Warhammer 40,000 and its growing fascism problem

For anyone who's played or is familiar with the "grimdark" tabletop miniatures game, Warhammer 40,000, the overt fascist iconography and brutal nature of the game have likely not been lost on you. From the very beginning, with 1987's Warhammer 40,0000: Rogue Trader game, we've been told that it's all satire, social commentary on authoritarianism, rampant xenophobia, and a dystopian universe gone completely mad.

That may have been true at the start, but as the maker of the game, Games Workshop, has become a huge global brand, and as the game has evolved and expanded, murderous anti-heroes like the Space Marines have gradually been turning into heroes of the realm. As a result, both the fictional universe of 40K and its real-world game communities find themselves into increasingly disquieting waters. Fascist players are openly celebrating the Imperium and the Emperor of Mankind (even equating him with Trump) and Games Workshop faces mounting pressure to address the ideas behind its brand and what they stand for. Regrettably, they've not been particularly effective in distancing themselves from these increasingly troubling aspects of the Warhammer world.

In this over 10,000 word essay, "Satire Without Purpose Will Wander In Dark Places," writer and gamer Tim Colwill looks at the origins of the Imperium and Warhammer 40,000, the drift that's occurred as the brand has become a global successful, and the game's growing real-world fascism problem.

When not busy hosting weddings or disappointing vegans, the Club also caters to the occasional Spanish Warhammer 40,000 Grand Tournament — an event which would not normally raise an eyebrow, and certainly not the sort of event which would elicit dozens of news stories, become the subject of bitter recriminations across thousands of social media channels, or force Games Workshop to issue an unprecedented public warning and condemnation.

And yet in the days and weeks following the Grand Tournament Talavera in early November 2021, that is exactly what happened, after a player calling himself "The Austrian Painter" entered the building wearing a jacket and shirt openly emblazed with Nazi iconography.

Understandably, The Austrian Painter's designated opponent took one look across the table at the neo-Nazi setting up his army and walked over to the tournament organisers, explained they were refusing to play against a fascist, and requested that the man be removed from the tournament. They also demanded an explanation from the tournament organisers about their policy regarding the open endorsement of hate crimes in their event.

In the practised tones of a professional provocateur who was luxuriating in the exact reaction he had hoped for, Mr. Painter refused to leave, claimed that he was well within his rights under Spanish law to wear deeply offensive Nazi bullshit, and that in fact he would be the one to call the police if the organisers attempted to expel him. The organisers conferred among themselves and reluctantly concluded that Spanish law was firmly on the side of the fascist — they could not make him leave. Refusing to back down, his opponent forfeited the match by default, and The Austrian Painter proceeded to play through the rest of the tournament, happy in the knowledge that his real mission — presumably something along the lines of "triggering" a bunch of "snowflakes" — had been accomplished.

Over the next few days the story made it out of Talavera and spread across various online Warhammer spaces, picking up more and more steam as it went. After a week of condemnations, threats and online meltdowns, Games Workshop — for the first time in its corporate life — could no longer pretend that fascism and 40K did not exist in the same space.

In an official statement published on 19 November 2021, the company proclaimed that "We will never accept nor condone any form of prejudice, hatred, or abuse in our company, or in the Warhammer hobby (…) If you come to a Games Workshop event or store and behave to the contrary, including wearing the symbols of real-world hate groups, you will be asked to leave."

"The Imperium of Man stands as a cautionary tale of what could happen should the very worst of Humanity's lust for power and extreme, unyielding xenophobia set in," the statement continued. "Like so many aspects of Warhammer 40,000, the Imperium of Man is satirical."

"For clarity," it added, "satire is the use of humour, irony, or exaggeration, displaying people's vices or a system's flaws for scorn, derision, and ridicule. Something doesn't have to be wacky or laugh-out-loud funny to be satire. The derision is in the setting's amplification of a tyrannical, genocidal regime, turned up to 11."

Despite not providing any specifics or referencing Talavera by name, the message from the company was clear: if any "real-world hate groups" were to theoretically show up at a Games Workshop event, it could only be because those people had failed to grasp the inherently satirical nature of Warhammer 40,000.

But there's one small issue with proclaiming that Warhammer 40,000 and its protagonist The Imperium of Man are "satire": it's not true.

Read the rest here.

[H/t Bruce Dykes]