Why are Viking video games so popular right now?

Why are Viking video games so popular right now? As a culture, we love the Vikings. We love them more than the pudding, the dinosaurs, and the national football wins.

This was not always the case. In 793 AD, the people of Lindisfarne Monastery were clearly far from enamored with a bunch of bearded and surprisingly well-washed Viking warriors. The monks had their island sacked; relics have been destroyed, great quantities of treasures stolen, and the slow-footed tonsured brethren have been hewn into monks. Fortunately, in the meantime and now, the weather has been good for the Vikings – turning the once formidable enemy of Christianity into a veritable license to print money.


Indeed, in recent years, many games set in the Viking Age have made it possible to earn a lot of money. Kratos was reinvigorated with a legendary hack and slash through Viking mythology in God of War. Recent estimates suggest that the latest game in the legendary franchise has sold around 20 million copies. Then there’s Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, a game that gave the long-running series a much-needed boost and recorded record sales in the process. Finally, there’s the Viking-flavored survival game Valheim, which, while still in Early Access, has already surpassed five million copies sold.

So what’s the problem ? Why are the Vikings not only eternally popular, but arguably the most popular they have ever been? Quite frankly, my puny brain wasn’t able to solve this riddle, so I turned to an expert for the answers.

Philip Parker is the bestselling author of “The Northmen’s Fury”, a “vivid and penetrating reassessment of a people who terrorized Europe for three centuries”. The Sunday Times said of the book: “It’s quite an achievement to write history so well. Clearly, Mr. Parker knows what he’s talking about. I tracked him down on a not-so-epic three-second Google Search quest and, after setting up a One-on-One, left with all the answers I needed.

“The Vikings are a multi-faceted people,” Philip told me, “and there are many things about them that appeal to the taste of the 21st century. “

The two foremost aspects, I think, that are appealing, are the feeling that the Vikings are a group that doesn’t fit so comfortably into the mainstream narrative of the story, who were classic outsiders – at least from the point of view of view of the peoples they attacked – and who did not conform to the early medieval hierarchy of the free peasantry, nobles, clergymen and kings. The feeling that you can function outside the normal constraints of society and ‘get out of it’ is, I think, something that has always been appealing, but all the more so now, because it gives people a sense of agency. in an increasingly complex world in which they can feel helpless.

The Vikings offer a compelling fantasy to an inhabitant of the mundane modern world, in which they are allowed to feel liberated in their genius.

Philip continued, “There is also a feeling of almost authorized violence among the Vikings, that it was deemed perfectly acceptable to use the ax and strong arm to achieve its ends, if that end was honorable. In the very small urban societies of the 21st century, this is darkly appealing – in the game, or in the movies, of course, not in real life!

This permitted violence is a natural fit for a video game. Most of the aforementioned games above are all about killing other creatures. The “Vikings” theme provides a compelling character and narrative structure to house this standard video game mission.

So how historically accurate are these video game depictions of the Vikings? Do they look like the reality of life in the Viking Age or are they pure fantasy based on modern sensibilities? Philippe had the answers.

There was a time when the portrayal of the Vikings was horribly inaccurate. It started with the horned helmets that seemed to grow on every Norse’s head – when, of course, there is no historical evidence for such a thing. Even in 1958, however, with Kirk Douglas in The Vikings, things improved on this point, although Viking society was still a bit two-dimensional in depictions before very recent years; all violence, raids, alcohol and women.

There was also an obsession with things like ‘the blood eagle’ in the past, which is nowhere attested and may even have been a misreading of a text that talks about scavenging birds soaring over- above the battlefield. Nowadays things are much more precise – although the feeling that the Vikings fought absolutely all the time is wrong – in England, after the 870s, many of them spent much of their time cultivating. , for the earth was divided. After all, they had to eat, and they had been farmers and fishermen at home.

We saw this change in the recent Assassin’s Creed Valhalla which, despite the abundant bloodshed, offers a surprisingly nuanced take on the Viking way of life, giving players the opportunity to build and grow a community of hard-working farmers, daring explorers and dedicated brewers.

Valhalla’s well-documented approach is often the exception, however, “modern media often find themselves stuck in a rut between the Vikings as hopelessly violent and a reinvention of them as peaceful and misunderstood traders.”

Philippe explained: “It’s a false dichotomy because they were both. A Viking expedition took what it could, trading in places where it was possible – like the Baltic – but turning into raids where it wasn’t. The more regarded modern media understand the complexity of the Viking world, but sporadic reporting focuses only on violence, making them one-dimensional cuts. Judging by the recent successes of God of War, Assassin’s Creed, and Valheim, a more thoughtful and authentic take on Vikings is the approach that resonates best with video game audiences. All of these games, in their own way, offer a deep, three-dimensional representation of the Scandinavians.

Part of the reason why Vikings are popular in video games could be due to the massive success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After all, when most people think of Thor, they think of a blond Chris Hemsworth and his titanic pecs, not the red-bearded swinger Mjölnir from the mythological past. What do you think of this Philippe?

I think Marvel undoubtedly had an impact on the popularity of the Vikings. A film franchise of Marvel’s power and reach is meant to raise the level of consciousness, both in a positive way – more people can be motivated to learn more about the Vikings – but also negatively, in that their only point of view becomes the “only” point of view. As a result, Thor is probably better known than ever before, but he was not the only God and part of his “humanity” and fallibility is lost. The story of him grabbing Jormungandr and almost pulling him on board before his mate panics and cuts the line is something that almost humanizes the gods in a way that modern film franchises don’t quite do.

We talked a lot about the past but, to close the interview, I wanted Philip’s perspective on the possible future. Are there any eras or aspects of Vikings that he believes should be explored in modern media but which have so far remained untapped? What could the next great Viking-themed video game focus on?

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“I think the great Viking exploration of the North Atlantic is somewhat overlooked,” replied Philip. “It’s an extraordinary story of voyages across a vast ocean that is relatively unknown to non-specialists. The extraordinary process of discovering Iceland and establishing a new society there, including the Althing, the oldest continuous parliament in the world and the only place in the Middle Ages with hot water “On tap” from the pools of volcanic springs is fertile land that is underutilized.

You’d think that would be more than enough for a future video game publisher, but Philip isn’t done yet.

Then there’s the jump to Greenland – what was it like in such a remote society with only one or two boats from Iceland or Scandinavia arriving each year? And how did they adapt, or fail to adapt, with the colony eventually dying out in circumstances that no one has yet fully explained.

The east is also relatively neglected, with the Swedish Vikings establishing trade routes along the Volga to Constantinople, risking rapids and hostile tribes each year to trade in the large markets for what they called Micklegard. It would be great to see more talk about the Varangian guard, which is a fascinating institution.

That the Vikings started out as petty looters and ended up as the guard of honor of the successors of the Roman emperors is an extraordinary story. There is so much more to it than the raids on the British Isles, which seems to be largely the subject of much media coverage. Viking epics and stories are an almost endless supply of fantastic tales and there is a mass of material that would be good to see further exploited.

Well, there you have it, a lot more story to inspire video game developers for years to come, thus ensuring that the current popularity of the Vikings in modern media will only continue to grow.

In the meantime, those who want to interact more with Viking history now have the perfect catwalk. After Origins and Odyssey, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla has just launched its Discovery Tour educational DLC.

Many thanks to Philip Parker for his time and knowledge. You can follow Philip on Twitter at @PParkerauteur. Be sure to check out its epic history of the Viking world, “The fury of the men of the North”, as well as his latest book, “History of the World Card Trade”.

Playing with History is our ongoing series highlighting video games and the real-world people and events that inspire them. From walking with dinosaurs in Jurassic World Evolution and talking about real zombies in Days Gone, learning about the Peaky Blinders and chatting about Ghost of Tsushima with a samurai expert, there is a lot you didn’t know. maybe not on your favorite video games.


John C. Dent

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