I just returned from a seminar discussion at the University of Maryland led by Dr. Matt Kirschenbaum of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities. The topic was advertised as “A conversation about the long history and seemingly unlikely combination of warfare and gaming” but ended up being a discussion that had the usual unenviable academic position of dealing with people very familiar with wargames, people whose gaming experience was limited to Halo and people who were really new to the entire topic.
So the fact that the discussion stayed interesting throughout is quite remarkable.
Kirschenbaum went through a nice thumbnail history of tabletop wargaming and took the opportunity to show off his copy of Afrika Korps, and ended his opening statement with the observation that the popularity of these sorts of games in the 1960s and 1970s (AK apparently had a print run of 100,000 copies) is a “lost ludology”; that so many people interested in the academic study of games and game space are focused on the virtual and electronic worlds, missing this big chunk of time in the Cold War when this sort of simulation was, if not mainstream, at least more widely available.( I’ve written about this sort of thing before, but from a different perspective.)
I’ve spent the last week interviewing employees at a certain game studio where the founders all connected decades ago over war and boardgames, and I think that fact informs both how they think about gaming and how they run their business. There was a generation where there was some serious overlap between tabletop wargames and computer game design. Avalon Hill, after all, was one of the earliest non-tech companies to invest in the new medium.
One interesting question raised from the audience was the role of cooperation in tabletop gaming. Where the multiplayer team aspects of so many popular video games are obvious, there was a bit of a struggle to think of cooperation in the more intimate and confrontational board game space. Kirschenbaum did note the important cooperative exercise of learning a game, something that requires some unity of purpose, especially if people want to play it correctly and fairly.
It was a fine way to spend an hour plus of my afternoon.