Games Workshop and Me: On Representation

Games Workshop Representation
Just about the only 2 non-white (human) miniatures made (painted) by Games Workshop

It’s been a tough week for those signed up to Games Workshop fan forums.

There’s been a lot of angry comments flying about. Some are directed at the company for its latest Age of Sigmar release, but there has been sniping at one another too, most notably on the subject of Games Workshop and representation.

One conversation that drew a flurry of vehement responses before being stopped by the group’s mods began with a mild question.

“Is it a problem that there are very few people of color represented in Games Workshop games?”

The 18 answers submitted were variations on “No. There doesn’t need to be more and that’s a stupid question.” Variations that contained a lot more words beginning with “F.” The mods quickly shut the conversation down before it “became too cancerous.”

The speed and vehemence with which the original poster was closed down gave me pause for thought. There is clearly something going on here that needs examining. First, there’s the issue of the representation of people of color in the Warhammer world, but then there are the reactions of the game’s players.

Before I dig into this, I have to lay my cards on the table (or maybe show my dice.) I’m a white, middle class, British male. I have never suffered through not being represented. I can, therefore, only imagine what it must be like not to see yourself reflected in the media and popular culture of the day. I say this to acknowledge that in writing this piece, I may inadvertently say something condescending or misinformed. If I do, then I’m very sorry and please, feel free to politely point out any mistakes or poor assumptions.

Is there enough representation of minority groups on the Warhammer table?

The short answer to this question is, “No.”

The original question was posted in a Warhammer 40,000 forum but I think the answer applies to both 40K and Age of Sigmar. If you look at the miniatures range, then nearly all of the humanoid ones are white. A lot of them are armored with face covering helmets, but those that aren’t are huge Caucasian brutes, often with blonde buzz cuts.

If you combine this with the mandate of mankind in Warhammer 40K being to kill everything that’s different from them, things start to become troubling.

If you take a look at the Astra Militarium, the most human and fleshy of the 40K range, you’ll see a host of miniatures that draw on historical references but all those models are white. There is nothing drawn from African, Japanese, or Hispanic references. The Peoples’ Army from China, the largest army in the world, has no representation.

Much of the reason for this is historical. Many of these forces were created back in the ’80s when the world was a different place. The game was designed in middle England, by men just like me for men like me. It’s little wonder it turned out like it did.

Marvel and Star Wars Diversity
Marvel and Star Wars are increasingly more diverse.

But things are changing.

Marvel has changed the baseline of their stories to be more inclusive. The new heroes in the Star Wars franchise are far more representative of the world’s population than the heroes of ’77 were. So why not Games Workshop?

The size of its fan base is probably something to do with it. Games Workshop has a global presence but it hasn’t permeated every strand of society like Star Wars has. Its fan base is still predominantly white men. Since the company probably draws most of its employees from that fan base, the culture at the company is unlikely to shift.

Should it even try?

I sympathize with GW’s position. Moving to creating more inclusive miniatures range is fraught with peril. Not only may it antagonize its conservative fan base (to which I say, “So what, they need to take a look around them,”) GW runs the risk of screwing up the representation itself.

I can see from Games Workshop’s perspective that maintaining the status quo is the safest thing to do. By changing, they open themselves up to accusations of tokenism and mistakenly providing negative representation. There is a risk they create something patronizing and trope filled, but I feel they ought to at least try. Change has to start somewhere. They may make mistakes but they will overcome those bumps, and learn from them, to create a more diverse, inclusive hobby universe.

Is a load of white guys introducing diversity, patronizing?

Possibly. I’m not too sure about this one and by far not the best person to comment. The obvious solution would be to try to increase the diversity of the design team, but this isn’t necessarily easy. It’s one thing to have the intention to employ more people of color but it may prove difficult to entice them to come to work for you. Especially when such vocal toxicity exists on fan forums.

I asked GeekDad’s Jonathan H. Liu his thoughts on the introduction of diversity and he gave me this reply.

“I think it is very important, in terms of introducing diversity, to have it be done with a diverse group of creators. That is, if you’re going to put Chinese people in a game, it’s important to have Chinese people involved in how that’s done. If you put Black people in a game, you need to have Black people involved—even if it’s bringing in some people who are consultants and not employees of the company.

No matter how it’s done, the initial attempts are going to be criticized as tokenism. That’s the price of change, and it’s because so far they don’t have a proven track record… It takes consistent effort over time to show that the culture has actually changed.”

Must a game include people of color in order to appeal to them?

The idea that the game must contain people of color in order to be interesting to them is potentially patronizing, but it’s not difficult to see that having no representation in the hobby, is unlikely to invite them in.

It could be argued that there are lots of white fans of Manga and Anime, popular culture phenomena in which there is little or no western representation. This lack of representation is not a barrier to white people enjoying the media. I think there’s an important difference. White westerners have not suffered through generations of being told, “No. This is not for you.”

Judging from the comments on the forums, there are still people who don’t mind projecting this type of exclusivity. I’m not suggesting that they are in the majority, but they are a vocal minority. I suspect if asked in isolation they would be much more polite and thoughtful in their answers, but as a collective, with nobody to hold them to account, the man-tribe spits out the bile.

‘Warhammer 40K’ humans: Many uniforms. Only one skin tone.

What common arguments are used against increasing diversity?

It’s just a game.

This is true. It is just a game, but it misses the obvious point that the game should be for everybody. Nobody should feel excluded, either through the game’s makeup or the attitudes of its players.

It’s already diverse. You can paint the figures any color you like.

This seems to be willfully missing the point. Yes, you can paint the miniatures any color you like, but that doesn’t make them representative of people of color. If you paint an orange blue, it’s still an orange. You could faithfully represent the skin tones of the Han Chinese, Shan tribesman, or Senegalese Wolof, but that is only part of the story. None of the models are sculpted to look like these groups, and ethnicity is about an awful lot more than skin color.

The Salamanders are literally black.

Well, that’s true. According to the 40K Lexicanum,  “…as a result of a reaction between their genetics and the high levels of radiation on Nocturne, Salamanders battle brothers have dark or jet black skin and bright, burning eyes.”

That’s right, the only dark skinned Space Marines are that way due to radiation poisoning. And their eyes glow. Like demons. Welcome to the hobby, people!

It’s Grimdark. Get over it.

An excuse used for being generally insulting and/or misogynistic. I happened to see this morning, an unrelated post with some offensive remarks that were overtly sexual in nature. One person complained that it was vulgar, and one of the reasons given why the post was OK is that the game is Grimdark.

The GAME is “Grimdark.” It’s also fiction. We, the players, live in the real world. Whilst being contemptuous of women and people different to you may be acceptable in the Warhammer world, on Earth it’s time we moved beyond that. It’s sort of like how it wouldn’t be OK for me to power my fridge using the dying embers of your life-force, even though the Imperium does that with its dreadnaughts.

If you genuinely believe these things mean diversity is unnecessary, then so be it. These points can be debated, but many commenters don’t want to even have the debate. They want the conversation closed down and are abusive to anybody who tries to start it.

And that, for me, is the most pernicious thing about the reaction to the post. If I were a person of color, prepared to accept that I didn’t have much representation in the game, I imagine that I would still like it to be more diverse.

The nature of the answers and subsequent closing down of the debate sends the message that some players don’t care whether it is or not. They have their game and there’s no need to spoil it by letting anybody else join the club. It’s a hostile attitude one that would make anybody on the outside or fringes of the hobby turn around, walk away, and never return.

This behavior is as stupid as it is insulting.

What would increased diversity mean?

New storylines, new miniature ranges, and an increased pool of players to play against, with new markets in which Games Workshop can sell its products. Done properly, increasing diversity is win-win for everybody. It’s great for the creators, the players, and for those on the outside looking in.

No doubt many of these posts and comments are meant to be jokes. It’s just “banter.” A word that seems to have changed definition, in recent years, to mean “I can be as insulting, as I like, pretend I’m joking, and it’s your fault if you get offended.”

Possibly, no harm is intended. We all know the internet blurs the boundaries between public and private space, but even if intended as “just a joke,” a group of men riffing on the sexual proclivities of women or shouting down somebody else, because they dared suggest their game should be for other people too, isn’t OK.

Internet forums the world over are breeding grounds for extreme opinions. On the GW forums, these opinions, and those who express them, are in the minority. Most of the members are helpful and inclusive. Sadly though, there is a very real, narrow-minded minority that need calling on their outdated attitudes every time they display them.

Dad of Boys, Reader of Books, Player of Games. Haven't had a 'real' job or a full night's sleep since 2005