Thuloid Speaks: Gaming and the Hyperreal, Part I

Good day to you, gentle readers and pilgrims to the House. The vortex of sophistry that was my last missive having likely left you dazed and horrified, you may hesitate to enter again into the twisting corridors of Thuloid’s mind. I can respect that. I would have left long ago, but I can’t find the door.

Yes, of course I’m locked in this labyrinth, if locked in means can’t imagine what a door would even look like–but somehow you people keep getting in, and I appreciate the occasional intrusion. If nothing else, it proves to me that I’m not God, which is comforting. Now, some have treated solipsism as a very serious philosophical problem. Personally, I can’t. So I’ll just quote Wittgenstein (playing on Sartre): “Hell isn’t other people. Hell is yourself.”

Her left side looks a little flat. More highlights?

This is going to be part I(one(1)) of an occasional series, meaning that I’ll come back to it when I feel like it and will talk about something else when I don’t. Before I explain the point of the series, and what I mean by the hyperreal (hint: not much), I’d like to ask a rhetorical question:

What the holy living nosefuck just happened to Warhammer Fantasy? For the unenlightened, there was a thing called the End Times. If you remember, I haven’t been terribly optimistic about this. The last End Times book, Archaon, has just come out, and in it we get both the end of Warhammer fluff (literally) and the end of Warhammer rules (also literally). I wish I were exaggerating on either count. So, here’s a summary of what happened: everyone died, the world ended, fade to black. Oh, well, maybe Sigmar alone made it. Not the planet he was on, mind you–he’ll have to create a new one. But maybe him.

More disturbing is the rules side of things. Ok, you know how there used to be rules for army list construction? Yeah, not anymore. Is this an End Times only thing? Unfortunately not. Clear as day the rules say that this supersedes all other rules for Warhammer army construction. The details are thus: no more percentage limitations on any troop type, no more division into Lords, Heroes, Core, Special, Rare, no more requirement to field multiple units or a general of any kind. If it’s in your book, you can take it in any number at all as long as the total points work out. Want to play an Orc and Goblin army made up entirely of Mangler Squigs? A Skaven force of nothing but Hellpit Abominations? A Vampire army that consists in a single, vast unit of zombies? Go to town. These are not rules any longer. These are a shrug where once were rules. The whole book might as well say, “I dunno, just bang your lump of plastic into that other guy’s lump of plastic until one of them breaks. Then give us $113 for a new lump.”

And such fine writing, too.

So that game has gone the way of all flesh, resin, lead, pewter and polystyrene. No, I don’t want to talk about Warhammer anymore. I want to talk about what this “rules” situation means–it means “play whatever the fuck you want, however you want it.” It is not a rulebook. It is a suggestion, for those dim enough to pay $70 for their suggestions, that you go buy a notepad and write some rules if you’d like rules. It is the Zombo.com of war gaming. You can do anything at Zombo.com.

This brings me to the main point of this column, to the extent it has a point. In the absence of rules, we are forced to consider what it is we mean to do with our tiny men–that is, what kind of a thing it is when we move figures around a board and call it a “battle.” There’s a concept from certain philosophical circles called hyperreality, which I will employ in a fashion that lacks all rigor (and possibly relation to the customary use–ironic and somehow appropriate). This indicates a kind of representation of a thing that never existed in the first place, and comes to in a sense replace reality.

A clever gesture at something like this might be the photograph above of the woman painting herself to look like a painting–or perhaps she painted herself, full stop. She is an artist named Alexa Meade, and her stuff is, at minimum, a lot of fun. Check it out. (Warning: some of the imagined real people–or are they real imagined people? I lose track–on the other end of that link have visible nipples. Certain of those people, if in fact they are at all, are female.)

What we have in our miniatures gaming is an interesting case of the problem of representation. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (one of my intellectual Super Friends, which means he’s likely to show up again–and who had nothing whatsoever to do with the concept of hyperreality) attacked this problem for many years–it has been described how he would sit in his office in Cambridge, trying to reconstruct in miniature the scenes of traffic accidents he had witnessed, and think about how the representation related to the event. What he concluded was that, on some level, it didn’t. Or rather, that there’s nothing intrinsically tying these together, no logical structure which underlies all representation and language (that being a reversal of his earlier opinion). As he put it in regard to language, meaning is use. The rules are simply what we do.

Ludwig, meet the House of Paincakes.

So not only what is permissible, but what counts as a mistake is part of the “form of life,” of the common activity we’re engaged in, whether trading in words or painted men. E.g., it is a mistake, a violation of the rules of Warhammer, to move my Empire crossbowmen in the remaining moves sub-phase (America’s favorite sub-phase) and then shoot in the shooting phase. It isn’t really a Warhammer mistake to light the board on fire, call my opponent a bitch and then steal his pants. It’s just that I’m up to something that isn’t Warhammer (yet–wait for 9th). God forbid Buzzfeed or some other hellhole of internet mindlessness publish a list of 6 Totally Awesome Gaming “Hacks”: 3) When your opponent isn’t looking, take his Chaos Warriors and stomp on them. 

What we have in our gaming is a representation of a fiction–even the “history” in historical wargaming is in a fundamental sense fictional. But we should understand the fuzziness of this representation–and, I will argue in this series, discover the fun in embracing that fuzziness. Let the boundary between the represented fiction and the real world–which is to say, the boundary between different games you are playing at more or less the same time–blur and shift a bit. Find out what happens when the figures wander off the table, or the cat jumps onto it. Explore the true meaning of meta-gaming (hint: it has nothing at all to do with what armies are legal and effective right now, which is a feature internal to the game and not remotely “meta”). What about edible figures? That is the hyperreality I will examine.

One question I want to ask along the way is why the best games involve recreations of such terrible nightmares. Porky has pushed into this territory of late. War is undoubtedly dramatic–well, when it isn’t terribly boring. Which is to say, our fictions of war are dramatic. But there is life and conflict beyond the battlefield, and many games to play. Is there a rule that our war games must involve literal (fictional) wars? You laugh, perhaps at my stupidity for asking the question, but I want to push on this point–what constitutes a war game is, in the end, quite hard to pin down. There is no essence to it–only convention, similarity, what our dear Ludwig might call a “family resemblance” from one game to the next. So our city of games is filled with different but perhaps related architectural styles, dead-ends, streets at odd angles, one-ways and other miscellany. It has no underlying order beyond the actuality of its composition.

On that note, consider a scenario in which one side plays the pastor of a small, inner-city church in the Eastern US (and his allies, sketchy as they may be), who must prevent the neighborhood barbarians from once again spray painting boobs and a vagina onto the side of his building. Will he overcome them? Seek revenge? Descend further into madness? Or just give up, because everybody likes crudely drawn boobs? Perhaps this scene is too outlandish for you, raised on thoughts of Xenos and piles of skulls, to imagine as a proper game. For me, maybe it’s just too soon.

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