Tuesday, 13 March 2012
The BBC ran an article by journalist Samira Ahmed today about Warhammer 40k called ‘Why Are Adults Launching Tabletop War?’ Samira Ahmed is a news anchor on Channel 4 News but seemingly writes for the BBC also. It’s interesting to see Warhammer getting some attention in the mainstream media: I don’t have any truck with Samira Ahmed’s reporting usually and find her a watchable anchor, but the article smacked a little of lazy journalism. Let me explain what I mean.
A key point raised in the article was the fact that Game Workshop – the company that produces Warhammer games and associated media – is a British success story: a British company that is performing well at a time when many other companies are suffering. The astute journalistic question to ask is Why? Instead of following her journalist’s instincts and pursuing an answer, Samira Ahmed decides to play a populist card and go for a cheap shot: something more worthy of a Tabloid jibe. This disappoints because it is not my usual impression of her. The line she ultimately takes on the story is given away in the title: ‘Why Are Adults Launching Tabletop War?’ This was changed from earlier in the day when it was ‘Why Are Grown Men Launching Tabletop War?’ – a line still contained within the article standfirst. The title and article it heralds sets up a ‘them’ and ‘us’ dynamic, which appeals to all those who don’t share a particular pastime to point fingers at a specified group. The words ‘Grown Men’ are particularly indicative of this and sets a tone of disapproval – especially when framed in a question. This effect could have been softened - and made more friendly and conversational with the use of the word ‘So’ before the question. Instead it reads as: Why Are Grown Men Launching Tabletop War?’ like it is some kind of bizarre mystery that needs solving.
This goes on in the article, which I won’t deconstruct, but leaves the reader with the vague impression of something odd. There is a distance to the reporting in which little of the passion or admiration for the people and the hobby comes through – it is held at arm’s length and looked at from afar. This objectifies the subject matter and presents it as ‘different’ or ‘other’. This, of course, has little to do with the Warhammer enthusiasts who were involved. They did an admirable job. Rather than sing the praises of people whose pastimes don’t involve actual violence or cost the Taxpayer millions of pounds to secure and clear up, the best the actual article can seem to do is question the pastime’s validity: ‘Why are’ adults doing this? The most charitable thing I can say about Samira Ahmed’s reporting is that it demonstrates a general misunderstanding of the subject matter. Thanks for shining a brief light on an area of culture that most people don’t understand but intentionally or inadvertently, you have probably created further perplexity and reinforced stereotypes (both those of players and those that don’t play but view it as distant and strange). She just doesn’t ‘get it’ and therefore isn’t a great advocate for the pastime. Despite the fact that her son plays the game (and therefore feeling that she can’t personally trash it) she doesn’t know what to do with the material and so ironically runs for the safe ground of prejudice and ignorance. This is exemplified in the comments from the general public that followed. Many were supportive of the hobby but a significant number were predictably negative and aggressive. They didn’t need to disagree with the article - because it gave them nothing to oppose - and so they felt very comfortable with their negativity in such a forum.
Perhaps it’s refreshing that the article didn’t outright attack the pastime. Let’s not be complacent though. Journalists can do better. People can do better. From my point of view, the difference between people involved in the hobby and those that aren’t is pretty non-existent. People like to define themselves by what they are not. This is largely a superficial distinction and people often share a great deal more than they realise. Here’s 10 Popular Pastimes That Share More With Warhammer Than You Think:
10. Watching / Reading The News
It seems appropriate, since we’ve already been looking at it, to start with the News. People spend a good deal of time watching the news on television, reading a newspaper or scanning the internet. We are interested in the world about us and want to understand more. Warhammer 40k is a science fiction milieu and science fiction as a genre has excellent credentials for helping people understand the world in which they live. Science Fiction has always been about the present rather than the far future. Think of Orwell and Huxley: they weren’t only making insightful observations about their worlds through Science Fiction – their observations have remained relevant to ‘our’ present. Science Fiction can afford to be more daring in its observations that the news – even Warhammer. There are some very interesting parallels to be drawn between the perspectives and representations of the milieu and present-day concerns – ideas that mainstream media is too gutless or politically strait-jacketed to explore.
9. The Internet
People love the internet: from children to the elderly and everyone else in between – most people like spending time on the internet. Regardless of your particular bent, one thing that we can all agree on is that we all love the interactive nature of the internet and its myriad choices. Warhammer 40k is an interactive game in which the player’s choice is at the heart of how the contest unfolds. Like the internet – there are restrictions on where and what you can do (i.e. the rules) – but within the main body of the game you have the freedom to follow your inclinations, wherever they may lead you. You win or lose largely based upon your decisions. Some scientists claim that the internet is even changing the way human beings think. It is reasonable to think then that pastimes that reflect the interactive nature of such pursuits - like Warhammer - are likely to become ever more popular.
Everywhere you look there are people indulging their love of sport. You turn on the television: televised matches. You drive past a playing field on a Sunday – you find middle-aged men playing five-a-side rather than the teenagers that are usually there. You turn on the news – almost as much time is spent on sport than the rest of the national and international news. The same in newspapers. It seems our society is saying it is acceptable - perhaps even appropriate - to play games and indulge in sport as a pastime, regardless of your age. This is largely about competition and tribalism. We like sides to support – often defined by different colours and appearance – and will gather to watch competitions played out between selected groups. Football is the most popular sport in the country. There are few differences between people’s interaction with football and Warhammer. Watch both sets of people. One set is gathered around either a television or stadium, while the other is gathered about a table. Both sets are animated and enthused, literally shouting on their respective teams – calling out advice and strategies, desperately willing their side to a win. Both sets of people have a geeky knowledge of their teams – names, statistics, histories. It could be argued that the football supporters take this one stage further. Only a small percentage of Warhammer 40k players dress up as their characters and teams. Football supporters love to indulge in costume homage, pulling on a Rooney t-shirt in official team colours (remember that there are different kits for different circumstances). Some supporters literally live in their kits and t-shirts. Sport enthusiasts are very similar to Warhammer enthusiasts but it seems here more than anywhere else that society has a double standard and perhaps a self-imposed blind-spot.
7. Computer and Console Games
People love to role-play. Playing computer and console games is a very popular pastime. People forget that whatever game they are playing, they assume a persona – whether pre-arranged – or create one themselves from scratch. Computer and console games are increasingly invested in the role-play opportunities increasingly demanded by their players. Even a basic shoot-em-up positions the player behind the weapon, making choices as the character in the depicted situation. They do not make decisions based upon their characteristics – rather the characteristics of the persona they are assuming, whether it be a Special Forces soldier, bank job wheel man or intergalactic bounty hunter. Warhammer is much the same. You make decisions as the commander of the army, assuming strategies and approaches fitting with the nature of the force rather than yourself. There are even popular computer games that simulate the exact same perspective, but digitally realised instead on played out across a table. In this way, the millions and millions and millions of computer game and console players share a great deal with Warhammer gamers.
6. Going to the Pub and Club
Human beings are a sociable breed. People like to socialise: to spend time with one another – rather than alone – and interact with one another. Every city centre in the country is dominated by such people on Friday and Saturday nights. Many like to drink. Many like to pretend that they are something they are not (braver, prettier, funnier, more popular) and some even like to fight with one another. Clubbers certainly don’t have a monopoly on alcohol. The room next door to the Warhammer World tournament hall is a large bar, for example. Similarly, for a few hours, Warhammer enthusiasts like to pretend that they are something they’re not. And yet, like some clubbers and pub-frequenters, they do like to fight - mostly on the tabletop. Doesn’t sound all that different. At the heart of both endeavours is the desire to reach out and be with people who share your interests. This irony is lost on those who like to portray wargamers as single people, who socialise little and have problems with social interaction. How can you be alone when your pastime actually requires you to spend time with other people?
Gambling is a very popular pastime. Many people like to gamble – whether that be playing poker, shoving coins down slot machines, playing Bingo or playing the National Lottery. People are mesmerised by games of chance and the probabilities of winning or losing. Warhammer is no different. Points are allocated where players believe they will generate the greatest chance of success. There are the complexities of chance generated by the interaction between player freedoms – what will you do as opposed to your opponents’ reactions. Then, of course, there is actual chance – represented through dice: giving all that play a stake in potential success. The same impulse drives both types of games and pastimes. The desire to win against the odds.
People spend a large amount of time personalising. They sit on buses changing their phone backgrounds, at home on their laptops moving items around the desktops and making design calls on the appearance of their Facebook and Twitter pages. We are obsessed with personalising. Forget electrical goods. Consider the amount of time people spend ensuring that clothes items match. What about shoes? Accessories? Think about how long people spend personalising their gardens with regular adaptations and periodically revisit the colour schemes of their homes – paint, wallpaper, carpets and curtains. This preoccupation is alive and well in all of us. Warhammer enthusiasts simply extend this natural consideration to their armies. They spend similar time and artistic care on ensuring that their model representations appear uniform and reflect their personalities as players. No different.
Life can be grim. And if you’re lucky then it at very least can be boring. Most people like to spend time away from the everyday reality of their lives. They like to suspend their disbelief and spend time elsewhere – with fictional characters and in fictional places. Most people watch television and immerse themselves in the lives of fictional others – whether that be drama (of various genres), soap operas or reality television. A lot of people like to immerse themselves in fiction. They like to live the thoughts and emotions of characters and narrators – they like to forget their own lives for a while. Warhammer is much the same. It is pleasurable to not have to worry about your own concerns for a while – instead displaying empathic concern for characters and units, the objective it is of your opponent to threaten. The desire to immerse yourself in another setting, with fictional representations is common to all the pastimes identified above – including Warhammer.
2. Playing Games
We are a nation, if not a planet, of game players. We adore them. It might be getting the Monopoly board out with relatives, playing card games, maintain farms on Facebook, playing minesweeper or Bejewelled. Games everywhere. They’re on our phones, our computers and our televisions. They’re in our magazines, newspapers and in designated cupboards in our houses. They’re in our workplaces and pubs. Some people even take their game playing to the woods with paintball guns and shooting ranges with real weapons and live ammunition. Games are associated with children but most of the games played in the world are played by adults. People enjoy all sorts or games. They’re relaxing and fun. Warhammer is a game. Enough said.
Far from viewing Education as something like extra work to be avoided, many people view education as a pastime. People simultaneously play and watch quiz shows. They do crosswords and Sudoku puzzles. Some people even voluntarily take courses because they know they are enhancing themselves and their abilities in some way. Warhammer is not only fun and immersive, it’s effortlessly educational. Beyond the vocabulary-extending text contained within the background material and the probability and number skills developed as part of the game, Warhammer is a natural successor to Chess. While Chess is in no danger of being superseded any time soon, the two share similarities. Both are tactical wargames relying upon strategy and logical thinking. It has long been appreciated that Chess helps to develop thinking skills. There is nothing magical about Chess and the benefits it conveys. Warhammer similarly activates and trains certain faculties of the brain and as such can be considered to be teaching players at the same time as entertaining them.