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Painted Love: 40,000 Years of Battle on Liffey Street

March 12, 2009

“The galaxy is in complete madness,” says veteran Warhammer player, Rob, explaining the difference between a plain vanilla human and a Space Marine. “There’s literally demons appearing from an alternate dimension, causing havoc, helping some of the good guys who became bad guys. These’d be Chaos Space Marines. They tend to live for about a thousand years.” Rob’s been here on his day off from work, painting tanks and putting together Imperial Guard.“There’s billions of these, and they’re cannon fodder. You run ’em into battle, they’re mown down. One Space Marine is the same as like a thousand Imperial Guard.”

These are part of Warhammer 40,000, one of two battle games which, every Tuesday (except in December), people meet to play on a tabletop here in the Games Workshop on Liffey Street. They’re talking in-universe and translating as they go, only the the universe is so complex that trying to explain anything to me is like Marco Polo trying to explain the wonders of the Orient to an Alsatian. Games Workshop is genius: first one’s free, then you know where to come and all that. Brand loyalty maybe, but also a community centre for people who fit into a fantasy world better than this one, where dizzying landscapes for some of the wildest imaginings are also regulated enough that most disputes can be settled with the roll of a die.

Rob plays as an army called Tau. “They have this thing called the Greater Good. Everything’s done for the good of everyone. And it’s not just for the Tau, they want everyone to benefit.” Ben, a small fourteen, has been coming in since he was twelve, most days now after school. The shop recently raffled off a massive army, most of which he painstakingly painted, and the other gamers wanted him to have it. “He could never afford that,” Rob says. “A lot of us were hoping he would win it.” They collected a bunch of money to buy it for him, but he won it anyway. Gabhann, a visual artist by vocation, points out the detail used in painting some of the models. “You have very high quality, very technical stuff. Glazing, layering washing: techniques they would’ve used on German realist statues of the 15th century.” Some models take weeks to paint. Hunched monks illuminating vellum, take note.

Some players are lured by the window displays, or the opportunity to dwell in a micro-universe where the odds are not stacked against geeks. Says Rob, “I was interested in the story behind it – why are they fighting? Most people play a computer game, ‘I don’t care why they’re fighting. Kill! Shoot! Blam!’” Here, there are 40,000 years of history, no limit to what can be imagined. Many storylines are still being written, mainly by gamers themselves.

As huge a business as this is, most gamers just want small satisfactions: a model well-painted, a game well-played, a friendship well-established. It’s pretty much a boys’ club, but more Boy Scouts than Portmarnock, an intense form of refuge to exercise an impulse that isn’t satisfied by modern daily life. “I don’t know whether it’s a socialised response, but maybe it suits their focus,” says Gabhann. Maybe we should worry that in a macho culture of sport and sexual dominance, this aspect of masculinity, however positive, is tantamount to ‘geekdom’, and only finds real relevance in tiny space dudes play-fighting on a table.

Teenage girls frequently wander in when they see a shop full of boys. Few stay long. Aoife is married to Rob and is one of a small number of female gamers. “I went from being a little kid, not caring about the differences between girls and guys to, yeah, I’m into comics, I’ll hang with the guys. I was pretty much a solitary person anyway .” She shrugs. Among her collections are the Sisters of Battle, some of the only female characters in any of the Warhammer games, an armour-clad regiment of no-nookie nuns. Whatever the intricacy of their internal logic, these tabletop worlds, well, where do baby Orcs come from?

“This is the most common thing you get,” she whispers like a wildlife narrator as two teenagers come in, the guy in a basic fleece, the girl from some planet of Abercrombie shills, and as he shows her a box, she’s looking over her shoulder, like geekiness is some sort of contagion, “A boy bringing his girlfriend in to try to introduce her to it. They tend to fail.” The girl drags the guy out by the sleeve of his fleece. If you can’t take the Goblin sweat, get out of the galaxy.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. monwarh permalink
    March 12, 2009 6:11 pm

    Superb post. Did it get published somewhere? Almost reads like a newspaper article.

    For me, it started with the fluff (The Warhammer 40K Fluff Bible) after I tried the computer game (Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War), and more recently, it has been the novels, such as Eisenhorn (http://monwarh.wordpress.com/2009/03/12/eisenhorn/) that has created an infatuation for the game. This cycle feeds on itself and has now led me back to the game again (http://monwarh.wordpress.com/2009/03/09/from-eisenhorn-to-warhammer-40000-dawn-of-war/). 🙂

    As for the actual painting and miniature wargaming, I can not participate due to a lack of similar-minded geeks here in Bangladesh. That’s a bit sad… but then I have the lore and the game and the novels and tidbits like this to be thankful for. 🙂

  2. Jane permalink*
    March 12, 2009 10:35 pm

    Hello, thanks! Actually, I’m still in the middle of setting up this blog, so I just put up some old articles from a mag I used to write for, at least to have some content so I could play with the layout, which I’m still figuring out. I haven’t even started posting yet, well, not properly.

    I did a series of articles on collectors and hobbyists, so I’m more a collector of collectors, with a hobby dabbling in other people’s hobbies. The thing that struck me most wasn’t even the amount of work that went into painting the figures, it was the community they had. The fact that the older gamers actually bought this huge thing for the young lad — that was pretty awesome. I don’t know much about the gaming side of it, but it was great to get an insight. And I hadn’t realised just how much work goes into the figures, the storyline — everything.

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