War and Games

I’ve been reading War and Peace over the last month; a book I have put off for far too long. I’m really enjoying it and there is a lot I could write about but the following quote I read recently really stood out to me. The context is two friends discussing war just prior to the Battle of Borodino between Russian and French forces, during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. Prince Andrew has direct experience of war while this is Pierre’s first time anywhere near a war zone.

“A skilful commander?” replied Pierre. “Why, one who foresees all contingencies… and foresees the adversary’s intentions.”
“But that’s impossible,” said Prince Andrew as if it were a matter settled long ago.
Pierre looked at him in surprise.
“And yet they say that war is like a game of chess?” he remarked.
“Yes,” replied Prince Andrew, “but with this little difference, that in chess you may think over each move as long as you please and are not limited for time, and with this difference too, that a knight is always stronger than a pawn, and two pawns are always stronger than one, while in war a battalion is sometimes stronger than a division and sometimes weaker than a company. The relative strength of bodies of troops can never be known to anyone. Believe me,” he went on, “if things depended on arrangements made by the staff, I should be there making arrangements, but instead of that I have the honor to serve here in the regiment with these gentlemen, and I consider that on us tomorrow’s battle will depend and not on those others…. Success never depends, and never will depend, on position, or equipment, or even on numbers, and least of all on position.”

War and Peace, Part 10, Chapter 25

Part of Tolstoy’s aim in War and Peace is to show how historical events aren’t shaped by one or few men great men but by a great multitude of people making individual decisions, sometimes at critical times – which creates a general mood that shapes history. The great men we know from history simply harness or come to represent this movement. Or taking it from the blurb it “expresses Tolstoy’s view that history is an inexorable process which man cannot influence.”

As this is the first time I’ve been introduced to Tolstoy’s thoughts on this, I’m not familiar with any criticism of it. I’m almost through it now and I’m surprised that prior to reading it, I had been taught and still thought in terms of great men leading mass movements and directing history. I wonder if Tolstoy’s point has been refuted, ignored or both. I expect I’ll find out after I finish the book (probably by next week).

To get to the topic, I was thinking of the above quote in relation to video games. In war games whether grand strategy, or more tactical genres, you generally have a birds-eye view of the battlefield. If not over the whole area – at least where your troops are positioned. What’s more, you see all this in real-time and in many games, are notified immediately when any unit comes under attack.

Your units will also obey you without question. If you command a small group of infantry to attack a heavily fortified position, they will obey you and even find the shortest way to meet their end. You don’t have to worry about individual or group morale, at least not in a more than superficial way. You will also not see any individual initiative that isn’t in some way programmed. Your forces also all have set skills and abilities that do not vary between classes. Much like chess, there is no chaos as in real war. And what chaos there is, is scripted or caused by the player.

I used to think that I should learn to play chess because it would help me understand war and I now see how foolish that was. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb has pointed out, skills aren’t necessarily transferable to other disciplines. So being a chess grandmaster doesn’t mean you will be an excellent commander. In fact, you will likely be precisely the opposite as you will see the problem the first time a move doesn’t worth the way you expect.

The same is very much true of strategy video games. Many do go into great detail trying to simulate war but the result can only ever be superficial. Even if you were to make a game where you couldn’t see a view of the entire battlefield and had to rely on contradictory information constantly being fed to you by scouts, you still wouldn’t get the experience. In fact, the more realistic you tried to make it, the less fun it would likely be. War isn’t really a game and even games about war have to be fun.

Even in modern war where commanders do have a lot more accurate real-time information and even get a birds eye of the battlefield like in a game, what they see is still a confusing and chaotic mess. I could understand this well after reading Black Hawk Down a few months ago. The General in charge had constant information coming to him from troops and helicopters hovering over the battle. He still had no clear idea of what each individual troop was doing at any one time and more importantly, what exactly they could and would do. He could give an order and watch it carried out but then the soldiers can’t see what he sees and he can’t always see what the soldiers see. And then something can happen that nobody could see until it happened.

It seems that war much like history is inevitably chaotic and unpredictable, as we should consider all human affairs. It would be easy to use this knowledge to become cynical (the way my thinking usually goes), but in reality it gives each of us a lot more power over our life than it initially appears. As I recalled what Gandalf said to Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring:

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

Or to bring it back to gaming, you only get one life and then it’s game over so you need to play the best you can with the one you’ve got.

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