Does historical wargaming trivialise or teach?

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Wargaming as a way of learning? Especially for a series of wars that continue to have repercussions in my country to this very day? Doesn’t playing the New Zealand Wars as a game trivialise the on-going impact of colonialism on generations of descendants?

My own story says otherwise.

But firstly, why am I even mentioning this? Well, there’s increasing pressure on the New Zealand government to make the study of our colonial wars compulsory in the national education curriculum. I totally support this idea. Just like a person, a country should know its own history, especially where parts of that story still adversely affect the lives of many of its citizens.

So how does wargaming fit into all this?

As a youngster, for me ‘real’ history didn’t take place in New Zealand. Rather, it was the stirring battles and sieges that took place hundreds of years ago and far, far away in the fields, towns and castles of Europe, or in the forests and grasslands of America.

For many years my hobby was built around the history of other countries’ wars – the Seven Years War, the Napoleonic Wars, the American Civil War. I read a lot of history of these conflicts, what caused them, what impact they had.  But I totally ignored the wars much closer to home. 

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But I wasn’t entirely ignorant of my country’s history.  I vaguely remember doing a project in primary school about the early 19th century whalers and sealers. Then in secondary school I learned all about our political figures of the Victorian and Edwardian periods. And of course every New Zealand kid learns about the ANZACs at Gallipoli.

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I  think I mainly learned about our founding document, the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, from a set of cereal packet cards when I was a child! Decades later I was lucky enough to take part in a reenactment of the signing of the treaty to celebrate its sesquicentennial, but even then I still didn’t know much about the wars that followed.

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During the 1980s I co-authored a couple of local police history books. However, even though there was an obvious linkage with the New Zealand Wars (after all, today’s New Zealand Police descend from the Armed Constabulary), I still didn’t really connect with how those wars were affecting many people in the Māori community today.

The idea of playing a wargame based on New Zealand history never even occurred to me.

But then in 2011 along came a  British company with the ironic name (considering colonialism) of Empress Miniatures, who announced a new range of 28mm metal figures portraying the 1840s campaigns of the New Zealand Wars. There was Hone Heke, exactly as I recalled him from my childhood Weetbix card, along with his fellow chief Kawiti and their warriors, the men of the British Regiments of Foot, the colonial militia and even the Royal Navy.

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I was immediately hooked by what looked to be a lovely set of figures, that for once depicted a struggle closer to home. Off went my order to England. And, as does any wargamer who takes up a new period, I started by reading up a few histories.

Initially I was just searching for superficial information, such as what the soldiers and warriors looked like, the weapons and tactics they used, and the type of terrain they fought over. This was the sort of stuff I needed to know to be able to paint the figures accurately and to create suitable tabletop scenery.

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However, as time went on I began reading more and more deeply, and started learning about the background of the wars, what drove the participants on both sides (willingly or unwillingly), and the legacy they left, particularly through the confiscation of Māori land.

This burgeoning interest gradually infiltrated into my work-life, where I became more aware of the role of the impact of colonialism on my job, and increasingly interested in te reo Māori (the Māori language) and tikanga Māori (Māori custom) generally.

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We’ve probably all heard of people maligning the hobby of wargaming by saying that it’s a war-mongering entertainment that trivialises the history and heartbreak of war. But it was this hobby that initially attracted and then inspired me to dig deeper and gain an understanding of not only the New Zealand Wars, but of their legacy to this very day.

I bet many wargamers from all over the world could say the same about whatever periods they recreate. Wargaming, through its unique visual and hands-on experience, is an amazing way of piquing interest in history. It then goes on to foster deeper learning by the very fact that to be a good wargamer, you need to research your chosen period.

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I believe that wargaming can result in much deeper historical engagement than you’ll ever get from more common (but less often maligned) conflict-based entertainments, such as watching war movies or reading war novels.  

I hope that if the New Zealand Wars do become part of our national curriculum, teachers won’t overlook the potential of a fascinating miniature wargame to spark their pupils’ first interest in our country’s history.

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5 thoughts on “Does historical wargaming trivialise or teach?

  1. Interesting thoughts Roly. I remember years ago hearing of someone in Sydney who used to put on games at schools as a means of demonstrating history.

  2. Very nicely said! The fact is that miniature war gaming can supplement the way history is taught in the class room. While it won’t be to every student’s or teacher’s taste, the use of miniatures can provide a sense of what things looked like and how people interacted in the past. The fact is that there will be many people both old and young for whom the visual element provided by the game will be a primary learning tool. Those who say that war gaming trivializes the past neglect the fact people learn in a number of different ways. What may be seen as trivial for some will be a primary way of learning for others.

  3. I think that wargaming is a tool that can be used both to tech history and to trivialise it. While we have come a long way in our understanding of indigenous societies and their place in history, we can still find wargames that are little more than the thin red line holding firm against the opposing brown masses appropriate to the time and region. There are also game systems that encourage the selection of forces based solely upon their cool factor and supposed military prowess and completely glosses over their horrific history. In these cases, wargaming is not simply ahistorical but anti-historical.

  4. Great post, Roly. Isn’t it fantastic that the government is now going to make NZ History compulsory in schools. The children will have a great understanding of our development as a nation and their place in it. My wife is a primary school teacher and is very enthusiastic about teaching history, but claims that the Ministry of Education will have to come up with an accepted curriculum as most teachers have been too scared to teach any NZ history in the past due to not wanting to offend anybody. As you say, the colonial era is still very contentious in some quarters and will remain so until we all have a chance to see both Maori and European perspectives. There is no doubt that Maori have been the losers in many areas, but we also can’t judge the people of that era by the morals and social norms of today. The past is a foreign place and they thought and behaved differently to us. My firm hope is that this will be taken into consideration when our history is being taught so that a good understanding of how we got to where we are now can be recognised, accepted and celebrated. I suppose only time will tell if we get this right. However, this won’t stop me from painting up some NZ War figures.

I hope I've given you something to think about - please do leave a comment with your thoughts or reactions.

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