In early 2020, as people around the world found themselves locked down during the COVID-19 pandemic, many of them discovered new hobbies, like making bread or decorating an island in Animal Crossing.
I, however, reconnected with an old one: painting tiny figurines for tabletop war games.
As a teenager, I was obsessed with Warhammer 40,000, known to fans simply as 40K. It’s a British tabletop game with a dystopian science-fiction setting of unimaginable proportions. In the 41st millennium, humans have colonized millions of worlds across the galaxy — but they are on the brink of extinction, threatened by aliens and psychic demons.
In this setting, players take the role of battlefield commanders by controlling armies of miniatures scarcely smaller than a thumb. These armies battle it out on a tabletop decorated with scenic terrain, from verdant forests to deserted space freighters.
A single game of 40K involves dozens to hundreds of miniatures, as well as stacks of rulebooks, tape measures and lots of dice. Back in the ‘90s, this was a safe haven for an Asian nerd like me, compared to the halls of my high school, which was drenched in jock culture.
What set Warhammer apart from most other board games at the time is that players assemble and paint the miniatures themselves, turning the game into an elaborate art project as well.
I would carefully paint 28-millimetre-tall Space Marine figures one at a time, eventually bringing a small army of them to the local comic book store to play the game with like-minded friends.
The pandemic felt like the perfect time to dust off my paint pots and brushes and flex my artistic muscles again. As all stores were locked down, playing a game with others in person was out of the question — yet the painting alone was a mental balm in the first half of 2020.
But as I immersed myself in this hobby again, catching up with the latest new models and epic stories, I began to realize that parts of the Warhammer community had splintered off and organized themselves along bitter political divides, much like other parts of the world had done.
A statement last summer in support of the Black Lives Matter movement by the company behind the Warhammer games and universe was met with sharp blowback from those who accused the company of playing “woke” politics. But the temperature of the discourse has been heating up for at least a few years.
Over time, references to 40K characters and lore have been appearing in communities associated with far-right politics or white supremacists. This hobby felt like a safe space for a teenage dork like me. But in the years since, a faction of fans more interested in gatekeeping and, sometimes, outright hostile rhetoric, had grown louder and, I feared, more powerful.
Listen to the radio documentary War Games from CBC’s The Doc Project.
Started as British leftist satire
The company that makes 40K, Games Workshop, was founded in Nottingham, England, in 1978 by Ian Livingstone, John Peake and Steve Jackson. The trio started out by selling hand-made sets for board games like backgammon and then became the first importers of a new game taking the United States by storm: Dungeons and Dragons.
In 1979, Games Workshop began producing metal miniatures to use in games like D&D. Soon after, they began developing their own games: Warhammer Fantasy Battles and its sci-fi counterpart, Warhammer 40,000.
Over the years, the Warhammer brand has grown to include dozens of video games, fan-made web series, a book publishing arm and licensed Marvel comic books. But miniatures, and the games to play with them, continue to be the core of the business.
Unbeknownst to 13-year-old me when I discovered 40K, politics were at the heart of the game from the beginning. According to pop culture critic and longtime wargaming fan Ian Williams, the game’s roots were in British political satire, with a decidedly leftist bent.
“These are white punk rockers and heavy metal heads who had a deep distrust of [former U.K. prime minister] Margaret Thatcher and were not keen on the white nationalist undercurrents of British conservatism at the time,” said Williams, a former journalist and PhD student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Games Workshop regularly released new supplemental material to their main rulebooks, containing new narratives and scenarios to play on the tabletop, along with a catalogue of new miniatures you could buy. Williams pointed to a 1986 scenario for Warhammer Fantasy Battles called “McDeath.” It was ostensibly a riff on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, but at its core, it was a satirical take on the U.K. miners strike of 1984.
Warhammer 40K takes that political satire and stretches it to galaxy-wide stakes. Mankind survives as a fascist Imperium, with its leader, the Emperor, worshipped as a god. He’s the commander of legions of superhuman Space Marines. Oh, and he’s been dead for 10,000 years.
As Williams explained it, “He was this super-powerful human who was betrayed by his adopted son and killed. And they keep him kind of half-dead, half-alive in what’s called The Golden Throne. And in order to keep him alive, they ... essentially commit mass human sacrifice to him on a massive scale.”
Williams says that the character is “what’s called a psychic beacon. So that way, the ships of the Imperium know how to navigate the galaxy. So they kind of bounce around with him as a guide.”
Games Workshop, a press-shy company content to make announcements on its corporate site and community blog, did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
Writer Kieron Gillen notes that Warhammer has always been a pastiche of other literary pillars — its elves and dwarfs were originally lifted almost entirely from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and readers of the Dune novels will remember a god-emperor in its own pages.
But Warhammer, and especially 40K, approached the source material and expanded its scale, stakes and violence, while also keeping a tongue-in-cheek tone. Take the Orks, for example, who act more like comedic British football hooligans than J.R.R. Tolkien’s brutish orcs.
Trump as God-Emperor
Around 2016, images of 40K’s Emperor percolated online with his head replaced by that of then-U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump. It went beyond message board jokes. Far-right commentator Milo Yiannopoulous actually referred to Trump as “the God-Emperor” on a popular political YouTube show.
In one of the strangest images I’d ever seen, a massive carnival float of Trump as the Emperor — his sword emblazoned with Twitter’s blue bird logo — towered over jubilant crowds at a 2019 carnival in Viareggio, Italy. The artist said he created it in mockery of Trump, but it still astonished me that an online in-joke had become a building-sized model.
The irony that some Trump fans equated the 45th U.S. president with 40K’s desiccated Emperor isn’t lost on Gillen, author of Marvel Comics’ first Warhammer 40,000 mini-series, Marneus Calgar.
“The point of Warhammer 40K is that the [Emperor] has been reduced to a mummy-like corpse 10,000 years ago, and has been stuck on a throne, immobile, incapable of communicating and basically acting like a glorified lighthouse as he’s fed … psychic souls to keep him alive,” Gillen said.
“That is literally the most horrific image. And if you genuinely think that’s your leader, what on Earth is wrong with you?”
Gillen notes that elements of the far right, especially online, have co-opted an array of pop culture iconography — sometimes against the wishes of their creators — such as Pepe the Frog or the “red pill” scene from the first Matrix movie. Whether it’s a deliberate decontexualization of the original art’s message or a genuine misunderstanding of it can be difficult to ascertain.
“The hall of mirrors of that discourse is very difficult to nail down,” Gillen said.
Gillen, 46, grew up in London much as Games Workshop did, immersed in “hippie London” and the heavy metal culture of the English Midlands, with a large dose of anti-Thatcherism.
As Games Workshop grew into a worldwide brand, the sharp-tongued political satire — steeped in British working class culture — was watered down for newcomers like me.
After the company went public in 1994, Williams explained, the writers found that they could sell more miniatures by presenting the Space Marines as mostly straightforward heroes rather than the conflicted puppets of a fascist empire.
Williams and Gillen believe some fans filled in that lost context with a revisionist’s idea of the Emperor — not as a mockery of fascist leaders, but as a political strongman with religious-saviour undertones. Just the right thing for a small subset of the American right.
Warhammer is for everyone?
As classically “nerdy” media — such as video games, comic books, board games — have become more mainstream, Games Workshop has been slowly adding more women and people of colour to its fiction and miniature lines.
But with these shifts came self-appointed gatekeepers who believed a new wave of female, LGBTQ and non-white fans were encroaching on their territory — even if those demographics were a part of it all along.
Author Toruun Gronbekk has been a part of such communities since she got a Commodore 64 computer at the age of seven. She devoured comic books and military history, and went to “computer parties” with like-minded geeks in Norway. But she would still find herself quizzed on her comic book knowledge by male strangers.
While it’s never pushed her entirely away from the miniatures hobby, she prefers to find smaller pockets of fans she feels comfortable spending time with.
“If I hear that someone is into Warhammer, I’m sure I will most likely enjoy their company. But going down into the shops and not knowing anyone and trying to kind of get acquainted can be extremely terrifying,” said Gronbekk, who now writes several Marvel Comics titles, including the Warhammer 40,000 series starring the Sisters of Battle, the game’s only female-dominated faction.
Those questions about inclusion and gatekeeping came into sharper focus in the summer of 2020, as the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minnesota sparked a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. Many companies pledged their support for racial justice and called out discrimination. So did Games Workshop, with a sharply worded tweet:
“Our fantasy settings are grim and dark, but that is not a reflection of who we are or how we feel the real world should be. We will never accept nor condone any form of prejudice, hatred or abuse in our company or in the Warhammer hobby,” it read in part.
“And if you feel the same way, wherever and whoever you are, we’re glad you are part of the Warhammer community. If not, you will not be missed.”
A small but vocal number of devotees accused the company of stoking flames of division. Games Workshop was accused of pandering to “woke” politics. Some simply responded with: “All Lives Matter.”
Some took specific umbrage to the final line, “you will not be missed.” But it was actually taken from the introduction to the first 40K rulebook, way back in 1987. A Norway-based YouTuber who goes by the alias Arch started an email campaign, urging Games Workshop to keep politics out of the hobby.
Leftist Warhammer communities
After seeing the vitriolic response to the Black Lives Matter statement spread to multiple 40K forums and communities online, I wondered if I would feel comfortable in any of them.
I found part of the answer in Tide of Traitors, an explicitly leftist community of 40K fans and players. Its Facebook page describes it as “an inclusive and left-wing space dedicated to miniature wargaming.”
The group’s founder Jeffrey Charles, who is based in Indiana, told me he created it in 2019 after seeing “a gradual radicalization” of many larger Warhammer communities.
“[It] was a little bit more broad, left-leaning, antifascist kind of Warhammer group that was dedicated [to] avoiding some of the toxicity, especially toxic masculinity, misogyny, racism that’s in there,” said member Brad Thompson.
Thompson is a retired U.S. Army veteran. While deployed in Afghanistan, he played 40K using paper counters with fellow soldiers and players at their base during downtimes.
He said that he “bought into all the [U.S.] propaganda and volunteered to do terrible things in illegal wars,” and that 40K “is an artistic outlet for me to cope.”
Thompson said the game’s “themes also hit me at a deep, visceral level, because it reflects what I saw and did, but to an absurd extreme.”
I was glad to find a corner of the fandom in Tide of Traitors that championed inclusion, diversity and a keen lens on the grim satire of this universe. Some members were more vocal about seeking out and antagonizing players sympathetic to far-right politics. I didn’t want to go to a store and start fights.
Thompson’s thoughts were similar to my own.
“If someone shows up with [an army of miniatures] with SS lightning bolts on the helmets … I’m not going to disrupt everybody in the store by getting into a huge argument with them. But I’m probably also not going to play them,” he said.
Thompson stressed, though, that “the vast, vast majority of the community is just wonderful people who want to play [with] toy soldiers and play games.”
Calling out hate
That refusal to engage with certain players came to a head earlier this month. According to unconfirmed reports, a player attended an independently run Warhammer tournament in Talavera, Spain, wearing clothing with several symbols associated with neo-Nazi groups and white supremacists.
Tournament organizers reportedly disqualified at least one player who refused to compete with the individual because of those symbols. On Nov. 19, Games Workshop released another statement, titled “The Imperium Is Driven by Hate. Warhammer Is Not.”
It did not specifically cite the Talavera incident, but it explicitly outlined that the 40K setting is satirical in nature, and condemned “certain real-world hate groups” for appropriating imagery from the game for their own purposes.
“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 statement read, citing their previous “Warhammer is for Everyone” statement.
“We won’t let you participate. We don’t want your money. We don’t want you in the Warhammer community.”
Given the temperature of the online arguments around Warhammer, its lore and its politics, I wasn’t sure if the hobby could be the safe haven for me today that it was when I was a teenager.
It just so happens that during the pandemic, my old friend Scott Baker was getting back into the hobby, too. We played a game together, with our newly painted Space Marine armies, for the first time in about 15 years. I lost — big time. But I still had a lot of fun.
I’ve also found a handful of online communities with a welcoming membership that can help navigate — and mostly avoid — other groups dominated by gatekeeping jerks.
For now, I’m still spending a lot of time at my painting table. But I feel reassured knowing that even as I carve out my own corner of the 40K galaxy, I don’t feel the need to do it completely alone.
Written by: Jonathan Ore | Copy Editor: Andre Mayer | Photography: Andrew Nguyen | Digital Producer: Althea Manasan | Radio documentary by: Jonathan Ore, Acey Rowe and Alison Cook