Playing with History

History has a tendency to not stay dead. In many countries, it is evident how issues of the past still shape the political landscape.

Although I’m not American, after the events in Charlottesville, after president Trump’s statements and after reading discussions in ACW forums, I felt sick with gaming the American Civil War for a moment.

What follows is my attempt at trying to clarify my own stance towards wargaming controversial subjects. Perhaps some of you might find those rather rambling thoughts interesting. If not, have no fear – normal service will be resumed shortly.

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I have to admit that I’m generally a rather squeamish player when it comes to periods that have an impact on current politics. I normally avoid WW2 games and only play them with people I trust, because the ideology of National Socialism is still alive in certain parts of Austrian society and I just couldn’t stand it to spend my evening with someone who downplays Nazi crimes.

Now, many people might say that ‘we’re just playing games’. This is, of course, true, if we mean that we shouldn’t take winning or losing too seriously, that no one gets hurt in our games and that we – fortunately! – miss the danger and the suffering experienced by the people we base our games upon.

However, it does not mean that those games have no meaning. Historical wargames always represents something. To say that ‘this is just a game’ misses the fact that we play a game with stories and symbols that still touch people. For example, SS units are not just elite assets on the tabletop, but they represent mass murderers, men who were willing accomplices of a genocidal regime. Swastikas are not just historical symbols, they are still used by political extremists.

As could lately be seen in Charlottesville, the same is true for Confederate symbols. There are people who would prefer to rewrite history and tell us that the Confederates were not racist at all, that it was not about slavery and that their cause was a noble one. This rightly enrages others whose ancestors have made a different experience and who themselves make different experiences each day of their lives. A half-way honest investigation of its history shows that the CSA was a nation based on the suppression of African-Americans, and to deny that is to not only deny the historical experience of slavery and racism, but also the fact that racial inequality still is an experience for many people today.

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This does not mean that we shouldn’t play with this history. But at least for me it means that we should do so respectfully – respectfully not only towards the men (and women) who fought and died in that conflict, but also towards the people who are touched by this history today. This, in turn, means having an open ear for their stories and concerns and not dismiss them by saying they are ‘easily offended’ or ‘politically correct’, or by using any other of those intellectually lazy phrases that signal nothing but an unwillingness to accept that there are other perspectives than ones own.

And before anyone says that this takes out all the fun – really, it’s not that hard to have fun without being a dick!

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By painting figures, writing scenarios and playing games we always tell stories, whether we intend to or not. But we also have it in hand to choose which story we want to tell. For my Civil War gaming, I do not want to repeat the trite and deluded narrative of the chivalrous South and its noble cause. Instead, I want to tell other stories and bring different actors into the foreground: The 1st South Carolina Volunteers, an African-American regiment, for instance.

Which does not mean that I won’t collect, paint or play with Confederate figures. But I will always remember what happened more than a 150 years ago and I won’t whitewash the conflict or downplay the issues that were at stake.