The past few years have been host to a number of discussions regarding supposed “historical accuracy” in games that portray Europe as a wholly white and nearly-entirely-male landscape. The fact that Mordhau, a game that draws heavily from the same aesthetics as neofascist white supremacist movements draw inspiration from, is grappling with bigotry and hate movements within their gaming community, comes across as disappointing, but unfortunately not surprising.
Depending on your viewpoint and sympathy for the team behind Mordhau, developers and community managers behind the game have come across as either unprepared or unwilling to tackle the rising tide of bigoted behavior. But how did we get here? What about Mordhau makes it fodder for this vitriolic of a response from its playerbase? The answer lies in its setting: The Middle Ages are a period that people think they know well, but the popular imagination has been informed by the context in which the field of medieval studies emerged.
Games and medievalism have a strange and intersecting history, as many video games’ embrace of “sword and sorcery” aesthetics places them naturally in conversation with a mythical ancient Europe. Unfortunately, that is the same ancient Europe that became a hub for white supremacists seeking a convenient mythology to ground their beliefs in—a troublesome pattern that modern medieval scholars are acutely aware of.
The idea that medieval European society was wholly (or at least, mostly) white Europeans is flawed on a number of levels, as explained by Dr. Helen Young, medievalist and professor at the University of Sydney. The construction of race as we know it today happened after the medieval period, generally during a time period of medievalist scholarship in the Enlightenment period of the mid-1700s, and had a distinct goal in mind when theorizing a mythical white middle ages, which would allow for colonialist and xenophobic ideologies to have an historical foundation.
However, lacking a coherent narrative of European racial dominance of the Middle Ages, many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century scholars took it upon themselves to invent new hierarchies of race among Europe and the world, leading to the modern concept of European whiteness as a blanket racial term that synthesized the “grandeur” of the Greek and Roman states with the “barbarism” of medieval fiefdoms. By folding in the Greeks and Romans into histories of European whiteness, the military might of the Romans, as well as the intellectual milestones of the Greeks before them, could enter a narrative of a grand, white history.
These narratives were, in turn, built upon by popular culture inspired by periods of medieval history, as explained by Shiloh Carroll. In fantasy video games, we know these stereotypes as they grew primarily from Tolkien: the dark and brutish orcs, the sturdy dwarves, the lithe and airy elves of the forest, and the structured and king’d hierarchies of men. These tropes of medieval-inspired fantasy may have started with Lord of the Rings, but it’s easy to see their lineage in games like Dragon Age, The Witcher, or even “low-fantasy” medieval simulations like Mordhau (not to mention the official Lord of the Rings games).
It’s easy to use a defense of “historical accuracy” to wallpaper over deliberate decisions made by development teams that allow for the possibility of appropriation by racial hate movements and ideologies. Unfortunately, the history of many actual medieval locations is far less clean-cut than fantasies of pure white racial hegemony may suggest, as the borders of medieval Europe were host to a great number of travelers, conflicts, and cultural exchanges that affected the racial makeup of Middle Ages European societies, such as Umayyad rule in Spain in the mid-700s and flourishing trade with African societies along the Mediterranean coastline.
These works of media created a “feedback loop” (as named by Young) of readers and players assuming that “accuracy” in medieval characterizations was defined by other works, which were in turn influenced by other biased sources, culminating in a view of “authentic” medievalism in media that more or less looks the same as any other depiction of the Middle Ages in media. This homogenous landscape actively created fanbases that judged deviance as “inaccurate,” even as medieval scholars urge that the Middle Ages was more complex and more diverse than the popular visions may depict.
Not only is this a gross misrepresentation of historical concepts of medieval societies, but it offers a dangerous space for white supremacist movements to take hold, claiming that “authentic” portrayals of medieval Europe look a lot like Mordhau: white, male, bloody.
This was not only a claim made by Enlightenment scholars looking to craft a “scientific” theory of race, but of Romantics of the mid-1800s, searching for racial and cultural histories to undergird the nationalism of the period. This was the era of the romanticized Middle Ages, of grand artworks depicting a storybook medievalism and a re-examination of folklore and myth to support national histories.
Just as the construction of race pointedly solidified whiteness as the most powerful race, the construction of a racialized Middle Ages made white nationhood the dominant narrative of the era. Unsurprising, then, that white nationalists would find refuge in uncritical depictions of the medieval. And thus, we come to Mordhau. Or, more accurately, to the fanbase that Mordhau has attracted, whether by design or by accident.
Writing about Kingdom Come: Deliverance for RockPaperShotgun (another game that took pride in its “historical accuracy”, like Mordhau), game critic Andreas Inderwildi wrote that
In its pursuit of an ‘authentic’ medieval world, [ Kingdom Come: Deliverance developer] Warhorse has produced a toothless interpretation, removing the noise, the strangeness, everything that might give you pause or challenge popular preconceptions, in favour of a trite vision of an idealised national past.
Mordhau lacks the specific developer sentiments that were seen in Kingdom Come: Deliverance, but promises a similar level of “historical authenticity” in its "fictional, but realistic world", which has fueled the anger of many players on social media and forums against the inclusion of possible other genders or races into the game’s currently all-white, all-male battlefields. Whether it intended to or not, Mordhau’s depiction of medieval combat as one nearly monochromatically white has made it a hotbed for harmful ideologies that see the Middle Ages as a ethnonationalist fantasy. It's an especially odd choice to locate the game within a fictional setting that is somehow even more parochial and ahistorical than most popular versions of the middle ages, which are often keenly interested in the clashes and interchanges between cultural and religious groups.
If this was not an intentional design (and I’d like to hope it was not), and the developers were simply working under assumptions they believed were true, it’s hard to fault them--after all, they were working from the same popular culture depictions of medieval race that thousands of creators had before, each built on the same feedback loops of “authenticity” dating back to the Romantics and the Enlightenment scholars that constructed the fantasy in the first place. It is a legacy of obfuscation, designed specifically to play into the biases of early ethnonationalist scholars, artists, and politics. It is a legacy that lives on through not only unintentional depictions of a homogenous white medieval Europe, but through the adherents of modern white supremacy and white nationalism.
It’s a frustrating issue that can make the possibility of creating a game inspired by medieval history and aesthetics feel daunting, as the possibility of white supremacist appropriation looms ever on the horizon. To quote medievalist Sierra Lomuto, “If white nationalists want to corrupt Celtic iconography with their white supremacist ideologies, or find solace in a game whose currency is a fantasy of whiteness, we can't stop them. But we can refuse to help them.”
Mordhau’s forums, officially moderated by Triternion, are currently home to a number of threads and communities that have a relatively lax approach to offensive slang. One popular thread of character loadouts, as reported by PCGamer, has the title “Post your Kniggas.”
Players in-game report on a lack of action against offensive players, including those who regularly use easily-identifiable racist or sexist terms. In the PCGamer interview, artist Mike Desrosiers from Triternion explained that the team was also reticent to include a word-filter list to automatically filter out offensive terms, citing that players would simply find alternative words or claim censorship.
Additionally, Desrosiers claimed that the Triternion team was considering a ‘gender or ethnicity toggle’ alongside future versions of Mordhau to maintain a singular player-type in online matches: white, and male. After the PCGamer interview article began gaining tracking, Triternion, officially, claimed that this ‘toggle’ is not forthcoming and never was in a post on the Mordhau forums.
The developers of Mordhau, whether they planned to or not, have created an environment that is amenable to the viewpoints of white supremacist appropriators of medieval culture. They have assumed that by staying above the discussion of what does and does not constitute realism, that they could avoid taking a stance on some of these deeper issues—a position that draws uncomfortable parallels to large institutions not taking a stance in 2014’s GamerGate harassment campaigns. Without both a firm refutation of white nationalist sentiment and making the space of the game unfriendly to those ideologies, Triternion risks falling into the same traps as contemporary medievalists dealing with white supremacist infiltration.