A graphic from Assassin's Creed: Valhalla shows a Viking-esque warrior walking through a battlefield carrying an axe
Graphics from 'Assassin's Creed: Valhalla'

It might seem contradictory that the most hateful viewpoints are often coupled with a yearning for a return to a romantic, idyllic past. In order for any political movement to survive, its leaders have to tell stories about how they think the world should be. On the far right, it usually goes as follows: our lands were once places of unspoiled, awe-inspiring natural beauty. People lived materially tough but spiritually enriching lives, graced with pristine, entirely white, nuclear families, green spaces and physical and psychological strength. The only thing they had to do to protect their way of life was to defend themselves – unfailingly, violently – against outsiders.

And if there isn’t a period of history that backs up that narrative, you can just invent one. A prime example of this is the far right’s celebration of the Vikings – inaccurately re-envisioned as a singular white race built on glory and bloodshed, with a visually striking and fearsome aesthetic.

The Nazi party repeatedly adopted Viking and Nordic symbols to craft a fantasy of the Aryan race; the swastika is based on an ancient, Nordic artefact. As alt-right politics rose to the surface of party politics following the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, Norse-age symbols and “alt-history” also began to reappear. A year later, at the Unite the Right Rally, organised by Richard Spencer, protestors could be seen carrying Thor’s hammer as they marched through the streets of Charlottesville – an event that led to the murder of Heather Heyer, after a participant deliberately drove their car into a crowd of counter-protestors. The Viking helmets seen in the Capitol riots in 2021 were also part of the far right’s perversion of Norse folklore and paganism.

Around this time, extremism researchers were also becoming concerned with the gaming community, which seemed to be increasingly overrun by violent, extremist imagery and propaganda. It wasn’t incidental. When the former Trump strategist Steve Bannon took over US far-right outlet Breitbart, he used his position to encourage Gamergate: an organised, misogynistic online harassment campaign directed against feminist gamers.

Recent research from the Global Network of Extremism and Technology (GNET) looks at the weaponisation by the far right of two video games in particular: Assassins Creed: Valhalla and God of War. Both are based on an alt-history in which gamers can play out their white supremacist fantasies. God of War is rooted in Greek and Norse mythology and has been frequently criticised for graphic scenes of violence and portrayals of toxic masculinity. Artwork from Valhalla has also been adopted by recognised white supremacist groups and shared online. The study shows how these hyper-real, reconstructed versions of history were adopted by fascists and scattered across the digital space.

“Even before the release of Assassin’s Creed [Valhalla], the game’s developers knew it would be used by white supremacists. There was a tonne of pre-warning press saying that they were trying to avoid the game being manipulated by Nazis. The argument you could make, though, is that they have still created this extremely sensationalised version of Vikings which isn’t accurate,” Dr Ashton Kingdon, a teaching fellow in criminology at the University of Southampton, who authored the report, tells me.

Historical fantasies

Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla was launched in 2020 as the 12th instalment of the Assassin’s Creed series. It had the biggest launch to date, selling most of its copy within its first week. It is games developer Ubisoft’s second most profitable venture, gaining over $1 billion in revenue in 2022. Santa Monica Studio’s God of War is a franchise that was originally based on Greek mythology. However, with its 2018 series, the developers decided to incorporate Norse mythology. It’s hard to overestimate the popularity of both games. Despite Valhalla’s mixed reviews, the game built up a fan base of 20 million players in just two years.

The story of Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla centres on Eivor, whom the player can cast as male or female, and their brother Sigurd. It’s 873 CE. The siblings’ backstory is told at the start of the game, over speeding visuals of a luminous, misty forest, as they recount witnessing their parents’ murder before their eyes. From there, they take to England – a land already populated with Danes and Norse after years of battle. The task is to gather allies and recruit new soldiers to defend the “homeland” against England’s begrudged four kingdoms: Mercia, East Anglia, Northumbria and Wessex. Players siege castles, set thatched huts alight and generally raid and massacre their way to glory.

It’s an immersive, cinematic game, full of expansive scenes of rolling green hills in Dark Age England. You can also wander through the mountainous terrains of Vinland, an area first discovered by Leif Erikson in 1000 CE, five centuries before Columbus. It’s not all killing and pillaging, either. The game throws you into some emotionally testing scenarios. You find yourself ushered into making swift, life-ending decisions over suspected traitors, or unearthing the motivations behind a man who is haunted by the spirit of his dead wife. For some relief, you can sing songs or partake in a drinking game or two.

The attention to detail and artistry are impressive, and the romanticisation might not seem immediately harmful. But when it falls into the wrong hands, an intricate, highly realistic rendition of Viking mythology sends a worrying message. One of the main gripes for historians is the overarching use of the term “Viking” itself. The idea of the blue-eyed, blonde-haired warrior conquering Europe just isn’t true. Viking, Kingdon explains, is actually a verb, alluding to the group’s activities. The seafarers settled across the Mediterranean, Caspian, Black, Arctic and North Atlantic seas. They could be distinguishable from Celts or Saxons not because of their ethnicity, but because of their skill in sailing. It was only in the 19th century, when Europe was becoming increasingly nationalistic, that the myth that the Vikings were a superior race – descended from a genetically pure bloodline – began to take hold of the popular psyche.

The imaginary locations shown in Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla tap into the insidious idea of “the hyperborea.” As Abbie Richards, an extremism researcher, succinctly puts it in a video explainer: “Hyperborea was this ancient, high civilisation where the Aryan race – white people – lived in paradise before they were forced to mix with other races. It’s a racist fairytale used to perpetuate white supremacy and to justify racist violence. This stuff is racist and antisemitic but also coded enough that people just engage with it like it’s just a story.”

The term is rooted in esoteric Nazism, what Richards describes as “white supremacy disguised as a web of metaphysical and mystical nonsense. This flavour of Nazism is obsessed with the mythical Aryan race and restoring it [even though] it was never a thing.”

Violence and video games

So, should we worry about these games and others like them? Not necessarily, but it’s a difficult line to toe. Researchers have emphasised that it’s not about the games themselves as much as how they are used. There’s nothing that’s inherent in video games that leads people towards extremist views or actions, nor is it the case that the violence within gaming – or any other medium, like horror films or music – will act as a form of radicalisation. In 2020, reanalysis of often-cited 2008 research from the American Psychological Association rebuffed claims that video games lead to an increase in aggressive behaviour. On the contrary, after reviewing 28 papers, the Royal Society for Open Science proposed that video games could have a positive impact on cognition and self-regulation.

Moral panics surrounding video games do not help to answer the complex question of why some people commit unthinkable acts. It’s a kind of pseudo-psychology that sweeps aside structural issues, like regulation in technology and mental health care. By robbing people of their agency, it fails to hold the powerful to account. The National Rifle Association regularly blames video games for mass shootings to deflect from conversations on gun control. Following the shooting in Parkland, Florida in 2018, Trump said that “we have to do something ... I’m hearing more and more people say the level of violence on video games is really shaping young people’s thoughts.”

Would it be possible for an ordinary person without any particularly strong political leanings to spend hours playing Assassins Creed: Valhalla and emerge as a neo-Nazi? Kingdon doesn’t think so. “No, I think it’s ridiculous to blame the games themselves for radicalisation. Video games themselves don’t create terrorists because the narratives in these games are not extreme. It’s more about the way they’ve been manipulated and weaponised as propaganda,” she says.

Meme wars

To really understand radicalisation in technology, we need to understand online subcultures and communities. Gaming has historically been seen as a space for men; games are marketed towards men, and have a history of casual misogyny. Female gamers, journalists and developers are often seen as intruders in this space and are targeted accordingly. At the start of Gamergate in 2014, feminists in gaming seeking better representation in storylines and the industry itself faced an onslaught of online abuse and threats. It is now widely acknowledged that this wasn’t just organic. White supremacist groups used Gamergate as a political recruiting tool. Steve Bannon described how he was able to identify gamers as “These guys, these rootless white males [who] had monster power.”

As alt-right figures used Gamergate to drum up support for Trump in online, misogynistic spaces, the neo-pagan, hypermasculine figures in alternative history video games have captured the same fan base. While there are plenty of women playing video games they are often still seen as unserious consumers of more violent games marketed to men. In 2022, the Bryter annual gamers study found that an increasing number of women were playing video games, but that 72 per cent of them had experienced some form of harassment, with 36 per cent of them experiencing it regularly.

It might seem impossible to understand why anyone in society today would be drawn to the same Aryan race myths deployed in propaganda nearly a century ago. But many right-wing groups are adept at understanding and manipulating the language and imagery that young people, or at least some young people, can relate to. “The alt right knows that it won’t ever be able to get power in the ballot box. The only way they can attempt to gain influence is by shifting things culturally. They use images and symbols not just in games, but in meme culture too,” says Kingdon.

In her book Meme Wars: The Untold Story of the Online Battles, Joan Donovan describes how the right were able to capture audiences by offering simple, emotive images and slogans designed to be repeated and reshared across the internet: “Meme wars are culture wars, accelerated and intensified because of the infrastructure and incentives of the internet, which trades outrage and extremity as currency, rewards speed and scale, and flattens the experience of the world into a never-ending scroll of images and words, a morass capable of swallowing patience, kindness and understanding.”

Valhalla and God of War, too, went through what researchers would describe as a form of memification. By taking screenshots and images from games like these and reposting them online as memes, extremists are able to instruct recruits on how they should be consumed and interpreted. GNET’s research points out that in 2018, an Italian far-right activist, Luca Triani, carried out a drive-by shooting in Marceta, where he injured five men and one woman of African origin. Triani was draped in an Italian flag and shouting “Viva l’Italia.” The shooting is thought to have acted as a motivation for the Christchurch attacks in 2019. Triani may have been acting alone, but he was not a “lone wolf”. The attack came a month before Italy’s general election, with parties of almost all political stripes blaming immigrants for frictions in society and a weakened economy.

His actions also had repercussions in a section of the gaming community, where he became a symbol around which the far right could rally. On Gab, a tech platform popular with social media users on the far right, a widely circulated meme shows Triani portrayed as the leading character in God of War, known as Kratos. It was first posted shortly after the attack.

'Not Viking enough'

Fortunately, it’s only a small number of people operating in gaming that are locked into these highly distorted views of society. But when these views do appear, they are as deliberately grotesque as possible. A cursory look on Reddit, which I wouldn’t recommend for anyone’s sanity, reveals users complaining that Valhalla’s developers Ubisoft have caved in to external pressure and become “too woke”. The most pressing concern on the thread is that there is no opportunity to rape anyone in the game, which didn’t make it “Viking” enough – a complaint that’s been repeated on several forums. (It’s worth mentioning that no popular video game, including Valhalla or God of War, offers this function.)

It’s hard to police some of the behaviour in online gaming communities as so much of it is steeped in irony and humour. There’s no way of being able to tell if someone sharing a meme or even stating something vulgar or offensive is planning a terrorist act, or even if they believe in what they’re saying in any sense. Sometimes, a meme with deeply hidden connotations with the far right has been repeated so many times that it is stripped of its meaning and appears as a simple joke. Even the most advanced of analysts are usually unable to pinpoint someone’s motivations.

That doesn’t mean nothing can be done. TikTok banned the term “hyperborea” from its search function after fake videos claiming to show forgotten, hidden snow civilisations received millions of views. That won’t stop TikTok users who are so inclined to find alternative ways of posting esoteric Nazi content through using similar hashtags, but it at least shows that those holding the reins in big tech are aware of these far-right dog whistles.

There have been attempts within the gaming community to tackle toxic attitudes through broader representation in storylines. Valhalla, for example, includes a female protagonist, while God of War: Ragnarök, launched in 2021, has also included Black, female characters. It’s hard to tell, however, how cynical these inclusions may turn out to be.

While developers may protest that no one can know how any fictional work will be used and adapted, this can also be argued as a reason to be more cautious. The GNET research showed that the developers of Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla and God of War were aware that the games risked indulging the far right. And yet they still gave their players storylines that recycled dangerous prejudices. Meanwhile, Ubisoft made over $2 billion in revenue in 2022 alone. In an increasingly right-wing political landscape, games developers and technology companies making extortionate profits can afford to tell a different story.

This piece is from the New Humanist summer 2023 edition. Subscribe here for access to the full magazine.