This past week included Memorial Day in the US. I attended a parade and a dedication to a Korean War monument. Afterwards, I struggled a bit trying to recall the details of the history of The Forgotten War. I did some reading on the web; unfortunately I seemed to have lost texts I used to have on the subject. Yet I found compensation, I discovered a boxed copy of Victory Games' "The Korean War (June 1950-May 1951)" in storage. Originally published in 1984, I obtained my copy in the early 90's to PBEM with a friend.
What I love about its 51 page rules/scenario manual is what I love about most manuals of this genre of game - they provide a succinct accounting of a model of history. I skimmed the rules, I remembered the board game, and in so doing I recalled something of the history - albeit one narrowly focused on the (geo-)political/military one spanning 1950-51...
Mine is therefore an amateur's recollection of a history of the Korean War. Yet that is just fine. Where I think these board games triumphed was in their ability to communicate history as a coherent model: history as a system of rules. History as an interlocking LEGO set of measured hypotheticals and realities. Players moved the pieces around to see what happens. If it was only an amateur's recollection, it was a rich one.
On the point of amateurism, comes a great quote via Rob MacDougall from Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen’s (1998):
Hundreds of thousands of Americans who do not earn their living as history professionals dedicate considerable time, money, and even love to historical pursuits. They volunteer at local historical organizations, lead tours of historic houses, don uniforms for battle reenactments, repair old locomotives for the railway history society, subscribe to American Heritage and American History Illustrated, maintain the archives for their trade union or church, assemble libraries from the History Book Club, construct family genealogies, restore old houses, devise and play World War II board games, collect early twentieth-century circus memorabilia, and lobby to preserve art deco movie houses.
One might have thought that with the advent of computer and video games, the opportunities to play with history would have been enhanced. As a personal opinion, I don't believe this to be the case. Niall Ferguson in a 2006 New York Magazine article tells us eloquently of his strong disappointment with the lousy historical value in what passes as WW2 video fare (FPS). In his words, "I hate them. And that’s despite the fact that I sincerely believe computer games have a potentially revolutionary role to play in the teaching of history."
To tie this back to a previous moment on TN ("Grognards"): historical simulation games were never big business, not in the way that mass entertainment console gaming is (for example). Another way of saying this, perhaps, is to say that these games were largely developed for amateurs, by amateurs.
One could only suppose that if more video game product were developed by amateurs that we might see more history, more playing with history, and - to cite Niall Ferguson's claim - a greater appreciation in society of the lessons of history.
If you believe as I do that history has an important role to play in the success (or not) of society, then the enthusiasm and energy of amateurs is an essential resource when you consider that there is an awful lot of history and for much of it, the pay is lousy.
Too bad cutting code is not yet as easy as cutting cardboard or we might see more playing with history in the CG medium.
Monuments need not always be in granite.
BoardGameGeek, VG's "Korean War" (images).
Kotaku discussion ("'Playing With History': the State of Historical Games").