture of all boys got guns and we played 'war' or cowboys and Indians in the stret. This was fully condoned by parents of a generation who had just witnessed total war at close hand.

    So if I had to distill all of that down, I would say, it is possible to enjoy wargames, while having a hatred of war itself and that the value of having 1:1 time with ones child and allowing them to share something with you is a single sufficiently justified cause for gaming with them.

  2. I'd all your points are valid. Gaming reenforces many skills that will be applicable later in life. As for the percieved negative I would say it gives a better understanding of the horrors of war and encourages a respect who were willing and did sacrifice themselves in battle.

    Norms last paragraph sums it up nicely.

  3. Good points. The only issue for me is the 'glorifying war' aspect. As Norm says, there are things we as individuals are comfortable gaming and things we are not, so there is definitely a moral question in play at some level. Wargames can both glorify and trivialise war, so we all have to make our peace with that in some way.

    Anyway, that aside, wishing you many years of quality social interaction, skill development, knowledge sharing and absolute gaming happiness with your boy :)