Goonhammer Historicals: Historicals in Modernity

We’re going to take a break from our usual Historicals content this week and channel Admiral Cosme Damian de Churruca. This article is about nailing our colours to the mast to stand up to defend the hobby we love, the games we play, and the people we play them with.

Historicals have often been an awkward battle ground for differing ideologies, not simply on the tabletop as we roll our dice, but out in the real, human context of those games. We’ve covered this before in our round table article on Historical Portrayals in Miniatures games – the tension that necessarily exists when refighting real wars with our models of plastic, metal and resin, and many of the ways we individually and as a team navigate this tension. We play with models representing real people, sometimes with views and motivations not just abhorrent to modern audiences but called out and decried by their contemporaries. We play with models and rules made by people in the modern day, who bring their own cultural contexts and, occasionally, biases and discriminatory attitudes, to their output.

This is often simmering in the background, occasionally coming into sharp focus, as in April’s Wargames Illustrated, where a discussion of threats to Wargaming veers from the concern that public knowledge of history is waning into a very different territory:

John Stallard: I think that the biggest threat now, along with some of the supply problems we’ve been seeing, is what seems to have become known as wokeism. It doesn’t matter where it comes from but journos are going to do what they do; they could write a story right now – some sensationalised thing – that one wargames manufacturer is making Nazis, another is producing Imperialist British soldiers to slaughter natives, and another is sculpting slave owning Confederates. What an outrage! I can just see that it can then progress to people deciding they don’t want their children playing x and y

So here we are, doing what journos are going to do. This editorial is about our version of historicals – our approach, our manifesto, our Fünfundneunzig Thesen for those of you who love 30 Years War gaming. We’re going to talk about what we want Historicals to be, and we invite you to come join us in making it happen.

What we Believe

The Goonhammer Historicals team is made up of people from all over the globe, of many different ages and experiences. We are bound together by our love of history, research, and historical wargaming. You can find out more about us here. We create positive Historicals content that believes wargaming is for everyone, a collective experience to be enjoyed, championed, and shared widely.

Historical wargaming is for everyone, no matter their race, color, creed, gender, sexual orientation, history, nation or identity. By making historical wargaming an inviting place we can grow our hobby and have meaningful interactions with many different people. We believe that nobody should be afraid to come to the wargaming table and have a good time, and everyone deserves to be treated with respect.

We believe that the study of history does indeed change over time – some conflicts we’ve studied were viewed through different lenses for decades that have come to be seen by historical scholars as moulded to benefit certain people. This could be “States Rights” narratives, “Benevolent” British Empire myths, Nazi propaganda of their own “superiority” or many other instances of deliberate manipulations of history to excuse and defend the intolerable. Historical study today progresses by forming a more complete picture of historical events, utilising a wider variety of sources and lenses – cultural, social, economic, environmental pressures – than ever before. What was once considered immutable, constant truth is now no longer the case. History is not static, it shifts, grows and develops with new evidence and new perspectives. We believe that to ignore this, or describe the process of Historiography as “woke” is a political choice made in bad faith by those who wish to close down legitimate criticism.

The biggest threat to wargaming is not, and never will be “wokeism”. The biggest threat is undoubtedly racist, sexist, colonialist and imperialist attitudes in our hobby. It is, without question, those who use wargaming to platform states rights fallacies, white supremacism, racism and fascism, knowingly or through ignorance. Describing concerns about modelling and representing armies that stood up to defend slavery, genocide, imperialism, colonialism and racism as “wokeism” is neither positive nor welcoming, an attitude that will keep historicals the preserve of a “chosen few”. We reject this utterly.

We believe the hobby has to be taken up by those who will carry it on for years to come and carried proudly to wargaming shows, conventions, and social media. If we are to champion, develop and grow Historicals, we must be positive, open and welcoming – traits that are all too sadly absent in some Historical gaming contexts. This means we need to call out accusations of ‘wokeism’ or ‘political correctness’ or ‘revisionist history’ when we see them for what they are – bad faith arguments meant to shut down any type of new research, intended to gatekeep the hobby.

What We See

When we look around us at Historicals gaming, we see a lot of joy, pride in paintjobs, research, sculpts and conversions and see people enjoying their games and writing the best, most innovative rules anyone’s put down on tabletop – this is a wonderful part of the wargaming hobby, and the scene deserves to grow. It struggles to do so sometimes because of the other side of what we see.

We’re not going to make this an endless list of call-outs, but it’s worth looking at a couple of examples of behaviours designed to close down Historical gaming and restrict it to “belonging” to one certain – very white, very male and largely old – part of our cultures.

Fake History

Many times when you get going on a project and search the web for painting guides, scenarios, etc. you get thrown to The Miniatures Page, a 1990s-era message board that is populated mostly by people whose best years are behind them. These types of quotes are posted there every day and not taken down:

“The Union did not go to war to end slavery. It went to war to impose a constitutional order upon a people who chose freely to leave it.”

“For better or worse today the rewriting of history is part of the “woke”, DEI, CRT/1619 movement. Pushed by a very vocal minority.”

“Slavery is the historical norm. Pretty much every culture from Sumer onwards either were slaves or owned slaves – often both. To judge past cultures by today’s standards – they “should’ve done better” is the worst wokism.”

[On the topic of Confederate treatment of black soldiers] “Bill, maybe you should create a section/room/forum area called “Virtue Signaling”, or “I want to stir up s**t”, for posts like this, because after awhile, this gets old. And it’s usually the same people who keep beating the dead horse to make themselves look and feel “superior”.”

We know why these positions are advocated for, and it has nothing to do with history and everything to do with what these people want you to believe in the modern day. We do not need to use 21st century arguments to refute them. We can use the words of those who fought the battles we recreate:

I have only a short time to live, only one death to die, and I will die fighting for this cause. There will be no peace in this land until slavery is done for. – John Brown

If to be feelingly alive to the sufferings of my fellow-creatures is to be a fanatic, I am one of the most incurable fanatics ever permitted to be at large. – William Wilberforce

It is not a liberty of circumstance, conceded to us alone, that we wish; it is the adoption absolute of the principle that no man, born red, black or white, can be the property of his fellow man. – Toussaint Louverture

Ignoring that the battles we fight were ideological and political when they happened, and continue to be so, is to make a political statement. It’s one we’re seeing a lot at the moment – where “keeping politics out of it” amounts to “Western”, “male” and “white” meaning “good”, and “political” means “bad” – usually also “indigenous”, “person of colour”, “emancipationist” and “female”. In their world the white man is always right, politics is something your enemies do, and, of course, it’s not a genocide it’s a “response to a native uprising”.

We as historical wargamers need to work hard to create places welcoming to all people and drown out the noise these bad actors generate. They are attempting to use their warped and inaccurate version of “history” to exclude, to defend the indefensible, to make their ideological world view a reality in the modern day.

Questioning is “Wokeism”

The John Stallard quote above cites “Wokeism” as the greatest threat to gaming. These days “Wokeism” is the ill-defined boogeyman, the Sherman threatening to rip up your infrastructure just because you stood up for “states rights”. We have not seen, and are confident that we will not see, any significant attempt in the wargaming sphere to do what Stallard is suggesting will happen – removing Imperial British, WW2 German or ACW Confederate armies from wargames. What we are seeing – and rightly so – is people asking and questioning the history behind these miniatures, that it is not always “just a bit of fun”, and that representing real conflict brings with it uncomfortable and sometimes difficult conversations, feelings and pressures.

Gaming with Nazis, Confederates, British, Imperial Japanese, Modern Russians, Cromwell’s Army in Drogheda or innumerable other forces, if not all historical gaming, is neither context-free or politically neutral. There is no “keeping politics out of it” when we fight our model wars – war, after all, is politics continued by other means. In Historicals we play with armies who committed crimes and were bitterly contested in doing so – otherwise, we would not play a wargame. It’s more than likely that Confederates face the Union. Nazis fight Anti-Fascists. Your Imperial British intervention force is being contested, right then and there on the table, by people who wish for self-determination. To dismiss criticism of making, playing and painting armies as “wokeism” is not just historically illiterate, it is a deliberate attempt to enforce a delegitimised and dying political stance.

It is also nonsense to dismiss the very real worries people have around playing with these armies, or playing Historicals altogether. We want a wider, larger, better Historicals community – we want everyone to share the joy and excitement of playing Historicals. We must listen to those who ask, quite honestly “Why play the baddies?”. Attitudes like the ones expressed in Wargames Illustrated, or acted out through models (see below) are actively discouraging people from joining this wonderful section of the hobby sphere.

“Realism” and Racism

Dismissing all criticism as “wokeism” is a handy ruse, allowing you to summon up an imaginary threat to rally your defenders against what you know to be legitimate criticism. Wargames – miniatures, rules, gameplay, approaches – are not context free. Some manufacturers have gone out of their way to produce racist models, give us in-depth descriptions of the best way to model gas chambers, or give away special edition miniatures of the moments right before a sexual assault. When companies produce these pointless exercises in tastelessness, racism or sexism, “anti-wokeism” has become the defence.

This often plays into the idea of “realism” – that the “historical reality” we are supposedly playing in excuses racist, occasionally pro-nazi, historically inaccurate nonsense. If we wish for realism, because play with models depicting real people, why do manufacturers buy in to racist depictions in the name of realism? There are many product lines we could name and shame here – from “Pygmies” straight out of Tintin in the Congo, through rules making the Wermacht superhuman, miniatures celebrating sexual assault to the Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s Plastic Japanese Infantry.

The way a model looks is a choice – a choice that could be made in other directions and with different results. The charge of “wokeism” attempts to blind us to the fact that they are choices by invoking a fictional boogeyman threatening to “ruin the hobby”. Companies choose to make and sell the models and rules that they produce. These are not natural forces, and racist models – and rules – do not spring forth from divine inspiration. They could choose to do differently – they do so because they do not care that they’re putting this material out there, or worse, they know they are and want to do it regardless.

Instead of making Japanese infantry with exaggerated Looney Tunes faces, use photos from the period to produce accurate faces. Instead of arming British colonial forces with big swords and screaming faces, show how they would’ve looked like in a real WW2 battle – likely preparing a rifle and trying to be as small as possible. Even challenging the Lost Cause myth is important – quartermaster records show that Confederate soldiers were well equipped in most theatres through most of the war, not the ragged, starved, noble soldiers you see in paintings. There are many manufacturers who make better, more accurate, choices, and our corner of the hobby is big enough that you will never be starved for an alternative.

Our Responsibility as Historicals Gamers

We want Historicals to grow. We need to promote the games we do and show people how awesome our minis and terrain look, how good the rulesets we’re using are. We do that by sharing the content far and wide on social media. We invite our friends to conventions and local gatherings to show them what we’re doing.

Easy wins to help more people feel included would be using rulesets that don’t specifically cater themselves to one audience. Black Powder is a flagship ruleset for a big company that is written for new players and easy play – it should be something accessible to everyone. The first page of the book has an introduction with the following:

Black Powder is a game for militarily inclined gentlemen with straight backs, bristling beards and rheumy eyes that have seen a thing or two. If tales of battle and glory in
days-gone-by stir nothing in your breast, if the roar of cannon does not quicken the pulse and set a fire in the belly, then stop reading forthwith. Ours is not an adventure to be embarked upon by the faint hearted. Put down this book and be glad that you have spared yourself the discomforting spectacle of grown men attempting to relive the great conflicts of history with armies of toy soldiers.

So heft your muskets and prepare for battle. The library or billiard room will serve as our battlefield, or else some similarly spacious and secluded refuge. Ensure that children are safely put to bed and lie safely beyond earshot. Secure the doors against the intrusion of womenfolk as yet unfamiliar with the conventions of war. Ready your armies for the long march to glory.

And finally, let us remember that the ideal accompaniment to the journey may be found in good brandy, fine cigars, and the companionship of like-minded enthusiasts.

Why not just make it a game for “military inclined people that have seen a thing or two”? At the end, even, it talks about the companionship of like-minded enthusiasts, so why actively go against that in the previous two paragraphs? The part about the intrusion of womenfolk is so far beyond acceptable it should have been clear to everyone – “it’s just a joke” is a child’s excuse. It’s just weird, unnecessary, and unacceptable. This was in the Second Edition of the game as well, unchanged. What a missed opportunity to fix an error in judgment.

We invite new perspectives. Every day we have new people joining the hobby and they’re from different places with different backgrounds and different personal histories. They want to see new things done in the hobby – maybe game a new time period or look at a familiar conflict in a different way. There are battles and units of the Civil War that have never been gamed before and new stories to tell in something that might feel saturated.

We encourage everyone to investigate history. Often times the project you take on that is way outside the norm is one where you’ll get recognition and help people do the project themselves. Read first hand accounts of the period and the conflicts and form your own opinions.

This Person is Your Friend: They Fight for Freedom

Challenging and questioning means policing and protecting our spaces as gamers. Sometimes that is very easy, raising a point on historical accuracy or correcting a misconception. Sometimes it is uncomfortable, pointing out a racist model and asking an opponent to remove it, even refusing to play against armies that you feel are deliberately offensive, or choosing to buy from companies that do not produce these models. It means challenging myths and pointing out distorted Histories – particularly the troubling persistence of Nazi war myths in Historicals treatment of German WW2 forces. If you feel safe and confident to do so, question, challenge and defend wargaming spaces as environments that everyone can feel comfortable in.

Unfortunately, Historicals gaming does have a problem with people using the hobby to normalise the unacceptable and not standing up to the attitudes we have called out does have a consequence. The Nazi Bar argument is frighteningly relevant here. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s an anecdote about challenging and refusing service to bar patrons sporting Nazi symbols, tattoos or even views. Once you tolerate it once, it happens again, and again, and again. From letting one thing slide in your bar you suddenly have a group with swastika tattoos and then – without realising – you’re the Nazi bar.

In wargaming many of you might have seen something similar. You’re playing a WW2 game and your opponent has modelled large Swastika flags over their tanks and explains it’s “historically accurate for aerial identification”. Because noone questions it, they’re emboldened to push it a little further, all in the name of “accuracy”. The next time you see them, they have Swastika dice, and then the next time a dice bag too, an army case, a t-shirt and then they’ve brought their mate who plays exclusively SS themed around the Warsaw Uprising. Suddenly your Historicals group is a closed, hostile space. Suddenly, your group is a Nazi group.

It is our responsibility as Historicals gamers to stop this from happening. More than any other section of the gaming sphere, we have a responsibility to challenge, question and push back. It is not just fascism, but sexism, racism, homophobia and transphobia and all the other horrors we’re inflicted with by the small minded. It’s the defence of colonialism or the erasure of history to suit a bigoted political agenda. Defend your spaces. You’ll see it in response to this – it starts with calling this article woke and it ends with this hobby being the sole preserve of bigots.

What we’re going to do

So here’s what we’re going to do on Goonhammer Historicals to make sure we’re defending and growing our Hobby. You can expect – and we want you to hold us to this – that we will always write, interview and research with these principles in mind:

We will present an alternative – whether that’s questioning and challenging perceived wisdom, suggesting model lines or through designing our own games, we will aim to champion welcoming, open and anti-racist content that respects the lives and experiences of the periods we recreate in miniature

We will always question ourselves – you can expect us to ask and discuss “playing the bad guys”, the games we play and the wars we refight, discussing honestly and openly the implications of playing games based in some of history’s darkest days.

We will welcome and champion a diversity of voices – we will continue to grow our Historicals team, talking to new people, welcoming different voices and perspectives and being an open, welcoming and supportive environment for historical gaming.

We will not accept, promote or champion racist models – you will not see racist models on this site, and we will actively recommend alternatives, point out problematic depictions and interrogate why choices in mini sculpting are made the way they are. If you do see something in our Historicals content you want to bring up, discuss, challenge or disagree with, please get in touch. We welcome that challenge and are always keen to learn.

We will continue to put forward a view that Historicals IS political – we reject that wargaming is politically neutral, and we will be honest about difficult and uncomfortable issues raised by wargaming, historical or otherwise.

We will remain, always, a positive place that loves Historicals gaming – you’ll see our best ideas, our favourite games and our proudly painted models here, week in week out as we help to grow this hobby we love.

Questions, comments, suggestions?