03 June 2016

H. G. Wells, Lego Cities, and Civilization (the game, not the concept): Little Wars

I've been reading H. G. Wells's autobiography over the past week or so (at 600+ pages, it's not a quick read), and in it, he briefly mentions his younger interest in war games. Wells really liked games, I think; in his semiautobiographical novel The New Machiavelli (1910), his narrator discusses building towns of bricks:
I still remember with infinite gratitude the great-uncle to whom I owe my bricks. He must have been one of those rare adults who have not forgotten the chagrins and dreams of childhood. He was a prosperous west of England builder; including my father he had three nephews, and for each of them he caused a box of bricks to be made by an out-of-work carpenter, [...] made out of oak and shaped and smoothed, bricks about five inches by two and a half by one, and half-bricks and quarter-bricks to correspond. There were hundreds of them, many hundreds. I could build six towers as high as myself with them, and there seemed quite enough for every engineering project I could undertake. I could build whole towns with streets and houses and churches and citadels; I could bridge every gap in the oilcloth and make causeways over crumpled spaces (which I feigned to be morasses), and on a keel of whole bricks it was possible to construct ships to push over the high seas to the remotest port in the room. And a disciplined population, that rose at last by sedulous begging on birthdays and all convenient occasions to well over two hundred, of lead sailors and soldiers, horse, foot and artillery, inhabited this world. 
Much of The New Machiavelli is drawn from Wells's actual life (like many of his literary novels, it's about a man who has good reasons for having an affair), but it appears this detail is drawn from his children's lives. In 1911, Wells published a book called Floor Games, about building worlds on the floor out of soldiers, bricks, boards, and railway pieces, based on games he played with his sons. Wells and his kids were given the bricks by a friend, who got them from their parents, who got them from their uncle. The "game" in question is pretty simple: it's basically 'build cities with the bricks.'

Like this guy does.
from Andrew on Flickr

Reading The New Machiavelli and Floor Games, I was struck by how much Wells would have loved having access to Lego. He could have had many more than hundreds of bricks, and built way more than six towers if my childhood basement was any indication. "Sedulous begging" is probably how I acquired many of my Lego, after all, and he could have had a much more diverse population than sailors and soldiers. Indeed, the lack of diversity in figurines is something Wells complains about in Floor Games:
But we want civilians very badly. [...] I wish, indeed, that we could buy boxes of tradesmen: a blue butcher, a white baker with a loaf of standard bread, a merchant or so; boxes of servants, boxes of street traffic, smart sets, and so forth. We could do with a judge and lawyers, or a box of vestrymen. [...] With such boxes of civilians we could have much more fun than with the running, marching, swashbuckling soldiery that pervades us. They drive us to reviews; and it is only emperors, kings, and very silly small boys who can take an undying interest in uniforms and reviews. 
I actually don't think there are any military Lego at all, right? I guess only in an historical or sci-fi/fantasy context: there are knights and Jedi knights and so on. But one of our most prized Lego minifigures when we were children was a pizza baker.

"Paizza, want some paizza?"

It's funny that Wells denigrates those who love uniforms, because two years after Floor Games came Little Wars: A Game for Boys, from Twelve Years of Age to One Hundred and Fifty and for That More Intelligent Sort of Girls Who Like Boys' Games and Books. It's essentially a set of rules for playing with toy soldiers and toy artillery; I imagine one can draw a straight line from it to modern war games, and I know there's a line to be drawn from war games to role-playing games, so I guess we can blame Wells for Dungeons & Dragons and Warhammer 40K.

If Wells was as good a social prophet as he thought he was, he would have seen this coming. And prevented it.

In Little Wars, he praises himself for making war into a more satisfying experience:
Here is a homeopathic remedy for the imaginative strategist. Here is the premeditation, the thrill, the strain of accumulating victory or disaster-- and no smashed nor sanguinary bodies, no shattered fine buildings nor devastated country sides, no petty cruelties, none of that awful universal boredom and embitterment, that tiresome delay or stoppage or embarrassment of every gracious, bold, sweet, and charming thing, that we who are old enough to remember a real modern war know to be the reality of belligerence.
He suggests that monarchs and patriots should all go play Little Wars and let the rest of the world get on in peace. I guess this is the 1910s equivalent to suggesting videogames as a safe release for one's violence; if Napoleon could have just played Civilization, he wouldn't have needed to actually conquer Europe.
A game that could only be improved by being set in space.

I think he ends with a bit of a weird statement: "You only have to play at Little Wars three or four times to realise just what a blundering thing Great War must be." This is weirdly optimistic, both in general and for Wells. Much of Wells's fiction is about how forms of detachment (emotional, like being an intellect vast and cool and unsympathetic, or physical, like riding inside a tank or on an air-ship) make you more likely to commit horrific acts of violence because you don't see or feel the consequences of your actions. In Wells's usual schema, I would think war games would make you more violent, not less, because it would train you to not see the violence of war.

Wells's optimism, it turns out, was dashed by the coming of actual war. This is surprising to me, because usually Wells was the one telling everyone else that the coming European war was not going to be as awesome as they thought; it's all the other guys who thought war was awesome and/or never going to happen again, and thus got disappointed by World War I. In Experiment in Autobiography, when discussing the war fantasies of his 13-year-old self, he says they persisted a date range we can pretty easily see the inspiration behind: "I like to think I grew up out of that stage somewhen between 1916 and 1920 and began to think about war as a responsible adult should." One should note that in 1916, he was 48 years old! And also note that, writing in 1933 or so, he cites Winston Churchill among those who have never grown beyond the Little Wars phase of their mental development.

Far from being the cure, it seems, Little Wars is the disease. Which is what I normally would have expected Wells to say all along.

N.B. One should not confuse Little Wars with Small Wars. Small Wars: Their Principles and Practice (1896) by C. E. Callwell is a guide on how to prevent your blameless colonizing army from being taken down by a nasty native insurgency. Every British home should have a copy of both, of course.


  1. Gosh, I think Saki was aiming at him in The Toys of Peace!

    1. Oh, this is delightful! I had not heard of it before.

      "It's a municipal dust-bin," said Harvey hurriedly; "you see all the refuse and litter of a town is collected there, instead of lying about and injuring the health of the citizens."

      In an awful silence he disinterred a little lead figure of a man in black clothes.

      "That," he said, "is a distinguished civilian, John Stuart Mill. He was an authority on political economy."

      This made me laugh out loud in the library just now!