Reading Rob Conley's post today about miniatures and their use reminded me that there's actually a fairly widespread prejudice against the use of miniatures in the online old school community. I find that rather odd, because, back in the day, minis were one of things nearly every article, report, or dramatization of roleplaying games included, even highlighted. Granted, this emphasis was largely driven by the usual journalistic/cinematic need for "flash," something visual to attract attention to its story, but that doesn't change the fact that the use of miniatures is deeply ingrained in the early days of the hobby. That only makes sense, given its roots in miniatures wargaming (as the covers of every OD&D book remind us in no uncertain terms), so what's at the root of this rejection of minis among old school gamers these days?
There are, I think, several factors at work here but two are critical. The first is that a lot of us have latched on to the very miniatures-heavy nature of the WotC editions of Dungeons & Dragons as a cause rather than a symptom of what we think is wrong with those games. Since they promote the use of minis and we don't like those games, minis have become, by extension, emblematic of all we dislike. To my mind, this is no more logical than disliking polyhedral dice for similar reasons but, for good or for ill, a lot of us have chosen to fixate on minis as the issue, not the design of the games themselves.
The second factor has to do with when most of us entered the hobby and the circumstances under which we did so. I was a mere lad of 10 in 1979 and was not a wargamer, miniatures or otherwise. Consequently, I had no prior history using minis as aids to adjudicate combat (or anything else). Certainly I saw lots of minis for sale -- I was particularly entranced by the large glass case of them at What's Your Game? in Harborplace -- but they mostly seemed like cool props or toys rather than something integral to play. I suspect this attitude is even more prevalent among gamers who entered the hobby a few years after I did, with Moldvay or Mentzer, when phrases like "products of your imagination" became popular as a marketing ploy. Thus, for gamers of a certain vintage, miniatures are not just optional, they're outside their experience.
There are other factors too, such as the time and expense necessary to buy and paint minis, as well as their relative impracticality if you have to cart boxes of them to your meeting place week after week. I also think that many of us in the old school movement have convinced ourselves that "old school = rules light" and further that miniatures are somehow contrary to being rules light. Leaving aside the error of equating rules lightness with old school -- a post for another day perhaps -- the use or rejection of minis is to my mind a separate question entirely. Likewise, I've sometimes seen, perhaps echoing TSR's catchphrase, the claim made that minis are somehow an impediment to one's imagination, or at least that they're a crutch for unimaginative players, although I doubt this is a widespread view.
I think, in the end, what we must acknowledge, as Rob does in his post, is that miniatures are simply a tool, like referee's screens or adventure modules. Their use or rejection has little to no bearing on whether a game is or is not "old school." It's true that Gary Gygax famously didn't use miniatures in his home campaign, as equally famously Dave Arneson did. I am sure, if you did a survey of first generation gamers, you'd find no consensus on the topic and that's fine. None of us should use or reject miniatures on the basis of what Gary or Dave did or didn't do, but I do think it behooves us all to remember that this hobby arose out of miniatures wargaming and many early gamers profitably used miniatures in their campaigns. Far from being contrary to old school gaming, miniatures are very much a part of it, even if many of us choose not to follow suit today for reasons of our own.