How Assassin’s Creed Valhalla borrows from a century-old history curriculum—and reinforces white supremacy
by Carly A. Kocurek
Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed Valhalla dropped in November of 2020 with as much fanfare as could be mustered in the middle of a global pandemic. The game represents the twelfth major release in a much-beloved, highly successful series that first launched in 2007. But the world of 2020 is not the world of 2007, and increasingly the Assassin’s Creed brand looks less like the future of video games and more like the history of, well, history. This is a series firmly situated in a fraught and flawed framing of the past. The core games play out against a backdrop that could easily have been lifted from a Western Civilization syllabus, and that is a foundational problem—the concept of “Western Civilization” is mired in white supremacy and white exceptionalism. Valhalla, a game reveling in the Viking mythos coming in the midst of a resurgence of white supremacy in the U.S. and around the globe makes the stakes of these historical frameworks uncomfortably clear.
The whole sprawling mythology of the series spans not only the core games but spinoff games, a movie and various short films, novelizations and graphic novels. In full, the story includes non-human humanoids engaged in a massive conspiracy, evil corporate machinations, the Knights Templar, and other fantastical and historical elements. This series is set in a fictionalized version of our real past, and it follows the efforts of a shadowy, ancient society that intervenes in a war through subterfuge in defense of human free will against the Templars who are trying to collect a group of artifacts that can let them control all of humanity. The player-character, Desmond, is a contemporary bartender who is able to experience and intervene in the genetic memory of his Assassin ancestors using a machine called the Animus.
The first game is anchored in the Third Crusade of the late 12th century. The second heads to the Italian Renaissance, and the third follows directly upon it and involves a plot to destroy the Borgia family. In Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, the fourth installment, the action shifts to 16th-century Constantinople. For the fourth installment in the series, the story begins in North America in the years leading up to the American Revolution. The Golden Age of Piracy forms the backdrop for Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. The next two games take place in the French Revolution and Victorian London, respectively, before the series takes a tour through Ancient Egypt and Classical Greece. And that brings us to Assassin’s Creed Valhalla.
Like most of the series, Valhalla is an open-world game that offers lots of exploration and casts the player as the hero, who is in this case, a Viking named Eivor. Eivor (who can be played as a man or a woman) takes off to England with her brother seeking riches and fame in the various Norse colonies and the surrounding area. The player as Eivor completes quests minor and major, and gradually gets drawn into the world of the titular Assassins. Mechanically, Valhalla shares much with role-playing games, meaning a variety of player activities like fighting, collecting items, exploring the (beautifully rendered) landscape, talking to various characters to collect information, buying and selling goods, romancing fellow Vikings, and sneaking around. As Eivor, you do Viking things like sailing a ship, burning and pillaging villages, and establishing and managing a settlement. As the story unfolds, Eivor learns about the Order of the Ancients, a secret Pagan sect, and the Hidden Ones, who are the ancestors of the Order of Assassins and becomes embroiled in their conflict.
White supremacists both contemporary and historical have a love affair with Vikings that has little to do with reality and much to do with white power fantasies. That affinity has its own history and is as much a part of the context for Assassin’s Creed Valhalla as anything about the actual people we’ve come to call Vikings.
The word Viking entered English as part of a rising tide of European nationalism and colonialism. The effort to discover or, failing that, construct a distinctive cultural mythology for Northern Europeans in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was one of the major intellectual and cultural projects that facilitated the rise of Nazi Germany. Those white fantasies helped provide the rhetorical justification for the Nuremberg Laws then, and they persist now. At their most toxic, these constructed pasts help explain white supremacist paganism and related white supremacist religious practices; at their less uniformly harmful, they undergird the wide use of runes in fantasy narratives and newly constructed faux-ancient practices like runecasting. Evidence suggests runes were text, not magic, in their historical context, but nationalists recast them as mystical tools. Storytellers in the century plus since have recycled them into a generic fantasy trope, and they are now used widely for divination and oracular practice. Runes, of course, play a role in Valhalla as well.
In reality, Viking was a job title, not an ethnicity, meaning Vikings didn’t necessarily share a single racial or ethnic identity. Genetic sequencing of more than 400 Viking Age genomes found some Vikings with no Scandinavian DNA at all, even in Scandinavian burial sites. In Norway, the same research team found several individuals buried as Vikings to be Saami, an indigenous group who still live in the region.
Further, while the iconography of Vikings has been used to valorize particular ideas about masculinity, women could—and did—occupy positions of power among Vikings. Burial sites often reveal a mix of cultural artifacts and ethnic origins and some warriors were women. But, in many ways, these facts are irrelevant. White supremacists aren’t undertaking careful historical or archeological research but constructing a useful mythology that justifies their fantasy of a master race. And, as others have pointed out, Ubisoft’s game trailer for Valhalla inviting players to “unleash your inner Viking” leans directly into white supremacist mythmaking. The game’s focus on colonizer as hero and tendency to revel in what one critic called the “pageantry” of Viking raids bears this out. That mythology isn’t just a problem for this most recent game. It is written and rewritten across the entire breadth of Ubisoft’s highly successful series.
The geographic and historical settings of the Assassin’s Creed games can sound wide-ranging, but they share a framing widely taught under the banner of “Western Civilization.” Western civilization began as a pedagogical endeavor at elite universities in the U.S. in the early twentieth century, part of an effort to tie together European and U.S. history. Ostensibly, the goal of this was to make European history relevant to Americans. But, in reality, this discourse of civilization entered into a cultural milieu of American exceptionalism, manifest destiny, colonialism, and white supremacy. In tying European and U.S. history together in this way, the college professors who worked to show a clear progression from antiquity through the students’ present intentionally or unintentionally participated in an imperialist project that centered whiteness as the major marker of historical significance. That dividing of the world into the civilized and uncivilized has had profound implications and offered justification for horrendous violence as documented in detail by Thomas C. Patterson’s book Inventing Western Civilization.
Sometimes, Western civilization can look a little less Eurocentric—after all, Persian and Egyptian history can make it onto the curriculum. But ancient Egyptians are often depicted in a whitewashed way, which enables the incorporation of Egyptian history into western civilization and does nothing to challenge white supremacist thought. The effects of that centering have been profound. It’s no surprise that white supremacists, including American neo-Nazis, love Ancient Greece, or that Europeans and North Americans can insist with all sincerity that ancient African engineering marvels like the Pyramids of Giza must have been built by aliens rather than Africans.
The problem at hand, of course, is not that the Assassin’s Creed games are historically inaccurate. As Tanya Depass points out, historical accuracy in fantasy games in particular is a lie, and it’s also a lie in most works of fiction. Accuracy and speculation merge so easily when we talk about the past, and in that fusion we see more about our present than anything resembling historical realities. The problem is that Assassin’s Creed, over and over, presents a frame that ties North American and European history together in a way that reinforces the framing of Western civilization curricula. Again and again, the series delves into the kind of historical speculation and remixing that is so favored by those who believe in white supremacy. The visual realism of the games and Ubisoft’s emphasis on historical accuracy—including the work of at least one house historian result in a feeling of accuracy that is both seductive and dangerous. This is an ideological violence that is as pernicious as it is widespread. This is not to suggest that anyone at Ubisoft set out to deliberately support white supremacy, but, without great care, fantasy and history can blend seamlessly into a reinscription of that violent ideology.
Those who have played the bulk of the series may be reading along thinking, “But the Assassins started in the Middle East” or “But Connor is indigenous” or pointing to other seemingly redeeming elements of the games like that you can play as a woman in some of them or that the spinoffs diversify the games’ settings. I am not overlooking these aspects of the games (and we would do well to remember that Western civilization framing and orientalist thinking go hand in hand). Rather, I am suggesting that the problem is not any specific detail of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla or any of the other individual games: the problem is their overarching project. Similarly, the problem with Western civilization as a framework is not specific to any individual curricular inclusion or omission—the problem is that the entire undertaking is so deeply rooted in an assumption of white exceptionalism that it can bear nothing but poisoned fruit.
Carly A. Kocurek is Associate Professor of Digital Humanities and Media Studies at Illinois Tech and the author of Coin-Operated Americans: Rebooting Boyhood at the Video Game Arcade.