What’s the point of Wargaming?

(Or how playing games helps little boys turn into bigger boys)

Durham Wargames Group is very much at a high watermark at the moment. We’re winning awards for the activities of some members (Durham’s Chosen Men), and we are starting to expand out into the wider gaming community. With a newly constituted committee and some fresh blood at the top there’s also a ‘first term push’; and air of energy and momentum that threatens to burst us up and out as well as serving our current members as we always have done.

This ambition is of course crushingly limited by the fact that we are full to bursting point and our current (and permanent for the foreseeable future) venue can barely contain us all. As a club we’re a bit like a snake that can’t shed its skin…ready to grow, but restricted.

So the conversation of late has been around raising our ‘club profile’ to the outside world and a strong feeling is that we should look to draw in and nurture the next generation of gamers. Unfortunately, while a high ideal, it’s not something we are really equipped to do, so I guess we’ll leave them to Games Workshop and pick them up again in their late 20’s once the novelty of women wears down a bit! (Now I’m not being weird here, the demographics of gamers show a major gap from age 16-25…the courting years!)

But all this talk did get me thinking about the dim and distant past when I were just a lad, etc. Why did I get involved in the hobby? How did I get hooked and what has it given me throughout my life?

Like many, many gamers I was drawn in by Games Workshop, but this was way back when they were still a farrago of companies; Games Workshop, Citadel Miniatures, et. al. I was not much over ten years old and still in the grip of Star Wars mania, reinvigorated by the best of the films (Empire Strikes Back), but already my long addiction to gaming was taking hold. A neighbour (thanks Pete) had got me into Dungeons & Dragons and I’d always loved model making (a bedroom festooned with dangling Airfix bombers attested that) so I suppose it was a natural evolution!

Like most people, the distractions of liquor and female curves drew me away for a while and when I returned, having picked up an education by accident, historical gaming appealed more. The hobby has served me well in many areas and I believe it serves most of its participants, particularly youngsters, in many beneficial ways.

So what are those benefits to the young (and not so young) players?

At the risk of enraging the feminist contingent or the political correctness brigade, most young gamers are boys. Some girls do get involved but they are very definitely a (welcome) minority. This is not a cause for concern however as the hobby offers something young boys desperately need to help them develop. Social interaction skills. Gaming is by its nature a social activity, not particularly encumbered by the physical distractions of other boy’s activities such as sport. Gaming provides a structured framework for this interaction and encourages its participants to develop social skills that young boys often struggle with.

Boys growing up will find themselves in peer groups where physical prowess, aggression and the ‘rough and tumble’ of the playground are dominant. During these years, the more refined aspects of personality and culture can be crushed in the melee. Gaming offers an outlet for this that is slightly less likely to get the little chap beaten up for being ‘girlie’. Gaming is not just about the tabletop; modelling and painting are also major skills the gamer will need and want to develop. Gaming encourages the youngsters to express their artistic and creative desires. When you first start out of course, the ‘dip and blob’ painting technique is pretty much it. But the associated magazines are replete with marvellously painted figures. Also, the effect of seeing your friend’s figures well painted is not to be underestimated as a motivation to develop. Aside from the practical modelling and painting of figures and terrain, the establishment of games also requires as good deal of creative skills.

Youngsters need rules and structure to their lives and also can benefit from such during the play. Most games have rules for play of varying complexity. The construction of armies is governed by certain rules, as is the way in which the conduct of games is carried out. Most games are turn-based, encouraging and reinforcing an ‘I go, you go’ mentality, mimicking the way most males interact naturally. Also, most games encourage a sense of fair play and ‘gentlemanly behaviour’, sorely lacking in most other youngster’s recreations. One only has to think of the disgraceful behaviour of most professional footballers (and crowds) to imagine the stark contrast between the gamer’s sense of fairness and the football support’s sense of ‘win at all costs’.

Children spend a large proportion of their time in structured learning environments at school. For many of them, this is a sterile, boring world that seems almost designed to inhibit learning! Even simple games have a relative complexity of rules or background. While pursuing a hobby they enjoy, youngsters will effortlessly be developing their mathematical skills (adding subtracting and multiplying those ‘army points values’ can have even us older boys reaching for a calculator). Most games will have a rich background, either a fantasy creation or some historical time period. I’ve yet to find a ruleset that pulls its literary punches here, so the youngster is exposed to complex literary texts that will develop the reading skills and possibly even impart knowledge of some humanities subjects such as history or militaria.

I’ve certainly developed all of these skills in my long affiliation with the hobby and have seen such development in youngsters myself. Of course, as we play for fun we absorb these other aspects as well along the way.

So for all the parents out there, the next time your boy whitters on about ‘space marines’, or emerges from his room covered in blue paint, or clutters up your table with piles of books, cunningly disguised as hills and scatters a fistful of dice across the kitchen, just remember…he’ll be doing the same thing 20 years from now and he’ll be a better person because of it.

Steve Hardy