Political/Societal Critique in Table-Top Gaming: or, When did gaming get so political?

Content Warning: this post contains references to genocide, racist stereotypes, murder, violent assault, and derogatory terms used to describe members of certain marginalized communities. This post also contains strong language.

The gaming sphere is an interesting place, with its own little microcosms forming throughout. Table-top Games alone covers several sub-categories like Board Games (BG), Wargames (WG, including the subset of Miniature Wargames (MWG)), Card Games (CG, including Collectible Card Games (CCG)), and Table-top Role-playing Games (TTRPG). These games occupy a liminal space between art and entertainment (not a reference to the Liminal TTRPG published by Modiphius Entertainment). None of them are passive activities. The players actively engage in the playing of the game. Rules may be very structured, as is the case with most conventional board games and card games; or they may be more abstract, as can be observed in certain Table-top Role-playing Games.

Try as people might, many of these games, like a great deal of art and entertainment, contain “political” messaging, at least what we currently refer to as “political”.

Take the classic board game of all board games Monopoly. The original creator, Lizzie Magie, was an anti-monopolist. Her game (The Landlord’s Game, 1906) was supposed to be an educational tool to explain the evils of resource monopolies. It is still in the game today, but most people don’t get that as a player owns more of a property (or utility) section, they charge people more for its usage, eventually forcing all other players into bankruptcy. Ultimately, one person owns all and the game ends. There is no further competition. It is incredibly blatant in its messaging, even after Charles Darrow stole the idea and sold it to Parker Brothers in the 1930s, remodeling the board after streets in Atlantic City, New Jersey (although now you can find local variants renamed after Your Town!).

Considering how many of us have played Monopoly at some point, and probably had a huge argument between family/friends over a game, how did any of us manage to grow up not understanding what the point was of the game? I mean, this game is probably responsible for more damaged relationships than any other in modernity. Shouldn’t we understand by now the reason why? I think it is clear by now that whatever educational message that Lizzie Magie intended, most of us missed the point.

And Monopoly is not alone in this. With many table-top games, the narratives are built into the rules, but the idea of creating a massive “sandbox” narrative space for these games is something of a more recent development. For instance, while Cluedo, 1949 (aka Clue for us uncouth North Americans), tells a mystery story, it is contained to 6 characters, 6 weapons, and 9 rooms. This creates a rather large number of possible solutions to the game (324 combinations to be exact), but it is not really a narrative world, at least not until the 1985 film Clue, which may be the only known board game to make the leap to the silver screen (I could be wrong here, but I am not aware of another, with Jumanji 1995 being based off of a book by Chris Van Allsburg, and Zathura 2005 also being based off of a book by the same author).

TTRPGs would really open the door to establishing a larger “world” than what was necessarily being played out on the table. Most board games were self-contained universes when there was a narrative involved, as in Monopoly, Cluedo/Clue, or The Game of Life. Other games like checkers, backgammon, or poker had no associated narrative, or if they once did, it is effectively now lost. Classic table-top wargaming would sometimes have a narrative element, such as the ever popular recreations in miniature of the Battle of Waterloo. Being well versed in the historic context allowed “players” in these wargames to be more familiar with the forces under their control. The narrative was not exactly what we would consider “open”, in the sense that there are not events occurring outside of the immediate parameters of the game. Fantasy, Sci-Fi, and even Old West and Contemporary setting TTRPGs opened the door for players to delve into wholly constructed narrative settings or alternate history settings where anything could potentially be altered. This differs from wargaming the Battle of Waterloo, because even if the Napoleonic forces were victorious, the game ends and resets. In a TTRPG campaign, the game doesn’t have to “end” with the victory of Napoleon at Waterloo. Events in the narrative can continue beyond that point, if the narrative calls for it.

You got your politics in my game!” or, Ignoring the History of Gaming

I observe this statement a lot these days in gaming spaces, especially in TTRPG-space. (I also observe it frequently in other art/entertainment spheres like comic books and movies). It is ignorant. It is ignorant of the fact that things like “politics”, “ethics”, and “morality” have played a role in table-top game development for ages. Look no further than the introduction of the 9 square dual-axis alignment chart (or 9-grid) in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in 1977. Alignment existed in iterations prior to AD&D, but it didn’t really become the highly familiar 9-grid standard until this edition of the game. In its traditional format the horizontal (X) axis is the “ethical” position while the vertical (Y) axis is the “moral” position of the player character. “Ethical” alignments are Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic; “Moral” positions are Good, Neutral, and Evil. The origin on this chart is Neutral/Neutral, otherwise known as True Neutral. If you do not understand how this element of the game is political, I have a startling revelation for you. Gary Gygax himself used real world figures and political movements as examples of the various alignment combinations, and they were not always what someone might expect:

“Paladins are not stupid, and in general there is no rule of Lawful Good against killing enemies. The old adage about nits making lice applies. Also, as I have often noted, a paladin can freely dispatch prisoners of Evil alignment that have surrendered and renounced that alignment in favor of Lawful Good. They are then sent on to their reward before they can backslide.

An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is by no means anything but Lawful and Good. Prisoners guilty of murder or similar capital crimes can be executed without violating any precept of the alignment. Hanging is likely the usual method of such execution, although it might be beheading, strangulation, etc. A paladin is likely a figure that would be considered a fair judge of criminal conduct.

The Anglo-Saxon punishment for rape and/or murder of a woman was as follows: tearing off of the scalp, cutting off of the ears and nose, blinding, chopping off of the feet and hands, and leaving the criminal beside the road for all bypassers to see. I don’t know if they cauterized the limb stumps or not before doing that. It was said that a woman and child could walk the length and breadth of England without fear of molestation then… 

Chivington might have been quoted as saying “nits make lice,” but he is certainly not the first one to make such an observation as it is an observable fact. If you have read the account of Wooden Leg, a warrior of the Cheyenne tribe that fought against Custer et al., he dispassionately noted killing an enemy squaw for the reason in question.

…  

I am not going to waste my time and yours debating ethics and philosophy. I will state unequivocally that in the alignment system as presented in OAD&D, an eye for an eye is lawful and just, Lawful Good, as misconduct is to be punished under just laws. 

Lawful Neutrality countenances malign laws. Lawful Good does not. 

Mercy is to be displayed for the lawbreaker that does so by accident. Benevolence is for the harmless. Pacifism in the fantasy milieu is for those who would be slaves. They have no place in determining general alignment, albeit justice tempered by mercy is a NG manifestation, whilst well-considered benevolence is generally a mark of Good.

With regard to pacifism, that is aprpos, also with regards to atheism in the FRPG where there are active deities. Only idiocy or mental derangement could explain such absurd beliefs in such a milieu.”

– Gary Gygax 2005, Dragonsfoot Forums (“…” denotes break between posts, signature and salutation lines edited out)

Words right from the “creator”, and if you do not observe a “political” message within those words, I ask that you consider them again. The fact that Gygax quoted John M. Chivington, Methodist pastor, colonel in the U.S. Army, and mass murderer of non-combatant Native Americans, and lumps him in with Lawful Good is problematic to say the least. Gygax made many problematic statements in his life, but this one is the one that you find most frequently popping up. There’s a reason for this. The reason is that in a history of problematic depictions of non-white characters and cultures, this quote lays his views bare. Genocide/mass murder can be done by people and they still remain “good” and “lawful”, so long as they believe themselves to be preventing the spread of a “greater evil”. Which…just…NO. You don’t get to still be the “good guy” when you go around murdering non-combatants, but it definitely illustrates some encounters in older adventure modules where your characters are encouraged to wipe out non-combatant “monsters” so they won’t pose a future threat and not have it shift your alignment towards “Evil”. He goes on to say that if intelligent “humanoids” (goblins, orcs, etc. are considered as such by Gygax, while Elves, Dwarves, and Halflings are “demi-human”) were to surrender, a “Good” aligned character could kill their POWs without jeopardizing their alignment, and not doing so would be “stupid”, while an “Evil” character would just enlist these “humanoid” POWs as their minions.

Now, it would be great if when we used the term “political” we were communicating about levels of taxation, allocation of taxes, infrastructure, and what I would consider to be the more mundane functions of government. That is not the reality of current usage, however. Issues such as should one person have the same rights, protections, and liberties as another person are instead viewed as “political” instead of fundamental issues of human rights, decency, and respect. Through Gygax’s posts, he divided up intelligent and self-aware beings into several categories: Human, Demi-Human, and Humanoid. Keep in mind, all are intelligent and capable of independent thought and action. Only humans, though, are fully actualized and not in some way governed by some sort of programmed biological or genetic determinism. Dwarves gravitated towards Law and Good, while Elves were inclined towards Chaos and Good (Gygax was heavily inspired by both Tolkien and Moorcock, which explains some of these alignment biases). Orcs were originally Neutral in versions prior to AD&D, but were then codified alongside the other Humanoid goblinoids as Evil. Not just inclined towards Evil. Evil from birth. Because in Gygax’s mind, only humans can truly choose their path. Demi-Humans have inclinations one way or the other. Humanoids have no choice. They are how their gods made them.

And if you have ever read any of the writings of proponents of the eugenics movement, you will start to notice some very disturbing similarities. It becomes difficult to overlook the nasty truth about Gygax, and how his own worldview seeped into the game he created, which leads to the cycling every couple of years back to the controversy about Orcs. I think it is clear from Gygax’s reference to what he considers to be the “truth” regarding Chivington’s horrific statement. In case you did not understand, Chivington was not actually talking about lice: He was alluding to Native Americans as pestilent parasitic insects and how even the children should be murdered lest they grow up and become enemy combatants or sources of another generation. In short, Chivington was a believer in genocide against Native Americans. Gygax goes on to say that this is not only “Lawful” but also “Good” as far as he is concerned, because even the Native American known as Wooden Leg talked about killing an “enemy” woman from another Native American tribe. (I have not read Wooden Leg: A Warrior Who Fought Custer by Thomas Baily Marquis, 1931, so I do not know specifically what Gygax was referencing, or why Wooden Leg allegedly killed this woman for, “the reason in question.”)

All of this is political in context, and contained within what many consider to be the progenitor or contemporary TTRPGs.

What is really being communicated when someone complains about politics in gaming is that they are happy with the politics presented in the game as written, or at least the politics that they interpret as being in line with their own, and do not want to see it changed. They want their characters to be able to murder stand-ins for Native Americans or whatever group they consider to be sub-human, and still have those characters get to be the “good guys”. Because they want to think of themselves as the “good guys”. Most people don’t go through life thinking of themselves as the villains, and the creator of the game out-and-out signaling to players in writing that murdering other human beings, including infants and children, is still “Good” and “Lawful” is as blatant a message as you can get. (If it isn’t obvious yet, that message is one of white European “manifest destiny”, aka Colonialism/Imperialism.)

And a large portion of the TTRPG community is not willing to have that conversation.

Then there are times when the intentions are a swing and a miss. In 1987 the British gaming company Games Workshop/Citadel Miniatures (which started out making miniature figures in the U.K. for D&D) launched a sci-fi TTRPG/MWG called Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader (40k) by Rick Priestly, with Bryan Ansell and Richard Halliwell expanding the rules and setting in supplements. According to Priestly, the setting was influenced by Tolkien, Lovecraft, Frank Herbert, John Milton, and the anti-authoritarian “punk” comic book line 2000 AD (if you aren’t familiar, that’s the comic line where Judge Dredd originated). This was during the Thatcher administration in the U.K., which received a great deal of criticism for pushing what opponents saw as an authoritarian police-state. These anti-authoritarian themes, along with themes of cosmic horror, populate the early iterations of 40k. The Imperium of Man is an ultra-authoritarian (some might even say fascist) empire, following an Emperor who may or may not even be alive, fueled by a corrupt priesthood/bureaucracy and zealous xenophobia. The Imperium presents itself as the bulwark against Chaos, but will not think twice about eradicating an entire planet of “xenos” or even humans, because of some arcane concept of genetic purity. In short, the Imperium were not supposed to be viewed as the “good guys” in the setting. Rogue Trader was more designed for the players to take on the actions of a small squad drawn potentially from various corners of the galaxy, some human, some not, trying to survive in between a dystopian fascist empire, Alien xenomorph inspired Tyranids and Genestealers, and the growing tide of Chaos. It was, in short, political. However, something rather unpleasant happened: a lot of the players were not anti-establishment “punks”. They were teenage boys and adult men with disposable income shelling out pounds sterling/dollars to purchase metal and plastic miniatures. The various Space Marine chapters of the Imperium went from highly trained soldiers with cybernetic enhancements to genetically engineered super-soldiers, all with their own flavor of fervent religious zeal towards the Imperium. The Space Marines would be the top-selling and most popular force. The TTRPG elements would be entirely scrapped after Rogue Trader (eventually a 40k TTRPG would be released in 2008 by Black Industries/Fantasy Flight Games, with the majority of the game books focused on players as human agents of the Imperium. The TTRPG would be discontinued from support by Fantasy Flight Games in 2017 after their license was not renewed with Games Workshop). 40k would also spawn a massive amount of novels and short stories (collected under the Black Library imprint).

Even Games Workshop has had to come to terms with the fact that their game universe has been embraced by authoritarian fascists. The ironic/satirical vision of Priestly was paved over by “Space Marines look cool” fash-fanboys with cash to spare. Writers who were trying to illustrate the horrors of an authoritarian high-tech religious state were confronted by an audience who just didn’t see it as a nightmarish vision. They saw these Marines, Inquisitors, and Imperial Guardsmen as being heroes trying to uphold the “purity of Man”. This culminated in the release of a public statement referred to as the “You will not be missed” statement on June 4, 2020:

Alt-text caption. Image reads: Warhammer is for Everyone. One of the great powers of our hobby is its ability to bring people together in common cause, to build bonds and friendships that cross divides. We believe in and support a community united by shared values of mutual kindness and respect. 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. We will continue to diversify the cast of characters we portray through miniatures, art and storytelling so everyone can find representation and heroes they can relate to. 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. (Symbol of Warhammer logo.)

Seems like a pretty straight-forward political message, right? And really, it is one the most clear-cut messages from a big game producer to date. (Wizards of the Coast on the other hand will flat-out ban releases from the DM’s Guild that make clear anti-fascist, anti-capitalist, or other “politically targeted” statements.) The result? A very loud wave of protest from those who refuse to be pushed out of their pro-fash game, complaining about it silencing their political freedoms, which has led Games Workshop to basically go radio silent in response, instead of doubling down and reiterating with follow-up, “We said what we said,” statements.

40k is an example of what happens when political satire/irony fails. Because when it fails, it fails hard. It will still be some time before we find out the monetary impact of Games Workshop’s position, and whether they will follow-up. At the time of this writing, the statement is only about 10 weeks old, and with the global COVID-19 pandemic production, distribution, and sales will have been impacted. What we do know, it that in its 33 years of existence, 40k has managed to attract a fervent fan-base of pro-fascists and white supremacists, to the extent that fans who are in opposition to those platforms have been driven away from the game. We also know that the designers have leaned into those elements, because they move product. This is what I personally refer to in pop-culture as the “Empire Effect”, a reference to the Galactic Empire of Star Wars, also known as the “Evil Is Cool” trope which is the inverse of “Good Is Boring” trope.

This isn’t to say that Games Workshop has not made attempts to counter the Imperium in their own setting. In 2001 a new playable faction would be introduced to 40k: the Tau (later redesignated as T’au). The T’au would be a relatively young faction (only around 6,000 years) and were presented as idealistic and somewhat naive, with an ideology dedicated to service of the “Greater Good”. Some fans responded positively to the new addition, seeing them as a bright point of light in a dark galaxy. The most vocal members of the fan-base branded them as pandering to “political correctness” and alleging that their presence undermined the universe of 40k. The T’au would be rewritten over the years, transforming them from idealists to yet another rigid authoritarian state, willing to use mind-control or genocide against those who do not bend to their unique interpretation of the “Greater Good”. Because of course the fandom couldn’t be presented with playing an option that wouldn’t make the skin of an empathetic person crawl. Clearly the only options available should be one of the Imperium of Man forces, or some other iteration of a blatantly evil or dying civilization. Basically, the loudest (and often most virulent and capable of real-world violence) members of the fandom couldn’t stand for a faction that suggested the possibility of strength through inclusion and diversity that the T’au originally represented. The original version of the T’au presented did not believe in forcible expansion or the destruction of other cultures and species, while understanding that some things stood in opposition to the philosophy of the “Greater Good”. For instance, human worlds would be accepted into the T’au Empire, without those humans having to necessarily give up their own humanity or cultural identity, but adherence to the Imperium of Man’s zealous xenophobia would not be allowed. There’s a whole essay’s worth of analysis regarding the philosophic argument regarding the limits of tolerance in that first published version of the T’au that could be done, but I’m not going to do that here today. What then happened was a shift in presentation of the T’au as willing to turn to mind-control and other nefarious practices to push their agenda (which also feeds into the fears and beliefs of some real-world extremists that “progressives” are willing to use mind-control techniques to corrupt people into believing their SJW/Liberal agenda). The T’au shifted from being an idealistic collectivist group of xenos trying to make their corner of the galaxy a better place, to just being another tainted galactic empire.

I use 40k as a primary example of how, “Keep your politics out of my game,” is actually a battle-cry for, “Keep YOUR politics out of MY game, but allow MY politics to stay in MY game.” Because the politics have always been there, just as much as they have been present in D&D, R. Talsorian’s Cyberpunk, or Paranoia. The politics are there, and have been, no matter how much a certain portion of the fandom wants to howl that it is all some sort of liberal mind-control plot to make people more accepting of those not exactly like them or to…*gasp*…not destroy the habitability of our world through pollution or religious zealotry. Or in the case of Paranoia about how we should be worried about communism…or capitalism…maybe AI…really, just be worried about all of the things, because any sort of extremist viewpoint is going to mess things up in a big way.

The two primary examples I focus on here, D&D and Warhammer 40k, illustrate different ends of political influence and the development of those games. D&D had baked into it a concept sometimes referred to as biological or genetic determinism, the concept that behavior is controlled by a person’s genetics. We see this through the presentation of the non-human intelligent species categories of demi-humans and humanoids. Demi-humans still exert some degree of variance, just with certain moral and ethical tendencies, while humanoids are by their very nature follow a certain moral and ethical nature. Only humans are not bound by this (and let’s face it, the humans presented in these early iterations of the game were almost always white-coded civilizations). 40k on the other hand started out with political commentary of its time also baked in, which was ironic criticism of a singular church and state combined under a zealously xenophobic authoritarian empire that was literally crumbling around it from the weight of corruption and a general inability to understand the weight of their own technological advancements, but you know, with space elves and orks.

Warning: Usage of strong language after this point! Also, Steve is not a reference to any actual individual person. I use it as a place-holder and I apologize to any cool people named Steve that may read this. If you are a Steve, and you are a jerk, I do not apologize.

Both of these extremely popular and profitable games have found themselves at the mercy of assholes who want to control the intellectual property. Those assholes found the former because it was fundamentally made for them with the conquering evil “savages” and looting the holy sites of foreigners themes. Hells, player characters are given incentive in early editions to kill whatever they encounter for treasure and experience points. It is only through such brute force conquest that your characters advance. The latter attracted the very authoritarian/fascist assholes it was critiquing, because of course they were attracted to what was effectively an empire of fucking Space Nazis. Yeah, I know, there’s people who will come in to defend the usage of the Totenkaupf (skull & crossbones) saying that the Wafen-SS weren’t the only ones to use that iconography, insinuating that sci-fi fascists like the Galactic Empire from Star Wars (stormtrooper helmets are designed to look like skulls), the Coalition from Rifts TTRPG, and the Imperium of Man from 40k are not specifically taking up Nazi imagery. Those assholes are wrong! Yeah, I get it, pirates used skull and crossbones designs also. Those three fictional organizations are clearly NOT modeled after the Pirates of the Caribbean! Yeah, I get it, fucking Space Marines with guns that go BOOM! Not all of them are presented as evil. But they serve a genocidal fascist empire. The Imperium of Man are genocidal fascist Space Nazis! The imagery isn’t subtle.

The problem with 40k is that the creators apparently weren’t blunt enough about the Imperium, because I truly believe they just expected people to get that the Imperium are NOT the “good guys”. As a whole, they aren’t even the “neutral guys”. The Imperium reeks of oozing, putrescent, decrepit evil. Now, am I saying only assholes play Imperium? No. No more than Peter Cushing was an asshole for playing Grand Moff Tarkin (everything I’ve ever read about Peter Cushing was that he was a charming and humorous man, who was also an ardent miniature wargamer who painted his own minis). The problem isn’t simply the “Evil Is Cool” trope at play, but that Games Workshop leaned into it for so long that it attracted some of the worst personality types to its game because of the faction that it featured as the protagonists in its setting. Sure, anyone with a critical eye can look at the setting lore and go, “Oh, the Imperium is fucking evil, Steve,” but if Steve is a closet-case or out-in-the-open Nazi, he is going to start quote-texting lore material to back up how the Emperor is all that stands between humanity and destruction at the hands of xenos or Chaos. It shouldn’t even be a question. It shouldn’t even be a position remotely capable of defense. Because if Steve is trying to convince you that the Imperium of Man are the good guys, Steve has some political beliefs that have nothing to do with this miniature wargame hobby. Maybe ask Steve what his thoughts are on women, immigrants (especially those who are not white), or the LGBTQIA+ community are? Maybe ask Steve what he thinks about Black Lives Matter or Antifa?

This is where the Games Workshop “You will not be missed” (see above) statement comes back into play. Maybe it was too little, too late. I hope not, because one day I would like to come back to 40k, because I have over $1,000 invested in minis, and odds are no one is going to want to buy a couple of armies in various stages of assembly and painting. But before I come back to it, yes, the assholes need to be run out of that space. There’s a couple of reasons why the women gamers I know don’t play 40k, and very few non-white gamers I know have either minimal interest or avoid it:

  1. Little to no representation. This has become better in recent years, but traditionally if you wanted to play forces that were women, you were restricted to Eldar (who were somewhat androgynous), Dark Eldar, and Adepta Sororitas. That has been expanding, with women now featured in the ranks of the Imperial Guard, but there is still minimal representation. If you are not white, representation has been minimal since some of the original materials printed in old issues of White Dwarf magazine or in The Citadel Journal. Back in the early days of the hobby, players would submit their modded miniature designs, along with lore to go with them. It was awesome, and there was a greater deal of fan-driven representation, with Asian, Hispanic, and African culturally influenced worlds and even Space Marine chapters. Imperium worlds and Space Marines were often shown more as being bedraggled forces on the frontier just trying to survive in an incredibly hostile galaxy, who may just as easily team up with Eldar and Orks to push back Genestealer cultists and Tyranid hordes instead of fighting them. Now, if you are Black, there’s pretty much just the Salamander Chapter of Space Marines whose Primarch, Vulkan, is depicted as a Black man, and whose gene-seed turns all of his genetic “children” Black as well, no matter what they were prior to being blessed with his gene-seed. (Let’s maybe not go into too much detail on the implications of that bit of lore.) Some sources refer to the White Scars as “asian/Chinese/mongol”, and Dark Angels recruiting from “feral” worlds with Native American connotations (ugh, no, I do not care for that); and
  2. There are a glut of gate-keeping white men who play the game, who make damn sure that anyone who isn’t a (straight) white man doesn’t feel welcome at the table. Honestly, this has been fairly common in TTRPG, MWG, and CCG spaces for years on the player side (not even going to dig into the issues on the development/production side in this post to any significant degree, but that is a huge issue as well). I focus on 40k because every group that I’ve even tried to belong to has at least one out-and-proud fucking Nazi that the rest of the group tolerates. “Well, yeah, Steve’s an asshole, but he also sucks at the game, and everyone feels better when they win against Steve.” The problem is, if you dare try to shut Steve up when he goes off on one of his pro-fash rants (which happens regularly), you get told by the rest of the group to shut up, because Steve dumps a lot of money on the reg, and, “I mean, is he really hurting anyone?” Basically, you get branded the asshole and possibly banned from the group for calling out a dude who is openly misogynistic, racist, and who literally wears Nazi symbols and shit! I’ve played a LOT of games, but 40k is the only game where I have had to deal with literal fucking out-and-proud Nazis on a regular basis!

Maybe I’ve just had horrible luck with the stores I’ve tried to find games in, but online forums and groups on social media sites don’t disabuse me of that notion.

But the push-back to the “You will not be missed” is this:

“You say Warhammer is for everyone, but then you say it isn’t for me, because I believe in the superiority of the Aryan race, and the inferiority of all others, and I see those beliefs echoed in the Imperium of Man. How can you say I am not welcome in Warhammer 40k when you (Games Workshop) literally have my ideology ingrained into your heroic faction! And clearly it isn’t for everyone if you want to gate-keep me out of the game!”

First up, Games Workshop’s statement is pretty clear: their games are meant to be played and enjoyed no matter what the immutable characteristics of their players are, such as ethnicity, national origin, religious viewpoints (or lack thereof), gender identity, etc. However, people make the choice to be fascist assholes. It isn’t like there is a lack of information available on how the Nazi ideology was evil. Being a believer in ethnic cleansing, genetic superiority, and all that shit is a choice. Let me be very clear, it is a very awful choice that by making you decide to invalidate the existence of entire chunks of humanity. There can be no mutual kindness and respect with someone who literally wants to see you dead for being you. Not because of choices you made, but because of who you ARE. And when YOU make the choice to let someone like that sit at your table, you are signaling to those they want to see dead that they are not safe with YOU either.

I singled out the damned Nazis in this post, because that’s what I’ve seen most of in 40k space, most often trying to hide it behind a thin veneer of “Space Wolves and Sigmar are my Germanic/Northern European heritage!” Really though, it also applies to any authoritarian white supremacists, even if they don’t strictly adhere to Nazism. And save me with your, “Well what about the anti-cis-het-white-man gaming groups? I’m not welcome in their safe space!” Yeah, there’s a reason for that. And here’s the thing, as a white cis-het man, I can always find a group. And you know what else? Some of those groups that don’t want your presence have invited me in, and sometimes I’ve accepted, and we’ve all had a lot of fun. Other times I’ve declined, because I knew they were only inviting me to be cool, but really it was going to upset one or more of the members of the group, and someone was nice enough to point it out to my incapable-of-detecting-certain-social-cues-ass. Honestly, I don’t think I would want to play in a group where one or more of the members of that group wanted to literally see me dead, but I’ve only had to deal with that with cis-het-white-man groups. And other times, no, I’m not welcome, and that’s cool too, because people like me have long dominated the public spaces. I don’t take it personally, because I make an effort to think critically about why someone might not feel 100% safe around me, even though I may not have done anything specifically. It is called having empathy, and it isn’t a weakness.

Seriously, I have received death threats from an angered white dude in a gaming group before, and “noped” right the hell out of there because it was clear I was no longer safe or respected. The other members of that group backed their violent “friend” because, “he was going through a rough time.” I never spoke with any of those people again, because it was clear where their priorities were. I have NEVER had this response from anyone other than a white man in a gaming space.

Back to 40k, and how it is an interesting game to study: 40k requires a certain amount of space to play, and not only does each player need a decent number of minis to play, but you also are probably going to need terrain, tape measures, acrylic area of effect templates, dice, and a whole lot of other stuff. This means that either you have someone willing to dedicate sufficient space in their home to let their group come over and play during certain days/times (and a two-player game can stretch on for hours depending on the victory conditions set), or you play in a local gaming shop that either has “public” tables (and plastic tubs full of usable terrain) or “private” spaces you can rent out. (I have known some groups that will reserve meeting rooms in the local public library, but this still means carting around tubs of terrain.) If you do not live in a major metro area, your choice of venue is going to be limited, as will be your pool of other players. If that venue is a local gaming shop where the 40k group uses the “public” tables, then you cross your fingers and pray to the whatever gods may be listening that they strictly enforce certain behavior guidelines and have zero tolerance for racist, mysoginistic, homophobic, and transphobic fuckery. If they aren’t ready to boot the guy who starts going off about how the Holocaust was a hoax, and have that policy clearly posted on the door and above every gaming table (and actually enforce it), then you may have no other possible venue to play at. That’s it. The hobby is shut down for you, when all you wanted to do was play a game with some other people and not have to deal with them flinging hatred and bigotry while they roll to see what sort of damage their heavy bolter is doing to your mob of grotz.

And when the producer of that game comes out and says, “Yo! Yes, you! The asshole who flings around hate and bile! That’s right, you! Stop playing our game! Get out! Spend your money with a company that wants you! We don’t!” The correct thing to do is recognize that the makers of the game do not want you harassing other people. They are flat-out saying that you missed some major clues signaling why these fascists may not be the good guys after all. Not only are they saying that the assholes are not welcome in their gaming community, they are saying that they lack some very fundamental critical thinking skills that if they possessed should have picked up the flashing “EVIL FASCIST EMPIRE” indicators.

What Games Workshop is NOT doing is taking full responsibility for the atmosphere that has enabled these boors to populate the landscape for so long. Games Workshop is not recognizing that they leaned into 40k as a white-man-fascist space fantasy and buried a lot of the early more diverse depictions of the setting in favor of only white flavored euro-gothic imagery.

Not only does Games Workshop need to continue clearly signaling to the new wave of Nazis and other bigots that they need to move on from the hobby, the company needs to own up on its role in this. And then, they need to actually do better with their games. Not just in representation in the game through art and minis, but also behind the scenes with writers and artists.

And lest you think I’m letting the other giant in the room off the hook, D&D has a long way to go as well. Lately there have been a lot of pandering messages being put out to the people who want the game to be more inclusive, both on the player-side and the production/development side, but they have not yet put in the work to make players like me come back. They have not directly addressed the very problematic underpinnings related to Gygax’s views on alignment and alignment-by-race. They continue to profit from older materials from the TSR and early WotC days in editions past that have extremely problematic “fantasy” depictions of real-world non-white cultures. Perhaps most telling is that they still have not made any effort to diversify the behind-the-scenes leadership, and rely upon a model of primarily hiring freelance writers and artists that do not get any sort of benefits that an actual employee would be entitled to.

To loop all the way back to my initial question of when did gaming get so political, the answer is that it always has been. Sadly, the politics involved have often favored the white guy assholes who were largely responsible for creating the games to begin with. Even in situations where the game was meant to critique those political positions, the assholes still managed to shove their way into it, and convince the publisher that they were the real market for the product. Now we see the real-world political landscape of North America and Europe impacting the various spheres of table-top gaming as “progressives” want to see more inclusion and diversity within games, and “conservatives” believing that these games belong to them and are inseparable from their white, predominantly euro-christian dominant, cultures. They see the inclusion of a Black woman in their uber-white fantasy setting as some sort of crippling blow to everything they hold dear. The idea of a player character being able to use a wheelchair in a setting with dragons and magic that can open portals between planes of existence is treated as if it is some sort of death blow to everything they hold dear because it isn’t “realistic” or it “breaks immersion”. In a world that has minotaurs and clockwork living constructs that can cast fireballs, a wheelchair is just a step too far for them.

To the disingenuous jerks of the world, who think that others need to just take their abuse willingly, it was always political. We’re just done letting you and yours be in charge. And it looks like the gaming industry is starting to take note because you aren’t the only ones making noise anymore.

So for the other table-top gamers out there that want to see more people of different backgrounds welcome in our gaming spheres, we need to get political, and we need to be loud, and we need to send the message loud and clear not just to the assholes at the table, but to the gaming industry as a whole, that our money spends just as well as that of the assholes, and reaching a wider audience by blocking them out means a bigger financial benefit.

On top of it all (if any TTRPG producers are bothering to read this), you get to make money and sleep better at night knowing you aren’t enabling white power fantasies.

3 thoughts on “Political/Societal Critique in Table-Top Gaming: or, When did gaming get so political?

  1. A very interesting post, with a lot of food for thought. I was unaware of Gygax’s view of Lawful Good. It clearly does not match my own. I have long been uncomfortable with the 40k setting but had not understood it as clearly as you have outlined. The change in the Tau is particularly disappointing from what you have written. Thanks for giving me something to think about.

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  2. “The problem with 40k is that the creators apparently weren’t blunt enough about the Imperium…”

    A similar situation exists with cyperpunk writer Bill Gibson who wrote warnings about the peril of ‘cyberspace’ and then had computer programmers think it was a cool idea and try to build it.

    I think a writer can be as blunt as they want to and the message will be missed if the reader isn’t looking for it or isn’t inclined to think along those lines.

    Like

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