Sunday, May 28, 2006

GAME STORE CONFIDENTIAL ~ Who you really ought to thank for the Golden Age of Gaming

Well, lucky me.

I get to write an article on Memorial Day.

This one's going to be shorter than usual because I have only a few things to say and then a large thank you to pass along. But to begin with, I want to talk about war games for a few paragraphs.

First off, I do understand that war games are offensive to some people. I'm not saying I understand why they are offensive... just that they are. Maybe it's similar to a fear of heights, or fear of snakes, it's just one of those unexplainable things that some personalities don't want to deal with.

War games though, are endlessly fascinating for many, many people. Even people who haven't been in a war or never intend to be in one. I've sat at tables with passionate peaceniks and played war games, also with Vets of a number of different wars. Truth is, war games really don't "teach" us anything about life. They can help those interested in history or military hardware understand how war works, but they don't send any message about war. Oddly enough, Euro Games don't send any particular message about Europe. Now that I think about it, backgammon tells me nothing about ancient gamblers and chess hasn't allowed me to see inside the minds of 15th century gamers.

Games are just games. War Games don't glorify war any more than playing a game of Puerto Rico glorifies slavery. People play war games because of an interest in strategy & tactics, or because they are fascinated with the difficulties of terrain and weapons. Some war games add morale into the equation, but even that is usually a die roll and the best Civil War general or English Lord can suddenly find himself with an entire army running away, Monty Python style, because you rolled a "1".

About 25 or 30 years ago I read a book by a brilliant historian named Gwyn Dyer. He was, I think, a respected professor at a major university in Canada and is currently an anti-war activist. His book was called, simply enough, "War".

Good title, because it was a fantastic book about human beings and their tendency to fight and kill one another. If I'm right, PBS made a series about the book, sort of like the Ken Brooks' Civil War series. But back on point here... Dyer said something in his book that still, 30 years later, rings so, so true... if you just pause and think about it. In essence, the message he conveyed about war is this; in the end, all wars lose meaning to future generations. All wars become footnotes in history and eventually even lose their footnote status, becoming a collection of moldy old facts buried in books and databases that only doctoral candidates examine. He pointed out something that at once made me feel insignificant and at the same time awed... he reminded his readers that there have been more wars fought on this planet that nobody alive knows about than the total amount of wars recorded in history books.

So why then do we here in America memorialize war heroes, and by inference, war, every May? If war is so meaningless and so insignificant in the end, why make a holiday to remember and acknowledge those men and women who fight wars? And in the gaming world, why are men (and a smattering of women) fascinated by games that abstract death and killing in the form of hexagonal maps, cardboard chits and combat result tables?

I think it's because of a very simple thing... wars, while they may pass into history and become moot to current generations, are important things. War has shaped our civilization. Forgetting for a moment that all wars are indiscriminate when it comes to good and bad, because each side will lose lives, what wars do is push mankind towards something... or perhaps pull mankind away from something.

I am not one of those people who glorifies war. Like most of you, I dislike the very idea of inflicting pain, suffering and death on someone and the grim aspect of "collateral damage" is not just bad for pacifists... nobody likes it. Unless they really are evil.

So Mister Dyer in his book, wrote about war in a way I'd never personally thought about it. He got me to understand that wars only solve today's problems... or sometimes create today's problems, but that in the long run, we'd probably be a whole lot better off on this planet if we could figure out how not to have the damned things.

But we aren't there yet. And so we will continue to fight.

This brings me to the thing that makes Memorial Day the only holiday that has real meaning to me... other than July 4th. Memorial Day is a day to acknowledge the sacrifices of the heroes who have allowed America to write her own history books for over 200 years. Politics aside -- because if you think about it, politics become meaningless much faster than wars do -- every nation that is free and has fair elections and civil rights was forged with war. Even yours. It's so easy to pick apart something politically and forget that the prime foundations of what makes all free people free are the sacrifices that others have made for us... and the tradition goes back until it diminishes and fades away, becoming Gwen Dyer's forgotten history.

From where I sit, I'm pretty happy that some wars were fought and won by people in my family and the families of my friends. Hell, I'm happy for you that people I know and people you know cared enough about you, even though you might not have existed when they did, to take up arms and defeat those who cared nothing for you. I'm alive and living a good life because of people in your family, who never heard of me and maybe didn't get a chance to anyway, they cared enough to make the same sacrifices my circle of family and friends made.

So today, Memorial Day, may be a BBQ holiday for most people... which is a good thing... but it's the one day I call my dad up and remind him that every single breath I take, every laugh I enjoy with his grandchildren and pretty much every good thing in my life has only been possible because him and hundreds of thousands of others like him fought in a war that will eventually be a footnote... and finally, a forgotten piece of time that future free people will never know.

Thanks Dad. And thanks to the soldiers I don't know, but you do.

The item pictured below is a newspaper clipping from the Dallas Morning News, clipped on Sunday November 26, 1944. My grandmother sent it to my dad just several months before he and his fellow Marines waded ashore at Okinawa. To my knowledge my dad has never particularly enjoyed poetry and frankly, the poem itself is more than a little hokey. But he carried it with him and here I am, 61 years later, scanning that same clipping and posting it on the internet. Hopefully the author's family doesn't mind.

My grandmother's note in the upper margins says: "Son, keep this in your billfold, you might like to read it sometime."

Granny meant to say a lot more than that, I'm sure, and I think whatever she wanted to say, my dad understood it because he still had the poem all those years later.

And here's a picture of my father. This was taken in China in late 1945 or early 1946. Dad had been wounded at Okinawa, which was the bloodiest battle of the Pacific Theater, recovered in Hawaii and then sent to China as part of an elite unit of Marines to see the start of another, much bloodier and much, much longer war.

That's my dad, Mel, on the left. The other Marine is his best friend AW Smith. What put this picture in perspective to me is that when this picture was taken my dad was 19 years old.

So why am I making today's article about someone you don't know and most likely never will? Well, I guess because I like war games and I have an intense dislike for war itself. But I did want to remind you that we are lucky to have the time, money, freedom and education to play war games or family games or Euro Games, and that my people aren't the only ones who played a major role in our present-day affluence and abundance of freedom... you have people that lined up in the past to create the same wealth. So, pass along my hearty thank you to your people when you see them and I'll keep my people from becoming footnotes as long as possible.

Finally, a special thank you from me to all the current men and women from free nations around the world doing the same job today that millions before them have done. Maybe, just maybe, we have reached a point in this world where sacrifice won't become forgotten history... that just might be the one thing make war a thing of the past... and war games will be played only by paunchy, middle-aged men with goatees and pony tails.

That would be a good thing, wouldn't it?


Anonymous said...

Gwynne Dyer did indeed make a series called War for the National Film Board of Canada. (It may even have preceded the book although of that I'm not sure.) One of the episodes was nominated for an Academy Award. It's been a long time since I've seen it but my memory of it is that it was, indeed, brilliant. Unfortunatley, it's not available on DVD and it does not appear likely that it ever will be. As far as I know the only way to view it is at the NFB arrchives in Montreal.

Fraser said...

Yes it would DW, it certainly would be good.

OzGamer said...

Well, I hope everyone Stateside had a good Memorial Day.

Just one point of interest - not every free nation was born from war. Australia was created as a nation as a result of a vote, and a fairly apathetic one at that. We never fought anyone to create the entity that we all know now, although there were many wars in our political heritage back through Britain to the Roman empire.

One other interesting point - ours and New Zealand's war memorial day is called ANZAC Day and it celebrates the beginning of a campaign that we ultimately lost! I kind of like that.

One of my main issues with wargames as a study of history is that I think it tends to reinforce the idea that wars are all history is about. Many people know a great deal about how the sixteenth century French fought wars, but know nothing about how they conducted politics, what games or sports they played, what music they sang, played or listened to, how they courted, married and made love, what food they ate, what they believed in and how and if they worshipped and any number of other things that are incredibly important.

Still though, I'm up for any good game as much as the next person.

DWTripp said...

Just one point of interest - not every free nation was born from war. Australia was created as a nation as a result of a vote, and a fairly apathetic one at that. We never fought anyone to create the entity that we all know now, although there were many wars in our political heritage back through Britain to the Roman empire.

I had that very thought about Oz and NZ and concluded what you did. I will say though, it was a tumultuous start for a nation. The best book I've ever read about the colonization of Australia was called "The Fatal Shore". It may have it's historical faults (I wouldn't know) but it sure increased my respect for Aussies... and The Man From Snowy River already had me in your camp to begin with.