Warhammer and the Working Class
May 1, 2022
Truly, there is no community more eager for exploitation than that of the Warhammer community. Warhammer is a miniatures wargame, and it has grown in popularity over the last few years. No longer confined only to the dank basements of software engineers, now it lies in the basements of social media influencers too. And of course, anyone elbow deep in niche British subcultures has heard of it, but for those who haven’t, here’s a quick explanation.
Miniature wargames take place on a tabletop. A kitchen table will do, but often wargamers prefer larger tables for larger games. Players command armies of miniature figures that they have built and painted and do battle against one another to see who is the victor, determining success and failure by the roll of (often many) dice. Miniature wargaming is a close cousin of the popular Dungeons and Dragons, but where it differs is in scale. Where Dungeons & Dragons players roleplay as a single character, miniature wargamers command armies. And it can be big – sometimes battles will be waged across huge tables filled with hundreds of hand-painted miniatures!
And increasingly, as more Instagrammers, tweeters, and YouTubers have been covering beautifully painted miniatures engaged in epic battles, the size of the hobby has grown exponentially (or, the viewing audience has at least). It is a hobby that generates a unique experience because the joy to be found within doesn’t start with the game at the table. It begins with the building of an army out of plastic, metal, or resin and then painting that army to be customized to reflect a certain story or setting. This could be anything from flamboyant - but historically accurate - French army colored with bright blues and vibrant reds to something more fantastical such as a legion of the undead, with grim blacks and foreboding grime splattered upon them. The choice is yours.
This is the true essence of wargaming: it is ultimately a hobby about constructing narratives, with plenty of DIY craft and tabletop strategy thrown in.
Games Workshop’s Walled Garden
And it is occupied by a behemoth. Though there are hundreds of companies that sell miniature figures, craft tools, paints, and rulesets for play, none have succeeded to the extent that Games Workshop has with their most popular product: Warhammer 40,000 (often abbreviated to just 40k), a sci-fi wargame set in a grim future where disagreement can only be settled with war. It is distinctly British, with echoes of the 1980s British counterculture that also imbued 2000 AD: Judge Dredd.
In fact, Warhammer 40k is so popular that many wargamers have not only never played a different miniature wargame but are not even aware that other wargames exist! This state of ignorance is tacitly encouraged by Games Workshop themselves who conspicuously never refer to miniature wargaming in any of their marketing materials. Instead, they seek to synonymize the entire hobby with their own brand, referring to miniature wargaming as the ‘Warhammer’ hobby.
This is particularly frustrating for those miniature wargamers who have ventured outside of the walled garden Games Workshop has constructed. Warhammer 40k has plenty of faults: inconsistent rules support and a baroque wargame system stuck in a 1990s design philosophy that values buckets of dice rolling over strategy. However, for most wargamers, the most cutting flaw is that of cost. Warhammer 40k is expensive, and Games Workshop has done a masterful job of curating a player base inured to almost bi-annual price rises – often far out of step with inflation. Moreover, Games Workshop’s prices far outstrip their manufacturing and labor costs. This is made painfully evident when reviewing any alternative miniature lines from those of Games Workshop. Perry Miniatures, for example, sell 42 miniature soldiers for £22. Games Workshop sells 5 Heavy Intercessor miniature soldiers for £40.
“It’s a Luxury Hobby”
And the prices aren’t going down any time soon. For example, in 2002 a set of two Eldar Warlock figures sold for £4, yet in 2022 their replacement costs £32.50. To anyone outside of the Games Workshop bubble, this 800% price rise over 20 years would be contemptible, but not to the true Warhammer fan. It is fitting that the same blinkered, frothing zealotry that fuels the mindless-ideological monsters who serve as the in-universe protagonists of Warhammer 40k (the Imperium of Man) fuels that of many within its player base too. Perhaps I am being harsh, but it is hard not to see the reverberations of blind worship when one encounters the same conversations playing out again and again and again in its online discourse.
It usually goes something like this:
Hobbyist: “I think that Warhammer is too expensive. I can’t afford to buy the models.”
The Fan: “Well, Games Workshop doesn’t owe you anything. Warhammer is a luxury, if you cannot afford it, don’t buy it.”
Every conversation about price in the Warhammer community takes place under the heavy cloud of this type of discourse. Indeed, it is endlessly repeated in response to even the most milquetoast criticism of Games Workshop’s oppressive business cycle and outrageous prices. Warhammer is a luxury hobby, and therefore Games Workshop does not need to address any criticism or make any changes. The solution to every hobbyist fed up with paying increasingly expensive prices for increasingly inferior models is to shut up or push off.
And though criticism is mostly self-policed by the community itself, Games Workshop is complicit in this situation, never deigning to acknowledge the fact that Warhammer has grown increasingly out-of-reach for most would-be hobbyists. Yet, boxes and boxes of Warhammer miniatures line games stores all around the world – their owners are unable to shift these bundles at Games Workshop’s mandated price point. Unrealistic pricing is having an impact on the average hobbyist.
Warhammer and Class
But the truth is that Warhammer has never really been for the plebs. Since its very inception, Games Workshop sought to attract middle-class hobbyists. We know, for example, that Games Workshop situated all their retail stores - considered their main outreach into the mainstream market - in middle-class areas. Hence, Warhammer was deliberately marketed as a hobby for the children of the middle class and only attracted the attention of working-class youths like myself by accident.
Games Workshop may have claimed last year in a controversial press statement that “Warhammer is for everyone”, made in response to criticism of its light-handed approach towards prominent Neo-Nazis in the Warhammer community. But, what they really meant is that “Warhammer is for everyone who can afford to casually drop £312.50 on a plastic spider”. There is a world of difference between saying that you welcome everyone and making substantive changes to your marketing and business model to effect the real change that would be needed to attain the goal of being truly inclusive. Games Workshop practices the discourse of inclusion, but they will not take steps outside of lip service and the occasional condemnation of open Nazi imagery at their sponsored events. If they truly wanted to attract a diverse community to their games, they would lower the price point of their products.
And it is this problem that the bludgeon of luxury discourse in the Warhammer community is most frequently applied to as a salve. It is used to excuse the fact that Games Workshop doesn’t take steps to make the hobby more accessible economically, and not just performatively. And while the meaning of ‘luxury’ is historically contingent, and changes across time and space, it has mostly been reconfigured in the Warhammer community as simply meaning anything that is not a necessity – and used to nullify any form of substantive criticism around price and accessibility. It is hard to imagine that many would make the same argument in favor of gatekeeping all taste, all color, all music, sunlight, sensation, human contact, and everything else beyond the mere bare necessities.
Sadly, it seems that even though the act of play is a necessity for a healthy life, it has become so deeply commodified that the mere act of asking for more accessibility has become threatening. This is particularly sad because the working class deserves to have fun too. And if that fun is derived from the act of building, painting, and playing with tiny little soldiers (just as mine is) then why should that be treated as any less necessary than any other act of play or entertainment?
And so long as Warhammer 40k is the only miniature wargame most potential wargamers encounter, unfortunately, the miniature wargame hobby will only ever be accessible to those who can afford that overpriced plastic spider.