Why Warhammer 40K Makes Me Unhappy

Today, the social media channels are abuzz with the ongoing story that Games Workshop got the e-book of M.C.A. Hogarth’s “Spots the Space Marine” pulled from Amazon on the dubious grounds that no one else is allowed to use “Space Marine” in an e-book. They may or may not have the law on their side – most folks suspect not – but it remains a dirty, unethical, and ridiculous thing to do either way. It’s costing Hogarth real money, and one notes that they didn’t go after any well-established, well-funded estate or media organization that’s featured space marines in e-books since such were invented. Also, this event exposes flaws in Amazon’s due process which concern many an independent writer.

But that’s my problem with Games Workshop in general. Why am I down on Warhammer 40K specifically? Well, I’m glad you asked that. (Of course you did, don’t you remember?) Let me fire off a few disclaimers right at the beginning: I have never had the chance to actually play the game and would love to give it a try if it could be done without supporting GW. And if you love the game and have been playing for years, this isn’t an attack on you. Having fun? That’s *excellent*.

My tabletop battle experience is primarily through FASA and its descendants. I had seen Battletech materials in my game stores, thought it gauche that they were using Macross and Dougram mech designs, and given it little more thought before getting caught in a blizzard one weekend and giving it a fair try. I fell in love with the game, still play when I can, and even enjoy the click-base version as an entirely different game in the same setting.

But I’d seen lots of 40K stuff in the stores too, all of it illustrated by photos of Games Workshop’s brilliant modelmaking and paintwork. Of course I was curious! And I knew a gamer or two who loved it, though none of them happened to game with me. Finally, I learned enough to discover how many figures a player uses for a basic game, and checked on the price.

Ye gods. I may never be able to afford this game, not with all the other hobbies in which i dabble. But you know, whatever. I’ve certainly spent plenty of cash on figures in my decades of Battletech, and it seems like there must be workarounds for a lot of these issues. Maybe you have friends who will loan you figures, or allow paper markers, or whatever. It’s not my core problem with the game.

No, my core problem is the setting. Now, all miniature battle games must be somewhat dystopian. It’s war, after all, and peace can’t ever break out in the world of a minis game because then there are no more games to be played. No, my problem with Warhammer 40K is how happy the game is about being dystopian. Death, and blood, and prejudice, and sexism, and poverty, and hunger, and mutilation, and general hopelessness are all AWESOME in 40K. We need more! Pain and cruelty and injustice and ruin are all COOL. Everything needs more skulls, and more spikes, and more filth, and more gore because this is DARKNESS and WAR!

Honestly, after an hour or so of reading fictional material about this universe, I want to throw up. I suppose the target audience is the young who know that *they* are immortal and invulnerable as the young so often do, but this is a setting where it’s explicitly said that humanity can only survive by degenerating into animals. I suppose that’s supposed to be a win. Perhaps it’s the dream of the original creators of the game: I can’t say.

“So, then, how can you enjoy a game like Battletech,” you may ask, and the answer’s simple. I never treat the game as a reflection of a real wartime scenario, it’s chess with unusually complex rules. On that level, I expect I could enjoy 40K as well. I had to stop reading the Battletech fiction because of the endless meat-grinder, but I do remember this: there is little racism or sexism in the Battletech game. Plenty of people live happy lives on hundreds of planets without getting shot at. All the factions in the game believe in some form of relatively workable justice system, and the majority of them believe that their efforts bring a day closer when the fighting will stop.

It won’t, of course. There are more games to sell. But at least destruction is not in itself a worthy goal in that fictional universe. I wish more people in the fiction of Warhammer 40,000 felt that way. I wish the folks at Games Workshop felt that way.

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  • Robert Liguori says:

    One issue with WH40K’s fluff, I think, was that it was originially designed to be a black, grim parody, drawing heavy inspiration from the Judge Dredd books and other similar sources. The idea, I gather, was to say “Alright, there are people going on about how tolerance and liberal-mindedness and rationality are all weaknesses and we must devote ourselves entirely to the eradication of [Insert Cause Here], lest darkness take us all.

    What would the world look like if they were right?”

    The idea, basically, was to say “Look, if you lot were right, then people calling for religious tolerance would literally be the forces of Chaos, and if you lot had the courage of your convictions you would literally be this gung-ho constipated marine with ludicrous shoulderpads shooting at us with a suspiciously large-bore gun. Obviously, that’s a ridiculous characterization. So what does that say about your premises, that if logically extended they lead to such?”

    The problem, of course, is that no matter how heavily you fortify your satirical position, reality almost always overtakes it. A lot of people did like the WH40K setting because of its “Atrocity, ho!” position, and liked that in the universe presented, you could engage in all sorts of fascist oppression and be correct in doing so. There are a lot of other reasons to like the WH40K setting, such as its extreme scope, its unapologetically ludicrous and awesome style (Cathedral-battleships!! Cathedreal-mecha!!! Cathedral-mecha inside cathedreal-battleships!!!!!), but there is a lot of GrimDarkness you need to accept in order to get to it, plus the wonderful perpetual argument about female space marines and other bits of GrimStupid from the fandom.

    As a fan of the setting, I agree that there is a whole lot not to like about it. I think there’s a lot of interest there, but good doesn’t outweigh bad; you need to accept the bad in order to enjoy the good, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with choosing not to do so and moving onto another setting.

    Also, what are your thoughts on a My Little Pony miniatures wargame?

    • Mikhail says:

      You know, I can see how it could have originally been intended as parody, and perhaps that just got a little lost over the years. And I won’t deny that there are certain elements which are fun – for instance, the fact that because of some weird psychic resonance, Ork vehicles literally go faster once painted red. And again, the game as a game looks like much fun. I just need to stay away from the fiction as much as possible.

      As for the MLP war-game, I can completely picture it, perhaps as a food fight started by Pinkie Pie or simply the Ponyville version of Lazer Tag. If the rules were fun and interesting, I’d play it.

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