Zones of Connection: 21-22 May 2021

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[EDITED TO ADD: the schedule for the symposium has been roughed in and my panel is on Friday, May 21, 2030-2130 Eastern Time]:

Friday 8:30-9:30 

Room A

Title: The Cold War Gone Hot, Again: Retrofuturism or Futuristic Retro?

Participants: Brian Train

Style: Panel/Roundtable

Blurb:  In the 1980s a number of serious wargames on a hypothetical Third World War were published, exciting some interest at the time. Over the last 10 years or so there has been a second wave of newly designed wargames that study that same subject – the Soviet invasion of Europe in the mid-1980s that never happened. Nostalgia for an actual past that one remembers imperfectly is one thing. But nostalgic game design to commemorate a then-hypothetical future war that is now a fictional past is a strange inversion of historiography indeed, and an additional twist beyond the approach taken by the designers of Twilight Struggle. What kind of retrofuturism is it? Is it even retrofuturism at all?

Also,  the triumvirate behind the Eurowargames anthology will be holding a roundtable on the wargames connection between North American and European cultures.

Friday 1:00-2:00

Room C

Title: Speaking About Wargames, in Different Languages: A Comparison of Experiences as International Wargaming Content Creators

Participants: Jan Heinemann, Riccardo Masini, Fred Serval

Style: Roundtable

Blurb:  Coming from different cultural and national backgrounds, content creators Jan Heinemann (Germany), Riccardo Masini (Italy) and Fred Serval (France) have recently joined their common knowledge to coordinate a collection of essays about wargaming in Europe and its many new design trends all over the world. But what about their different experiences as wargaming content creators on YouTube and other social media, with different approaches and different groups of viewers? Together with other prominent international content creators, this roundtable aims at highlighting the peculiar features of speaking about wargames also to non-English speaking viewers: the related difficulties caused by the language barrier and the different historical heritages, the perks granted by cultural diversity and the related criticalities, the needs of the different publics, the choice of media and style, the most requested contents and the games that prove harder to introduce, sometimes for lack of interest on the topic and sometimes even for their controversial nature in other nations. An engaging and rarely seen comparison and mutual confrontation about what it means to speak about board wargaming, a hobby born in the United States in the 1950s, also to non-US players by non-US content creators in the 2020s. Showing once again how gaming can prove to be an important bridge and connection between different cultures.

Nick Mizer, who I first met in connection with the national conference of the Popular Culture Association several years ago (Bored of War…  and News Paper Games) recently sent me an “Invitation to Collaborate” to the Bradley Tabletop Games Symposium, an online event to be held 21-22 May, 2021.

The Symposium is itself a collaboration between the Interactive Media Department of Bradley University and the Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences Program of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where Nick is currently teaching. First, this event is quite welcome because it focuses on tabletop games; people have heard me often enough moaning about how the academic field of Game Studies is willfully ignorant of its analog past and all it still has to teach. Second, this event is unusual because it is designed to be a collaborative event, a collection of events and sessions between the interdisciplinarian individuals involved in the field without the formal structure of keynote speakers, presentation of prepared papers, or scheduled fun-time events (that is, you’ll have to provide your own wine and charcuterie).

In wargames, a zone of control refers to the area of restricted movement and activity that occurs when two units become adjacent. As a theme for the first of these tabletop symposia “Zones of Connection” expresses our belief that bringing together a diversity of emerging voices and perspectives on tabletop games has much to offer through the connections that can be forged, interpersonally, emotionally, and intellectually.

Have a look at the invitation to collaborate document here Bradley Tabletop Games Symposium – Invitation to Collaborators and note that rather than submitting abstracts, they are asking for ideas for sessions (to be formatted as workshops, roundtables, panels and seminars but with as much audience participation as possible). If you have an idea for something you would like to participate in, let them know at the link in the document. Deadline for submissions is 26 April 2021.

To give you a further idea of what they might want to see, here are some topics of interest:

  • Games as media
  • Games and simulation
  • Games and anti-colonialism
  • Games as resistance
  • Games in/as education
  • Industry studies
  • Cultures of play
  • Board game cafes
  • Hybrid games
  • Ludo-textual analysis
  • Virtual tabletop play
  • Storytelling in tabletop games
  • Legacy and campaign games
  • Games and speculative futures / alternate histories
  • Discourse analysis of play sessions
  • Streaming and actual play podcasts
  • Phenomenology of play
  • Ludic fandom
  • History of tabletop games
  • Gaming and the military industrial complex
  • Games and translation
  • Games and play therapy
  • Board game renaissance
  • Games in the age of the pandemic

There must be something in all this to interest you!

Personally, I was interested in the speculative futures/ alternate histories topic and am considering submitting a suggestion for a session on that, related to this:

One thing that tweaked me while working on the games-as-journalism piece for the Eurowargames anthology was the section on games on hypothetical wars produced in the 80s, mainly on a Third World War. Regardless of whether you thought that was a farfetched event at the time, it did occupy a lot of interest – at the time. But over the last 10 years or so there has been a resurgence of new games coming out that study that same subject – a Soviet invasion of Europe in the mid-1980s (examples include the World at War series (2007 – 2015), Corps Command: Dawn’s Early Light (2010), Red Tide West (2014), Brezhnev’s War (2018), 1985: Under an Iron Sky (2018), Less than 60 Miles (2019), Red Tide South (2019), and The Fulda Gap: the Battle for the Center (2020)).

Nostalgia for an actual past that one remembers imperfectly is one thing. But nostalgic game design to commemorate a then-hypothetical future that is now a fictional past, it seems to me is a strange inversion of historiography indeed, and an additional twist beyond the approach taken by the designers of Twilight Struggle (where the disproved “domino theory” is consciously used in the game as the logic and incentive for players to act, within their roles as world leaders during the Cold War). So it’s a recreation of a hypothetical future from our past, but what kind of “retrofuturism” is it?

  • Dissatisfaction with the complex and quite changed power structures of today, and nostalgia for the bipolar world with its predicted wargasmic collision of the ideologies?
  • A notion that this war (potentially personally involving players then and now) would have been that generation’s “Good War” (per Studs Terkel), a moral exercise of Us vs. Them with clear-cut roles, unlike the troubling conflicts of Korea, Vietnam and half a dozen other interventions? (I do note that practically all of the examples I’ve given have been by American designers.)
  • Simple-minded huffing of nostalgia fumes for the games that these designers played in their youth? (Sure, I played my SPI NATO, Fifth Corps and BAOR like everyone else, but I miss other games from Back In The Day).
  • Rivet-counters looking for neato technical match-ups, and missing the contextual point as they often seem to do?

I can’t decide what it is; like always, it’s probably a little bit of everything, varying with the individual. It’s just something I’ve noticed and find perplexing, and while it’s pretty narrow I wonder if there are similar veins in other types of tabletop games.

About brtrain
This blog is mostly devoted to posts, work and resources on "serious" conflict simulation games.

3 Responses to Zones of Connection: 21-22 May 2021

  1. Like you I find the hypothetical past interesting, though as you may see from my recent comments on MISSISSIPPI BANZAI that I find alternate history less so. Personally I don’t play because of dissatisfaction with today nor do I play to avoid a troubling past. Indeed, I feel the bipolar setting of the past gives insights for today and those troubling conflicts often need to be explored, not ignored. I’ll say the nostalgia does play a role, but for me it’s as much a desire to explore an older game system as it is the topic. As I am a tactical gamer there is a certain degree of rivet-counting syndrome but I have to believe there are other like me who do look for the context.
    Take for instance FIFTH CORPS published in 1980. The game is a reflection Of the US Army’s Active Defense Doctrine that was rolled out in 1976/77. But by 1982 the US Army had adopted AirLand Battle (so excellently portrayed in LESS THAN 60 MILES). Why? Things like that is why I’m into Cold War Gone Hot wargaming.

  2. Joel D says:

    That is an interesting question, why the past few years have had so many “Cold War Goes Hot” games! I can think of 3 factors:

    1. ’80s nostalgia in the culture: Stranger Things, Ghostbusters remake, Wonder Woman ’84, ‘Vaporwave’ music, arguably Donald Trump, etc. All of that must have some effect on what designers are thinking about or what topics they consider to be marketable.

    2. Some sort of revisionism about the possibility of limited US-Soviet war: I didn’t live through the actual Cold War, but growing up and reading about it in the 2000s, my impression was that the general opinion was that if US and USSR troops in Europe started shooting at each other, things were going to inexorably escalate to global thermonuclear war. At which point it really doesn’t matter which side has more effective tanks or air cover, both sides have spectacularly lost.

    It seems like with these games the designers are asserting that a limited war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact was possible, without strategic nuclear warfare inevitably following. I don’t know if there’s been a change in the historigraphy or something, or if it’s just an excuse to make the games.

    3. I agree that the rivet-counting aspect is big. I mean, the NATO-Pact military buildup in the ’80s has to be the most powerful collection of military hardware ever assembled (sure current planes/tanks are stronger individually, but nowhere on the planet has so many in one place).

  3. Pingback: “Cold War Gone Hot, Again” at Zones of Connection symposium | brtrain

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