What to Do When Your Video Game Gets Co-opted by Neo-Nazis
‘Crusader Kings 3’ depicts a more diverse and connected version of the Middle Ages than its predecessors
The Swedish video game maker Paradox Development Studio has a problem. Paradox is the creator of Crusader Kings, a wildly popular medieval history simulation game franchise. Unfortunately, that following includes a small but internet-savvy cohort of dedicated white supremacists. It’s a niche problem, but one that can escalate from online hate speech to terrorism.
Myths about medieval European history are important to white supremacists. This community imagines a past in which Europe was solely racially white, isolated from outside influences, entirely patriarchal, and organized militarily against threats from non-Christian brown people. In fact, none of these beliefs about the Middle Ages are true, but a video game set in the Middle Ages allows people to create their own fantasies of the past. For example, on Stormfront, a sprawling neo-Nazi newsletter and discussion board, a user under the handle “sXe SSkinhead” wrote, “I would also like to say that Crusader Kings 2 features an option to Expel the Jews from your land… that’s a plus in a video game if you ask me.” He was referring to the game’s “Sons of Abraham” expansion, which adds significant content around medieval Judaism. “Crusader Kings 2 is a great pro-white game,” says the user “88whitecanada.” Worse, online communities of gamers provide gateways to radicalization. Terrorists regularly cite medieval fantasies in manifestos, which are often published in online spaces frequented by gamers, creating a potential feedback loop of hate.
Paradox does not want its game to be used this way. So when the company designed its latest installment of the Crusader Kings franchise, which comes out on September 1, it changed the simulation. Its developers stress that they prioritized gameplay but hope some of the changes will also deter racist narratives.
A few weeks ago, Paradox made Crusader Kings 3 available to me for preview. I am a medieval historian, an avid gamer, and a fan of Crusader Kings 2, and I’ve been covering white supremacist fantasies about the Middle Ages since neo-Nazis bearing medieval insignia marched in Charlottesville, Virginia. Not only should the new game be a little less compelling for medieval neo-Nazis, but it also seems to model something closer to the real, interconnected, global Middle Ages — all without surrendering the features that have made Crusader Kings simulations such a hit.
The first Crusader Kings launched in 2007 as a niche strategy game and received relatively little attention. But in 2014, its successor, Crusader Kings 2, was something of a surprise hit for Paradox, selling more than 1 million copies in its first year. It offers strategic simulations of medieval dynastic and state building. You pick a start date and a ruler and then try to keep your dynasty alive for as many centuries as possible. You can end the game (by failing to have an heir), but there’s no winning or losing. Instead, the idea is to set your own goals, expand or not, become a heretic or not, go on holy wars or not, and see how the simulation unfolds over the generations. In the game, I’ve conquered England, expanded Yemeni control throughout the Indian Ocean, and stabilized the Byzantine Empire. The game’s focus on diplomatic, feudal, familial, and romantic relationships keeps me playing.
But the game I play isn’t the game everyone plays. For white nationalists, the game can be played in a way that reinforces their false belief about what medievalist Sierra Lomuto calls an “origin story for whiteness.” One user on Stormfront, a neo-Nazi discussion board, praises the game’s depiction of how “our history” evolved absent influence from non-white influences. He also praises the “expulsion of the Jews” option. More broadly in gamer culture, one of the flashpoints focused on the phrase “Deus Vult,” or “God wills it.” According to some medieval sources, the crowd cried “Deus Vult” en masse in 1095 C.E. when Pope Urban II called for what became known as the First Crusade. In Crusader Kings 2, a player can click on the “Deus Vult” option when going on Crusade. As the game became popular, “Deus Vult” then became a widely used meme in internet gaming culture. The anglophone alt-right took it up as a rallying cry, turning what seemed like humorous invocations of premodern interreligious warfare into an actual cry for modern violence against Muslims.
The phrase also started showing up beyond the internet: It appeared along with “Saracen go home” on the walls of a Scottish mosque. White supremacists marching in Charlottesville painted the Latin phrase on their shields, along with other medieval symbols. Donald Trump, Jr. posed with a Crusader rifle with the Deus Vult automatic firing option. Brenton Tarrant, the New Zealand terrorist mass murderer, produced a screed that mixed trendy anti-Islamic internet memes with an excerpt of a modern translation of one of Pope Urban’s speeches — the very speech that allegedly ended with the crowd shouting “Deus Vult.”
This is just one example of gaming operating as a pathway for radicalization and spreading hateful ideas through memes and racist “jokes” on sites like 8chan and its successors.
Alexander Oltner, lead designer on Crusader Kings 3, told OneZero that Paradox is definitely aware of these problems and that they do not want to give “these people fuel [for] the fire.”
The third installment of the franchise includes an updated artificial intelligence allowing for a much more complex set of interpersonal dynamics and offers a playable world that encompasses more regions. Its designers say they have taken proactive steps to avoid the game being used by neo-Nazis; for example, shifting some names of medieval pagan religions away from modern terms that are being co-opted by white supremacists.
Crusader Kings 3 also represents a wider range of nationalities and sexualities than its predecessor. Crusader Kings 2 relied on a finite number of fixed character portraits, meaning racial representation tended to divide the world into white, brown, and black populations. The latest version of Crusader Kings offers depictions of race and nationality that better reflect the dynamic reality, with populations mixing and evolving over time.
“In the border areas, between, for example, let’s say North Africa and Spain, after a few generations, you can tell that there have been intermarriages and that the people growing up there look like they truly belong to the area,” Maximilian Olbers, the game’s content design lead, told OneZero. Similarly, instead of imposing a binary of heterosexual or homosexual, character sexuality will develop on a spectrum.
Despite early reports to the contrary, “Deus Vult” will still appear in the new game when linked to calling for Christian holy war, but over email, a Paradox spokesperson touted the game’s zero-tolerance policy on hate speech and its collaboration with gaming platforms to monitor and ban violators. “We know there will be people who use games to pursue their own agendas, and it would be naive of us to claim we have no responsibility at all for that,” the spokesperson said. “We do act on it, and it has become an increasingly important priority for us over the past few years.” When it comes to “Deus Vult,” they said Paradox wants to draw a line between discussion of its use historically and its co-option by extremist groups upholding hateful ideologies.
No game called “Crusader Kings” can avoid a problematic connection between its simulation and the worst ideas about race, religion, and history. But while individual gamers can do what they like, the world in Crusader Kings 3 offers a more complicated vision of the past than a white, Christian, isolated Europe in perpetual conflict with the non-white, non-Christian “other.” This is a game with a playable map from West Africa to China to Iceland, but it’s the border regions where “the most exciting history is made,” Olbers says. The game is designed for borders to force contact, conflict, and coexistence, whether in the North Sea, the Sahara Desert, or across the Himalayas.
The focus on personalities may similarly push players to think differently about the past. After Paradox gave me early access to the game earlier this month, I opened the game with battle. But it soon became clear that the real work here was building relationships, using both coercion and favoritism, with my vassals. Alas, I got too distracted trying to marry off my son and avoid the fallout of the Norman conquest of England to spend much time in the great big world of Crusader Kings 3 before the demonstration period ended. Further exploration will have to wait.
Update: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the release date for Crusader Kings 3. It is September 1.