I’ve been thinking about this a lot for a variety of reasons; the biggest of which is there’s currently a feud going on among two of the bigger players in the Seattle area who both have done a huge amount of work to promote the hobby in the area. I won’t get into the particulars of the feud, which actually goes beyond the scope of 40k, but I understand the reasons for the antipathy, but I just can’t help but wish they get beyond it.
But that’s not really what I wanted to talk about; what I’m concerned with is why 40k tends to cause so much nerd-rage when it is, at its core, a silly game using toys of fictitious things. It’s set in a world divorced of the usual faux pas conversation topics like religion, politics, or race. It should be a great medium for having lots of happy fun; and, by and large, most of us who enjoy the game DO have lots of fun with it. But why do we put aside the fun and get angry about things so often? Why are we frustrated by fellow gamers about so many different things?
First off, 40k REALLY isn’t a game, it’s a hobby. Not to stir up hobbyist/WAAC debates, but the truth of the matter is that the people who continue to play this game aren’t really in it for the rules, more like in it DESPITE the rules. Anyone that gives two figs about RAW knows that GW writes atrocious rules. Look at how many FAQs they need and how quickly and over stuff that should be so simple! Look at the INAT for goodness sakes! The holes in the game of 40k are WIDE OPEN, and I’m not even talking about the lack of balance even within codexes (Hi, I’m the pyrovore!). I’m not sure there exists a person who looked at the rules and said, “Yes, this is the game I want to devote hundreds of dollars to!” No, even the most cut-throat competitive person out there at some point was inspired by some model or drawing or bit of fluff and decided to buy in. Once you invest into 40k, then your next-level personality comes out: uber-competitive douche or whiny milquetoast painter and everyone in between. In the end, what keeps us playing and buying more models is because we want to be engaged in the world of 40k in a creative manner: whether its physically creating beautiful (or even beautiful to just us!) models or else designing masterful lists that really milk the codex for all its worth. Either way, or BOTH, we are spending time being creative more than actually playing the game itself (I know I drop HOURS on list designing even on armies I don’t own, I find it diverting), and that’s why this is a hobby akin to playing Sudoku or scrap-booking, the only difference is that you then take that thing you spent so much time on and then you put it down on the table and play a game with it, but that is almost always a side-effect of the hobby, rather than the main goal.
Now, this is probably the most important point: 40k is intensely personal, but you have to play other people. I have a distinct memory of trying to play GI Joes with my best friend Jon back when we were about 8. He brought his Joes over, I got out mine. We went to the backyard and spent most of the Saturday digging trenches and making a river with a garden hose. Then we set up the forces and got ready to fight the battle. Now, I’d played GI Joes with others before and found that having a “game plan” of figuring out which side would win and who would die in the fight BEFORE playing really alleviated a lot of “Beachhead totally just killed Storm Shadow!””NU UH!” type arguments. I thought this was a perfectly reasonable solution, but Jon immediately thought my idea was ridiculous. “Why even bother playing? We already know who wins!” What I realized at that moment was that when it comes to make-believe and play, people have widely different ideas of what is cool and fun and what restrictions are pointless and which are good. 40k is intensely personal. We are inspired and awestruck by completely different things in the 40k universe. Why do I play 40k? Because I thought that the idea of an Ork riding a cybernetically enhanced boar was an awesome idea (stupid lack of cyboars now a-days…GET OFF MY LAWN!). I find the look of helmetless Space Marines to be idiotic, my buddy thinks they look heroic. I think its cool that Logan Grimnar is considered a hero and is almost universally loved in the Imperium, whereas some of my friends think it should be Marneus. I like the idea of the Hive Mind and the oppressive terror of the Tyranid forces, my buddy thinks that since they are all mindless that the army has no soul and is uninteresting.
What am I getting at? We all like certain parts of the game for different reasons. We are all inspired in different ways. What happens then when you go to a tournament and plop down an army that you think is really cool (for WHATEVER reason), and your opponent immediately dismisses it. “That’s a battalion box set army if I ever saw one!” “You brought a leaf-blower!” “Why did you paint your Space Wolves brown? Don’t you know they are only grey!?!?!” When people attack your army, they are attacking YOU, the very core of what you find appealing about 40k. Not only that, but they are denigrating your HOBBY, not just your army. If I’m playing a game of starcraft and I crush someone with a zerg rush and they get all snippy about rushes being lame, I don’t take it personally, I just say, “qq moar!” Because, the thing is, they’re really complaining about the game, not me. I can shrug that off. When someone is complaining about my army for whatever reason, I take it personally, because I have so much invested in it. Now, if for whatever reason, if you wrote poetry, you were forced almost always to then read your poetry to people, you’d quickly find that some people don’t like your sonnets, and prefer haikus or dirty limericks. You’d get really annoyed because an important part of you is being mocked.
40k is a game populated with nerds, nerds are, in general, not good with people. Even before you get to any potential issues, you have communication breakdowns as one quiet type tries to communicate with another. Next, conflict resolution for nerds is usually made up of retreating and going into a fantasy world in which they have power of some kind and…oh wait…crap. What happens if the escapist fantasy world is now the heart of conflict!?!?! How do you resolve this problem now? Well, just like in high school, the solution is to find allies in cliques. Find people that think like you enough that you can get along well enough and now tear down the other groups.
But here’s the real kicker, the reason these things get so acrimonious is because the overall pool of people is so small. Imagine that instead of 40k, I’m talking about rec league basketball. If you were more of a casual rec leaguer, you wouldn’t get into the super-competitive leagues, you’d go for the softer ones. And the thing is, you’d probably never bump into the ultra competitive people and you’d just play and have fun. With 40k, your pool of players is limited to the point that you can’t REALLY divide THAT much, so you’ll be forced to interact with someone who thinks about 40k differently than you fairly often. Try as you’d like to subdivide 40k (and BOY do we!), those subdivisions will invariably interact somewhere and then sparks fly.
So, essentially, you have something that is more than a game that sucks up hours upon hours of our lives in various ways, that makes us feel good for various reasons; but then in order to get any real value out of it, you must put your extremely personal hobby-result onto a table and have it judged by others. When some people don’t immediately love what you love or even act superior about their imaginary stuff, you immediately get defensive and angry and then you look for people that think more like you, but we can’t escape the people that think differently than us, so the conflict simmers.
I’m not sure what the solution to this whole thing is other than learn to deal with people who think differently than you (which really doesn’t solve anything because 40k is so personal) and do everything you can to bridge the gap between yourself and your fellow gamers. Try and see what the other person is personally investing in and realize their ideas are just as valid as yours.
Anyway, this whole thing isn’t very coherent, but I hope I got my main point across: 40k gets really intense and divisive because at its core it is fueled by our imaginations and it’s hard to be told our imaginations are wrong.