So, I spent much of today reading comments and forum posts by Warhammer 40,000 players, for some reason. (This doesn't only apply to them, though; it has a lot to do with Pathfinder and video games as well.)
40k players spend an awful lot of time complaining online, it feels like. But what's interesting to me is what they choose to complain about. Roughly half of the forum-goers I saw were complaining about the company that makes the Warhammer models; how Games Workshop's latest rulebook ruined their fun, invalidated their strategies, and obsoleted their favourite models.
Some of their stories are really sad. "40K" players invest dozens or hundreds of hours in their cherished pastime, sometimes in just a single model, and it shows. Far from looking for an excuse to complain, the most upset players seemed more like betrayed lovers, who had given and given and given and were rewarded with Games Workshop's scorn.
The other half ... were complaining about the first half.
It wasn't immediately clear why, to me. What harm did it do for them to voice their grievances, especially in forum threads that are expressly asking for others' opinions? But they sounded like people in the abusive church I grew up in, chastising people for showing "bitterness" or being "anti" Games Workshop. One forum poster even went so far as to claim that complainers viciously attack anyone who disagrees with them. When asked to back up their claim, this poster reproduced quotes from the thread where people merely said they disliked the new 7th Edition rules. Or had been negatively affected by the community moving on to them.
This person, and others like them, was choosing to identify with Games Workshop over the people that its publications affected. Sort of like how "true-believing" Mormons side with "the Church" over people its teachings and leaders hurt.
That doesn't mean 40k is a cult
I personally feel this behaviour is widespread in the gaming community. Like the "edition wars" many D&D players engage in, or the terror threats video game fans have become known for, or the stigma attached to "rules lawyers" and "munchkins" in Pathfinder and earlier editions of D&D.
Fun fact: In my last Pathfinder Society game the GM accused me of being a rules lawyer. Not for trying to argue a favourable interpretation of an unclear rule, but because I knew the correct way to measure an area of effect and my GM apparently didn't. It got to the point where he refused to even look at the rules, he was so upset with me for contradicting him.
I think the root cause of these behaviours is entitlement. But not the kind that the people complaining about the complainers would say that they have. I mean the kind caused by structural inequality, which gives one group of people unearned privilege which they then feel entitled to. And while they may not consciously recognize it, they start to identify with and defend the source of their privilege, while simultaneously defending themselves against the knowledge that at any time they could lose it.
You know, sort of like how American conservatives defend "job creators" who sell people out and move jobs overseas, and then blame the people who are laid off.
That's all well and good (or doom and gloom as the case may be), but what does it have to do with our friends who play with toy soldiers?
To coin a phrase, Games Workshop giveth, and Games Workshop taketh away. It has insulated itself completely from its fanbase, to the point where in its profile page for investors its leadership prides themselves on doing no market research. They have no forums or company-wide social media accounts, and reviews aren't allowed on their online store. All communication with Games Workshop is one way, from them to you.
That communication, in the form of rulebook and codex updates (in-game stats for your models), has a profound effect on the miniatures hobbyists who play Warhammer 40,000. Who, I remind you, have no input at all on what goes into those books. They are released seemingly at random, changing seemingly random game elements for no explicable reason, and what was a powerful army list in one book can become worthless when the next one comes out. Worse, a game that its players have learned to enjoy can become intolerable to them.
And they'll pay $50-100 for the privilege, because while GW claims to be a miniatures company and not a game company (despite having that in its name) the players are dependent on their new rulebooks, which gives them a license to print money. One which they've been using more frequently of late, with DLC-style "dataslates" and codex revisions every few months and the latest two editions of the main rulebook released just two years apart.
How about other games?
This, IMO, is what tore the D&D community apart more than anything else. Not the 4e/5e/Pathfinder split, but just the fact that Wizards of the Coast's corporate management treated their players as less-than, and "D&D Insider" broke them into unequal tiers.
Paizo didn't do much better with Pathfinder either, IMO. Pathfinder inherited D&D 3.5's legacy of punishing players for choosing the wrong things for their characters, from a bewildering array of choices, or simply not buying enough books. (Their latest book is a strategy guide, so you'll know which spells and feats to skip.)
The Pathfinder Society organized play program, especially, has layer upon layer of inequality in its system of insider knowledge, DLC PDFs, and GM-signed permission slips. There's less dissent on Paizo's official forums, but that's largely because the players they chase off for being "entitled" have less invested in it than in 40k, and because people who are invested enough can just start their own games at home.
The healthiest tabletop gaming community I've seen so far is probably Privateer Press' Warmachine / Hordes fanbase. The models are beautiful, the setting is spectacular (in the words of one player, it's "ruined steampunk for [them] forever"), and the rules are extremely well-balanced. There are rock-paper-scissors interactions between army lists, and certain models are easier for new players to win with because they require less skill, but it's actually possible to play a pickup game with someone you've never met and have fun with it. Instead of spending a half-hour hashing out house rules and ban lists.
Even better, while Games Workshop sells super-expensive hardbacks and overpriced PDFs to people who want an edge in the game, in Warmahordes a one-time $7 payment will give you all the rules for every model for your faction of choice, through their War Room app. You don't even need to buy it, since each model's stats come on the included cards.
Warhammer 40,000 includes tons of models and spare parts with each set, sometimes more than Warmahordes does for the same price. But the cost to get started in Warmahordes is much lower, as is the cost to maintain competitiveness. They publish new books, but these are nice-to-haves, not must-haves, because they don't obsolete your old ones and they aren't required to play with the new models. The one time that they did an edition change, they let everyone playtest the new rules, and the cost to switch over was much, much lower.
Probably my favourite thing Privateer Press has done? Explicitly ban transphobia at their conventions.
Game over, man
I don't know where I'm going with this. It's late, and I'm tired and rambly.
I just feel like, the less inequality there is between players and game publishers -- and between the players and each other -- the less fighting and arguing there seems to be, and the more creative freedom there is.
I like the Tau model collection I'm building, but I feel more at home with game players and companies which treat me with respect.