The Orcboy Opines on 40K (Part 2): The Definition of Insanity

(If you missed it, you can catch Part 1 of this 2-part series here)

The thing is: things can’t ever just stay the same — when they do, things stagnate, so by definition things get worse.

THIS BIT HAS BEEN HARD TO WRITE. I’ve rewritten and tweaked this post countless times during and after my time at NovaCon 2023. Here’s what it comes down to, though; the biggest thing that concerns me about the continued health of the 40K hobby is its player base. 

Let me first contextualize: on my way to the convention site from the DC Metro, I passed by a dozen posters and advertisements for various products and multimedia releases: sanitized, corporate designs that are intended for the median American consumer. A poster for the new Denzel movie, for example, or the recent Spiderman release, which intones “We are all stronger together!” 

Big media companies do not lead social revolutions: their posters are reflections of how the country has grown significantly more diverse than even a decade past. A lack of diversity is actually quite striking nowadays, as it so dramatically contrasts with the lived experience of many people. 

And as an educator, I can personally attest that younger generations of Americans are increasingly more diverse and open to (and demanding of) diversity of all sorts, including racial and gender diversity, as well as many others. Corporate America wants younger customers and thus, they create more inclusive advertising posters.

And yet, and yet…. When I walked through the 40K Grand Tournament Hall to get to the Narrative Campaign tables in the back of the massive ballroom, I saw many hundreds of gamers, and only around five female gamers. Only about a dozen gamers of color (or at least, people readily identifiable as black, Asian, Latino, etc) – and nearly half of those were just among the fifty or so players in the (comparatively much smaller) narrative campaign! 

There were a handful of younger gamers in their late teens or early twenties, and a decent number of gamers who could be anywhere in their late twenties to mid-thirties…. But the dominant demographic of 40K gamer is white, cis-male, and middle-aged (thirties or older). Although I did see a few more younger 40K gamers (teens and young adults) on Saturday and Sunday over the weekend, 40K’s demographic mix is not the sign of a healthy and growing hobby. 

Compare what you see today to, say, Games Day Baltimore in 2002

Heck, this isn’t what Grand Tournaments and Games Days looked like back in the late 1990s, when I saw (and have proof of in the form of photos!) far more young and minority gamers, and quite a few more women. 40K’s current fanbase is one that is well on its way to becoming the baseball fanbase (middle-class white cis men, median age 57); then to become the Fox News fanbase (middle-class white cis men, median age 65); then to become the model railroading fanbase (middle-class white cis man, median age close to 70) as it slowly dies out. 

Just as a point of comparison: the median age of those elderly, out-of-touch folks that are American Congresscritters is 57, and let me remind you that you are not allowed to be an American congresscritter if you are under the age of 25. This is a group that was deliberately and intentionally designed by the Founding Parents to be full of Old People! And that’s the age that baseball’s fanbase currently is… and where I fear 40K’s fanbase is rapidly heading.

Look, I’m not opposed to the idea of exclusive clubs. People should be allowed to hang with who they choose, with people like themselves! What I’m pointing out is that the current 40K fanbase is not a match for the youth of the modern Western world… and as a result the 40K hobby is starting to age out of relevance, and eventually out of existence. 

You don’t bring in the youths by being exclusionary – not just to young people in general, but also to the diverse crowd that young people expect to see in a normal mix of random peopleNo matter how nice and welcoming you are otherwise, if you’re effectively single sex, middle-aged, and monochromatic, you’re going to make most young folks exceedingly uncomfortable, because it’s not a normal environment – not for them, and not for mainstream society. 

All the other soul-less money-grubbing corporations know this, which is why they at least put tokens in their advertisements. And again, GW, you don’t have to appeal to the youths… but if you don’t bring in the youths, then you’re choosing not to grow your fanbase – so you’re effectively planning to go the way of the Shakers, known today only for the style of furniture they produced and popularized. Effectively extinct, like the dodo and the New Jersey Generals of the USFL.

Did you know that in the late 1950s, model railroaders were a median age of 29?  And that it was a vibrant, popular hobby with many publications and conventions devoted to it? That there were entire special stores devoted to the hobby, and that toy companies happily produced “kid-friendly” versions of model trains which served as a gateway into the hobby, many of which were compatible (or readily converted to be compatible) with the ‘grown-up’ hobby tracks and scales? 

But by 1993 (just thirty-one years ago), the median age was up to 47, and although the hobby still looked strong and thriving, it was already doomed, sounding its death-knell.  That’s because the companies producing hobby products overwhelmingly depended on juicing the spending of its older established fanbase, and had become too expensive for new hobbyists. 

If this doesn’t sound familiar, let me present to you the $200 “limited edition” Cities of Sigmar army set with… five knights on horseback, twenty sword-and-board foot infantry, and three character models. Six bucks per model (if you include horses as a separate model), to get somewhat more ornate versions of bog-standard medieval miniatures, which a score of other companies will charge you 1/3 as much for. C’mon, Games Workshop!

Note that in 1993, I myself was one of those young people who was inspired by model railroading as a teenager, but who never could get into hobby because of the prohibitive cost of entry, as well as the ever-more-insular community. Model railroading never diversified its appeal to potential hobbyists that didn’t fit into its very narrow demographic (middle aged white men), and so it slowly died out. I ended up being pushed into more accessible modeling-heavy hobbies… like miniatures wargaming. 

This isn’t just a classic case of irony, given what I’m talking about here; this is the very definition of a micro-economic substitute good. Games Workshop, you are not the only option. You shouldn’t keep acting like you are.

Historical miniatures wargaming has already walked much of the way along this doomed path. In the case of historicals, the barrier isn’t financial cost-of-entry (which remains relatively low), but rather insularity: it is stubbornly monolithic, not just because some of its members so very aggressively police prospective entrants to their community… but because nearly all the other historical gamers refuse to gainsay these bigots. 

Let me be brutally clear: I didn’t stop historical miniatures wargaming because a bunch of “bad apple” neckbeards repeatedly tried to tell me that individuals of my complexion (and/or the genitalia configuration of my friends and family) were unwelcome. I can ignore a few Klan-adjacent dumb-asses, even if they’re really loud. 

What convinced me to leave was all the so-called “good guys” who never rebuked or shunned the chauvinists that ran around acting as de-facto hobby spokesmen. 

Not once. 

Not ever. 

Hey, so-called “good guys,” if you never stop the “bad apples” from spewing their bile, then you’re tacitly telling everyone getting covered in puke that you’re okay with that, too. And they’ll take their toys and leave, and never come back. If you keep letting “bad apples” into your club, you inevitably end up with a club full of “bad apples.” 

I can confirm that during this NovaCon weekend, the middle-aged white cis male 40K gamers around me continued to share (and refuse to rebuke or shun) the sort of off-color sexist and racist humor that was barely tolerable thirty years ago, and a nearly guaranteed visit to HR today. I heard soooo many tired T&A jokes about the Sisters of Battle. More than a few tired “inner city” or “third world” jokes about the Orks. 

In case you were unaware, even one or two examples of this kind of “wit” make the youth folk and the brown folk and the womenfolk real real uncomfortable, and it’s super-duper noticeable because it’s so incredibly dated and increasingly inappropriate out in the Real World. 

And yet, the only person I heard calling out that sh*t in my entire event? Out of fifty-some gamers? Me. Just me. No-one else. Not a damn peep. And all the personable, good-natured, sportsmanlike “good guys” I was gaming with – well, they just chuckled or rolled their eyes and let things keep on keeping on. Boys will be boys, etc.

Golly-gee, I wonder why there aren’t more women and minorities and kids playing 40K?  Honestly, it’s a mystery for the ages!

Given how broad-ranging this NovaCon was, I could walk by the other miniature wargaming events and game rooms and the other big ballroom full of gamers, and see more diverse fanbases for other miniatures games – for Battletech, for Infinity, for Star Wars, for Malifaux – they all have more women (at least 10 to 12%, as opposed to less than 2 or 3%), more younger people, and more gamers of color. These other games have a fanbase that is still (granted) moderately lopsided, but far less monolithic than the 40K fanbase – and by strange, strange coincidence, these games and gaming companies actually happen to (try to) actively appeal to broader demographics of young people.

And what is Games Workshop doing to try and diversify their game and aggressively grow their fanbase? … that sound you hear isn’t crickets, it’s the sound of GW furiously going all-in on the strategy of milking their existing middle to upper-middle-class adult customers, and avoiding discomfiting those middle-aged cis white men in any way — in order to juice their quarterly earnings reports, and damn the torpedoes.

Exactly what I saw model railroading doing in the 1990s.

I really enjoy the wild and wacky 40K universe. I love how the game system actively encourages creativity and customization of armies and models. I have a whole lifetime of memories tied to Warhammer, especially of the 40K variety. 

But I really wonder just how vital this hobby is, and assume with some regret that I’m seeing the beginnings of the end. After all, back in the day I also really enjoyed playing Vampire the Masquerade (and in the whole White Wolf Universe) – but it’s now a very niche game struggling to recreate its glory years. 

Once upon a time, this was the hottest thing in gaming

Same with Traveller (yes, it’s apparently mis-spelled with 2 L’s) and MERP (Middle-Earth Role-Playing), two other games I enjoyed as a youth that are no longer vigorous or mainstream, as they failed to keep growing their fanbase, and kept alienating (in various ways) many of their existing players. Warhammer 40K is clearly in the early stages of the same glide path, destined to end up in the same hyper-niche hobby sphere as stamp collecting or Ouija boards. 

Fortunately, it’s not yet too late, as GW have promised to make a series of dramatic changes, chief among them to GW’s marketing. Marketing and pricing – both pricing and marketing. The two changes they’re making are to marketing and pricing, and overall philosophy…. Their THREE changes are to marketing, pricing, and overall philosophy, all to attract and retain the next generation of gamers. I mean, I’m sure in the next year or two, we’ll see these FOUR changes… That is to say, amongst all this, we’ll see born the fruit of GW’s honest and humble efforts to change their marketing and pricing…

….wait, I’ll come in again.