“The Middle Ages is a space where white supremecy is legitimised. The maintenance of white privilege. The gamer community use ‘historical facts’ to legitimise this kind of literacy.” ~ Victoria Cooper
When Fantasy Becomes Reality, and Reality Becomes Fantasy
Medieval representations in video games was the focus of Victoria Cooper’s paper, Playing Politics: Exploring Nationalism and Conservatism in Fantasy Video Games, which was given earlier this month at the International Medieval Congress. Part of the session, The Use and Abuse of the Middle Ages in the Modern World, IV: Nationalism and Identity, it examined the ways in which medieval imagery and history are often hijacked by far-right political groups and nationalist organisations to legitimise their historical narratives.
Cooper, a PhD candidate at the University of Leeds, used player assessments of the Middle Ages, marketing, and player forums as the backbone of her research. Forums, in particular, are good resources for player observation because conversations here spring up organically and aren’t censored. When Cooper was speaking to players, she was careful to never brings up the Middle Ages to see if they brought it up themselves. The result? Most players do.
What did these unchecked conversations reveal? The games don’t inspire a specific kind of nationalism with another country per se, but they do harken to “the medieval’ which becomes it’s own space, and has its own nationalistic quality where real heritage is superimposed upon a fictional world.
Hijacked: England’s Medieval Past
Cooper notes that the medieval world is often exploited by right wing groups, such as the British National Party (BNP). They used the symbol of Excalibur to promote “Englishness”, since, according to legend, Excalibur is the sword that confers the rightful kingship of England. There is even an online shop profiting from this perceived sense of English nationalism that declares, “Excalibur: the number 1 patriotic goods store”. However, it appears that the BNP is no longer affiliated with the shop and Excalibur has taken great pains to extricate itself from the association by posting a large disclaimer on their front page stating, “Excalibur has no affiliation or ties to any political party. All merchandise sold on Excalibur belongs to Excalibur and any profits made from such merchandise stays with Excalibur.”
Groups like the BNP in England often attempt to tie a medieval past to their nationalism by framing it with shirts like, “White and Proud”, or “Anglo Saxon”, as a form of identity politics.
Video Games and Medieval History: The Elder Scrolls – Skyrim
Skyrim is a massively popular medieval-themed video game. Part of the greater Elder Scrolls video game series, Skyrim was released in 2011 by Bethesda Game Studios and was a critical success. Cooper’s thesis focused on this game and the way players transpose their heritage and national identity onto the fictitious races of its gaming world. Skyrim is home to the Nords (Stormcloaks), a pseudo-Viking race. Tall, fair-haired, and pale, they are a sea-faring warrior society that values honour, family and glory. 34% of the players interviewed picked Nords, the vast majority of which were from Europe and the United States because they felt an affinity with Nord values and ancestral identity. Players associate themselves with the Nords/Stormcloaks because the Imperial soldiers remind them of Roman Britain, and they feel connected to Northern people, their plight, and this sense of “Englishness”. The Stormcloaks legitimise their cultural heritage.
In players who identify as Scottish and Northern English, the Nords/Stormcloaks stimulate a sense of a northern, white nostalgia, that is ancestrally connected to a medieval place. Cooper suggests that, ‘medievally-themed video games are a space where whiteness can be anchored, in a “happy history” where a world is free of multiculturalism and white guilt’.
The Crusades also attracts people to these types of games. Players create their own religions so as not to cause offense or appear bigoted. They cloak Christianity with an invented religion, yet one that mirrors reality.
Playing with Politics : #GamerGate II?
Cooper recalled the infamous “#GamerGate” – the 2014 scandal that erupted in the gaming world when several prominent women challenged the status quo of the community. The women received rape, violence and death threats. They (and their supporters) were also “doxed”; a tactic whereby private information, like a home address, phone number, place of work and personal details are made public in an effort to silence and publicly shame the person.
Cooper noted that the gaming community has traditionally had horrible reactions towards academic inspection of games because players want to maintain them as apolitical and are resistant to changing the status quo. The predominantly white, male players of Gamergate insisted that representations of the games should be divorced from modern politics.
However forcefully players maintain their arguments, many gamers continue to map their identity, heritage, and ancestry onto these games. They claim to be apolitical, yet in the same breath, refuse to acknowledge the politics behind these games. According to Cooper, they subscribe to the popular idea of the Middle Ages as ‘gritty, white, male, and powerful’. They cling to the notion that women didn’t fight in the Middle Ages, fiercely stating this as ‘as fact’, and steadfastly refusing to allow women agency in warrior roles.
Unfortunately for gamers, the tide is turning and the inspection of their identities is happening whether they like it or not, and will continue to gain momentum. Games like Skyrim, and The Elder Scrolls are only the tip of the iceberg. What Gamergate tried to shut down, instead, opened a Pandora’s Box that can never be closed. Academics, like Cooper, will continue to challenge, examine and illustrate the ways these groups misappropriate medieval history.