Satire Without Purpose Will Wander In Dark Places

How Warhammer 40,000 abandoned anti-authoritarianism for comfortable cowardice

+++   BY TIM COLWILL   //   JUNE 2023   +++

Incident at Outpost Talavera

90 minutes south west of Madrid on the outskirts of the Talavera de le Reina, you will find the Salones Prado del Arca - the Prado del Arca Social Club — a long, squat building of sandy beige stone and gleaming black glass, parked just off the side of the highway and blanketed on all sides by a wide expanse of asphalt carpark. The Club does a roaring trade in weddings and sporting events, and boasts what 200 online reviewers have described as a menu offering “surprising value for money”, although reportedly somewhat lacking in vegan options.

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.

Broadly labelling the entirety of Warhammer 40,000 as “satire” is no longer sufficient to address what the game has become in the almost 40 years since its inception. It also fails to answer the rather awkward question of why, exactly, these fascists who are allegedly too stupid to understand satire are continually showing up in your satirical community in the first place.

At best, Games Workshop is guilty of muddled and mixed messaging; corporate custodian of a narratively top-heavy fictional universe, trying its best to plot a course through almost four decades of social change. But at its worst, the company is carelessly complicit in the open laundering of fascist ideologies and aesthetics — a slick marketing machine uncritically promoting the talking points and perspectives of the totalitarian right, in crass pursuit of greater profits.

The Dark Age of Neoliberalism

A common pastime across the Warhammer 40,000 online community is to muse openly about the “good old days” when 40K was ‘less serious and more satirical’, and indeed it is important to say at the outset that the version of Warhammer 40,000 which neo-Nazis showed up to play in Talavera in 2021 is very different to the inaugural ‘Rogue Trader’ edition of 1987. But just as fascists romanticise an imaginary ‘more pure’ past to which they demand we return, putting Rogue Trader onto a pedestal and calling it a powerful piece of satire is to ignore the material reality of what occurred.

Inspired by the spectre of nuclear war, massive unemployment, street riots and the open authoritarianism of the iconic #girlboss Margaret Thatcher, British artists and creators of the 1970’s and 1980’s were churning out dark and subversive works. Titles such as V For Vendetta and Judge Dredd flew off comic-shop shelves: ultra-grim, ultra-bleak titles that riffed on authoritarian violence, nuclear mutants, and fascist soldiers trapped in endless wars. The Games Workshop of this era very rarely published its own original content as it does now — its operating model was to act as a publisher of licensed works and distributor of the titles of other companies, scoring its first major breakthrough with the exclusive rights to distribute Dungeons & Dragons in the United Kingdom

One of the many licensing deals which was keeping the lights on at Games Workshop in these early years was 2000 AD. The company published over a dozen books and boxed games while the contract was good: titles like Judge Dredd: The Board Game, Judge Dredd: The Roleplaying Game and Block Mania remain beloved collectors items to this day. Working on these titles was a young man named Rick Priestley who, like all strapping, healthy nerds, was using his spare time to develop his own homebrew ruleset (in his case a set of spaceship combat rules tentatively titled Rogue Trader) and was desperately trying to find a publisher for it.

Priestley had naturally tried to sell his own employer on the idea, but managing director Bryan Ansell wasn’t having it. The accepted wisdom at the time was that sci-fi miniature wargaming was unprofitable, and the company was doing well enough on the back of its first seriously profitable original product line, Warhammer Fantasy Battles (developed specifically to fill the void after losing the Dungeons & Dragons distribution rights), that there was little incentive to try something new.

Fortunately for Priestley, the public’s obvious growing interest in dark sci-fi properties such as 2000 AD changed Ansell’s mind and the Rogue Trader project was greenlit — but not in the way Priestley originally intended. His spaceship combat simulator became something else completely: a futuristic reskin of the Warhammer Fantasy product line, so that players could purchase almost any Games Workshop miniature they liked and continue to use it regardless of what they were playing on the day. Ansell also incorporated elements of his own homebrew setting titled Laserburn, which included the original version of what would later become The Imperium of Man.

Launched under the presumably-compromise title of Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader, the original book is a wonderful piece of 80’s science fiction nostalgia, a 290-page love letter to a thousand different ideas that had caught Priestley’s imagination. To flip through it today is to be subjected to a sensory assault not unlike a brief trip through the Empyrean itself — rules and lore all smashed together into dense unstructured walls of text, unnecessarily-detailed random generator tables on every other page, aesthetically incoherent (and often deliberately comedic) artwork, and a throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks attitude to setting development that Priestley himself would later look back on and candidly summarise as “I just sort of bunged all the ideas I could think of into it”.

Compared to later editions, the setting of Rogue Trader seems almost upbeat in tone. We learn that the mysterious Eldar are “not uncommon in the Imperium” and “tolerated by most authorities”1. We hear about the adventures of characters with now-unheard-of names like “Inquisitor Obiwan Sherlock Clousseau”2 and consider the possibilities of a narrative campaign which might involve human and alien farmers working on the same planet together3. “Fear is the mind killer”, an open reference to Frank Herbert’s Dune, features as your ‘thought for the day’ on page 78 — which is coincidentally the same page where we learn that a common slang term for laspistol weapons is the extremely grimdark word “bloogers”. A gorgeously cheesy two-page spread of Games Workshop staff illustrated as over-the-top 80’s sci-fi caricatures sprawls across pages 260 and 261, reminding you of the very human band of Nottingham’s finest nerds who put the whole thing together.

But with almost 40 years of distance, it’s impossible to avoid concluding that many of the ideas that Games Workshop and Rick Priestley ‘bunged in there’ — ideas which we now think of as ‘iconically 40K’ — are directly inspired by the 2000 AD properties which the company published for so long. Rogue Trooper’s genetically engineered supersoldiers fighting in toxic chemical wastelands, Judge Dredd’s continent-sized mega-cities, enormous eagle-draped shoulder pads and massive ‘Lawmaster’ motorcycles, and Nemesis the Warlock’s chainsword-wielding “Terminators” launching crusades on behalf of a xenophobic religious Terran empire, are all undeniably present in one way or another in Rogue Trader, persisting down the editions to this day, fossilised deep in the bedrock of the setting.

When fans (or the company itself) point at Warhammer 40,000 and call it ‘satire’, it is really 2000AD that they are pointing to — exhuming the skeleton of the old license from deep beneath the earth, hosing it off and saying “Look, it’s satirical innit — if you take a couple of steps back and squint you can see that we’re sort of displaying people’s vices or a system’s flaws for scorn, derision, and ridicule, yeah?” 

And yet the differences between the two intellectual properties and their respective stewards could not be more stark: 2000AD leaned into its biting critiques of authoritarianism and xenophobia, maintained a dedicated fan base without needing to ask Nazis to stop showing up at meetings, and now has whole books being published about how it accurately predicted the real-life rise of the fascist turbocop. Warhammer 40,000 on the other hand openly glamourised the villains of 2000 AD, said to itself “what if those were actually the good guys?”, added a bunch of homebrew worldbuilding around the edges, and sent the whole thing off to the printing press without really thinking too hard about what exactly they were trying to say. 

Ultimately, the message that Rogue Trader ended up sending was far from the ‘more obvious satire’ that longer-term players look back on through their rose-tinted glasses — in fact there wasn’t really a message there at all. Priestley departed Games Workshop in 2010 and has since spoken openly regarding his time at the company, claiming in an interview with Grognardia in 2020 that the intent of Rogue Trader’s clash of “high and low styles” was to remind us that “this is all pretend and we should not take it too seriously.”

“The original book certainly combined a dystopic and violent universe with humour – perhaps the irony was rather heavy handed and maybe the humour verges on the silly in places – but I was writing a book about wargames for wargamers (…) As 40K evolved, and other writers took over the job, it did get increasingly po-faced, which I always thought missed the point a bit,” said Priestley. “But what can you do?”

Grim darkness becomes Grimdark™

Despite his comments on the post-80’s direction of Warhammer 40,000, it was in fact under Priestley’s own direct supervision that the game almost immediately started to become “increasingly po-faced”. Bryan Ansell’s accepted wisdom had been wrong and Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader had sold like hotcakes, bringing in serious money for the small Nottingham company. Games Workshop assigned extra resources to Rick Priestley in the form of a young designer Andy Chambers — the man who would later go on to become the iconic ‘40K Overfiend’ — and set the pair to working away on a second edition of the game for launch in October 1993, to an increasingly eager wargaming public.

Dropping the ‘Rogue Trader’ suffix and now simply titled Warhammer 40,000, Second Edition was not afraid to fundamentally rework the game. Rogue Trader uniquely required a third player: the gamesmaster, who served as a storyteller and narrative referee, planning the scenario and populating it with a variety of interesting terrain, gibbering alien plants and curious NPCs. This focus on narrative play fell away in Second Edition as the gamesmaster position was removed, instead prioritising the delivery of a streamlined ruleset for two armies to bash away at each other with no (or at least, fewer) randomly generated distractions.

Similarly, the sprawling lore of Rogue Trader was boiled down and distilled to a grimmer, darker concentrate. Out of the original science-fiction-tribute-melange came a more tonally distinct setting, with Priestley and Chambers deciding to push the Imperium of Man to the front and centre of the narrative. Where Rogue Trader had emphasised the cross-factional plurality of the universe and encouraged players to experiment with scenarios featuring eldar, orks and humans together, Second Edition chose to excise this in favour of a dialled-up-to-11 militaristic xenophobia.

The Codex Imperialis lore supplement in the Second Edition box outlined a new, grimmer, darker Imperium of Man, where war is waged “with no conceivable end”, “across the galaxy in the darkness of space, on a million worlds, and within the depths of every human soul”4. What little of Priestley’s ‘heavy handed irony’ that does remain in Second Edition can mostly be found in the over-the-top Imperial propaganda, all of which is delivered with a straight face. Any overt humour or silliness was missing entirely, popping up again a year later in 1994’s Codex: Orks and cementing the role of the greenskins as Warhammer 40,000’s comedy-relief-faction.

This process of boiling down and distilling the grim darkness of Warhammer 40,000 did not end with Second Edition. By 1998 the science-fiction public had moved on from rebelling against Thatcherism and were now into stylised, gritty violence for its own sake. Movies like Pulp Fiction and The Matrix were the talk of the wargaming club, while comic book publishers like Marvel were making money hand over fist from morally grey, increasingly violent lines like Age of Apocalypse, X-Force and Generation Next.

It was into this world that the Third Edition of Warhammer 40,000 was launched, with Priestley and Chambers joined by Gav Thorpe, Ian Pickstock and Jervis Johnson. Sporting a newer, grittier, hyper-gothic aesthetic and framed as a holy tome of the Imperium of Man, Third Edition cemented the since-unchallenged idea that although Warhammer 40,000 did technically feature space elves, space robots and other space-species, at its core it was a story about humanity on the edge of galactic annihilation, and the terrible things they needed to do to survive. “Harsh discipline and little mercy,” the Third Edition rulebook ominously intones in words which could be lifted wholesale from any number of white nationalist mass-shooting manifestos, “are essential for survival in these turbulent times.”5.

With the launch of Third Edition, Warhammer 40,000 had found its stride both commercially and narratively. A much-needed (and at the time deeply controversial) overhaul to the core mechanics wildly increased its accessibility, bringing an influx of new people into the hobby who would now and forever think of this edition and its hyper-gothic sensibilities as an inherent part and parcel of the “grimdark” experience.

As we look back from what is now the Tenth Edition of the game, it is clear that Third Edition was where Warhammer 40,000 transformed from a game to a brand. In the more than 20 years since Third Edition hit the shelves nothing about the setting or lore has materially changed, with subsequent rulebooks, novels, video games and TV shows remaining dogmatically on-message in a way that would put the Imperial Ecclesiarchy to shame; polishing, refining and flattening the setting until any trace of Rogue Trader’s 2000 AD-inspired humour and irony was thoroughly gone. Even Games Workshop’s own long-term writers have commented on this compounding effect, such as Graham McNeil:

“I’ve seen the satire argument trotted out over and over, but I don’t think it really holds water anymore,” McNeil told The Literary Khan in 2021. “(...) to continue to call it satire when what’s been written since either hasn’t gone back to the primary sources or is basing it on the books written after the books that were written after the books, etc, tend to lose that element over distance and time, so I don’t really consider it satire now of what it was satirising then. But I could see it as a cautionary tale of the current state of affairs, a reflection on rising autocracy around the world.”

“That it (Warhammer 40,000) attracts a certain element of gamers who see something to glorify in the Imperium and use it as a means to promulgate abhorrent beliefs, just tells me that they don’t understand the setting at all,” McNeil would go on to say in the same interview. 

After two decades of this rote regurgitation, Games Workshop has undoubtedly succeeded in making a profitable and iconic fictional universe, rich in narrative and commercial possibilities — but unfortunately for the company, it is harder and harder to deny that this is also the same universe which has your local neo-Nazi crossing his legs and awkwardly adjusting his jodhpurs. 

Because if what McNeil says is true and Warhammer 40,000 is a “cautionary tale” — that the setting is clearly and unambiguously communicating, as the company claims, a “derision” of the Imperium’s “tyrannical, genocidal regime”, then why are enthusiastic gamers regularly, consistently, and completely unironically getting Imperial Aquila tattoos

Wads out for the ladies

The definition of “satire” has become somewhat more fluid in the age of terminally online discourse and is now generally deployed as a syllabically-efficient way of saying “it’s just a joke”; an all-purpose shield which can be wheeled out any time your favourite bit of media receives criticism (do you have issues with the depiction of women in Grand Theft Auto? It must be because you’re too stupid to understand satire).

It is onto this breathtakingly thin ice that Games Workshop skates when it announces to the world that both Warhammer 40,000 and the Imperium of Man are “satire” — it’s a joke, the company insists, don’t take it seriously, it’s obviously absurd, haha. But satire about fascism which is seamlessly adopted by fascists can only be one of two things: not very good satire, or not really satire at all. As a Tumblr user once memorably summarised in 2016: “Satire requires a clarity of purpose and target, lest it be mistaken for and contribute to that which it intends to criticise.”

Around the same time that the first edition of Warhammer 40,000 was launching, comedian Harry Enfield was launching a uniquely British satire of his own. His popular 1988 character ‘Loadsamoney’, an obnoxiously lowbrow plasterer who was never seen without an absurdly fat wad of cash in his hand, was Enfield’s way of mocking the inequality created by Thatcher’s economic policies and the uncouth New Money who had become rich almost overnight from the housing construction boom in the south of England.

With a hit song and a sold-out national tour, Loadsamoney was immediately recognised, as Enfield intended, to be a living symbol of the materialism of Britain in the late 80’s. But what Enfield did not intend was for his icon of the zeitgeist to be completely sincerely embraced by the very people whom it was meant to criticise. Enfield quickly came to realise that Loadsamoney and the attitudes that he thought the character clearly represented were being openly championed by people from starkly different political backgrounds for starkly different reasons.

In May 1988 Labour leader Neil Kinnock attacked Thatcher for creating what he called “a loadsamoney economy”, and the very next day The Daily Mail responded with an editorial claiming that “a loadsamoney economy was better than a loadsadebt economy”. Meanwhile, England’s builders and plasterers cheered Enfield’s fictional creation on unironically, seeing him as a delightful and unvarnished ‘fuck you’ to the upper class toffs, a working boy who was making the money while the money was good.

Speaking on Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History many decades later in 2016, Enfield reflected that “basically everyone took it on, everyone decided it was theirs, they made him their property.”

“They (the Sun) thought it was great, and it was a sign of Thatcher's Britain, that all working class people were getting richer... that was the propaganda, that was how they interpreted it, I guess, yeah. Which obviously wasn't really the case but it was quite funny. One of them was using it with pride and the other with contempt, and it was odd. Very odd."

Unable to deal with the frustration that his character clearly wasn’t sending the intended message, Enfield did the only thing any author could do: murdered him in a carpark on live television. But this would hardly be the first or even the only time that apparently ‘clear and obvious’ satire could be misinterpreted. 

Across the pond in the early 1970’s, CBS TV sitcom All in the Family was dealing with the same problem as their main character, the “loveable bigot” Archie Bunker, struggled with changing political times — a struggle which was intended to provide a way for viewers to challenge their own prejudices and for the writers to explore themes which weren’t normally explored on the TV of the era.

In practice however, the opposite occurred. A 1974 study in the Journal of Communication by Neil Vidmar and Milton Rokeach found that people with already existing strong prejudices against the topics covered by All in the Family, such as civil rights and feminism, were more likely to watch the show than those who supported those causes — and that in addition, those viewers were more likely to perceive Archie as the ‘hero’ of the show who ‘won’ the exchanges of ideas that it portrayed.

"We found that many persons did not see the program as a satire on bigotry,” the authors concluded. “All such findings seem to suggest that the program is more likely reinforcing prejudice and racism than combating it.”

Despite these findings, show creator Norman Lear opted not to go down the path of Harry Enfield and have his creations murdered: All in the Family went down in history as one of the most-watched and highly-celebrated shows in the United States.

With neo-Nazis openly embracing its supposedly ‘obviously-anti-Nazi’ flagship product, Games Workshop’s continued insistence that Warhammer 40,000 is “satire” rings hollow and weak, the petulant howl of a tantruming child. Yet rather than own up to the obvious failings of its creation, as authors like Harry Enfield did, Games Workshop has doubled down — diversity-washing the rough edges off its model lineup, retconning out any unworkable “political” elements, and positioning itself as a welcoming space for minority groups and children.

One man’s hero is another man’s fascist

Space Marines have always been Warhammer 40,000’s key property — the visually iconic armoured defenders of the Imperium, colour-coded for your convenience and always ready to fire a big cool gun, or swing a big cool hammer in order to do a big cool genocide.

It is the relentless sales of Space Marine miniatures and supplements which keeps the lights on at Games Workshop headquarters, and the company knows it: Space Marine players enjoy a constant stream of both new releases and annual re-releases for their faction, while players of less popular alien races like Eldar or Tyranids need to wait up to literally 20 years in some cases for their miniatures to be overhauled. But behind the constant brrrrr of the Space Marine Money Printer, the company has an uneasy and complicated relationship with what exactly they would like Space Marines to be.

Rogue Trader established the Space Marine by telling us that these warriors are “specially selected from the galaxy’s toughest psychopaths”6 — part of a military force which replenishes itself by hunting down and capturing “whole gangs of city-scum” in order to fill their ranks with troops who (following a brutal hypno-indoctrination process) will boast the most “psychotic killer instinct”7. Artwork from the original book shows Space Marines behaving as jumped-up space cops, stopping to pat-down graffiti artists caught in the act of painting anti-Marine slogans on hive-slum walls8.

In this age of “mysticism and madness”, it was possible that a Space Marine might take to the battlefield wearing a Christmas outfit and holding a mug of beer or even more outrageously, be a woman.

Much like Warhammer 40,000 itself, the Space Marine as a concept has drifted significantly since that time. Following the launch of Rogue Trader and then into Second Edition, a decision was made that Space Marines were not “potentially-female super-criminals with barely-controlled psychotic killing urges”, but in fact were “exclusively-male, noble warrior-knights who tragically sacrificed themselves for the good of the Imperium”. Work began in earnest on fleshing out a highly codified and structured lore for Space Marine chapters which had only previously been mentioned in passing, in the process setting up a variety of distinctly coloured and themed sub-factions which could then be profitably supplied with their own range of miniatures and books.

Those ranges have expanded, and expanded, and expanded again from Second Edition through to today, each Chapter taking on its own character and all of them unquestionably heroic in some slightly varied way — none more so than the Ultramarines, who went from yet another group of frenzied psychopaths in regular blue armour to become noble paladins of justice in shining gold. “The Ultramarines embody pure heroism,” trumpets Games Workshop’s current catalogue. “Conquerors and protectors in equal measure, they stand for everything it means to be a Space Marine through both their bravery and their strict adherence to the Codex Astartes.”

Even those Chapters which aren’t as categorically Good Guy-coded as the Ultramarines will never, under any circumstances, be described as the superhuman military arm of the galactic fascist state that they quite canonically are. The Blood Angels are “beatific”, the Black Templars are “zealous”, and the Space Wolves are “merciless hunters”. Novels about Space Marines (colloquially known as “bolter porn” after the guns they use) outnumber novels about any other faction 10 to 1 (or more), all of them depicting the heavily-armoured hyper-violent poster boys of the Imperium as unquestionably noble heroes at best, or tragic figures with good intentions at worst.

Just as the shift from gaudy to gritty in Third Edition was a response to changing consumer culture attitudes towards violence, Games Workshop has continued to evolve its flagship Space Marine product in an attempt to remain relevant. In 2017 Games Workshop launched the new range of ‘Primaris’ Space Marines, a stronger and tougher breed of astartes with a pronounced ‘tacticool’ aesthetic that cleaves away from the colourful exaggeration of the 1980’s and much closer to the real-world military gear of special forces operators.

Although the major driver for the launch of the new Primaris Marines was to convince players to purchase a very slightly larger version of their existing miniatures all over again (and to avoid future embarassing failed copyright disputes), an unintentional side effect of the new Tacticool Marines appears to have been to make the United States Armed Forces — the world’s largest environmental polluter and global champion of committing war crimes — feel comfortable enough to openly recruit at Warhammer 40,000 tournaments. But don’t worry everyone: the Army’s team of tabletop gamers are definitely feeling visibly uncomfortable under the biting criticism of military jingoism which is self-evidently inherent to 40K’s setting.

In 2019 Games Workshop took things a step further and launched a new Warhammer Adventures line featuring racially and ethnically diverse tweenage protagonists, with the goal of accessing the disposable income of the parents of children aged 8-12. This move raised eyebrows even among the more laid-back members of the Warhammer 40,000 community who pointed out — quite reasonably — that maybe a universe where there was canonically nothing but endless war and violent death wasn’t something to try and sell to children.

The publication of “Hey Kids, Authoritarian Violence Is Good” books should be enough on its own to drive a stake through the heart of the idea that Warhammer 40,000 is satire, or that Games Workshop is cleverly showing the monstrosity of the Imperium without endorsing it. Taking it a horrible step further however, the Adventures series openly openly pitches Space Marines to children as the “sworn defenders of humanity” who “risk all to protect the Imperium against the forces of Evil” — a line of uncritically pro-fascist propaganda which drops so seamlessly into the Warhammer 40,000 universe that you can easily imagine it warbling out of a failing public tannoy system in the echoing sprawl of one of the Imperium’s countless hive cities.

Since walking away from Games Workshop, Rick Priestley has spoken often about the increasing hero worship of his super-fascist creations. “The fact that the Space Marines were lauded as heroes within Games Workshop always amused me, because they're brutal, but they're also completely self-deceiving,” he wrote in 2015. “The whole idea of the Emperor is that you don't know whether he's alive or dead. The whole Imperium might be running on superstition. There's no guarantee that the Emperor is anything other than a corpse with a residual mental ability to direct spacecraft.”

“Why anyone would want to be associated with semi-lobotomized, hypnotically indoctrinated slave-soldiers in thrall to an uncaring (and possibly non-existent) god I couldn’t imagine,” Priestley continued in 2019.

“But times change, don’t they.”

No politics for me thanks, I’m playing wargames

Raising these sorts of difficult questions in your wargaming group or online is a sure-fire way to be accused of “bringing politics into it” by someone who “just wants to play games”, a defensive attitude which the increasingly safe and corporate Games Workshop has eagerly encouraged. But once upon a time, Games Workshop was not so afraid to get its hands dirty and actually take some kind of stand on real-world politics. 

During the height of Margaret Thatcher’s war on poor people and trade unions in the 1980’s the company published The Tragedy of McDeath, a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay adventure where an authoritarian human government (featuring NPCs with names barely altered from real Tory ministers of the day) attempts to crush a dwarven miner’s strike. Thatcher was a regular target for those cheeky scamps in Nottingham — her likeness appearing on an orc banner in White Dwarf #81 and also alongside Ronald and Nancy Reagan as a trio of monstrous harpies.

Gradually however, the company has walked back on drawing inspiration from real world politics — retreating from this sort of overt commentary into the seductive comfort of unchallenging corporate gesturing instead. No better example of this exists than the tragic fate of Da Red Gobbo: introduced in the pages of 1998’s Gorkamorka supplement Digganob as an implicitly communist figure, this democratically elected leader of Skid Row’s Gretchin Revolutionary Committee proclaimed all greenskins to be equal and demanded the immediate redistribution of dental wealth.

Much like Games Workshop’s approach to managing its own staff, any discussion of income equality was clearly verboten by management. In a move which really put the “grim” in “grimdark”, the communist Red Gobbo was “disappeared” and went on a 20-year hiatus, returning to horrible un-life in 2019 as a gift-giving Christmas capitalism goblin whose idea of a revolution was “to oversee our holiday bundles and offerings”.

This grotesque Weekend at Bernies approach to even hinting at a political ideology reflects the company’s increasingly conservative and corporate attitude to their own product. The only ideological positions which are allowed in the world of Warhammer 40,000 are those which pose no challenge to the narrative power structure or the product release roadmap: a Black Space Marine here, a powerful female hero there, or if we are really lucky, a minor background character who uses they/them pronouns.

Genuinely satirical or thought-provoking ideology which cannot be readily incorporated into the established system is either watered down to the point of meaninglessness, or rejected outright. Readers of Warhammer 40,0000’s lore are allowed to learn that war is bad as long as they also learn that it is necessary, that the Imperium is deeply corrupt and evil but that there is simply no better or more viable alternative, and that even seemingly advanced, friendly alien races are actually “not quite as shiny and nice as some might think”, which makes it okay to engage in a bit of cheeky genocide.

Games Workshop has tried to earn a few self-awareness points by criticising this state of affairs in the past, most recently with the awakening of the Ultramarines Primarch Roboute Guilliman, who returns to life after 10,000 years have passed and is disgusted to see that his beautiful dream of a galactic Imperium has turned to religious rot and ruin. Conveniently however, rather than deciding to take up arms against the corrupt Imperium, he instead sets out to save it with his father’s flaming sword and a new holy crusade at his back — Great Man Theory writ large, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed super-Aryan whose Greco-Roman aesthetics and unwavering resolve to do terrible but necessary things will keep the flame of Western human civilisation alive.

Whenever Warhammer 40,000 is criticised, someone will immediately enter the comments section to post some variant of the sentence: “Okay, but everything is bad in 40K, that’s the whole point of 40K.” There is a certain perverse and seductive comfort in this surface-level explanation: if everything is bad, then we don’t need to look into it further — nobody needs to pick a side, and any genuinely difficult questions can be dismissed as the shrill trivialities of the terminally offended. “Everything is bad” is an inherently conservative worldview and as such provides endless, consequence-free opportunities for authors to avoid discussing exactly why things are bad in the first place, who is responsible for them being bad, and what can be done about it.

The problem with this thought-terminating cliche of a defence is that “everything is always, inherently, bad” and “Warhammer 40,000 is satire” are concepts which cannot coexist. Satire requires the possibility that things can change or improve — if there was no hope of anything getting better and no chance of anyone changing their mind, then there would be no utility in satirising its failings. But to do this requires taking a firm stance, and despite opportunity after opportunity, both in its lore and in the real world, Games Workshop has refused to do this. By always playing it safe and sticking to unchallenging comfortable territory, the company has, inch by agonising inch, taken any teeth out of a product which supposedly exists explicitly to challenge authoritarianism and bureaucratic stagnation.

The grim darkness of the 3rd Millennium

Perhaps the cruellest irony in all of this is that there is currently no better time for Games Workshop to be openly taking a stand against creeping authoritarianism, fanatical religious devotion, or the colossal indifference of state apparatus to human misery.

In the world of Warhammer 40,000, one thousand human psykers must sacrifice their lives each day to keep the light of the Emperor’s Astronomican burning and keep humanity in the stars — a number which at the time of writing in 1987 presumably represented Rick Priestley’s idea of an unthinkable atrocity. Meanwhile in Britain alone in the year 2021, preventable COVID-19 deaths quickly broke through the 1,000 a day barrier and kept on climbing, while a fantastically wealthy Prime Minister held private garden parties at his house in open and sneering defiance of the law.

The United Kingdom is collapsing in real time before our eyes: skyrocketing energy costs and a collapsing health system resulted in 50,000 more Britons dying than average last year, while food banks and homeless shelters were forced to close due to overwhelming demand. Trade unions all across the country are engaging in unprecedented strike action, their hand forced by Conservative (and even supposedly “left” Labour politicians) united behind the neoliberal ideology of gutting public services and turning employees into precarious gig-economy contractors. One of those public services, the deliberately-underfunded NHS, imploded under the strain of COVID-19 and the best that the UK Government could offer while people died from a lack of hospital beds and working ventilators was a comedically dystopian national clapping session and a 99 year-old war veteran doing lockdown laps of his garden.

Inequality in the United Kingdom outstrips all but a handful of other nations, with Thatcher’s neoliberal economic policies working exactly as intended to continue funnelling money out of the hands of the poor and into the untouchable offshore bank accounts of the rich: in fact the wealthiest 100 people in the UK now hold as much combined wealth as the 18 million poorest people combined. Even Harry Enfield thought it was appropriate for Loadsamoney to make a comeback — as he said, “it’s just like the ’80s again, innit?” Meanwhile, the British media has waged an open, state-sanctioned demonisation campaign against transgender people, stopping juuuuuuuuust shy of calling for a literal purging of the heretic and the unclean — a distinction which goes unnoticed by the violent fascists who are now emboldened enough to take matters into their own hands.

The perverse icing on the life-imitates-art-cake was the death of Queen Elizabeth II in September 2022, which sent the British people into a bizarre psychic grief spiral like something out of a Dan Abnett novel. Within minutes of the official announcement train schedules had been changed, regular broadcasts were cancelled and replaced with vacuous talking heads providing rolling 24/7 coverage of the front doors of official buildings, and pre-prepared banners of mourning were unfurled across every single bus stop and advertising billboard in the city. Games Workshop was no different to any other British company at this troubling time: they quickly slapped a coat of undiluted Citadel® Elizabethan Griefmourn™ over their website and announced they would temporarily halt marketing of the product which allegedly, if you'll recall, mocks the British Royal Family... out of respect for the British Royal Family.

Black Library authors like Mike Brooks have previously drawn what they see as clear connections between the long reign of Queen Elizabeth II and the eternal reign of the Emperor of Mankind, but even these interpretations paled in comparison to the reality of British corpse-worship. Millions of grieving penitents queued for up to 24 hours across a distance of 16 kilometres to pay their respects, with 2,000 separate people requiring medical attention from fatigue and dehydration — while the rich and powerful were able to bypass The Queue entirely.

Those who exercised their right to free speech at the later proclamation of King Charles III were assaulted and arrested by highly-militarised police who have recently been empowered with unprecedentedly draconian new anti-protest legislation (enacted specifically at the request of large oil corporations to prevent anyone from complaining about how much money they are making from their wilful destruction of the planet’s climate), while royalist bystanders nearby spontaneously erupted into counter-chants of “God Save the King”, drowning out any improper disrespect for their unelected new septuagenarian monarch. Sitting on a throne literally made out of gold and jewels, His Majesty (personal fortune: an estimated £1.8 billion) expressed his ‘heartfelt solidarity’ with the poor and downtrodden who are struggling through an unprecedented cost-of-living crisis, but continued full steam ahead with his plan to hold a three-day-long coronation ceremony at a cost to the citizens of Hive City UK of £100 million.

For a company whose flagship product is allegedly a clear, impossible-to-miss satire of British authoritarianism and inequality, it is difficult to imagine a better time for them to make a ringing public statement — an open denouncement that leaves nobody in doubt about exactly what principles Warhammer 40,000 is founded on. If Boris Johnson had been the Prime Minister of the UK in the 1980’s we would all now be looking back fondly on at least a dozen short stories featuring the open depravity and comedic ineptitude of ‘High Governor J’oris Buhnston’ and his cabal of inbred lackwits.

Instead we have a Games Workshop conspicuous by its silence, remaining desperately tight-lipped even while its own country slips into the realm of pure parody. The 2000 AD-loving Nottingham punks of 1987 are well and truly dead, and the counter-culture rhetoric they once preached has metastasised into a shallow, incoherent reflection of the original message.

So much for the T’aulerant Left

The Imperium of Man is beset on all sides by foes beyond counting: the alien, the mutant, and the heretic. It is a galaxy where only the strong survive, where untold billions toil and die in nameless obscurity so that the war engines of an empire may grind onward for yet another day. It is a world where absolute cruelty, rigorous genetic purity and righteous xenophobia are not only encouraged but quite literally necessary to prevent chaos and corruption — a world where hypermasculine superheroes are the only thing standing between civilisation and annihilation.

This world is, by any measure, a fascist’s wet dream — and as such, it has been attracting both outright- and crypto-fascists for a long time. Even before the arrival of smartphones and algorithmically driven social media feeds, most long term players of Warhammer 40,000 will have a story or two about That Guy at the local games store whose edgy jokes are delivered in a way where you’re beginning to realise they aren’t jokes, or That Guy on the forum who can be guaranteed to pop his head up in any thread about “politics in the hobby”, or That Guy at the tournament with a weirdly realistic German military scheme on his Imperial Guard.

The increasingly inescapable connectivity of the Internet has enabled every friendly local games store’s version of That Guy to find each other, organise together, and push the envelope of fascist or reactionary 40K content further than ever before. Facebook groups with names like ‘Ambiguous Alpha Legion Memes’ push thinly-veiled Great Replacement Theory narratives and promote antisemitism while any mention of “politics” on a Warhammer 40,000 subreddit is only ever one comment away from a brigade of downvotes, and allegedly ‘satirical’ and ‘over the top’ Imperial propaganda is unironically re-purposed to threaten anyone who supports gun control legislation. On YouTube, openly bigoted content creators use real-world slurs and hate speech to refer to the fictional races and factions from the setting, while 4chan’s imageboards have worked to normalise a general disdain for over-reacting ‘social justice warriors’ in the hobby, and can also take credit for the famous ‘God-Emperor Trump’ meme.

For almost 40 years, Games Workshop has pursued a hard-line policy of quite simply pretending that this isn’t happening. Even as the meme was realised when a literal three storey-high float of Donald Trump dressed as their flagship intellectual property, The God-Emperor of Mankind, was paraded down the streets of northern Tuscany in 2019, the company said nothing.

Although the incident at Talavera was the first time the company had — even indirectly — addressed the fascist element of its fanbase, it was not the first time that Games Workshop had an open statement which touched on real-world politics. That happened in June 2020 in the wake of Black Lives Matter uprisings across many parts of the world, when the company responded to a general pressure to sort of ‘do something’ about racism by publishing a statement in support of diversity and inclusion, which affirmed that “Warhammer is for Everyone”. This statement concluded by bluntly telling anyone who was upset about it that they “will not be missed” if they chose to leave the hobby.

The reception was overwhelmingly positive. Many tabletop wargamers of a more liberal political bent took the opportunity to celebrate what they saw as Games Workshop ‘siding’ with them over gatekeepers and reactionaries. Equally as predictably, those reactionary elements of the Warhammer 40,000 fanbase took the statement as a personal attack, to the point where one particularly unhinged minor celebrity YouTuber started his own petition and called on “real fans” to rise up and save the game from “unnecessary division”. Unsurprisingly the petition failed, and the company’s statement remained online.

A few months prior to the “Warhammer is for Everyone” statement, Black Library author Thomas Parrott came to the vocal defence on Twitter of a Warhammer player who was at the time being targeted with death threats after making a joke about how funny it would be if Space Marines were gay (which, for the record: very funny). Parrott used his own platform, and reputation as a Black Library author, on Twitter to call out this behaviour and openly demanded that his employer do more to address the regressive elements in the community.

Naturally when Parrott’s tweets were brought to Games Workshop’s attention, this allegedly progressive company responded in the most progressive way possible: they fired him for being a “poor representative of their brand” and terminated his writing contract with Black Library.

June 2020 was also the month when community figure and Black wargamer Josh Mallett went public with details of the racist comments he alleges were made to him by Games Workshop’s own staff. The newly progressive company refused to acknowledge Mallett’s experiences, and offered no apology at all.

Games Workshop was right: Warhammer is for everyone, including those fans who would be openly racist to other fans, or even threaten to kill them. An unsurprising feat of mental acrobatics perhaps, given that Parrott would later go on to allege Black Library’s own manager had told him the presence of fascism in the Warhammer community was “debatable”.

That’s not to say the ‘Warhammer is for Everyone’ statement was pointless — it was a fantastic opportunity for Games Workshop to promote the increasing diversity of its model range, and for well-meaning fans to provide the company with a frankly bewildering amount of free marketing by sharing the statement, and loudly announcing their support.

However when all was said and done, the reactionary YouTubers of the world need not have worried. In the more than three years since the ‘Warhammer is for Everyone’ statement was made, no material changes of any kind have been announced at Games Workshop (other than the constant, constant price increases), and the company has made zero additional commitments, paid for zero independent external culture audits, and given zero binding undertakings. “You will not be missed” was less of a threat and more of a feel-good corporate platitude, as meaningful in real terms as every major corporation’s tiresome 30-day-only rainbow paint job each and every time Pride Month rolls around.

We need diverse oppressors

When not laundering fascist ideology to 8 year old children or providing a safe space for their friends in the United States Army to recruit fresh meat for the grinder, Games Workshop is busy trying to figure out ways to better market their unrepresentative, undiverse products to a gaming public who are openly demanding representation and diversity. Forced by changing social norms to tinker around the edges, the company has received plaudits in recent years for taking steps towards greater inclusivity. However one area where Games Workshop has staunchly refused to give any ground is the deeply controversial idea of female Space Marines.

The idea wasn’t always controversial however, at least with Games Workshop’s designers and sculptors of the 1980’s who were at the time encouraged to create all sorts of wacky things, many of which were a lot weirder than “a woman in power armour”. But the British wargaming public of the era did not agree, according to long-time and very senior Games Workshop employee Allan Merrett, who explained in an ‘Oldhammer’ Facebook group that “retailers kept complaining to us that customers weren’t buying the female models and we could not include any in their restocks.”

“Citadel customers at the time made it clear to us they weren’t interested in buying female models (…) we’d knew if every marine blister had a female model as one of the 3 Marines that folk would complain. So we didn’t make any female ones except for the occasional ones that pop up from time to time. All the background fluff about why there are only male Marines is there to justify a commercial logistics issue.”

Rick Priestley himself was the one to pen that very same ‘background fluff’ Merrett mentions, authoring the now-infamous White Dwarf magazine article Rites of Initiation: The Creation of a Space Marine, (reprinted again online in 2016). In the piece, Priestley details the imaginary process which turns a normal human being into a mind-controlled super-fascist, including the seemingly throwaway trivia that “(…) only a small proportion of people can become Space Marines,” and “they must be male because zygotes are keyed to male hormones and tissue types, hence the need for tissue compatibility tests and psychological screening.”

We can only speculate on why Priestley, perhaps at the direct instruction of Games Workshop management, included this information: the company was almost certainly attempting to head off criticism of an increasingly glaring failing; trying to invent a “plausible” in-world explanation which they could wheel out if someone new to the hobby asked why something that was completely imaginary had made the decision to be so discriminatory.

If that was the objective, it failed. The debate around female Space Marines has raged ceaselessly for the last 20 years and shows no signs of stopping, with Games Workshop stoking the fire once more in 2022 by including this line of completely fictional bio-nonsense again in the Horus Heresy — Age of Darkness rulebook: “The process by which Space Marines are created relies inherently on the hormonal and biological make-up of the human male, meaning that only males can be subjected to the transformation.”

As a “scientific explanation” devoid of any context, this is (and always has been) total horseshit which would fall apart even under the confused questioning of a toddler. But in the political climate of the year 2022, sentences like “the hormonal and biological make-up of the human male” — especially coming from a UK publication - are very easy to read as transphobic dog-whistling, and act to reinforce the appeal of the setting in the eyes of the sort of neo-Nazi bigots who are responsible for the skyrocketing increases in hate crimes against transgender people.

The company refuses to comment on this, despite the constant activity the issue generates online, because frankly, what would they say? Their position is utterly indefensible, and Games Workshop knows it. There are no remotely tenable reasons to refuse to add female Space Marines other than it would be too difficult for them to explain why they haven’t done it already at some point in the last 20 years, and the vocal backlash from the worst elements of the community — whether they be dormant reactionary nerds or active swastika-wearing fascists — would require them to do the thing they hate the most: picking a side. 

Writing in the SFRA Review, critic Jordan Etherington noted that “they (Space Marines) are meant to signal that the Warhammer universe is still a hegemonically masculine space. Attempting to criticize them may be interpreted as a criticism of masculinity itself by male consumers, risking pushback from the consumers who rigidly identify with hegemonic masculine ideals.” Far safer instead, and more profitable, for Games Workshop to have it both ways: placate the reactionaries by keeping Space Marines as exclusively hypermasculine heroes who are central to the setting, and placate the progressives by making some of them Black (but never, under any circumstances, gay).

Bizarrely, Games Workshop dug itself only deeper into this hole in 2017 when the company chose not to use the unrivalled, perfect opportunity offered by the launch of the Primaris Marine range to put the Female Space Marines issue to bed once and for all. The new and shiny Primaris Marines arrived as part of the Gathering Storm event, accompanied by the Dark Imperium series of books, both of which lay out in exhausting detail over hundreds of pages how the fiendishly intelligent Archmagos Belisarius Cawl has completely reinvented the Space Marine creation process from the ground up, making them bigger, stronger, faster and more resilient, while eliminating all leftover genetic flaws from the Emperor’s original design. 

Unfortunately despite having unlimited resources and literally 10,000 in-world years to figure it out, the hyper-intelligent Archmagos somehow just could not crack the case on turning women into Space Marines — a nice bit of narrative nonsense which conveniently allowed Games Workshop to avoid having to actually make good on any of its loud-and-proud diversity promises. Sorry folks, no offence intended — it’s just biology!

Although women apparently “cannot” be Space Marines, Games Workshop is keen to attract women to the hobby nonetheless by reminding us that the world of Warhammer 40,000 is full of other, non-Astartes women. The launch of Ninth Edition in 2019 came with a brand-new CGI trailer that featured lovely detailed renders of all of the Space Marine and Necron miniatures you will receive in the core box set — a standard strategy for a company trying to sell toys, and nothing unusual. But in what was (relatively speaking) an unprecedented nod to feminism, the company elected to show the all-women Sisters of Battle faction in the same trailer fighting alongside the Space Marines as equals, including a particularly cringeworthy final scene where a Marine and a Sister fight their way back-to-back and then rush side-by-side at the camera together as one. 

Foregrounding the Adepta Sororitas in this way — despite the fact their miniatures weren’t actually even available for purchase in the boxed set which the video was promoting — gives the decidedly false impression that “genetically engineered, immortal super-soldier men” and “completely normal human women” are somehow ‘separate but equal’ in the lore (they aren’t) or that women of any kind play a big part in the lore of Warhammer 40,000 at all (they don’t), allowing Games Workshop to continue to pay lip service to progressive politics while avoiding having to make any real changes.

Diversity of race and ethnicity was something else that Warhammer 40,000 has been in need of for a long time, and fortunately for Games Workshop ticking this box was as easy as a new coat of paint. Throughout the game’s Second, Third and Fourth Editions, Games Workshop’s official policy was that the Salamanders Space Marine chapter was made up almost exclusively of Black people while every other chapter was depicted as almost exclusively Caucasian. Needless to say this kind of approach wasn’t exactly sustainable and in Fifth Edition the Salamanders were changed from having Black human skin tones to “inhuman jet-black skin and burning red eyes”9, which was perhaps intended to be less racist but still raised a few eyebrows.

Advances in Citadel painting technology have allowed the ‘Eavy Metal team to break out the darker skin tones for widespread use across the Imperium’s model range: Black Space Marines, Black Sisters of Battle and Black Imperial Guard soldiers now show up regularly in official publications (although the elven Eldar remain steadfastly white, presumably because Games Workshop doesn’t want to open that can of screaming reactionary worms just yet). The other exception to the “Space Marines are canonically white guys” rule is the White Scars chapter, who are yet to receive a similar progressive makeover and continue to be depicted, for some reason, as exclusively Mongolians In Space. 

Yet this increased diversity in the representation of the Imperium’s heroes such as Space Marines (mass-murdering hypno-indoctrinated super-soldiers) or Sisters of Battle (hyper-religious genocidal xenophobes) — locks Games Workshop into a fundamentally unsolvable paradox: If Warhammer 40,000 genuinely is satire as the company claims, then the very idea of celebrating Fascists Of Colour is clearly demented and perverse. But if Warhammer 40,000 is not satire — then just what kind of message is the company trying to send by making its fascist oppressors more appealing?

Profitable is the mind too small for doubt

The tragedy of Games Workshop’s slide from cheeky bants to corporate blandishment provides a darkly appropriate mirror to the tragedy of the Imperium of Man, as outlined across the almost 200 books of the Horus Heresy and Siege of Terra series, in just how far things have been allowed to fall. 

Once dreamed of as a galactic empire built on scientific understanding and secular thought, the millennia following the Emperor’s death instead saw a slow decay into mysticism, madness and theocratic fascism, with entire planets given over to religious worship of the now-God-Emperor’s corpse, and any attempt at scientific advancement punishable by death. At the top of this rotting pile perch the High Lords of Terra, who maintain the Imperial Creed in His name through iron-fisted control and the enthusiastic application of genocide. They select only the most loyal recruits to rise through the ranks of the power structure, resulting in iterative, stagnant dilution and a violent aversion to outside threats — a blind adherence to dogma and a refusal to confront the reality of what they have become condemning them to a grim future indeed.

After nearly 40 years of trying to steer their flagship Warhammer 40,000 battle-barge towards Profitus Maxima, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Games Workshop has fallen into the same downward spiral of ideological rot. Each new edition of the game feels increasingly recursive and more corporate than the one before, with all nuance carefully buffed out in order to deliver the most bombastic, shallow ‘grimdark’ caricatures possible. Challenging ideas and radical thought are strongly discouraged, with dissenters purged from their employment, and corporate gags slapped over the mouths of those who would speak out against oppression and tyranny. Indeed, so thoroughly dead is the idea of Warhammer 40,000 as “satire” that the completely fictional in-universe timeline itself is not safe, with entire books being rewritten and republished in order to ensure a bulletproof internal chronology of a setting which its creator cautioned that we “should not take too seriously”. 

None of this is, of course, to say that playing Warhammer 40,000, or enjoying a Black Library bolter-porn novel, makes you, personally, a fascist. Many of us feel so powerless to make any real difference in the direction of society now, that we’ve instead internalised ‘liking a product’ or ‘not liking a product’ as the only real political or moral choice that anyone can make, and therefore we naturally fear that enjoying a ‘bad product’ automatically makes us a ‘bad person’. It doesn’t, and the sort of discourse that comes out of thinking that way is more psychically damaging than any kind of mid-Warp-travel Geller field failure.

But when a large corporation which openly markets some actually pretty fascist stuff, and a lot of it to children, tries to laugh off any criticism of its actions as just “satire” — when literal neo-Nazis are showing up at tournaments and textbook transphobic talking points are showing up in official publications — we as the people who consume that media have a responsibility to have an honest conversation about why exactly that is, and not to shy away from the difficult questions that may raise.

As Games Workshop expands its reach into transmedia opportunities, such as its own Warhammer Plus streaming service and a recently-announced partnership with Amazon Prime for a Warhammer 40,000 TV series, the drive to continue boiling the setting down into a simple sludge of Gritty Tacticool Violence With Fashy Overtones is unlikely to slow down any time soon. It is difficult to imagine Amazon greenlighting a 40K TV series where Imperial citizens realise they are labouring under a nightmare fascist regime and organise to hold democratic elections, or where peaceful negotiations with an alien race solve problems to the mutual benefit of both parties, or heaven forbid, a band of highly principled Inquisition agents shut down a manufactorum because the rate of worker deaths are too high.

Instead, we will get what we have been conditioned to demand: lip service paid to “everything being bad”, powerful individuals solving problems through the use of slick, gritty sci-fi violence in order to defend against impurity and corruption, all expressed with the regulation amount of blood and gore required to qualify as Prestige Television in a post-Game of Thrones media landscape — and we will point at the screen in excitement when we see a miniature we recognise come to life and say “I’ve got that one! I’ve got one of those!”.

And somewhere nearby, maybe a lot closer than we’re comfortable admitting to ourselves, a bloke with a swastika tattoo will be doing exactly the same thing.


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