I once joked at a Friday game, while waiting for someone with the keys to the store room to arrive, that we were all 'Wargamers Anonymous'. Sitting there in a circle around the wargames table, that altar of our hobby, we seemed to be wargaming junkies in need of therapy, or at least the next fix!
And that's the thing about wargaming: it can be both an addiction and a form of therapy all in one.
An addiction because we are all prone to the allure of new figures, rules, obscure or neglected historical periods. Many will be brief dalliances defying reason and wisdom (2mm skirmish Samurai anyone?), but that is part and parcel of the 'addiction', the excitement with the new, or discovering something old for the first time.
And then there is therapy because all this 'hobbyism' (ostensibly 'sad' and monomaniacal) can be a way of coping with life, getting over the stress of the working day or family dramas, but also in the sense of a shared understanding between the people we meet, get to know, and come to like, respect, and value. The hobby is a therapy then, but also a form of madness in itself, one could argue. Yet sharing and hosting are the antidotes to solipsism: in the words of Ian Brown, 'Keep what ya got, by giving it all away'.
Then there is the 'passion' element: something beyond a mere addiction. The fascination we get from all aspects of the hobby - anything from: painting figures, putting on games, attending shows, but also: sourcing figures for that new project; finding the books and resources needed for uniform details, tactics, or accounts of battles; discovering creative solutions to a modelling problem; making our own scenery; planning games and the figures we need to put them on; writing and tweaking rules, etc. It all hangs together in the world of wargaming: each aspect alone has enough to keep us enthused for our whole lives, practically.
So what is the essence of wargaming if not the above - the passion and the madness? For me, it began in the mid-1990s, with the serried ranks of 25mm Napoleonic Austrians on the cover of an issue of Miniature Wargames magazine. Coupled with Sharpe's Rifles and the Napoleonic Fair (held annually in London) this got me interested in history. I wrote a bunch of articles for Miniature Wargames (1997-2005), exploring the history side of the battles and units that fascinated me. This served as a springboard for further study at university level. I gave up all thoughts of wargaming for many years. But three degrees later, and I was back. Why? Sometimes it's the creative aspect of an endeavour rather than the intellectual that makes it so fascinating. With wargaming, I can enter new worlds both through figure painting, reading, research, and all the projects which beckon. It is practical and contemplative all in one.
At the end of the day, it's the enjoyment of all these aspects that makes wargaming the passion and the madness that it is. Ideally, on a club night, all these things come together in the game, but also in banter, conversation, camaraderie. Whether it is a young new member tentatively trying out rules, an old campaigner dusting off some forgotten figures, or someone acting up/letting their hair down, what matters in the end is participation and empathy - turning up and getting involved on the one hand, and kindness, generosity, and appreciation on the other hand.
We are all fallible and unique people. I believe that a shared interest in history, warfare, figures, uniforms, games, rules, and the whole culture of wargaming today, is great, vibrant, and fascinating. However, it is insufficient. More than incredible ability to paint figures, or wizardry with rule systems, or encyclopaedic knowledge of tactics and weaponry, is the need to acknowledge our common humanity. In other words, being open-hearted to newcomers, talking to and including those on the margins, showing compassion for others' foibles and quirks, putting ourselves in the shoes of people we may not get on with as much as we'd like. A wargames club should be a 'safe-space' for people to feel free, relax, and be themselves: where good humour and mutual respect triumphs over personal differences of opinion or even conviction.
Wargaming is not a religion. It cannot take the place of God. Nevertheless, it is the means by which we relate to each other in much of our spare time. And there is more than enough scope in our interaction for all perspectives and tastes and individuals to receive a generous hearing. That is, I believe, what elevates mere playing with soldiers to a place of belonging.