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A Blood Angels Terminator Space Marine, his head reduced to a blanched skull but his red armor resplendent, sits upon a gilded throne. Around him the interior of a regal command room in a Gothic spaceship lies in filthy ruins. Behind him a moon arcs over the horizon of a distant planet. Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

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Welcome to Warhammer 40K’s anti-fascist future

Games Workshop has turned a corner after years of silence allowed hate to fester in its community

Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000 setting has a problem with fascist fans. Alt-right partisans have tried to co-opt the hobby, using images of brutal despotism from its dystopian setting to further their cause. In recent years, Games Workshop started to speak out about this problem, and many fans have begun resisting fascist infiltration as well. Some of the extreme right’s most vocal opponents in the hobby include an irreverent group of YouTubers and other online personalities committed to anti-racism and progressive politics.

The alt-right began circulating Warhammer 40,000 memes during the run-up to the 2016 election, welcoming Donald Trump as god-emperor, humanity’s all-powerful ruler. At least some of these reactionaries intended to advocate for the kind of dictatorship featured in the game.

Ian Williams, a game designer and teaching fellow in communication at UNC Chapel Hill, suggests that alt-right fans of Warhammer 40,000 tend to be isolated individuals rather than a mass movement. He suggests that most people sharing these memes were more attached to the imagery rather than to actually playing the game.

Details of a gothic spaceship show grim, dirt, rust, and decay. The paint was originally a pale, Russian green. Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

Nevertheless, some fascists, including Matthew Heimbach, the white nationalist founder of the Traditionalist Worker Party, proved to be deep into the lore. He credited the game’s bleak vision of eternal war as his inspiration for moving away from mainstream conservatism toward a more militant far-right politics.

Fascist trolls occasionally appeared around the hobby in the years after the election, but they stayed mainly in the comments sections of YouTube channels and other online spaces. Games Workshop remained silent on this issue at first, but during the George Floyd protests of June 2020, the company released a statement affirming that everyone is welcome in the Warhammer community and promising “to continue to diversify the cast of characters” portrayed in its games and related media.

This statement did not put the problem to rest. In 2021 a man wearing Nazi symbols and playing under a Hitler-related pseudonym showed up at a tournament in Talavera, Spain, prompting Games Workshop to make another statement condemning hate. According to Games Workshop, the authoritarian society depicted in the setting is “satirical,” an exaggerated “amplification of a tyrannical, genocidal regime” rather than an endorsement of it.

Games Workshop’s messaging represents a new approach for a company that previously kept fans at arm’s length. It did not begin building a strong social media presence until around 2017, and only in the past few years has it adopted the kind of responsive and socially conscious voice that consumers have come to expect from online brands. Games Workshop has continued this trend with its decision to stop selling in Russia following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Details of a gothic spacecraft. The camera zooms in past destroyed pipes, over an ominous red glow, to the bones of the room itself — which is built out of skulls. Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

But according to Aaron Trammell, assistant professor of informatics at UC Irvine, fascism in wargaming is not a new phenomenon, and it will require more than public statements to make the hobby more welcoming and inclusive.

“There has always been a contingent of gamers in the tabletop space that has been suspiciously interested in Nazi and Confederate iconography,” Trammell argues. For example, in the 1970s some wargamers fascinated by Nazi militarism identified themselves using names associated with Hitler’s regime: One gaming club called itself “The Fourth Reich.” At the same time, Trammell observes, wargamers during this period engaged in vigorous debates, with many of its members expressing progressive ideals.

Beasts of the Warp — the maelstrom that defines the galaxy of Warhammer 40,000 — assault a throne room on a gothic warship. Their carapaces are green and filthy, studded with rock-like protrusions. Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

Despite its recent association with the right, Games Workshop’s games from the 1980s adopt a broadly anti-authoritarian if not leftist stance. Zhu, who has written extensively about the politics of games set in the Warhammer 40,000 and Warhammer Fantasy universes, notes that the company frequently poked fun at the right.

An early Games Workshop scenario invites players to side with dwarven characters patterned on the workers in the 1984-1985 U.K. miners’ strike, a labor action that was crushed by conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s government. One orc figurine appearing in White Dwarf #81 (Sept. 1986) even hoists a banner with Thatcher’s face on it.

Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader takes on a similar political bent. The Imperium of Mankind often borrows from 2000 AD’s Judge Dredd comics, a British science fiction satire that mocked Dirty Harry-style tough cops celebrated in much of American popular culture for their excessive vigilante justice.

Looking through the ruined windows of a gothic spacecraft, you can see in the distance two moons rising over the rim of a dark planet. Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

As Zhu says, the early Space Marines were painted as petty tyrants rather than superheroes: “A lot of the artwork emphasizes their dehumanized nature. They’re presented as kind of monstrous, horrible. […] More often than not, they are depicted getting shot by space goblins, or carrying out trivial duties like arresting graffiti writers, or doing obviously bad things like taking slaves.”

Zhu finds other radical political elements in early Warhammer 40,000. For example, the alien Genestealer cultists in the 1980s appeared as limousine-driving industrialists who exploited rural planets in what seemed like a warning about the dangers of capitalist and colonial oppression.

Games Workshop has downplayed these more satirical elements in later decades. Some of this tonal shift was due to personnel changeover, Williams argues, but much of it was driven by the company’s growth. As Games Workshop expanded into overseas markets such as the U.S. in the 1990s, it dropped its working-class critique of British politics along with characters with names like “Obiwan Sherlock Clousseau” in favor of a more corporate style that would translate better for young American gamers.

As the most popular faction in the game, the Space Marines and their allies in the Imperium began to get the good-guy treatment in marketing. Warhammer 40,000 fiction in the Black Library series has been better about emphasizing the morally problematic nature of the Imperium, but advertisements and fluff as well as tie-ins such as video games undermine this by asking players to pledge loyalty to the game’s totalitarian empire.

Williams sees Games Workshop’s Primaris redesign of the Space Marines as reflecting a broader context of creeping authoritarianism. While the old Space Marine lines looked like “bulky space knights,” he says, the new models wear armor influenced by the “tacticool” aesthetic favored by SWAT teams and right-wing paramilitaries.

Games Workshop did not invent the glorification of violence, Williams argues, but it has been shaped by a global culture that glamorizes deadly shows of force.

Once Space Marines were removed from the early edition’s satirical light and promoted as heroic protagonists, they held a great appeal for the far right. Some fans argued that the unquestioning obedience demanded by the Imperium was a necessary response to the alien threats besieging humankind. The despotic god-emperor is the only thing protecting the species in a future where war with other cultures is inevitable. There is no alternative, they say.

But anti-fascist fans suggest otherwise. Popular YouTube channels such as Snipe and Wib and Arbitor Ian have called out fascists while working to make the hobby more inclusive of people from marginalized groups.

These channels tend to take a historical approach to Warhammer 40,000. As Williams observes, this allows them to reconnect the setting with its satirical roots. Regular tours through early game materials provide a reminder that Warhammer 40,000 was initially meant as an attack on xenophobia, toxic masculinity, religious fundamentalism, and militaristic power fantasies.

Focusing on how the setting has changed over the years also preempts some of the arguments that Warhammer 40,000 remains focused on appealing to straight, white, cis men.

For example, according to the game’s current lore all Space Marines are men. Women’s biology, we are told, makes them incompatible with the procedure that turns normal humans into hulking super-soldiers.

As Wib suggests, although this notion “originates from a throwaway line of technobabble from a 1988 article,” it has “long provided an in-universe justification for real-world misogyny” because it has “cemented the idea in a lot of gamers’ minds that women simply aren’t good enough to become them.”

Two automatons step out of the darkness and into the bridge of a gothic spaceship. Their solitary eyes glow, primitive rifles held in their hands. The background is rotting, rusted, and flowing ominously read. Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

Snipe finds the whole debate frustrating: “It is incredibly tedious to me that we can put a man on the moon, but we will spend decades arguing whether women can be fictional superpowered fascists or not.

This controversy has continued with Games Workshop’s recent Horus Heresy: Age of Darkness rulebook facing criticism from fans who object to what they describe as the “trans-exclusionary” language it uses to justify keeping women out of the faction army.

But Games Workshop’s gender politics were never really just about the lore. Arbitor Ian has done a deep dive showing that the decision to make the Space Marines all men derived from logistical problems in the 1980s that the company believed would have resulted in an overproduction of female models. Retailers complained that customers were not buying as many female characters, and the manufacturing process meant that, if Games Workshop included any women in the Space Marines, they would have to put at least one female Space Marine model in every blister pack of three.

Games Workshop wrote all-male Space Marines into the canon based on the perceived demands of its customer base in the 1980s, but that customer base — along with the technology used to make their models — looks very different in the 2020s.

As Arbitor Ian suggests, “Presenting how the lore has changed allows me to refute the main argument of the gatekeepers — that their mythical ‘fixed’ lore shouldn’t be changed to appeal to new people. 40K has always changed to appeal to new people.”

Arbitor Ian has also argued that the 40K universe should be organized around that same sense of historical contingency. The setting seems to represent the Imperium as the only possible way for humankind to survive, but the introduction of another human faction thriving under a different kind of society would go a long way to showing that Space Marine fascism is not a necessary evil, Arbitor Ian maintains.

A tiny dwarf, clad in a spacesuit and carrying a large mace, has clamored onto the bridge of a gothic spaceship. His helmet is closed, yellow, and he stands out against a fetid, rotten, rusted mechanical wall. Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

That’s one of the reasons why many anti-fascist gamers were excited when they found out that Games Workshop was reintroducing Warhammer 40,000’s space dwarves, or squats, as a new faction called the Leagues of Votann.

The Leagues of Votann, also known as Kin, are an interstellar civilization of genetically modified humans who venerate “ancient thinking machines.” This new army is very different from the Imperium, which outlawed artificial intelligence after a robot uprising that took place many years before the start of the game.

Initially, some commentators were concerned about Games Workshop debuting a faction with Norse pagan influences at a moment when white nationalists were claiming Viking spirituality as their own. Nevertheless, Games Workshop has finally shown that the Imperium is not the only way forward for humanity.

Williams also sees promise in the Kin as evidence Games Workshop is “rekindling the satirical spirit” by taking aim at the anxieties of 2022, including our worries about digital technology. Arbitor Ian sees a somewhat different critical edge in the Kin’s Guilds: they are “all-consuming space capitalists” willing to obliterate other factions to make a profit.

Games Workshop is undergoing other positive developments as well, featuring more women and people of color in its products than before.

Beyond challenging the lore, influential figures in the Warhammer community have tried to make other changes to make the hobby more inclusive.

Reflecting on their work, Snipe says, “We have tried to make our own space within [Warhammer] welcoming to those who find the wider community unfriendly. Sometimes this is as simple as putting your pronouns on your name cards, but other times it’s just being more thoughtful about how you talk about things that may not affect you but are very meaningful to others.”

The full scene on the bridge of the gothic spacecraft. Warpbeasts confront the robotic explorers while the dead Space Marine sits in the background, irrelevant and implaccable at the same time. A dark moon rises in the background against ruined, cathedral-like windows. Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

Williams points out that everyday gamers can help by getting more involved in their local gaming community. He believes that fascists thrive on isolation and alienation. Therefore, anything we can do to connect with others — especially people who are different from ourselves — disrupts their recruitment efforts.

Speaking out against hate in the Warhammer community is not always easy. Creators who challenge fascist ideas often receive vicious comments, especially if they do not present as straight, white, cis men. Some have even moved away from the hobby because of this. Moreover, creators report that YouTube algorithms promote channels that present uncontroversial videos with broad appeal, such as painting tutorials. Prominent hobbyists who take a stand may lose potential viewers.