War Games

It’s not just contemporary video games that engage our children (boys) in virtual warfare: their paper predecessors had the very same focus. The majestic monarchs and large professional armies and navies of the eighteenth century inspired the transformation of traditional games of the goose into more strategic games of fortifications and war, and nineteenth-century manufacturing and marketing techniques intensified this shift, along with contemporary ideas about nationalism and education. Four things inspired me to dig into this topic:  André Hellé’s Alphabet de la Grande Guerre, which I featured in my last post, the discovery of a board game dating from and “playing” the Crimean War of 1853-56 (too topical), a recent New York Times “Opinionator” column about “The Myriopticon”, a Civil-War parlor game which was “immensely popular with boys”, and an advertisement for Salem’s own Parker Brothers’ Spanish-American War games, The War in Cuba and The Battle of Manila. And then I discovered the Victoria & Albert’s Museum of Childhood “War Games” exhibit, which is closing at the end of the week.

ABC Great War Games

War Games Crimea V and A

War Games

War Games Parker Brothers

I find these games a little disarming. I understand that the ABC was intended for “the children of our soldiers”, but do these children really need to see pictures of trenches and tanks (no gas masks, thankfully)? I’m just nervous about the Crimea. And Milton Bradley produced the Myriopticon during the Civil War (or Great Rebellion), a tactic that was followed by Parker Brothers at the end of the century. Both World War I and World War II challenged the glorification of war in many ways, but they did not put an end to war games; if anything, the intensifying competitive nationalism and focus on propaganda made them even more popular. The latter are of the bombs away variety, but games of the Great War seem particularly and personally destructive: German children targeted Britain with their toy u-boats, while the object of British children was to get rid of the Huns.

War Games U Boat

War Games Sink the Huns

Get Rid of Huns Maze Puzzle, c. 1916, Victoria & Albert Museum of Childhood.


7 responses to “War Games

  • Brian Bixby

    I went through a war game phase myself in the 1970s, when such games were still played on boards, not computers. In line with your emphasis on art, I have a story to tell about them.

    There was a company that made war games that came out in a bimonthly magazine. One issue offered a game on what might happen if the South African racial conflict turned into a war. The cover showed a map of Africa, with South Africa highlighted, and a picture of an AK-47 (a Soviet assault rifle) superimposed on the map, with the rifle’s bayonet plunging into South Africa. Well, many of the subscribers were active duty troops, and there are regulations about not bringing “subversive literature” on military installations. So quite a few soldiers had to do some quick explaining about why their favorite war game magazine didn’t constitute Soviet propaganda!

    • daseger

      Very interesting–apparently the market for war games past and present included a large contingent of active soldiers–you would think they would have had enough of the real thing, but maybe games served a different purpose.

      • Brian Bixby

        At the time in the 1970s, WWII games were the most popular, followed by recent and near-future possible conflicts, then by the Civil War, then everything else. I’d say that both significance to Americans and “fun” both trumped history as the source of interest. WWII in games was both pro-American and fun, what with those zippy tank battles. On the other hand WWI with its trench warfare was a perennial loser.

        Strangest story about active-duty soldiers: the troops in the Berlin garrison used to game how long it would take for the Warsaw Pact forces to crush them. They were not optimistic; if I recall, they figured it would take about 12 hours.

  • Nina Cohen

    And then there’s Risk, where you replay WWI. The game rewards the player who deftly betrays alliances and anticipates battle arenas. The reward is total world domination, a goal worthy of a Bond villain.
    Artists at Games Workshop drew from a rich trove of sci-fi illustration to create Warhammer, Warhammer 40,000 and a Lord of the Rings game. Armies of figurines battle on landscaped boards built and set up at GW stores. Armies consist of rat-like troops, lizards, zombies or the undead, each figure lovingly bought, assembled and painted by its owner.
    But none of these games purveys gore-no, the explicit use of violent imagery that enables adolescents to visualize killing as if they were doing it.

    • daseger

      I know, Nina–it seems to me that there is a big difference between the clever and the creative tactical games and some of the stuff I see my stepson and students playing.

  • markd60

    Those are so cool. I remember an old DOS war game called Empire. Nothing ever since has been better.

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