Plunder, Pillage, and Power-ups: Four Decades of Vikings in Video Games
Christian Cooijmans | University of Liverpool
For centuries, the interactions, impacts, and iconographies of the Viking Age have roused the imagination of innumerable authors and artists. Today, as an undiminished staple of popular culture, the period continues to provide rich and reliable pickings across a global media landscape, within which video games, in particular, have had an ever-greater part to play. Accordingly, a veritable smorgasbord of viking-related titles has been released since the 1980s, catering to every conceivable platform, genre, and audience, and leaving its own distinct mark on the popular perception of these early medieval peoples. In light of this forty-year history, it is worth determining how the depiction of the average video-game viking has stacked up against their real-world counterparts.
A Pixelated Past
Although effectively absent from the initial generation of consumer-grade computers and consoles, the viking phenomenon and its many peoples, places, and perceptions would come to lend themselves extensively to the video game format in subsequent years. Here are some highlights from across these four decades of (mis)representation:
Viking, the first video game to be principally dedicated to this historical subject matter, was published in 1982 for 8-bit home computers (on cassette tape and 5¼-inch disk). This text-based simulation places players in charge of the economic resources of a local lordship, while troubling them with pests, plagues, pirates, and other predicaments.
As vikings gradually made inroads into other established genres, strategy game enthusiasts were soon able to pit larger armed forces against one another, as in 1984’s Viking Raiders. This early turn-based title is notable for featuring ‘Brunhilda the Bold’ among its playable leader characters.
Throughout the 1980s, vikings would be cast as protagonists in various anachronistic and fantastical action titles, including Mister Viking, a top-down ‘shooter’ released in arcades in 1984. From the outset, gameplay mechanics and narratives would commonly draw on vikings’ perceived propensities towards violence.
By the later 1980s and early 90s, a significant share of viking video games was comprised of side-scrolling platformers – including Armorik the Viking (1989) and Prophecy: Viking Child (1990) – which often portrayed their protagonists as convivial, clumsy, and/or cantankerous characters.
By 1993, the platformer trend culminated in the most popular and well-remembered of these titles, The Lost Vikings. Initially released for the SNES, the game allows players to control three separate viking characters, whose complementary actions and abilities are required to progress through levels.
The Viking Age likewise continued to be a source of inspiration for the strategy genre throughout the 1990s, with titles like Vikings: Fields of Conquest (1992) and Saga: Rage of the Vikings (1998) allowing players to assume the role of expansionist early medieval rulers.
The later 90s and early 2000s would also see prominent strategy franchises like Age of Empires, The Settlers, Total War, and Civilization feature vikings among their playable factions.
In 2000, the third-person hack-and-slash game Rune was published, encouraging players to fight their way through multiple mythological realms in an attempt to forestall Ragnarök, the cataclysmic events heralding the end of the world in Norse mythology.
By most accounts, the mid-to-late 2000s represented a nadir of viking-themed video games, with prominent and pertinent titles – such as Viking: Battle for Asgard (2008) – published much fewer and farther between.
A return to form came in 2011 with The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, an open-world fantasy role-playing game released to unprecedented commercial and critical success. Although technically not featuring vikings, the game is deeply imbued with recognised and romanticised notions of their historical attitudes, actions, and aesthetics.
More recent action titles include For Honor (2017), which pits its viking protagonists against an array of anachronistic opponents, including late-medieval knights and Japanese samurai.
Various associated strategy and role-playing games have also been released in recent years, some with strong mythological themes and distinct visual designs, such as the Banner Saga series (2014-18), Bad North (2018), and Tribes of Midgard (2021).
Landmark instalments of major franchises have likewise turned their gaze towards the Viking Age for inspiration, including Assassin’s Creed Valhalla (2020) and God of War Ragnarök (2022).
Over the past half-century, considerable scholarly strides have been made to nuance the traditional perception of viking activity as being an entirely bellicose and brutal affair – instead finding these overseas campaigns to have been governed by reason, restraint, and meticulous processes of reconnaissance and risk management. By the same token, it is now widely acknowledged that many itinerant viking hosts were neither solely made up of combatants nor exclusively of men, with women and children attested to have accompanied these endeavours. But even as the historical viking phenomenon is increasingly recognised as an intricate and diverse tapestry of movements, meetings, and motivations, its representation in video games remains deeply entrenched in the weary stereotypes of militant masculinity.
Barring a number of notable exceptions, the average video-game viking endures as a capricious, tempestuous, and crude caricature, endowed with exuberant facial hair, exaggerated body proportions, and an entrenched penchant for bloodshed. Clad in impractical and ill-protecting armour (if wearing any to begin with), characters have been commonly portrayed to carry an array of oversized melee weapons, including the ahistorical double-bit axe, war hammer, mace, and flail. The well-worn cliché of the horned helmet, a mainstay of early viking video games, has likewise continued to make appearances in more recent titles, such as 2017’s For Honor. In this aesthetic context, common denominators are also readily apparent between games featuring vikings and those containing more fantastical ‘barbarian’ themes, such as the Golden Axe, Rastan, and Conan franchises – all of which draw on similar iconographic vocabularies.
Consistent with the emphasis on masculinity, most viking video games have thus far undervalued or overlooked female representation and agency. Although a number of prominent releases now do afford players the chance to experience the game as both male or female characters (e.g. 2011’s Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and 2017’s Expeditions: Viking), the choice of gender, by and large, is seen to have little meaningful bearing on either gameplay or story, with masculine perspectives still being prioritised as the ‘default’. Renewed recent discussions surrounding the existence of viking warrior women may have even led some developers – including those of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla – to champion female protagonists, only to then perpetuate traditional masculine stereotypes by portraying them as equally aggressive and prone to drinking and brawling.
Across four decades of video game design, the Viking Age itself has been largely characterised as a dark and downcast time besmirched by corruption, oppression, and tribalism. Time and again, viking protagonists are seen fighting their way through elemental worlds of caves, dungeons, dirt, and death, representing proud but unrefined warrior cultures with cavalier attitudes towards murder and mayhem. As a vivid example, in both Rune (2000) and its recent sequel (2020) – now released in Decapitation Edition – players are not only able to haphazardly dismember their opponents but are encouraged to attack ensuing foes with the severed limbs left by their associates. Other threadbare tropes of Viking Age brutality include allusions to skull cups (in the 2014 Viking Conquest expansion of Mount & Blade: Warband), as well as the infamous blood eagle execution rite (in 2017’s Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice and 2020’s Assassin's Creed: Valhalla). The presence of rampant ‘berserker’ character types in strategy titles like Age of Empires II (1999) and Northgard (2017) further underlines the ongoing use of vikings as a visual and narrative shorthand for reckless, frenzied violence.
Although armed conflict (and the threat thereof) would have been a recurring element of the overseas viking experience, it was nevertheless only part of a much broader gamut of interactions, which also included more amicable processes of commerce, diplomacy, and sociocultural exchange. Hence, the perception that vikings and violence are inextricably intertwined lacks a solid foundation in historical reality but nevertheless continues to (mis)inform popular attitudes and appropriations of the period and its peoples. And although most of the titles in this article make no pretence of historical accuracy, they are nevertheless part of an increasingly interconnected media landscape within which the popular consumption and commodification of the medieval world – imagined or otherwise – has unabatedly continued. As such, even though some production houses have been at pains to underscore the nuanced historical and archaeological underpinnings of their development process, viking video games, by and large, have remained resistant to narratives and mechanics that reach beyond the ultraviolent and hypermasculine.
All in all, four decades on, relatively little movement has been made towards a more balanced representation of the viking phenomenon in video games, even as the format continues to offer ever greater prospects for audiences to approach and appreciate the distant past. As a result, even though vikings themselves are now often rendered in painstaking, photorealistic detail, many of their perceived actions and attitudes remain as antiquated as the Commodore 64 they first appeared on. Rather than uphold this stagnant status quo, developers should seize opportunities to reduce their overreliance on worn-out formulas, rendering vikings not as cartoons, but as the complex and rational human beings they actually were. In doing so, they will allow players, both old and new, to immerse themselves in much more authentic representations of the viking past – a past, which, in many ways, remains stranger than fiction.
* N.B. The author considers the term ‘viking’ to be occupational, rather than ethnic or cultural. As such, the word is rendered as a common noun, without capitalisation.
Adam Chapman, Digital Games as History: How Videogames Represent the Past and Offer Access to Historical Practice (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016).
Will Cerbone, ‘Real Men of the Viking Age’, in Whose Middle Ages? Teachable Moments for an Ill-Used Past, ed. Andrew Albin et al. (New York, Fordham University Press, 2019): 243-255.
Jane Draycott (ed.), Women in Historical and Archaeological Video Games (Berlin: De Gruyter Oldenbourg, 2022)
Christian Cooijmans is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Liverpool. His research explores the reach and repercussions of viking activity across the Frankish realm, as well as its subsequent, premodern historiography. His monograph, Monarchs and Hydrarchs, was published with Routledge in 2020.