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Monday, June 29, 2015

Symbols in Miniature Wargames

By Dirty Jon Baber

As miniature wargamers, most of us have the desire to realistically represent past events on the battlefield.  Many of us pick historical games specifically to re-enact battles and wars we have read about or seen in movies.  There is even a subset of us who always strive for very realistic unit construction and representation of specific battles in startlingly exact detail.  I am not personally hyper-focused on this aspect of the hobby, but I am amazed at some of the awesome detail and hard work that people put in to these projects.  Many times, these projects include accurate unit and national symbols.  Some of these symbols can be considered offensive.  In thinking about the armies and conflicts that my friends and I use for wargaming, I can easily find reasons that non-gamers might be disturbed when looking casually at our hobby.  

The swastika is outlawed in parts of Europe.  This symbol is highly offensive to many people, and is still used as a symbol of hate and violence by neo-Nazis.  Outside of our hobby, I feel a bit of disgust every time I see it, but I have put it on my own tanks and airplanes when historically accurate.

The Arab-Israeli War is still weighing heavily on the Middle-East today.  People are routinely killed over some of the same things that drove this war.  The Star of David can inspire some very strong reactions from people in the area, and even spark violence.  This symbol is highly offensive to some peoples and revered by others.  These flags are all over the place when we play an AIW game.

When strolling through Historicon, I see my friends running an American Civil War game, full of troops.  Battle flags are everywhere, historically represented.  The GMs of this ACW game are some of the most liberal people I know, yet here is this symbol that in a different context is very, very offensive to some people.
Image from Perry Miniatures

This can go on and on.  The British burned down the White House.  Do Americans think of that when seeing the Union Jack?  The United States of America did horrible things to the Native American population under our own flag.  Do Americans - native and otherwise - think of that when they see it? Probably not enough. How about the Mai Lai Massacre?

In all my years of wargaming, I have only met one person who acted and spoke in an overtly racist way.  I immediately called this person on it, and never heard another word along these lines from this person again.  I still see this person around, but I never “hang out” with them - a polite greeting and I am on my way.  I point this out to illustrate that I do not think that this hobby is overrun with a bunch of crazies celebrating “bad guys” or glorifying horrible acts of human cruelty.  To me, the miniature wargamer is mostly interested in the game, the history and the miniatures and has a kind of necessary disconnect from what the game pieces and results actually represent - people being maimed and killed on the battlefield, sometimes to advance an abhorrent ideology.  

I think that this disconnect is also present when choosing armies, conflicts and battles.  The miniature wargamer is usually not evaluating the politics, ambitions and prejudices behind the units being represented. Some are, but many are not.  While I think that most miniature wargamers inherently (and likely unconsciously) understand this disconnect, many outside the hobby do not.  With recent events and national discussion, I think it would be a good exercise for our community to do some self-reflection.  Here are a few questions that are worth exploring:

  1. Why are you playing “the bad guys”?
  2. Why did you paint that symbol on there?  Isn’t that offensive?
  3. Do you want the “bad guys” to win?

For me, miniature wargaming is a special case.  I cannot recall being offended or even considering symbols for any reason other than historical accuracy - was this on that tank/flag/etc.?  Perhaps I should think more about this. As I reflect now, I have not had any problem with any scenarios I have seen actually played.  In thinking about it further, I would probably not want to game something like the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.  I cannot sufficiently articulate my aversion to this, but I just feel like it would be wrong.  To me, gaming anything too directly related to the Holocaust just seems too horrible to participate in.  Yet, I put a swastika on a tank.  Strange rules, indeed.

Having grown up in the South, one would think that I would be interested in the ACW.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Sure, I played a little Johnny Reb back in the day, but I really have no interest at all in the war or the gaming of the war.  To me, that conflict was so embarrassing to the nation, that I have stayed completely away from the entire thing.  I have met many, many, many people (NOT wargamers) that are just a little too much “in to” the Civil War to make it a very uncomfortable topic for me.  I grew up in the city and went to mostly minority-majority schools that were still impacted by Massive Resistance.  I think that the experience of having mostly minority friends gave me a strong appreciation for their thoughts and feelings about the ACW and the symbols of that war.  I have no interest.

Now, I have a TON of friends who are ACW game fans.  I have absolutely no problem with this at all.  None of them are crazies and many of them I consider my best wargaming friends. These folks also make some of the most detailed and beautiful models and scenery I have ever laid eyes on. I see their hobby shared enthusiastically with many happy hobbyists at conventions.

I'm ok with this.
I am SUPER not ok with this.
It is interesting that symbols in other contexts affect me in different ways.  For instance, I’ll put a swastika flag on a tank.  I’ll take a picture with the flag at a reenactment event - duplicating a picture of soldiers taking the flag as a trophy after defeating the Germans.  However, when I see that flag used by German reenactors, I feel like I could never do that.  Could I reenact Germans?  Maybe.  If I did, it would have to be Heer troops.  SS?  Not a chance.  This is especially true after being at an event and hearing the conversations - in German - between a group of SS Reenactors.  Let’s just say that they were getting WAY too in to the role.

So, what’s the point of this article?  Well, I wrote it to help me explore some of my own thoughts about the symbols we use in our hobby.  I clearly have no answers and “rules” for everyone to follow.  Everyone will have their own feelings influenced by their life experiences.  I would ask you all to take a moment and think about these topics and your thoughts about them.  We regularly use symbols that are highly charged and can provoke some really strong reactions and I think that it would do us well to reflect on how we feel about that.

Now, a bit of a caution.  There will be discussion on this topic in the WWPD Forums.  Please be VERY mindful of what you write.  This is a hot topic and can spark some strong feelings.  Please be respectful to everyone.  We will be watching closely.  

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