Nordic names in videogames: a brief empirical overview and research propositions

by Carin Leibring Svedjedal

Videogames have rapidly become a global industry for entertainment, bringing an interactive approach to the consumption of media. Compared to books or movies where the reader or the viewer takes a passive role, video games offer a more interactive approach where the player has a more active role, and in some games has agency to alter the course of the story and how it plays out.

An important aspect of video games is the environment and “worldbuilding”, i.e., how the environment in the game is constructed story-wise, visually and audio-wise through particular storytelling, animations, and soundtracks. In the worldbuilding of video games, names on both so called NPC:s (Non Playable Characters) and places in the game play an important role, especially if the world in question intends to index a specific cultural area. This can be compared to e.g., literary onomastics (cf. The Oxford Handbook of Onomastics, part IV).

In this blog post I will explore names that are derived from or connote to traditional Nordic names, and we will specifically have a closer look at a videogame called “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim” (henceforth only referred to as Skyrim). I will also summarize and conclude the blog post with some possible research propositions on how video games can be used as material in socio-onomastic research.

Contextualizing Skyrim

Skyrim is a so-called open world fantasy RPG. In short, open world means that the player can explore areas and walk around in the game-world more or less without restrictions. Fantasy is like the book and movie genre, i.e., a deviant reality where supernatural phenomena, such as magic, plays a major role. Lastly, RPG is short for Role Playing Game which describes the ability of the player to advance his or her character in the game-world, whether it be trough gaining experience (level up), and to play a role in the story of the game – usually as the protagonist of the story.

Skyrim, being a fantasy game, contains such typical fantasy elements such as magic and mythological creatures. The game-world has its own set of political and religious systems, which somewhat resembles our real world, but are still distinctively separate from it. In the following, I will dive deeper into the game and give some empirical onomastic examples.

Names in Skyrim

Skyrim is part of a long-run game series called “The Elder Scrolls [V]”, developed by Bethesda Softworks. As the full title indicates, it is the fifth game in the series and was released in 2011. The game is set in the fictional world of Tamriel, where the region of Skyrim constitutes the northernmost part of Tamriel. In Skyrim the player can create and name their own character: this includes choosing what kind of “race” the character should be. “Race” in this case means different kinds of mythological or real-world creatures, like elves, orcs, cat-like people called “Khajiits”, or humanoid lizards called “Argonians”. Among the different kind of races are also more real-world inspired humans, like the “Nords”, “Redguards”, “Bretons” and “Imperials”.

The main story revolves around the return of previously extinct dragons where the mission of the player is to defeat a particular dragon named Alduin, who wants to dominate Skyrim and Tamriel. The player achieves their mission of stopping Alduin through a series of quests, which eventually leads up to a final battle against Alduin. The player is also able to do many so-called side-quests, i.e., quests not directly related to the main story, both during the main story and afterwards. During these quests, the player can travel around in Skyrim and interact with NPC:s. Exploring and interacting are thus central features of the gameplay, where names on NPC:s and places are important to for the player to note in order to find the right places and people.

Another important aspect of the story in Skyrim is a raging rebellion and war of independence, where the “Imperials” – a very Roman-like people – try to maintain control of Skyrim against the “Stormcloaks”, which want an independent Skyrim for the Nords. The Imperials are heavily inspired by Roman architecture, armour and mentality, their armies are for instance called “legions”. The Stormcloaks on the other hand consist of Nords who are native to Skyrim – their battle-cry is “Skyrim belongs to the Nords!”.

This leads us to the names’ of NPC:s and places in Skyrim. Since Skyrim itself is located in the north of Tamriel and the native inhabitants are called “Nords”, there are several named NPC:s and places which have a clear linguistic connection to traditional real-world Nordic names, that create a certain sense of Skyrim being “Nordic” or maybe even “Norse”. Below follows a table with a couple examples on personal names, followed by a table with place names.

Masculine personal namesFeminine personal names
ArngeirAlfhild Battleborn
Asbjorn FiretamerEydis
Torbjorn Shatter-ShieldHjordis
UlfricUthgerd the Unbroken
Yngvar the SingerYrsa
Place names
Geirmund’s Hall

Without diving into a full analysis of each example, I would like to remark on a couple of aspects of the names shown above before concluding with some research propositions:

  • The personal names contain in some cases a descriptive by-name to the character, which could be in line with older Nordic name-giving traditions.
  • Despite the game being a part of the fantasy genre with its own religious belief system, a couple of personal names contain mythological Norse elements, e.g. Frea, Eydis and Hjordis.
  • The place names are generally made up, while the personal names are borrowed from existing real-world onomasticon. This leads to the place names not being interpretable in the same way, but instead raise questions about what happens when Anglo-Saxon or English speaking game developers are creating names that are supposed to remind of traditional Nordic place names. What is it in a place name that makes it “Nordic”? In the examples shown above especially “-heim” and “-grav” are strong indicators on a name being interpreted as typically Nordic.

Research propositions: videogame name material in socio-onomastics

This blog post is an attempt at making a short introduction of video games as a potential way for studies of socio-onomastics. Although I have not focused on conducting any deep analysis on the examples presented above, I would like to propose a couple of research topics where video games could be used as research material.

The first proposition is linked to the topic in this post, i.e. names as a part of creating game-worlds (cf. literary onomastics) and what implications the names have for the story. This could also include theonyms in fantasy games, e.g. how belief systems are designed and what role the names play in the belief system. Lastly, many fantasy video games contain newly created languages, Skyrim included: this could carry potential in studying how an onomasticon emerges within a language.

The second proposition is linked to what was briefly mentioned in the beginning about what defines an RPG, i.e. the player’s ability to create and name their own character and advance their character through the game while maintaining their role in the story of the game. Personally, I would find it very interesting to explore how players reason when they are choosing a name for their character, and what characterizes the thought process behind choosing a name. Do they pick from an existing onomasticon, do they make up new names and if so, what is it in the name that makes it a “name” according to the player? Since video games constitute a large part of the contemporary entertainment industry and engage millions of people all over the world in taking part of the many worlds and characters within the games, I hope this can be viewed as an interesting and fruitful field of research too.

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