Is Warhammer 40k Fascist, Racist, and Misogynist?
Updated: 5 days ago
Recent Twitter discourse has picked the scab off this sore--or, should I say, that recent Twitter discourse has come to my attention. Plenty marginalized wargamers have never had scabs form over their wounds.
The question is: Is Warhammer misogynist, fascist, racist, and homophobic? The answer is "Yes in some places, and no in increasingly more."
It is the opinion of this writer that the era of a toxic Warhammer fandom (and when I say Warhammer, I'm referring mainly to Warhammer 40k; Age of Sigmar doesn't seem to be nearly as exclusionary) is at a breaking point. Yes, there is a ton of toxicity floating around the Warhammer fandom, but there are more people willing to stand up against it as well.
The problem, as I see it, is that this is purely a grassroots movement. Yes, Games Workshop put out their famous (or infamous) letter in 2020 about inclusion, but what has really happened on the ground?
Let's start with the basics:
Is Warhammer 40k Fascist?
The sticking point that I seem to see most often in regards to this issue is that there are people who somehow see the Imperium of Man, the Space Marines, the Primarchs, and even the Emperor as "the good guys" and the Xenos and Chaos as "the bad guys".
But: everyone in Warhammer 40k is bad. It is a built-in mechanic of the game. Anyone can fight anyone else for any reason because, in the grim dark future of the 41st millennium, there is only war. For Games Workshop to create a sci-fi world in which everyone was always fighting with everyone, there could be no set good or bad.
Furthermore, it has been stated by the early Games Workshop designers themselves that Warhammer 40k was written as political satire. It's not something to aspire to. The Space Marines are bad. The Primarchs are bad. Even the most religious and faithful, the Sisters of Battle, are pretty frigging bad.
Let's look at The Great Crusade. Before the Horus Heresy, many of the legions of Space Marines were actively doing terrible things in the name of the Emperor. and by "terrible things" I mean genocide and destroying entire planets. And this was, ostensibly, before the Space Marines turned traitor and before the Emperor was worshipped as God Emperor.
In this VoxCast, published by Games Workshop and interviewing game developer Anuj Malhotra, he--a Warhammer developer--comes right out and says it:
"I think what's really unique about Warhammer 40,000 is that grim, grinding darkness. There is nobody that is good. And there are certain people who are deluded, within the background, to think that they're the good guys, particularly the Space Marines chapters...and each of them has a storied history that tells them that they're fighting back the powers of darkness, they're fighting Xenos. But when you look at it they're actually a fairly awful, fascist totalitarian regime that's purging anything that isn't them."
The Horus Heresy stands as the most heroic and "good" place for the loyalists, but even there they were doing some pretty awful things. The Emperor is no delicate flower. It was the Emperor's mandates to Magnus that forced him to switch from loyalist to traitor. It was the Emperor's secrecy and distrust of the Primarchs that made Horus resentful.
And it is the Emperor of Man who has 1000 psykers sacrificed to him every single day to perpetuate the machine wherewith he allows for his Space Marines to travel the galaxy and get into wars. In the 10,000 years he has sat on that Golden Throne he has sacrified 3.65 billion psyker souls.
And people say that this game isn't fascist.
But Warhammer is Only a Game!
Warhammer is only a game, and it's okay to play games where there are a lot of bad characters. One of my favorite TV shows is Breaking Bad, where the two main characters (and many, many side characters), are slowly devolving from decent people into the worst drug lord murderers. But the difference is that Walter White is never portrayed as a hero. Sometimes we root for him because he's going up against people who are worse, but he is an absolutely despicable human being. He even kills innocents (let alone everyone whose lives he ruins by making and selling cyrstal meth).
So yes, Warhammer is only a game. And I absolutely concede that it's okay to take one or more of these sci-fi armies and make it YOUR army, who you root for and encourage and champion. That's fine.
The problem is where your existence of "living in the game" stays with you once you leave the tabletop. It's 100% justified to have your Chaos Space Marines absolutely destroy some Imperial Guard. The difference is when you allow for the ruinous thinking of "us vs. them" to get stuck in your pocket when you leave the gaming club, to let it fester, and to become the living embodiment (usually online) of what it means to be a fascist and homicidal bad guy.
Are there examples? Yes, more than I can count. I actually left Warhammer 40k entirely sometime in the early 2010s because I couldn't stand the online fandom. I couldn't stand the fact that there were "safe" Facebook groups (which still are only kinda safe) and "Warhammer 40k For Grown Ups" groups where "grown up" seems to mean that you're free to spew whatever hate-filled toxicity comes to mind. Because that's what grown ups do.
As a counterpoint, in a Vice article, infamous 40k YouTuber Arch was quoted as saying:
“If you are the most extreme tankie, or even the most extreme fascist, if you simply want to play a game of 40k, not talk about your politics, simply collect the miniatures – I do not view that as Games Workshop’s duty to stop it,” he says. “I view that as the rest of society’s duty to debate against these people and to prevent them via public discourse, and the public opinion.”
The problem that I see with this idea is that Warhammer is not just a game. Warhammer is a lifestyle. The nature of wargaming means that you spend your time reading the lore, painting the models, and playing the game with other people. When we are so immersed in a hobby--even though, yes, it's just a hobby--it can become all-encompassing. I would argue that in Arch's case--someone who, it appears, makes his living because of Warhammer, it is very hard to separate "normal life" from "24-hour internet presence".
And there will always be the people who say that Warhammer isn't fascist, but a parody of fascism. But, as The Mary Sue pointed out, "That’s the basis of Poe’s Law: Without a blatant display of comedy, it is impossible to create a parody of extremism or fundamentalism that someone won’t mistake for the real thing."
Is Warhammer 40k Misogynistic?
This one isn't written into the game nearly as much as fascism is a key component of the world building, but there are several examples of women not getting their due in Warhammer.
I'm a member of the Warhammer Sisters of Battle Facebook page, and there are routinely fan art pictures which seem to be nothing but "sexy lady in seductive pose, wearing form-fitting power armor." This is portrayed in the official art and portrayed in the models, too.
But what about the male characters? Aren't big muscular men sexualized? Uh, not really. Not to the same extent. For starters, there's a difference between a Space Marines cod piece and a Adepta Astartes boob armor.
But aren't female power characters empowering to women? Sure! The thing is, there are a lot of ways to make empowering characters that don't involve them being sex objects.
This kind of thing is tokenism, and it's the fault of both Games Workshop and fans.
Games Workshop is taking strides in regards to this. The newly released sprue of Caidans has female heads to put on your Imperial Guard, which is a step in the right direction, and no one can fault them for putting out a really terrific Sisters line. But what other females are there in 40k? You've got a lot of sadistic and sexualized Drukhari who capture slaves for hedonistic torture. You've got Slaanesh, who are androgynous. You've got a few leaders sprinkled here and there in the Genestealer Cults and the Aeldari. And maybe some of the Tyranids are technically mothers.
Women who want to play Warhammer 40k are entering a man's world, designed by men and run by men.
And the fandom is absolutely resistant to change. There has long been the call for female Space Marines--WHICH GAMES WORKSHOP COULD RETCON SO INCREDIBLY EASILY--and yet the fans talk about how it would ruin the lore, as if the lore actually was one thing that was pure canon and didn't contradict itself at will. On this website we talk a lot about lore, and the one thing I learned is that one person's fact is another person's opinion is another person's head canon is another person's overlooked nonsense.
If Warhammer 40k can suddenly spring Primaris on us, hand-waving the lore to explain how we got super soldiers who were even more super than before, then I think it's safe to say that they could EASILY explain female Space Marines.
And then there's Twitter. If you haven't been in the Twitter Warhammer circles then you probably aren't aware of the #Wokehammer hashtag which has been popping up by people who are making the outrageous claim that maybe people ought to be nice to each other, and it has been met with enormous resistance. There has been verbal abuse, threats, harassment, and it has been unrelenting.
And sure, Twitter is a mess and trolls are going to troll. But I have watched this for weeks now, spreading into months, and it is awful.
Which leads into the last question:
Is Warhammer 40k Racist?
This is a harder thing to wrap your head around. One Twitter user (who also happens to be an LBGTQ female, which I'm sure had NOTHING to do with it) said that she felt a little uncomfortable with using "Greenskins" as a slur. And she got piled on to the point where she had to lock her account.
And the arguments against her were simple: Warhammer 40k is a terrible world where everyone is bad guys, and if Orks were raiding your world maybe you'd use a racial slur like "greenskins" to refer to them, too.
It's a good point, and a bad point. It's a good point that, in the lore, Space Marines and Imperial Guard would denigrate the "greenskins". But the question is: are we LARPing? At what point does in-game racist attitudes justify out-of-game racist attitudes.
But, you say, they're MONSTERS. They're ALIENS. This isn't real. Sure it's not real. But it's a derogatory slur that is based on a race's skin color. To imply that this exists in a vacuum is to stick our head in the sand.
And this is to say nothing about the real issue, which is that virtually all Imperium models (with the exception of the new Cadian sprues) are white. All Space Marines are white (except Salamanders, but they're not ethnically black, they're volcanically black). All Sisters are white. The Emperor is white.
But look at the lore (because the these people love to look at the lore). We have a long history of Abhumans. Squats were Abhumans, as were Ratlings and Ogryns. They are justified in the lore that they lived on inhospitable worlds that made them evolve in different ways over the last 40,000 years. Why, if a typical human can evolve into a Squat, can we not have other races on the literal millions of Imperium worlds across the galaxy?
It's fine for Games Workshop to have goals that state "we are committed to doing better" but until they start offering models that stand behind that commitment, then what good are they?
Because don't forget: Games Workshop said that "We will never accept or condone any form of prejudice, hatred, or abuse in our company or in the Warhammer hobby. We will continue to diversify the cast of characters..."
And they have done so in other areas. The new Stormcast Eternals are a great example: they have 'Eavy Metal-painted Stormcast who are black with cornrows. They even made the leader of the entire Stormcast a black man. (And there are plenty of women, black and white.) So they've shown that it's possible. I don't know why--especially when so many of these same people refer to Stormcast as "Sigmarines" why the Space Marines can't take a page from the Stormcast and start to diversify their characters, as they promised to do.
But What's the Real Issue?
So far we've touched on the real issue and danced around it by setting up all of this backstory about the models and the lore, but what is the real issue?
The real issue is that Warhammer 40k fandom, speaking generally and not about everyone, often remains hostile to women, minorities, LGBTQ+, and the disabled.
I am not a minority, a woman, or part of the LGTQ+ community, but I am disabled, and I have personally felt the criticism that exists. It's why I left Warhammer for about five years while I was getting more comfortable within my own changed body. I have a wonderful FLGS who knows me and we all get along wonderfully, for which I'm grateful (I have been in the store at least once a week for the past three years and am considered a regular.) But at the same time I hear the way that people in the online community talk about the disabled.
And I think the disabled have it easy in this community, because my disability is invisible if you don't know about it. But it has made me hyper-sensitive to the endless abuse that has been targeted against other marginalized content creators.
Again, trolls are going to troll, and there will never be a world in which they don't. The problem is when some of the biggest Warhammer 40k trolls in the community have platforms with hundreds of thousands of followers. That's disturbing.
The good news is that Games-Workshop.com gets 3.9 million organic visitors per month, and so 200,000 is only a fraction of that. I sincerely hope that these trolls will be overwhelmed by the outpouring of goodwill in the Warhammer community for marginalized voices.
Many people do not like the harshness of Games Workshop's statement that if you do not agree with their views on prejudice, hatred and abuse in the community, "you will not be missed". I know some people think that is not the way to win hearts and minds. I disagree. I believe that these hearts and minds need to be rooted out and expunged. They need to feel as uncomfortable in this hobby as they make the marginalized feel, and they need to self-select their way out of Warhammer for good.
I am encouraged by groups like No More Damsels, a London based charity whose mission statement includes "Have you ever looked around an RPG night and thought “Gosh, there’s not a lot of people like me in here”? Because we have, and that’s why we’ve created No More Damsels. NMD is a charity which wants to improve the gender balance of the London RPG and Wargaming scene."
I don't pretend that the Warhammer 40k is going to change because of a single hashtag or an article or an argument. I honestly wonder if the change will need be generational. I think there is definitely a lot more that Games Workshop can do to live up to their statement about diversity.
We need to be willing to stand up for each other. To take the hit for someone when they're already bleeding. If this is a hobby we care about--and you probably wouldn't have read this far if it wasn't--then we should do everything we can to be as inclusive as possible. It will only be good for all of us.