Warhammer 40,000 might look like a genocidal mess of a game that holds no value in human life, but in reality, it's one of the most subtle parodies of humanity's warlike nature that many miss the joke entirely. I've talked about irony in board gaming before, but not like this. Warhammer 40,000 contains ACTUAL irony - not the barely understood hipster kind. Allow me to explain in terms that may be familiar to other fandoms, but will be easy enough to understand once I go into it.
If you've watched anime for a while, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya may sound familiar to you. Because if you've seen enough anime, you notice that Haruhi as a show isn't really just about pandering to the Japanese otaku market - it's actually one of the biggest in-jokes the anime industry ever created - sure on the surface it looks like regular moe demographic trash marketed to creepy thirty year old Japanese men, but it goes a bit deeper than that. In the show, and the novels that inspired it, Haruhi is a girl who is not just a girl but the God of the Universe, but she doesn't actually know - and the other characters must ensure she never finds out. In a silly anime comedy such as this, deep, uncomfortable questions are raised about how the universe works in a country where increasingly Japanese youths are becoming detached from reality. What is even weirder is the "Haruhism" meme, an inside joke where otaku anime fans revere Haruhi as a sort of goddess. Not too literally though. They buy her merch, watch her show, and just have a good time. Nobody legitimately believes Haruhi is a goddess or even real, it's just a big joke that some outsiders to anime culture won't understand at first.
And that's where Warhammer 40,000 fits into Western tabletop gaming fandom. It is indeed the Western "Haruhi" - in that countless men of anonymous net handles on 4chan.org scream HERESY, HERESY EVERYWHERE - FOR THE EMPEROR! - and BLOOD FOR THE BLOOD GOD! - A bit like how Haruhi fans quote Our Lady Of Brown Haired Tsundere. Warhammer 40,000 is by far one of the most penetrative games in the 21st Century male psyche - most nerds have played it at least once and even if you haven't played it for years you still keep up on the memes, don't you. Because that's where successful pop culture icons are headed. Memes. Ideas that spread like a virus, some malevolent, some benign.
Warhammer 40,000 and its fanbase are almost as dedicated as the Japanese otaku - I say almost because the majority of them are under no illusion that their characters they admire in their fandom are real in any way. In fact considering the universe of 40K, you'd better hope they're not real. 40K to me growing up was something that changed my life, in a way that continues to do so today. When I was a kid, probably at a too young age to appreciate the game and the hobby linked to it - I found myself strolling through a toy shop and suddenly, in a town called Orange which in Sydney terms is in the middle of nowhere, I discovered something I would take news of to my friends back home in the city - like the Spanish Explorers coming back in their ships telling tales of a city of gold.
To tell you the truth I enjoyed the game a lot more than the other kids because my friends only built bigger and more expensive forces to one-up each other instead of just having fun. Kids can be utter douchebags when they're eleven, which is why I reckon if you do have kids you shouldn't expose them to 40K until they're older - not because it's bad for them, it's just that when you're eleven you tend to be a bit nastier than when you're an adult and hobby games involving miniatures are best enjoyed by grown ups even though those Space Marine models look like toys. It's also a good idea to experience 40K at a later age because there's a lot of satire of the whole THERE IS ONLY WAR!!!!11111 aspect of it that kids will just have rushing over their heads.
Here's the thing about 40K, the universe in the game is so dark it would make the entire membership of the band Bauhaus turn on the lightbulb and hope Bela Lugosi really was dead, because if he wasn't he might be after them. Warhammer 40,000 seems on the surface to be a bleak and hopeless game, something that should normally be avoided by those prone to clinical depression. In reality, it's pretty much a really souped up version of Mad Max with spaceships in. Sure, Mad Max seems a bit too dark and serious when you first think about it, but the whole reason why Mel Gibson disowned those films and called them "youthful trash" was because the films were so over the top you couldn't help laughing at how ridiculous the supposed apocalypse was. Warhammer 40,000 operates under those same lines. No respite indeed from there being ONLY WAR, but when you think about it, if there is ONLY WAR how the hell do people grow their food, are Orks spawned by mitosis or do they have women Orks who raise children on homeworlds? Does the Imperial Guardsman receive a sufficient education in order to be able to have the maths to pilot a Leman Russ?
You might be thinking these questions are beside the point, but they do illuminate the point further. The point is that this is not really a game to be taken seriously, even though the rulebooks and fluff give the illusion of being dead serious even though the average casual 40K player is about as harmless as a tame Snotling, and not as murderous as a Khorne Berserker at all. My former assumptions that Warhammer 40,000 was a game played by heartless, genocidal jerks was only half right. 40K players for the most part who are genocidal jerks are only like that because they're bloody eleven years old! If you actually look at the source material for this vastly popular game, you'll notice some sharp satirical jabs at the nature of ideology based warfare itself. No side in 40K is any better than the other, every man is for himself and he is out to kill any man or beast who disagrees with his beliefs. Huh. Games Workshop couldn't have created a more subtle parody of human warfare if they tried, because the fluff is almost propaganda like in how you almost agree with the Orwellian catch cries of For The Emperor! - or Death To The False Emperor! - see, at this point you might be seeing why it's not a good idea to let kids play this game too early in their lives, not because it's a wargame but there's socio-political commentary they're guaranteed to misinterpret at an age when most 11 year olds think guns are cool... as opposed to people like me when I was that age who didn't take it quite as seriously because I was a bit more aware than my friends about the fact that during the early 2000s my entire year group of boys had begun arguing about whose force of plastic army men was superior... yeah.
It's a very subtle game in how it addresses the idea of "Other" as it's called in the humanities and arts. The "Other" is the "Enemy Within (Chaos) and the Enemy Without (Xenos)". If the Space Marines aren't a parody of centuries of religious fundamentalism, I'm not sure what is. Not that the Chaos and Xenos forces are much better. 40K is a self-perpetuating bloodbath of carnage, that's so over the top it offends some (political science students who aren't in on the joke) but pleases some more than it should (i.e. gamers who take it too far).
Of course what it boils down to is Games Workshop having to cater to both the people who take it too seriously and the people who don't take it seriously enough, in order to address the people who have fun playing the actual game they paint the models for.
As the Joker once said, "Why so serious?". He would probably play a Chaos army, he even calls himself an agent of it.
Jacob Martin is a writer, blogger, Photomedia student and board gamer who travels the bowels of Sydney's hobby game shops to find the strangest games he can review. He was once refused work for not being Victorian, at which point he wondered if a monocle would get him employed but later found out they meant the state, not the Queen. He lives in Australia, and it is his understanding that the Bartertown community of gamers is friendly. The precious juice is usually offset by public transport.