Warhammer 40K's New Culture War Crossfire Is a Mess of Its Own Making


Warhammer 40,000‘s grimdark world of horrors both human and alien has developed a complicated relationship with elements of its audience over the years. What was once a biting satire of Britain’s conservative government in the late ‘80s has, in iteration after iteration of lore and retcons, become a messy extrapolation of the fascism and its imagery, and what it means to present that from a marketable perspective—and what that in turn means for cultivating elements of a fandom that interprets those ideas in a very different manner.

This is a tightrope Warhammer’s owner, Games Workshop, has had to balance for years at this point—but this past weekend it found itself rocked from its balancing act as the game became the target of right-wing fans and culture war proponents eager to grift on the so-called threat of “wokeness.” The cause? A single short story in a new rulebook, or “Codex” as they are called in Warhammer 40,000, for the Adeptus Custodes faction.

In 40K, the Custodes (the chosen army of occasional actor and full time Warhammer fan Henry Cavill) are a specific branch of the Imperium of Man’s martial forces dedicated to the protection of the God-Emperor, the desiccated husk that maintains the religiofascist domination of Humanity and its territories across the stars from atop a golden throne that has kept him alive for thousands of years through the daily sacrifice of legions of people. Clad in golden, red-plumed armor, they are even above the mighty Space Marine chapters of the Imperium’s forces, and the direct right hand of the Emperor’s will. As with many elements of the game, for many years, they have so far been presented in Warhammer’s fiction from a masculine perspective, but a new story in the Custodes’ latest codex, updated for the game’s 10th edition, introduces us to a Custodian named Calladayce Taurovalia Kesh, who uses she/her pronouns: the first ever female-identifying Custodian in Warhammer fiction.

Kesh does not have a dedicated model in the Adeptus Custodes line, nor does she appear elsewhere in the new edition of Codex: Adeptus Custodes. The new book was only introduced alongside a single new miniature for the Custodes this past weekend—a Shield Captain that can be built with either a masculine head or a non-gendered helmet, as is the case with many of the Custodes models. No one knows yet if she will appear in Warhammer fiction again, but her very existence has made Codex: Adeptus Custodes the flashpoint of a new front in the online culture war, one that grew even brighter when Games Workshop addressed the “controversy” of her existence on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, with a simple statement: “There have always been female Custodians.”

The statement, and ensuing backlash from people eager to paint the decision as an example of “woke” ideas in entertainment, marks an inflection point of several issues Games Workshop has had to struggle with in its fanbase in recent years. The first is the very existence of female characters within elements of its fiction. Although the concept of female Space Marines has never been “canon”—Games Workshop went as far in the 2022 updated rulebook for its prequel-spinoff game, Horus Heresy: The Age of Darkness, to state that Space Marines are raised from genetic stock described as the “biological makeup of the human male,” drawing ire from audiences who perceived the language as adjacent to gender-critical ideas around sex—it has long existed as an idea among fans who have developed their own lore and ideas for custom chapters and factions, and has been debated over almost as long.

Games Workshop has modernized its models and redeveloped factions over the years, and sometimes that has included presenting more options for female-presenting characters and infantry across the board—whether they’re for alien armies, the forces of Chaos (which in and of itself has a bunch of wild, genderless demons from beyond the constraints of physical space, let alone any perceived constraints of a gender binary), or the forces of the Imperium. The Custodes themselves received something of a sort with the introduction of the Sisters of Silence in Warhammer 40K’s 7th edition in 2017, an all-female allied faction that, in the lore, became the left hand of the God-Emperor’s elite armies to the right hand in the Custodes.

Image for article titled Warhammer 40K's New Culture War Crossfire Is a Mess of Its Own Making

Image: Games Workshop

In turn, elements of lore established in years past have likewise endlessly been rewritten and updated as the story of the fiction has expanded, with Warhammer’s concept of what is and what isn’t “canonical” almost always in flux, things changing from one updated supplement to the next. Yes, that Games Workshop would say the existence of female Custodians has always been a thing, despite us only having just been introduced to the first-ever named one, is indeed a retcon, but that’s also just how Warhammer fiction has always worked. The Horus Heresy, the interstellar civil war that set the stage for Warhammer 40K’s world as we know it today—and now considered an important, fundamental cornerstone of the fiction—simply didn’t exist in the earliest versions of the setting. Things always change: few Warhammer fans actually familiar with the material could be pressed into saying that the original lore for the Space Marines presented in the original iteration of the game, Rogue Trader—where they’re closer to armored cops on the frontiers of the Imperium, policing gang worlds and punks, rather than the quasi-Roman fundamentalist crusaders of the modern fiction—are one and the same to the idea of the Space Marines as we know them all these decades later.

And yet, in spite of all this, Games Workshop finds itself once again having to navigate another struggle with its audience that has increasingly become a problem in recent years: how its portrayal of the fascism at the heart of Warhammer 40,000‘s biggest faction has invited opportunities for people who align themselves with that ideology in real life to believe that they have a safe space within Warhammer’s community to share and support those beliefs. Multiple incidents recently, from showing support for the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 to a European tournament prevaricating over whether or not to disqualify a player who showed up to play in clothing depicting Nazi iconography, have seen Games Workshop release statements rejecting hate groups and their place in the Warhammer community. But those statements in turn have relied on an increasingly precarious argument: that it should be clear to bigots who believe that Warhammer’s world supports them that, in fact, the setting is a satirical extrapolation of conservative ideology to its most evil and absurd heights, and that, in turn, it is making fun of their beliefs.

“The Imperium of Man stands as a cautionary tale of what could happen should the very worst of Humanity’s lust for power and extreme, unyielding xenophobia set in. Like so many aspects of Warhammer 40,000, the Imperium of Man is satirical,” a blog post released by Games Workshop on the official Warhammer Community website in 2021 titled “The Imperium Is Driven by Hate. Warhammer Is Not” reads in part. “For clarity: satire is the use of humour, irony, or exaggeration, displaying people’s vices or a system’s flaws for scorn, derision, and ridicule. Something doesn’t have to be wacky or laugh-out-loud funny to be satire. The derision is in the setting’s amplification of a tyrannical, genocidal regime, turned up to 11. The Imperium is not an aspirational state, outside of the in-universe perspectives of those who are slaves to its systems. It’s a monstrous civilization, and its monstrousness is plain for all to see.”

Image for article titled Warhammer 40K's New Culture War Crossfire Is a Mess of Its Own Making

Image: Games Workshop

This may have been true in Warhammer’s earliest days, but as we said: the franchise has grown and changed in the years since Rogue Trader’s satirical extrapolation of British conservatism nearly 40 years ago. For as much as Games Workshop can state that Warhammer 40K’s satire is clear for all to see, in reality, its clarity of purpose is far murkier. The Imperium is an explicitly evil organization, responsible for mass genocide, xenophobia, and bigotry across Warhammer’s stars—but the Space Marines are Games Workshop’s poster child. Their perspective is presented as heroic and noble, and as the default, in the vast majority of its fiction. Beautifully rendered artwork of their legions is plastered across posters and displays inviting newcomers to walk into Warhammer stores and learn how to play the game. They are the stars of children’s books, they are the face of merchandising efforts beyond the models themselves, they are the protagonists of dozens upon dozens (upon dozens) of video games. For as evil an entity as it is, the Imperium, and its vanguard in the Space Marines, has been romanticized as something that looks cool. Space Marines are giant, brightly colored power-armored soldiers with guns that shoot the equivalent of artillery rounds in a hailstorm of bullets and literal chainsaw swords. They fight monsters and things that look far, far worse than they do. They are meant to look cool, because that then sells you an awful lot of Space Marine models, and rulebooks, and fiction books—and soon, presumably, an Amazon TV show.

When that evil is presented as cool, it is no longer satire: it’s just something that looks cool. And in being something that looks cool, it in turn invites people who see the Imperium’s ideas about hating things that are different, controlling people through vile doctrines, and its terrifying religious dogma as ideologies that are actually worth supporting, and to feel like they and their awful beliefs have a place in Warhammer’s community, regardless of what Games Workshop says. These are the same people who blow up at the very existence of a character of a non-masculine gender, or a character of a non-white racial background, regardless of how minor or fleeting their existence ultimately is—the same people that now Games Workshop finds itself being harangued by for purportedly turning Warhammer 40,000 “woke.”

Satire without clarity is not effective satire—and not an effective defense for someone to claim as they try to push back against a hateful co-option of a universe like Warhammer’s. If Games Workshop wants a world where it can mention the existence of a diverse array of characters in its fiction without delving its fanbase into arguments and harassment, it can no longer sit back and claim satire as its guiding principal, and instead must actively push back against these bigoted elements and forcefully prove to them that they have no space in its community. To do so, it has to recognize something many people within and without the company have already noticed: Warhammer has changed since its origins, and it will always continue to do so. Defending it from becoming another front line in the endless culture war requires Games Workshop to adapt or face consequences of its own making.

Want more io9 news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel, Star Wars, and Star Trek releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about the future of Doctor Who.

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