Wavell Room
Image default
Concepts and Doctrine Opinion People and Leadership Short Read

Wargaming has a Diversity Problem

Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version

Executive Summary

Wargaming has a diversity problem: 98% white and male.

I propose there are two ways that people engage with wargames:

  1. To dominate, to win, to prove their mastery, to confirm what they already know.
  2. To experience a new perspective, to learn, to grow, to embrace the unknown.

Playing for domination leads to misogynist and toxic behaviour towards women and minorities.  It leads to playing for indulgence rather than learning the meaningful lessons serious games can impart—which is bad for the outcomes of wargames, bad for the culture of wargaming, and bad for diversity and inclusion.  Wargaming is literally meant to teach us to be better.

We need to stop pretending that arguing against diversity and inclusion is anything more than the masturbatory indulgence of straight white men.

Wargaming already has the tools to fix its diversity problem—it just doesn’t know it yet

There was a question from the floor at Connections UK 2019: who are we not reaching?

I keep thinking about the answers put forward.  No-one in the two-hundred-strong, overwhelmingly white, male, Russell-Group-educated, able-bodied audience brought up diversity.

Maybe I should have stood up.

Consider me cowed by an apparent consensus against the idea at the time, and a career of being assumed subordinate when a man is in the room.

Allow me to say something now, about something else that happened at that Connections, and the shining heart of wargaming.

Aftershock is art

I don’t say that lightly.

I played it for the first time in the Tuesday games demonstration, facilitated by Rex Brynen, and it felt like stepping through the magical door in Mr Benn’s fancy dress shop.  I laughed till I cried, shouted in frustration, felt utterly powerless, petitioned Rex for permission to operate a secret police hit squad to get the NGOs out of the press box.  In short, I had a really enjoyable two hours.  Rex’s cut-scenes, telling the stories behind the event cards, were definitely a highlight.  I came away with an appreciation of the challenges of humanitarian relief, and profound respect for the way this game manipulates its players so deliciously.

Aftershock is a mostly-cooperative board game concerned with the humanitarian response to an earthquake in the fictional country of Carana, with inspiration drawn from real-world events like the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

Play covers the first three months, from initial emergency to early recovery period.  Players take on the roles of:

  • Carana’s government;
  • the UN;
  • Multinational Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Task Force (HADR-TF);
  • NGOs.

They attempt, over the course of seven turns, to distribute resources across the five districts of Carana’s capital city to save as many lives as possible.  Each district has a stack of at risk cards, stating the current needs for rescue personnel and medical, wash, food, and shelter resources.  Resource-allocation to these cards is the aim of the game.

Sounds easy, right?  You know how this sort of game works: there won’t be quite enough to go round, we’ll have to make strategic calls and sacrifice the few for the greater good, but ultimately we’ll make the best choices given the options available to us—as if everyone before us in the annals of humanitarian response didn’t also come to the table with the best of intentions.

What Aftershock does so cleverly is to disabuse you of this naivety straight away.  There are no best choices.

The first lesson of Aftershock is that the real world is hard.

The team accrues enough resources to meet the needs of about one at risk card per turn—but the central mechanism of the game is that the players don’t get to decide when a district’s needs get resolved.  Meaning resources sit around waiting in one district, while another is (surprise!) resolving this turn and you’ve not met its needs yet.  A lot of people die early on in the game before you’ve had the chance to do anything about it.  Just like in the real world, where thousands of people survive the initial disaster only to die in the following days from preventable complications of otherwise-survivable injuries.

Every turn brings another event card to keep the players stubbing their toes on reality, and with it the crushing realisation that everybody’s best intentions are sometimes the worst thing that could happen: celebrities come to be seen to do good, knocking out most of your already-stretched logistics capacity by parking their 737 on the runway for the day.  The middle-classes buy up food, taking carefully-placed resources away from the other districts.  Refugees from the slums pour into another district, unbalancing all your distribution efforts again.  And all the while, the game is punishing you for your failures and only rewarding your success when the media is watching.  It’s heart-breaking.

That’s the power of game design.  Isn’t it magical?  And humbling and thought-provoking and inspiring?  That a game can present you with a mathematical certainty and moral dilemma and devastating insight into human nature in the same breath:

  • Card A needs 2 cubes to resolve, we’ve got the resources required,
  • Card B needs 4 cubes to resolve, we can’t do it this turn, let’s spend our resources elsewhere,

but:

  • A is the wealthy district, their needs are pretty small,
  • B is the slums, they are desperately poor and dying of hunger and illness.

This is art.

“The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as an example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.”

 

— Andrei TarkovskY

An interesting thing happened in the pub after the game

I was telling a handful of co-workers how wildly frustrated I felt as Premier of Carana, with all these organisations come into my country to help me—who proceeded to ignore almost everything I said as the elected representative of the population, and decided for me what was in the best interests of my country (which just so happened to be in the best interests of their token on the score track).  There I was, conveying with much enthusiasm the immersive nature of the game and its humbling insights—and I hadn’t realised that also present at the table was one of the other players.  His response?  I was sore about losing.

Really??  Did we even play the same game??

How did I come away from that experience seeing all the frustrating failures of modern society, the way entire countries and strata of society are marginalised as a privileged few jockey for power—winning the game by maximising their media exposure, rather than maximising the health and stability of Carana—and thinking about my personal privilege as white and British in a world where that counts for much more than it should, and someone else can shrug and say I’m just banging on about it because my side didn’t win?

(I should add, we very nearly hit the victory condition of no winners at all because everyone else was scoring points at the expense of Carana, and there’s only a winner if Carana is in the positive at the end of the game—that’s how much the other players were screwing over my government for their own benefit.)

I feel like I learned a powerful moral lesson, and he learned…to move a counter on a score track.  I feel like it was more important to him to Win The Game, to establish dominance, than engage with the content or the players.  And you know, that’s an experience I have a lot as a woman in male-dominated spaces—as do other minorities: BAME, LGBT, and people with disabilities—to the point that I will often lie about my background or job to spare myself the BS.  The experience goes like this:

Man, on hearing I am a rocket scientist, feels his status is threatened, and takes action to restore his lofty position by doing one or all of the following:

  1. Proving to me and anyone who will listen just how knowledgeable he is about rocket science.  Hint: I’m not interested in a pissing contest about space trivia, or having my degree Explained To Me.
  2. Trying to justify the equal importance of his own specialist subject.  Hint: I never said my degree was more awesome than yours.  I studied what interested me; I assume you did the same?  It’s kind of weird you acting like you need my approval!
  3. Shouting at me.
  4. Commenting about my sexuality behind my back in an effort to reduce my status in everyone else’s eyes.  Hint: a reasonable number of people will call you out for this BS and then you’ll look stupid.

And you know the most ridiculous thing about it?  He’s busy feeling threatened because he assumes my sole reason for existence is to get my dick out and assert dominance as unquestionably the smartest person in the room.  Which makes me laugh so hard I could pee.

Not only because I have literally no interest in being the smartest person in the room, or in even measuring who is the smartest person in the room, but because most of my educational experience was being, unquestionably, the dumbest person in the room.

I’m dyslexic.  I was nearly expelled from school for doing so badly at maths.  You’re looking at the person who has to count-on when moving her piece in Monopoly, 1-2-3-4 for the first dice and then 1-2-3 for the second, because the challenge of translating dots into numbers, adding them together, and remembering that total while counting the squares is too much for me.  (And people who just know where to land on the board without counting on each square?  That’s straight-up witchcraft!)  Rolling for DnD with actual dice makes me cry.

This is all a long way from Aftershock, though?

Not really, because I get this a lot at work.  I go into a meeting thinking how can we collaborate on something great, he comes in thinking I need to be the smartest person in this room.  I’m thinking about how we can use our different strengths to create something bigger than both of us.  He’s thinking how can he get his dick out and swing it around enough to keep me small.

I end up having to defend my right to take up space in the conversation because it is more important to him to Win The Game, to establish dominance, than engage with the content or the players.

Which is not to say that playing a game to win is a bad thing.  But let me bring it back to Aftershock by quoting Film Crit Hulk:

The one question

“Jonathan Gold was a Pulitzer Prize-winning food writer and probably the best critic of any medium in the entire world.

 

His work made a number of lasting impressions on me, but there’s one quote I think about all the damn time when it comes to the field of criticism.  The moment actually comes from a deleted scene from City of Gold, the documentary about his life and influence on Los Angeles, and the offhand quote is this: “[In criticism,] the only question is why.”

 

As in, why this dish?  Why this ingredient?  Why this bowl?  Why this colour?  What do the answers to those questions all come together to do or say?  And I’ve learned that if you have a good, strong answer for the “why,” then you probably have a good, strong, cohesive result.

 

At the same time, if you have a bad or short-sighted answer for the “why” that’s incongruous with your overall goal?  Well, then you’re probably making a bad choice.  And the crux really can be that simple.”

 

— Film Crit Hulk

What’s the overall goal of Aftershock? It’s not the deliciously manipulative victory conditions, it’s the lessons they impart.  It’s not the point of humanitarian aid and disaster relief for the NGOs to be seen to do good at the expense of the country being helped.  It’s not the point of the UN and HADR to be kind of racist colonialists, by rocking up as guests in a foreign country and abusing that invitation to impose their standards and priorities over and above the elected representatives.  Unquestionably the goal of Aftershock is to disabuse you of any naivety you have about how all we need are good intentions and we can fix the third world, simples!

So what does it say if your takeaway is still but look how well I did at gaming the system for personal glory?  It says you’re probably making a bad choice—and one that speaks to how we can have games like Aftershock, with its stunning ability to make you take a perspective other than your own, and still operate in a wargaming culture where nobody thinks that an overwhelmingly white, male, Russell-Group-educated, able-bodied audience is failing to reach people.

It’s the difference between playing for the experience of a new perspective, and playing for the indulgence of winning and domination.

Some people play games to feel powerful.

Others play to experience diversity.

Now you can argue that of course I would say this—dyslexia makes me suck at winning, so I’m bound to be enthusiastically behind other ways of enjoying a game.

And it’s true that I can look at a Risk or Game of Thrones board and have pretty much no concept of who has the numerical advantage in a given fight, so count on me to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory with a bad decision.

And it’s true that the dominant experience of dyslexia is being at odds with the world: sit down and shut up, you’re wrong.  My earliest memories of school are being aware everyone else around me gets something I don’t—an instruction, a concept, the meaning of those shapes on the page.  Right from the start I was watching and listening, learning to pass myself off as like the rest of them.  Questioning my default position because there was a good chance everyone else knew something I didn’t.

And I say: how is this not a good thing?  Isn’t this what we use serious gaming for?  To teach judgement, critical thinking, perspective-taking.  To learn something new.  To make the world a better place through our subsequent actions—in small terms by being better at a specific role, and in grander terms by being better human beings.

Isn’t that exactly what the Chilcot Report found wanting in our “propensity for ‘groupthink’ – when a group of people conform in their thinking to the extent that their decision-making has an irrational or dysfunctional outcome – reflecting insufficient challenge and a lack of diversity of thought” ?

There’s a guy I work with. He’s very smart.

The joke is he’s always right; even when he’s wrong, he’s right.

And this is what diversity brings to the table:

This guy had never been less than the smartest person in his class, had never got less than an A, had never failed at anything.  He’d never faced a situation where he didn’t have all the answers.  He’d never been asked to do the impossible.  And when given a wildly stressful wargaming deadline, it all fell apart.  He didn’t have the answer so it couldn’t be done.  He couldn’t see the solution, so it wouldn’t work.  Even though he was wrong, he was so convinced he was right that he became the roadblock, not the task before us.

It took someone who’d experienced the impossibility of university without reasonable adjustments to stand up and say, “You know what?  We might fail.  But if we do nothing we certainly won’t succeed.  Let’s see how far we can get.”

Diversity is good because it’s the anti-even when I’m wrong, I’m right.

Diversity is what gives us a perspective we haven’t considered before—and as a culture of red-teamers, shouldn’t we be seeking out that different perspective in everything we do?

Here is another simple question to consider:

““Am I making art?  Or am I making pornography?

 

This may sound extreme, but Hulk is talking about the great spectrum of media experience.  On one end there is pure art, which represents the values of giving people the ideas they need to confront inalienable truths.  On the other end is pornography, which represents the individual’s indulgence of strictly base needs, regardless of import.”

 

— Film Crit Hulk

Some people play games to feel powerful.  Others play to embrace what they don’t know.  To learn.  And that’s beautiful.

Aftershock is art.

Sally Davis

Sally Davis is a professional wargamer and co-author of the Derby House Principles for diversity and inclusion in professional wargaming.

Related posts

Book Review: How Armies Grow In the Age of Total War 1789-1945

Steve Maguire

Cheer Ship! A First Naval Birthday Review

Rewriting history: St Valery and Remembrance

Neil McLennan

20 comments

bayonetbrant January 15, 2021 at 16:41

Great article, and definitely some points to pay attention in the next group event.

Reply
BigLezlieK January 15, 2021 at 18:59

I don’t agree that playing to win or for domination as you put it is a bad thing, otherwise what are we playing for? People grow their mastery and skill through challenge and a clear goal… Victory. Unfortunately you seem very angry about how people decide to play but is this your decision to make, you don’t get to decide this but you can decide who you play with so play with someone different!

Appreciate these things are always going to happen but no need to label a group of people misogynist and toxic just be gamestyle. Unreal that people let these kind of views slide to a public place

Reply
Jon Parkman January 15, 2021 at 22:22

Great article Sally, and I personally enjoy the extra swearing that not being on work systems brings! 🙂

I’m not much of a hobby wargamer because its too close to real work, but as a generally non-disadvantaged person (stand fast the general dislike of social interaction with strangers that I’ve had to fight to overcome for years) and a ‘leader’ of wargames, I get massively fed up of having to go to senior officers to tell their juniors or peers to stop being pricks to the female staff working on the wargames. Normally around thrusting top-third and about to be listed SO2 or OF5 level I’ve found.

Thinking back to the last time we spoke in person (seems a very long time ago), I still think we need the “Remember, Don’t be a dick” banners up around the wargaming rooms at DWC…

Reply
Jez January 15, 2021 at 23:38

I don’t think the article makes it clear this is about strategic wargaming by the military and others, not miniature and board wargaming which is played for far more nuanced and personal reasons as well as social.

Reply
Jeremy Osbourn January 16, 2021 at 02:08

Your an idiot. There’s no whites only signs outside game stores atleast not here in America. And there’s another reason you missed for why people play and it’s purely to have fun and socialize. There is for that matter nothing toxic about a competitive spirit and enjoy winning. I happen to have several women who play with us and play to win . Some of them are even poor sports about being winners. Oh and minority’s my best friend is quite literally a card carrying indian and I do my best to beat him at the game not because of some deep seated superiority complex because I’m a white man and like my ancestors I carry on the tradition of beating the redman but because it’s a fun game. Stop being a jackass the fact that no minority women want to play with you is much more likely to do with you than it is to do with some secret rules dissalowing them to play wargames.

Reply
Darkfine January 16, 2021 at 02:45

Are you saying minorities and women can’t compete on the same level as white males?

Reply
Nofux Givens January 16, 2021 at 03:58

While I make it habit being open minded and try incorporate new ideas in every aspect of planning in my life, a lot of my decisions are based off of failure, which has included blood and death. I served 2 tours in the Marine Corps as Infantry 0331. New guys stfu and listen. In mock scenarios for military and police its mostly to teach and learn. Especially when you’re including multiple organizations working together. Anyone in command most likely will never accept a challenge to their authority if they feel you aren’t at least up to speed on common practices or if you have some new Intel. Also nothing 100% goes as planned as soon as the first shot is fired.
My suggestion to this Author is to flush your headgear clean of all that gender and race bullshit. It puts needless filters in between you and learning.. it will also taint your ability to lead objectively. Certain situations are influenced by cultural traits and require different tactics/perspectice.But its rare unless you’re in a non westernized country… I see too many young people nowadays end up feeling like they have no voice because they try to speak or chime in when they should watch and learn. That’s the first step of leadership. You need to realize that its almost always a judgment on your known experience to allow you to make decisions for others. Its something thats earned not given. More times than I can count in the military, oilfield as a diver and now as a nurse…when I think of an idea while I’m trying to learn from superiors I end up seeing why my idea sucked after learning from them. because the Good Leaders/Instructors want to give you the best tools so you become better than they are. You also gotta realize when it comes combat jobs/policing its going to be mostly men who choose that job. Also a lot of minority families, including mine, came to a mostly white country to avoid wars and combat that they experienced.. They actively try to keep their children away from the military.

As for mini war gaming/cards/board games/rpg. I do that too. Which is what I at first thought this was about. I really don’t see lack of diversity in it. Except for some games that are more expensive and the competitive scene group. Play to win but always ay to teach. Some people get salty at players who curb stomp others with their armies. Some of those people have spent tons of time and money creating them to play a couple of games, if lucky a month
All the while scheming on how he wants to play.
The best way to grow gaming with others is make a club and rotate the games. If for say 40k doesn’t have enough players with armies…bruh..most people got a huge ass pile of shame that needs painting…on a 40k day make it painting day.

Reply
TesmFanFicWriterXo~tentacle~Xo January 16, 2021 at 08:16

I take a lot of offense at this articles attack on the wargaming community. I dont find the San Deigo warhammer scene at all represents the pillar of white heterosexuality you portray. This attack was unwarranted, what I see is a diverse community of people enjoying a hobby. I also dont really feel that you have the right to use your place in the LGBT community to attack peoples hobbies either.

This article reads as a beligerant rant by an entitled white woman who thinks being LGBT makes her a minority. You make some very dumb generalizations and fail to make any real coherent points.

Reply
Leiws Graton January 16, 2021 at 10:46

This article comes from a good place clearly but it offers an awful solution. A rich oxford educated twat is a rich oxford educated twat no matter their faith, skin colour or sexual orientation. You’re clearly middle or upper class if you managed to become a rocket science with dyslexia, you would do well to consider the perspectives of the poor and disadvantaged. As would your colleagues it would seem. Diversity of thought has nothing to do with looks or sexuality and everything to do with experience. If you offered me two people to join my team in a large scale wargame and one was just another well educated 2nd lieutenant and the other was some private who just so happened to have a rough childhood in the area the war game is taking place I would take the private.

Reply
Matthew Wolf January 16, 2021 at 15:06

Another hit peace on a hobby, because some woke fool wants to inject their warped ideology into the genre.
Wargaming is popular all over the world, so in Japan is the hobby too Asian and straight or in Poland is the hobby too Slavic and straight?.
Your points are ridiculous and easily dismissed with basic logic, I hope one day you will grow up and understand that freedom and liberty for all is the most important value no matter your sexual orientation or skin colour.Most wargaming clubs I’ve attended over the years or events have a had a very diverse group of people from all classes of society brought together for a common interest.

Reply
MrHedgepig January 16, 2021 at 16:50

Hold up. I just wanna know what kind of rockets you are working on right now. I’ve heard the Americans are working on an ion drive, is that scientifically possible?

Reply
Vandy Wolf January 16, 2021 at 18:18

This is click bait for a boardgame review, using inflammatory statements to get people to read her drivel, I play warhammer 40k and I’m LGBT and have never felt unwelcome or unrepresented in the game, the world of warhammer 40k isn’t really somewhere a player actually wants to see themselves, it’s called grim dark for a reason

Reply
Pierre Savoie January 16, 2021 at 20:29

You’re seriously deluded by leftist politics, and you weren’t even describing a wargame. It’s impossible to take you seriously.

Reply
Teamski January 16, 2021 at 22:11

In addition to being completely lacking in context (military wargaming vs Hobbiest wargaming) the author never provided data that shows that wargaming is somehow mysoginist and exclusionist. Let’s look at probables of why white men may dominate the field. First of all, ask the author how many women aspire to be professional wargamers. Also ask who fill out field armies and lead them. I know from my many trips to Historicon, I know that I don’t see a lot of women and minorities there because the hobby is niche to say the least, and only a tiny portion of any group will attend such a function, and the percentage of women interested is even smaller. I wish people would quit firing shotguns disparaging entire groups of people just to make a name for themselves.

Reply
BK January 17, 2021 at 01:13

Oh hey another feminist hate article disguised as a diversity article designed to preclude criticism of it. Good job!….

Reply
MrQUADRATIC January 17, 2021 at 03:52

In our hobby wargaming circles. We treat everybody equally guys girls. I think this article does not apply to our hobby because I have never seen a single case of this. Play it gaming rooms in Sarasota Florida and quite frankly anybody’s welcome to join in it plenty of ladies are there.

Reply
bayonetbrant January 17, 2021 at 19:30

There seems to be a presumption on the part of many of the hobby gamers here that the only possible use for a wargame is to simply beat up the other player.

There are plenty of other uses for wargaming, whether is testing courses of action, exploring new doctrine or equipment, rehearsals, building interest in a topic, or re-running multiple iterations for data collection purposes. Sometimes, it’s simply a shared collaborative event intended as a team-building exercise that has nothing to do with who wins or loses, but simply a ‘get to know the other people’ opportunity in understanding different approaches to the subject matter – a HUGELY important tool in the toolbox of interagency operations.

There are a myriad number of uses for wargames that don’t involve simply trying to kick someone else’s ass, and Sally rightly makes the point that waaaaaaay too many people approach *EVERY* wargame as though the only purpose is to establish military dominance, even when that is explicitly not the point of the game.

Given that her extensive experience is overwhelmed by examples of people doing exactly that, coupled with the fact that it is unlikely anyone attempting to disagree with her here has been in any of those games with her, perhaps it’s time to back up, shut up, and don’t try to tell people that their experience isn’t actually their experience, especially when you are busy exhibiting a breathtaking lack of understanding of the context and subject matter she’s discussing.

Reply
Perry de Havilland February 2, 2021 at 21:19

“We need to stop pretending that arguing against diversity and inclusion is anything more than the masturbatory indulgence of straight white men.”

I’m going to be quoting this article as a master class in how to take a proposition & *not* win anyone over to your point of view who did not already share your assumptions 😉

Reply
Bálint Somkuti March 8, 2021 at 08:01

Well coming from ex soviet bloc I have very strange feelings. This article feels and smells like a lead article from Pravda, Soviet Union say 1973.

Same obscure, politically motivated, out of life arguments brought up to combat some minor deficiency posted as a clear and present danger. Put in a so threatening way, that any objection, no matter how well supported by real arguments, is silenced immediately.

We in the Visegrad 4 countries have not forgotten soviet rule and these and many more similar phenomena give us the creeps.

1. This is clearly soviet style
2. Weakens the ability of the West to resist russian-chinese pressure.
3. Therefore weakens our security
4. Makes russian way of living, where common sense is not questioned, attractive.
5. Not a single commenter dared to bring these up, raising questions about free speech, further supporting points 1 to 4.

Reply

Leave a Comment