Case In Point: Digital Wargames and Jazz

By James Cobb 04 Feb 2016 0

Dizzy Gillespie with John Lewis, Cecil Payne, Miles Davis, and Ray Brown

From 1929 to 1946, Jazz was dominated by Swing, a popular outgrowth of Blues and the jazz piano style called Surge. By 1939, young jazz musicians felt that Swing had gone too far from Jazz’s roots and that it had no real room for innovation, improvisation and ad hoc exchanges between artists; soloists were tied primarily to the written score. Yet, Swing sold and was extended by World War II, giving servicemen an instant link to home and their civilian lives. All this changed in 1946 when Bop emerged from the New York, Chicago and Kansas City underground groups where it had been incubating for six years.

Bop did indeed return to the intuitive roots of Jazz but at a cost. Swing was easy to listen to and very understandable; Bop was intellectual and demanding. Bop recordings and concerts were not all that profitable, eventually causing a split between its great founders, Charlie “Bird” Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Parker was a purist, insisting on artists’ personal ideals. This concept is characterized by Wynton Marsalis’ quote in Ken Burns’ Jazz: “Art doesn’t come to you, you go to art.” Gillespie, on the other hand, saw the need for promotion and was an entertainer as well as a great musician. His apparent compromises kept Jazz alive for musicians like Thelonius Monk, Dave Brubeck and many others including the young John Coltrane and Miles Davis. For all that, Jazz would never achieve the popular heights it reached during the Swing era and would be subordinate to Rhythm and Blues, Rock and other genres not following the improvisation necessary for true Jazz. The 1960s saw Jazz being torn by a plethora of different schools of thought and style. Arguably, Rap can be traced back to Jazz’s Scat but we have no Louis Armstrongs or Duke Ellingtons. Instrumental Jazz is now the province of a few enthusiasts and museum-like bands. Many fine young musicians are doing Jazz but they are unknown, unheard and unsold.

Computer war gaming may follow a similar route wrought with destructive schisms in that the hobby has seen a chain of breaking away from dominant paradigms. First, a look at war gaming history is necessary. Board war games began with the Prussian staff officer Georg Leopold von Reiswitz in 1824 but became commercial with Charles Roberts’ Avalon Hill game Tactics II in 1958. Avalon Hill controlled the market with essentially the same mechanics but different boards and counters, turning out one or two games per year. One of their employees, Jim Dunnigan, grew tired of the mold and did Jutland and PanzerBlitz. Dunnigan started SPI in 1969 and, with graphics designer Redmond A. Simonsen, opened new vistas in war gaming in terms of scale, mechanics, graphics and frequency of publication. Their Strategy & Tactics magazine, kept alive by Chris Wagner, fueled a hunger for history and gaming as did their marketing. Even in the Vietnam era and its aftermath, war gaming found a popular and, for a while, lucrative audience. The recession of the 1970s crushed SPI but is legacy remains. Innovators had pushed against the established entities but real conflict amongst gamers was forestalled by the economic troubles of Avalon Hill and SPI. Most importantly, the possible clash was not perceived by gamers due to the nature of board gaming.

[Image from BoardGameGeek]

Board war gaming has several levels of appeal: the yearning to re-do history, system analysis, and appreciation of graphics. The unique attractions, though, may be the tactile feel of slapping down counters and the society of fellow gamers. The exchange of knowledge, interpretation of rules, friendly completion and mutual admiration of beverages combines to make a usually convivial event.

The cracks in this façade of bonhomie were soon apparent. Not all competition was friendly, especially when fueled by said beverages. Purist gamers, aka Grognards, demanded historical accuracy which, in turn, evolved into huge games with volumes of manuals and pages of errata. Many tables, charts and note pages were required. Social gamers saw no need to spend hours setting games up and play for days while arguing over accuracy and rules. They felt play balance was preferable to excruciating accuracy. A nice four hour game with a reasonable semblance to accuracy was good enough for them – not to mention their families and significant others. This division never became serious because dwindling resources for players, designers and publisher never forced the issues. The recession and fantasy games were consuming money and energy.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a new medium arrived to throw a wrench into the progress of war gaming: home computers. Spinning off from its arcade origins, computers offered alternatives and solutions to apparent board game problems. Superficially, many problems were solved: no space was taken up, the computer did the paperwork and arbitrated the rules. As most early games were ports of popular board games, little mental transition was necessary. Games could be saved with no thoughts of pets or children messing up the board. Real vehicle and weapon simulations could be played.

The bloom came off the rose quickly. Computer AI was rarely challenging after the first few turns. Before the internet, bugs and corrections to computer games had to come on disks through the mail, if at all. Developers declined to improve older games using one engine because they were using the improved engine for a new game on the same topic. Equally frustrating was that, even with the internet, computer gaming had no substitute for face-to-face player interaction. Players who emphasize the social aspect of gaming stuck with board games. Thus, the first split in the gaming community occurred. Each split results in decreased revenues for publishers and correspondingly higher board game prices.

The split between Grognards and more laid-back players has become more acerbic. Differences with board games could be papered over with house rules and homemade counters –not so with computer games. Changes in orders of battle and unit strength require petitioning developers, editing if possible and learning to “mod”. None of these are particularly easy and simple. Discussions of these arise in forums and, unless strictly moderated, the anonymity of the internet can give rise to conflicts much nastier than anyone would dare to continue in person. As with Bop, lines are drawn between purists and the less demanding players. Developers have tried to please both sides by creating “beer and pretzel” games along with intricate games. So far, both sides seem satisfied but publishers, pushed to the most lucrative market, may have to slight one side to remain financially viable as have recording companies since the 1950s when they cut back on Jazz records. Thus, a distinct inclination toward publishing “lite” games is already evident. The developers who create more intricate games may depend more and more on outside revenue from the military to make a livelihood, pulling themselves away from commercial games

As computer graphics improved, another fault line appeared: “eye-candy” versus “game play”. Some players refuse to buy a game without 3D terrain, animated combat and other graphic effects regardless of game play. Others not only look past mediocre graphics if game play is stimulating but may regard cutting-edge graphics as superfluous, pumping up demands on computers and increasing prices. Again, developers and publishers are caught in the middle and must make financial decisions on what to produce for which market.

The truly ironic aspect in computer war gaming is the different receptions of innovation. Computers cry out for new ideas and, since the early 1980s, many developers have been innovative. Strategy games such as Civilization paved many paths. Yet, innovation came late to war gaming due to the dominance of turn-based, board game-like games. The first entirely military historical real-time game was Close Combat, released in 1996. Gamers seem to be divided into three overlapping groups. One maintains that accuracy trumps innovation; most things new add little to gameplay and distracts from it. Others demand innovation for its own sake; the continuing complaint about no change in the engine of John Tiller’s games is an example of this reaction. Yet another school of thought ignores innovative elements and targets their comments on the more typical aspects of the game, demanding the equivalent of the old combat results tables. Developers are caught “between the devil and the deep blue sea”, caught between wanting to be innovative and the need to dodge criticism.

The centrifugal forces described above have created a dialectic of creativity as it did with Jazz. However, the invisible hand of economics is always nearby. When a recession of any magnitude hits again, developers and publishers will have to make choices. Unless computer war gamers in general coalesce into a more welcoming and tolerant group, some gamers will be left in the cold or advances in the hobby will stop. Jazz aficionados did not do this and the art is practically moribund.

About the Author

Jim Cobb has been playing board wargames since 1961 and computer wargames since 1982. He has been writing incessantly since 1993 to keep his mind off the drivel he deals with as a bureaucrat. He has published in Wargamers Monthly, Computer Gaming World, Computer Games Magazine, Computer Games Online, CombatSim, Armchair General, Subsim, Strategyzone Online. He is adjunct faculty at Cardinal Stritch University.

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