It’s Friday 21st August and here is the news.
Warhammer 40,000 continues its breakthrough trajectory from niche to mainstream with a new feature in Vice Magazine Online. Now, a place in their Games news is a relatively frequent experience for Games Workshop, with their digital licences making a fairly regular appearance, but this is the first time the Warhammer 40,000 property has found itself in Vice’s World News section and the subject has the twittersphere a-flame.
Because Warhammer 40,000 finds itself associated with the alt-right.
This is, of course, the news. So let me focus on the news first, and then we’ll unpack the bigger picture in the discussion.
So, it goes like this:
Back when the latest round of Black Lives Matter protests kicked off in the wake of the George Floyd murder - hey, I call ‘em as I see ‘em… Well, back then there was a bit of a “thing” for companies to post a white-text-on-black-background statement about how they weren’t at all racist, honest.
Games Workshop - perpetual monolith of the wargames industry - followed suit with their own statement and it was widely applauded. Whether it deserved to be, we’ll get to later.
However, a YouTuber of moderate renown, but who doesn’t need further publicity, took issue with two of their key points. The first was that “Warhammer is for everyone”. The second was that, if you had a problem with this “you will not be missed”.
Hey, said this guy, there’s a logical paradox in that. Because if Warhammer is for everyone then surely it’s also for people who have a problem with including people they don’t like - such as people of colour, gay people, trans people and disabled people. Surely, he argued, if you want to live a tolerant life, you have to also tolerate the people you’d rather not have to tolerate.
A lot of other people replied that, no, that was rather missing the point. And a few others went “hey, that’s kind of the sort of thing a racist might say”.
No, no, no, he insisted. I’m not racist. I just want to see everyone get included, like GW says they want.
A little digging followed, which revealed that this guy was, in fact, pretty obviously a racist on account of all the, y’know, racist stuff he was saying on some other message boards.
And somehow - somehow! - this is World News.
Well, that’s not quite the end of the news, just yet. Because, in parallel with the demand that GW stop being intolerant of intolerant people, a group called No More Damsels also turned on GW but for the opposite reason. They applauded the sentiment shown in the GW’s statement, but wanted GW to publicly explain what they were actually doing to improve the diversity and inclusivity of their company as well as their product line.
This came on the back of two incidents that suggested that, perhaps, GW wasn’t quite as in-step with the spirit of the times as their BLM statement had implied.
First, Black Library author, Thomas Parrott, found himself summarily ditched after a GW customer complained about him. The exact details are a little sketchy and depend on who you ask, but it seems that Parrott wanted to explore the lives of Space Marines beyond the battlefield in more detail in his writing, including the ideas that Space Marines were castrated as part of their physical adaptation, and the possibility of queer relationships within Space Marine chapters. Discussing these aspirations with fans led him to cross swords with at least one vociferous objector and GW agreed that these weren’t themes they wanted explored.
Second, Josh Mallett, a.k.a. Omegonedge who I referenced back in episode six, basically had the issues he raised about being mistreated by GW staff on account of his race entirely ignored.
No More Damsels wanted to press this matter and find out what, exactly, GW thought it was going to do about what they saw as an institutional problem.
To my knowledge, No More Damsels has had no response to their demands.
At this point, it is fair to say that that was the news. I want to unpack this, as always, in the discussion.
Now, I wrote a whole script for this bit already and then, on reflection, I deleted it. Because before deciding to do this episode on this subject, I posted a simple question on the Precinct Omega Facebook page and it rapidly became one of the most popular and most commented-upon posts I’ve ever made. And the comments were really interesting. So I want to take some of those comments and talk about them in more detail.
Let’s start with a comment from Malcolm who says “OMG… 40k is a GAME, fgs!”
Now, you can’t argue with the fact that Warhammer 40,000 is a game. But is it just a game? I’m 45… tomorrow, in fact. I’ve been doing this for a while. But even when I bought my first space marine, I could’ve told you that, although 40k was a game, it wasn’t just a game. It was a setting, a narrative, a collection of sketched out characters waiting for me to fill them in. It was funny and scary and irreverent and horrific. Even on a practical level, it was a hobby of collecting and building and painting and posing. I was a 40k fan for over five years before I so much as picked up a dice.
And if that was true in 1984, it’s even more true today, when 40k is also a vast body of fictional lore, a range of computer games and a widely-recognized pop culture meme.
So let’s not pretend that 40k is “just” a game. The game was only ever a part of what 40k is and, by 2020 it has become a property with a reach far beyond the roll of a dice.
The next comment I want to bring up is from Rick. He says “I just don't get why people feel they have the right to tell a company how to run its business. I completely understand being against their standards and practices, but raise awareness and don't shop there. If you want to run the stores like you want them, then open a franchise.”
Now, I can point out a few factual misunderstandings in this - the first being that GW isn’t a franchise operation - but let’s look at Rick’s bigger point, which is that we, the consumers, don’t have a right to tell a company how to do business and, if we don’t like it, our options are to withdraw our spending and/or set up in competition.
First up, I should say that I withdrew 99% of my spending from GW over five years ago and - guess what? - I have set up in competition with them. I don’t see them quaking in their boots. Of course, I didn’t withdraw spending because I disagreed with their business practices, per se. I did it because their game was rubbish and their products were overpriced. And as they have, to a degree, addressed this over the last few years, I am being tempted back.
But regardless of whether I am or am not an active customer, I think consumers absolutely do have a right to tell companies how to run their businesses. It’s called “customer feedback” and it is enormously valuable to companies to hear it. Of course, companies also have an absolute right to ignore their customers. GW did it for most of the last two decades.
But what about Rick’s alternatives of raising awareness, withdrawing custom and setting up in competition. Well, the thing is, Rick, that there are people that genuinely love GW and the worlds they have created. They enjoy the imagery, the stories, the creativity of building, converting and painting their minis. It is hard to deny that GW has created a product that is instantly distinctive. We talked about that in an early episode when I discussed small companies ripping off the aesthetics of large companies.
GW’s customers want to buy GW’s products and they can’t get those products elsewhere - not legally, anyway. So they don’t want to withdraw their spending. They are saying “we love this thing, but we want to love it MORE”.
So, yes, GW customers who want to support No More Damsels should do so, vocally. And GW should be grateful for them doing so. As a business strategist, I can tell you that there are some extremely good, bottom line reasons why GW should listen to NMD. But let’s get to the next issue - one I’ve heard a few times and, more recently, from Daniel, who says “I don’t think 40k has a fascism problem. That’s kinda silly.”
Whether 40k has a fascism problem is a hard question to answer. By their nature, the modern alt-right tends to only express their fascist views when they think they are surrounded by fellow fascists. So it would be hard to know if the folks you regularly throw down with at your local store or club are part of the alt-right. And the alt-right is a fairly diverse group. It includes classic Tory boys, anti-vaxxers, QAnon believers, fundamentalist Christians, Men’s Rights activists, incels, islamophobes, homophobes and all kinds of others. They don’t all wear MAGA hats or swastika tattoos.
If I were a proper journalist, then I might go digging into the political corners of the Dark Web. But, frankly, I don’t want that on me.
Instead, I’m going to ask a different question.
Is there a historical precedent for members of the extreme right wing finding legitimacy through the adoption of fictional and/or mythological symbology, language and narratives?
To put it another way: have members of this political wing, for generations, used a selective reading of narrative to legitimize their beliefs and, then, actions? And is it credible that a narrative that, once stripped of is satirical roots, endorses a xenophobic, single-faith theocratic state that exists beneath the benevolent protection of legions of genetically pure supersoldiers would appeal to the alt-right? Do I find it credible, therefore, that some kinds of people I have found for myself on the extreme right wing of the political spectrum might use 40k imagery and language?
I think the answer to all of that is a firm “yes”. You don’t have to look very far to find examples on 4chan and other popular alt-right hangouts of 40k imagery and language being used in a political context to endorse their world view.
But does that add up to 40k having a fascism problem?
That depends a bit on what you mean by “problem”, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that there are, in fact, two problems. The first is that, if elements of the alt-right are using 40k mythology to articulate their narrative, then it will inevitably draw in the attention of anyone vulnerable to their message who shares their interest in the Dark Millennium. I was enough of a socially-isolated teenaged geek, thirty years ago, that I can imagine that modern teenaged 40k geeks are going to be receptive to messages that allow them to frame themselves as paladin-heroes in a dark universe. I don’t believe that this is happening on a large scale. But it doesn’t need to be happening on a large scale to be a problem.
The other problem is the imagery itself. Ken commented: “People get that there are no "good guys" in 40K, right? Everybody is terrible.”
And though I think Ken is right, I also think that this is part of the problem. First, GW has diluted the nihilistic origins of the 40k setting in response to the growth of their IP’s popularity outside the game. There was a commercial need to begin framing certain groups, like the Ultramarines chapter, as “good guys” - even if it was only a relative level of “good”. Second, though, in a universe where everyone is horrible, there is a tendency to find the flavour of horrible with which you most identify. This is especially true in an intellectual property that has flowed over and beyond the edges of its tabletop game origins.
Although it can seem counterintuitive at first, I think GW would do well to listen to voices like Thomas Parrott and No More Damsels. An Imperium united in xenophobia and theocratic tyranny, and teetering on the brink of annihilation, shouldn’t have time to worry about gender identity, racial origin, skin colour, sexuality or any of the other routine obsessions of our 21st Century. A commissar might shoot you in the head if you flee, but she shouldn’t give stuff if you’re a black trans gay man. As long as you can hold a lasgun, you’re good enough for the Emperor!
Likewise, the obsession with the genetic purity of the Space Marines should be similarly disinterested in metagenetic factors. Like race and sexuality. Yes, even like gender. If your only interest is in recruits likely to survive the transformation process and fight reliably afterwards, why concern yourself with anything else in the face of species extinction?
But the diversification of the characters populating the grim dark future of 40k’s setting will be best informed if the people responsible for shaping that setting are, themselves, diverse. Which speaks back to NMD’s point about wanting GW to improve its performance as a diverse employer.
GW started this conversation by saying “Warhammer is for Everyone” and boldly declaring that those who aren’t prepared to welcome anyone into the hobby “will not be missed”. It’s not unreasonable, therefore, for the community to speak back and say “OK, so what?”
For all the platitudes of their statement, GW committed themselves to exactly zero practical action except to keep on doing what they were already doing. But what if that’s not enough?
I don’t know what work on diversity and inclusivity GW already does. But I do know that very few companies put in the effort that the subject deserves. And when I say “deserves” I literally mean, based on its potential impact on a company’s profits. The evidence is very strong that more diverse companies are more productive. And GW must be aware that there are untapped markets in the form of women and people of colour who aren’t being drawn to their products. A more diverse employee base would lead to a more representative product line, which would lead to more money for the company. It’s not rocket science.
Now let me say: it is super easy to preach when you’re a one-person microbusiness taking shots at a company like GW. So let’s look at this a little wider.
First, if you think the alt-right isn’t a problem for society at large then you haven’t been paying attention. The alt-right is a hydra. Cut off a Sarah Palin over here and up pops a Donald Trump over there. Shut down a Nick Griffin over there, and up pops a Nigel Farage over here.
The face of the extreme right is constantly changing as they gradually advance from the shadows of unacceptability to dominate the mainstream of political discourse. And the only way to turn back that advance is to confront it in its tracks. It can’t be argued with, because it’s irrational. It can’t be persuaded to change its ways because that only reinforces its fragile sense of wounded ego and misplaced rage. It can only be stopped by telling it to shut up and go away - by refusing it the platform that suggests that its opinions are of equal validity to everyone else’s.
“Get your politics out of my hobby” is a popular refrain. “I just want to roll dice and have fun - it’s my escape from real life”.
Yeah. I get that. I totally, absolutely sympathize with that. I want a break, too. I see dead refugees on Britain’s beaches. I see business after business closing down. I see rational people losing their minds over Cardi B singing a stupid song. And I just want to find a world I can hide in where none of that is my problem. But when other people are already using aspects of your hobby to endorse their shitty views, the line has already been crossed.
If you want politics out of the hobby, you have to push it out. The manufacturers and designers have a role to play in that and, God knows, I’m making what tiny, feeble effort I can. But if you bury your head in the sand and pretend it’s not happening, you are part of the problem.
But it’s time for one, last comment from Facebook, from Richard:
“Perhaps it's time that we face facts and realise that wargaming in its inception was about colonialist and racist ideals. Wargames have grown into something much bigger than that, but the question no one is asking, is whether it's possible to have healthy branches when the roots are rotten.”
You know what? I reject that. I could go into it in detail, but this isn’t the time or place. I reject the idea that wargaming was colonialist or racist from its inception. The fact that early proponents were members of a colonialist and historically racist society doesn’t, in my opinion, make the roots of the hobby rotten any more than HG Well’s assertion that wargames might be enjoyed by “the more intelligent sort of girl who likes boys’ games” made it sexist.
Wargaming and the hobby surrounding it, from collecting and painting to reading and creating, are fundamentally apolitical. And, to an extent, it’s true that wargaming is for everyone - yes, even for evil-hearted bigots. But the moment - the moment - you try to weaponize my hobby to propagate your political agenda is the moment you cease to be welcome here.
“But, Robey, if you want greater diversity of representation in wargaming, isn’t that a political agenda?”
And there lies the victory of the alt-right.
If you imagine the political spectrum as running on a scale of 0 to 100, with the extreme left at 0 and the extreme right at 100, then people occupying the 97 to 100 region are pointing at the remaining 96 degrees of the scale and declaring them all socialists. But they’re just human. Diversity is normal. Diversity is the default of our society. Representation in our hobby is a reversion to the default. That’s why it makes commercial sense. Support for diversity is the absence of a political agenda. Apathy towards diversity is support for an alt-right political agenda. And the victory of the alt-right has been persuading you to the contrary.
This has been an important topic and I can’t possibly have done it justice in the time we’ve had, but I hope it has, at least, given you some food for thought.
My thanks to everyone who commented on Facebook. I wish every topic I discussed was this popular, but there’s only so much controversy to mine for hits in this little niche of ours.
Next week, I’ll try to find something lighter to talk about. Thanks for listening.