Bronies, Chaos Marines, and Dirty little Secrets 2

It began as so many things do, the won­drous and the dis­as­trous alike. It began with a drink. Or two. Possibly even three. An idea is hatched, one never raised in sobri­ety but which finds fer­tile ground in the alcohol-fogged mind. A plan is made. Bolstered by Dutch courage, my friend (who I will not pub­li­cal­ly shame here lest his fam­i­ly dis­own him and so hence­forth he shall be known sim­ply as J, because Deep Throat was already taken and would only have given him ideas) and I were going to do some­thing strange togeth­er, some­thing a lit­tle shame­ful and secre­tive. We were going to par­take in a clan­des­tine exper­i­ment, one that couldn’t be safe­ly dis­cussed in front of other peo­ple.

We were going to play a game of Warhammer.

Our local Games Workshop had a poster in the win­dow adver­tis­ing a free game to any prospec­tive cus­tomer, like a deal­er promis­ing the first hit for free to draw in the vul­ner­a­ble. In our ine­bri­at­ed state, this seemed like a great idea, though obvi­ous­ly we were only going to mess about. We cer­tain­ly weren’t tak­ing it seri­ous­ly. It would just be a laugh, a quick game to pass the time, not like those losers who take up table­top gam­ing as a hobby. Such ran our thoughts, and we part­ed for the evening with a promise to meet again the next day and put our plan into action. The next morn­ing, through the aching head, churn­ing stom­ach, fuzzy rec­ol­lec­tion and all the other delight­ful fea­tures of an aver­age Saturday morn­ing, one par­tic­u­lar mem­o­ry stood out slight­ly more so than its brethren: did I real­ly agree to try a game of Warhammer?

One of my flat­mates gets up and stum­bles to the kitchen and I ven­ture to men­tion in a ha-ha-isn’t‑this-silly kind of way that I might be going into town to play a game. He shoots me a look – try­ing to work out if I’m jok­ing – before he bursts out laugh­ing. It’s under­stand­able. I had brought up the sub­ject to test the waters, to con­firm whether my own strange feel­ings of shame were nor­mal, and his reac­tion cements my sus­pi­cions. Hastily I explain that obvi­ous­ly we’re just going to dick about and clear­ly nei­ther of us actu­al­ly cares. I only just fall short of claim­ing that J and I are only doing it “iron­i­cal­ly”. This expla­na­tion seem­ing­ly accept­ed, and some tiny shred of dig­ni­ty sal­vaged, I head out.

Meet the mate. Pub lunch. Couple of pints. Not falling-down drunk but tipsy enough to calm the nerves and the grow­ing sense that we’re doing some­thing wrong. We sit in the pub for an hour or two, talk­ing the usual toot, but the con­ver­sa­tion has a brit­tle and ner­vous edge. Eventually buck­ling to the pres­sure, one of us (and I hon­est­ly don’t recall which) hes­i­tant­ly speaks up – “Sooo…shall we go and see what it’s all about, then? We’ll just have a quick look. If it’s shit, we can leave.” The gaunt­let is thrown. Here we go.

Like the intre­pid explor­ers of old, we gird our loins (or at least we would have, had we known how to) and ven­ture forth. Arriving at the shop, we dis­cov­er some­thing that sends chills down our spines – a sign, one that reads “gone for lunch, back in five!” We can see some­one in the shop, but the door is locked, and sud­den­ly things have got­ten worse than we could have imag­ined. We’re no longer two nor­mal guys who just hap­pened to wan­der into a Games Workshop, as if by acci­dent. Now we’re two guys wait­ing out­side for the shop to open. It’s a dis­as­ter. Shooting furtive glances around at the busy street, try­ing to see if any­one notices, if any­one is judg­ing the pair of freaks with noth­ing bet­ter to do than turn up early and queue for their chance to paint lit­tle model aliens.

Suddenly we’re saved by a staff mem­ber, who opens up the door and, with a rush of grat­i­tude, we duck inside the store.

The employ­ee, a total­ly normal-looking bloke (rather than the twist­ed, pasty, Gollum-like homuncu­lus that some deep recess of my sub­con­scious mind was expect­ing), is friend­ly and wel­com­ing. We explain that we’ve never played Warhammer before, that we have no idea how any of it works, but that we thought we’d “give it a go.” He’s under­stand­ing, but a lit­tle sus­pi­cious; the drink has buoyed our con­fi­dence but made us more com­fort­able in crack­ing lit­tle jokes, as if to prove to each other that nei­ther one of us is real­ly tak­ing this seri­ous­ly. He thinks we might be tak­ing the piss out of him and his hobby, we can see it in his eyes. We are, a lit­tle bit, but we’re here now and it looks quite inter­est­ing and it becomes a mat­ter of who will crack first and admit that they actu­al­ly would like to play. Eventually one of us does, and we set about the sam­ple game which has been laid out for the new­bies.

I’m rock­ing Space Marines of an uncer­tain chap­ter while J rep­re­sents the forces of Chaos. I have four grunts, a sergeant and a cap­tain who appar­ent­ly use increas­ing­ly osten­ta­tious hel­mets to denote rank (our new men­tor does not real­ly appre­ci­ate this obser­va­tion). J has five Chaos Marines and one enor­mous thing called a Hellbrute, who we imme­di­ate­ly and unthink­ing­ly began refer­ring to as “the big bas­tard” (also not appre­ci­at­ed).

In our defence, look at him and tell me the first words into your head weren’t some­thing like “wow, look at that mad bas­tard!”

We lined up our men and bat­tle was joined. Our patient guide, ignor­ing the bad jokes and fre­quent ner­vous glances at the shop win­dow, began explain­ing to us var­i­ous lit­tle back­sto­ries about our troops. Apparently that Hellbrute bloke is an ordi­nary Marine forced into a set of armour, in which he suf­fers eter­nal­ly and goes mad. With that in mind, the whole “scream­ing skull” facial expres­sion makes a lot more sense, and I’m even moved to for­give him for try­ing to mur­der my dudes. We’re informed about var­i­ous weapons, “bolters” and “repeaters” and “power fists” (cue much child­ish snig­ger­ing, once again unap­pre­ci­at­ed), about how many hits they can launch per round and how we deter­mine hits and wounds, which are appar­ent­ly dif­fer­ent things. There are a lot of dice rolls in the game of Warhammer, and a lot of details to remem­ber about var­i­ous units. It’s frankly impres­sive that our instruc­tor can rat­tle them off as eas­i­ly as he does, though we don’t say so. Wouldn’t want to seem impressed by this nerd and his nerd knowl­edge.

The game wears on, and as we become famil­iar with how many dice we should be rolling and when, it starts to become rather fun. Despite our­selves, we seem to be get­ting into the swing of things. My first vol­ley wipes out a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of J’s force, and I crack a smile. The return­ing fire knocks down my cap­tain and his fan­tas­tic hat, his brave deci­sion to lead from the front unfor­tu­nate­ly not the wis­est choice.

Your wicked-cool head­gear shall be avenged, broth­er!

Luckily, one of my remain­ing guys has a gun that can fire mul­ti­ple times per round, and with that – com­bined with a series of very unlucky rolls on J’s part – I’ve soon whit­tled the ram­pag­ing hordes of Chaos down to just the big lad with only the loss of Captain Coolhat on my tally. Taking the only avenue left to him, J charges his mad armoured fella right into the midst of my chaps and starts wild­ly lay­ing about with a giant claw. Our instruc­tor stops us here to inform me that while most of my grunts have power fists (still funny), the clos­est guy to the enemy is my sergeant, who has appar­ent­ly made the trag­ic mis­take of bring­ing a knife to a “fuck­ing enor­mous hell demon” fight and so I nom­i­nate him to take the brunt of the dam­age. I’ll miss his only-slightly-less-ostentatious hat, but he was the dick­head who didn’t come pre­pared to do any prop­er fight­ing. This actu­al­ly annoys me – as he breathes his last and I remove the fig­ure from the bat­tle­field, I’m mut­ter­ing to myself that it was his own stu­pid fault. From there my Marines sur­round the last bas­tion of Chaos and power fist him to death amidst fur­ther snig­ger­ing. I claim vic­to­ry, and vic­to­ry feels good.

Then I wake up. It’s a sud­den shock to the sys­tem, akin to post-orgasmic bliss, when the real­i­sa­tion sets in that you’re going to need to clean up all the jam and put the weasels back into their cage. A glance across the table con­firms things – J has the same slight­ly stunned look. That was fun. For a while, we for­got that we were doing some­thing so uncool that even ordi­nary geeks look down upon it, and just enjoyed our­selves. We got into it, to the point where I was mut­ter­ing dire impre­ca­tions at a tiny ill-equipped model. It’s a very weird sen­sa­tion. We make quick good­byes, throw up a pre­tence of briefly look­ing around the shop and even have a desul­to­ry con­ver­sa­tion about going halves on a starter kit, and then we leave on the dou­ble. Heads down, quick march, look­ing furtive as if we’d just left a sex shop with our lat­est pur­chas­es and were reluc­tant to make eye con­tact with any­one. From there the day slides back into a more nor­mal real­i­ty; beers, video games, gen­er­al­ly hang­ing out. Asked later by the afore­men­tioned flat­mate what it was like, all I could man­age was a shrug, a mut­tered “alright if you’re into that sort of thing.”

It was only later that I began to think about the expe­ri­ence, about how com­plete­ly bizarre the entire thing was. Not the game itself, but the way every­one treat­ed the exer­cise. My friend and I with our over-the-top brava­do to hide our embar­rass­ment at being caught play­ing Warhammer. My flatmate’s reac­tion. We were doing some­thing weird and we knew it, and we fully accept­ed that oth­ers would laugh at us and even uncon­scious­ly ceded them that right. Hell, we were laugh­ing at our­selves, dis­tanc­ing our­selves from the idea that we could be the sort of peo­ple who enjoy the game by act­ing as if it were all just a joke that we were in on. Warhammer, and other such sim­i­lar­ly maligned activ­i­ties, are for the real bottom-of-the-barrel geeks – that’s not us. We’re down the pub on Friday nights instead of at home paint­ing mod­els. That’s for the real sad acts.

But (and it’s a big but, the kind so beloved of the res­olute­ly truth­ful Sir Mixalot);

We also had plans for the rest of the day, post-Warhammer. We were going to grab some beers, rent Borderlands 2, and spend the after­noon co-operatively blast­ing fan­tas­tic alien beasts and psy­cho ban­dits on a far­away world. Around seven, we would need to take a break – time for the lat­est episode of Doctor Who, a show we’re both big fans of. We spent our sunny Saturday in a room filled with retro con­soles, blow­ing seven kinds of crap out of maraud­ing pix­els before watch­ing a time-travelling alien have campy adven­tures. So given our planned enter­tain­ment — and this is the million-dollar ques­tion — why were we look­ing down on Warhammer?

At the time it seemed so nor­mal and nat­ur­al. Tabletop gam­ing is for the uber-nerds, and we laugh at those peo­ple. My flatmate’s deri­sive laugh­ter was jus­ti­fied, our deci­sion to exper­i­ment an invi­ta­tion to mock­ery. A laugh that says “I am cool­er than you by virtue of the fact that you’ve even con­sid­ered this”. He’s a guy able to look down and judge from a lofty perch; plays foot­ball sev­er­al times a week, goes down the pub with his mates to watch the sport, has a long-term girl­friend, the very pic­ture of an ordi­nary bloke. You’d never catch him spend­ing his week­end mov­ing lit­tle mod­els of space­men around a table, pre­tend­ing they were shoot­ing each other. So what did he do with his day while J and I were play­ing with toys? He sat at home play­ing Uncharted 3. Messing about with what is, when you get right down to brass tacks, just a dif­fer­ent sort of toy. The man who, by his sur­prised laugh­ter, dis­missed the very idea of Warhammer as ridicu­lous is also, in no par­tic­u­lar order: addict­ed to the Game of Thrones TV show, a mas­sive fan of The Muppets, an avid gamer, happy to pick up and read any comics that I leave lying around and a long-time play­er of an online fan­ta­sy RPG. All of a sud­den that unas­sail­able posi­tion of supe­ri­or­i­ty van­ish­es. How is it then that the lot of us, all with a deep and abid­ing love for things labelled “geeky,” seem to have drawn a men­tal line where­by these things are accept­able but those things aren’t? What’s the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for putting Space Marines in a ghet­to while Timelords are on a pedestal?

The deci­sion, made not on a per­son­al level but appar­ent­ly by soci­ety at large, seems ridicu­lous­ly arbi­trary. Doctor Who, enjoy­ment of which was once seen as a bet­ter indi­ca­tor than even a Star Wars bed­spread and a vin­tage 45 year old vir­gin­i­ty that some­one was a geek, is cool now (much like fezzes and bowties). It’s one of the biggest shows in the world, not only find­ing that Holy Grail of a US mar­ket but dis­cov­er­ing that the US mar­ket for the show is actu­al­ly enor­mous. Video games in the pub­lic con­scious­ness have moved (or at least are in the process of mov­ing) away from the stereo­type of fat, sweaty vir­gins in base­ments to being a nor­mal, every­day activ­i­ty that even prop­er grown-ups can engage in with only the bare min­i­mum of self-conscious shame. Geek chic is a fash­ion trend. Some of the best-reviewed and high­est gross­ing movies of the last few years have been about spandex-clad comic book heroes hav­ing adven­tures. Geek cul­ture is com­ing out of the clos­et in a big way, but it seems that not every­one is invit­ed to the party.

If you are even a casu­al Internet user, you are prob­a­bly aware, if only periph­er­al­ly, of the “Brony” phe­nom­e­non (Bronomenon?). You may not know who or what Bronies are but you’ll have like­ly seen forum avatars of colour­ful car­toon hors­es become much more preva­lent recent­ly, or noticed men­tions of some­thing called a Pinkie Pie in a com­ment sec­tion here or there. Perhaps you took a clos­er look, only to be dis­ap­point­ed to dis­cov­er that a Pinkie Pie wasn’t a sex­u­al euphemism, and moved sadly on with your life.

These Bronies are adult men who revel in their enjoy­ment of My Little Pony, a children’s car­toon, and suf­fer one hell of a lot of flak for it. Geek cul­ture (rep­re­sent­ed here by the Internet at large) has a seri­ous hate-boner for the Brony move­ment, with flame wars erupt­ing as pro- or anti-Brony threads appear on total­ly unre­lat­ed forums. On the sur­face, the rea­son for the deri­sion seems obvi­ous enough; a bunch of grown-ass men sit­ting around watch­ing and actu­al­ly hav­ing the audac­i­ty to enjoy the frol­ick­ing antics of some car­toon ponies. The car­toon itself is even called “Friendship Is Magic,” and holy shit is that not the girli­est thing you’ve ever heard? That’s not just lame, that’s pathet­ic. If nerds in gen­er­al are min­ers of pop cul­ture, then Bronies are the dwarves of Moria who dug too deep and awak­ened some­thing ter­ri­ble.

And yet. How many of those anti-Brony indi­vid­u­als would have no prob­lem admit­ting a love for Transformers? GI Joe? Thundercats? Widen the net – Power Rangers. Anime. Pixar movies. Isaac Asimov. Lord of the Rings. “That’s total­ly dif­fer­ent,” would come the angry response, “those things aren’t as lame as My Little Pony!” To which the only pos­si­ble answer is “Why the hell not?” If a grown adult can hold nos­tal­gic car­toons as the pin­na­cle of enter­tain­ment, then why can’t other adults do the same with a mod­ern car­toon? What is the obses­sion with draw­ing lines in the sand? They aren’t even very well-drawn lines; con­sid­er Warhammer again for a moment, and it becomes obvi­ous that it isn’t the set­ting or the brand that it is the prob­lem but the con­text. A Warhammer video game, like the recent Space Marine, is per­fect­ly social­ly accept­able to play. There’s no shame in hav­ing played a video game, after all. Buying, paint­ing and play­ing with the mod­els, though, is weird.

There is a ghet­to even with­in nerd cul­ture, where we like to put the things we con­sid­er uncool even by the stan­dards of the tra­di­tion­al­ly uncool. There’s very lit­tle basis for one nerdy thing being less cool than anoth­er nerdy thing, the glass ceil­ing being appar­ent­ly arbi­trary and apply­ing dif­fer­ent rules on a case-by-case basis, but we still do it. Sometimes – as with Warhammer or (pre­sum­ably, since I’ve never seen any­one wear­ing an MLP t‑shirt open­ly out­side of the Internet or pro­claim­ing their love for Rainbow Dash on a street cor­ner) My Little Pony – those judge­ments are hand­ed down not just by geek cul­ture but by soci­ety at large. In research­ing this arti­cle (a rather grandiose term for start­ing a forum thread, grant­ed) I’ve spo­ken to Bronies who have expe­ri­enced accu­sa­tions of pae­dophil­ia, the logic appar­ent­ly being that if you like some­thing osten­si­bly intend­ed for chil­dren then you must want to have sex with kids. I’ve never heard the same argu­ment applied to candy, or to the films of Pixar, or any of the other numer­ous kid-friendly things which find favour with an adult mar­ket. More often than not, the peo­ple throw­ing out these accu­sa­tions are fel­low nerds, peo­ple who will hap­pi­ly watch a car­toon with every sign of enjoy­ment unless it is this car­toon. Similarly, even amongst peo­ple who will glad­ly spend hours at a time manip­u­lat­ing vir­tu­al sol­diers into bat­tle will look down on those who do the same with phys­i­cal mod­els of sol­diers, as if one is some­how innate­ly infe­ri­or to the other.

Consider this, though. We’re in the mid­dle of a reces­sion, a glob­al finan­cial cri­sis. Businesses are clos­ing left and right, with high streets begin­ning to look akin to ghost towns. Game, for­mer­ly the UK’s largest video game retail­er, has crum­bled and closed many of their shops. Even Woolworths, that stal­wart bas­tion of the high streets of my child­hood, has dis­ap­peared. However, one thing is notice­able in every major town I’ve vis­it­ed, and that’s at least one Games Workshop. Last year the com­pa­ny post­ed oper­at­ing prof­it of 15.3 mil­lion pounds. If Warhammer is so lame and nobody even remote­ly cool will go near it, then how are they still afloat? It’s begin­ning to seem as if many of those who will sneer at the con­cept – like J and myself – might actu­al­ly be lying in social self-defence to pre­vent any­one dis­cov­er­ing that they actu­al­ly rather enjoy some­thing so uncool. How many peo­ple might be hid­ing a secret love for My Little Pony, afraid to con­fess lest they be pub­licly hung, drawn and quar­tered by their peers?

Perhaps it’s time to aban­don these divi­sions. There comes a time when we all need to agree that enjoy­ing bat­tling tiny mod­els or lik­ing a children’s car­toon is no more inher­ent­ly ridicu­lous or shame­ful than deriv­ing plea­sure from wacky Japanese ani­ma­tion or slay­ing vir­tu­al drag­ons. To say, “My hobby is geeky, but yours is worse,” is to attempt to deflect per­son­al feel­ings of inad­e­qua­cy, a sense of social­ly imprint­ed shame about the things we enjoy. I may be uncool for lov­ing comics but that guy over there loves Warhammer, so clear­ly I’m cool­er than some­body. Maybe I’m reach­ing, but it seems as if in our desire to be seen as less uncool, geeks in gen­er­al are throw­ing some of our brethren to the wolves. Why deprive our­selves of some­thing we’ll enjoy just because other peo­ple have labelled it hideous­ly uncool?

Perhaps I’ll buy that starter kit after all.

Tom Dawson

About Tom Dawson

Tom Dawson is, in no particular order; a two-time Olympic bronze medallist (synchronised swimming), ancestrally Atlantean, a compulsive liar, the Green Lantern of space sector 2814 and the inventor of the cordless drill. His fondest wish is that someday he’ll get paid for writing stuff like this.

2 thoughts on “Bronies, Chaos Marines, and Dirty little Secrets

  • Jim Ralph
    Jim Ralph

    Ladies and gen­tle­men of the jury, I can hold back no longer. I must con­fess that the deri­sive house­mate of the above arti­cle – it was I! Dun dun dunnnn.

    And I can’t even deny it, I did laugh a bit at the idea of Tom and J spend­ing their after­noon with a spot of Warhammer, mean­while spend­ing mine with Uncharted 3. Turns out I’m that guy. I could have kept this to myself, and I don’t think Tom had any inten­tion of out­ing me, but I think per­haps it would be more use­ful to exam­ine this from my point of view. I’m going to own my actions and opin­ions, hope­ful­ly with­out offend­ing any­one.

    To be hon­est, I don’t think I’ve con­scious­ly ever thought about what I think of Warhammer (if you see what I’m get­ting at). I sup­pose, from my reac­tion, I do look down on it a lit­tle. Actually that’s not com­plete­ly true, I don’t look down on it, but I do regard it as child­ish. Or rather, I asso­ciate it with chil­dren. I recog­nise that this is a very sub­jec­tive (and like­ly inac­cu­rate) point of view, but it’s one that I appear to have devel­oped for one rea­son or anoth­er. I sup­pose I’m under the impres­sion that those who con­tin­ue with Warhammer in their post-teen years are indulging the nos­tal­gia Tom ref­er­ences when talk­ing about Thundercats, GI Joe, and so on. My con­fu­sion may have been derived from idea that Tom was get­ting into it so late. Why now?

    I’m big enough to admit this is a lit­tle igno­rant. I think it’s a rather socially-reinforced per­spec­tive, but that’s not an excuse and it’s some­thing I’ll think about. It’s also, again as Tom sug­gests, pal­pa­bly hyp­o­crit­i­cal. After a reg­u­lar game of poker with some mates of mine (men men men men manly men men men, y’see) the lot of us will often set­tle down to Risk or Settlers of Catan. What’s the dif­fer­ence between these games and Warhammer? Probably not a hell of a lot. Some social expec­ta­tions maybe. I’d be inter­est­ed to hear what some of the table­top gamers who read or write for the site think on this sub­ject.

    And yet… I still don’t think I’m going to try it. I didn’t see the appeal of Warhammer even when I was a kid, and nowa­days frankly I’ve no inter­est. If Tom had come back and told me it was the best thing ever, (per­haps utter­ing a breath­less ‘oh em gee!’, as he is wont to do) I’d prob­a­bly think twice, but he didn’t. Arbitrary as they may be, I will con­tin­ue to draw lines in the sand between the things I try and the things I don’t, the things I approve of and the things I don’t, though my not try­ing some­thing doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly denote any par­tic­u­lar dis­ap­proval. In a way that feels relat­ed, I’m told nud­ism pro­vides an incred­i­ble sense of free­dom and that under­neath we all look (large­ly) the same. I trust and agree with these sen­ti­ments and I’m cer­tain­ly unof­fend­ed by those who go for it, but nud­ism isn’t for me just now, thanks all the same.

    Tied up in all this, of course, is the way we entwine our inter­ests and our iden­ti­ties. What I try not to do, and main­ly suc­ceed I hope, is judge indi­vid­u­als based on the ways they might dif­fer from me. In the long run I don’t give a shit about Warhammer and I prob­a­bly never will, but I don’t want to be the guy who looks down on some­one because they do. And, to be clear, if Tom came home a Warhammer con­vert then we’d still be house­mates and I’d still regard him as exact­ly the same bloke. I would hide his lit­tle Space Marines around the flat and per­haps cre­ate some kind of jelly with them inside though. Because that is the kind of guy I am.

  • G-rac Ushdugery

    Sorry Tom, was just reread­ing your arti­cles and feel­ing the need to necro­man­cy com­ment. I think it’s unfair to say all nerdy pur­suits are equal­ly like and like. Surely peo­ple mak­ing qual­i­ta­tive judge­ments, no mat­ter how deri­sive is a good thing, the world would be a bor­ing place if we spent the whole time skip­ping round and hold­ing hands.

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