Mythology pertaining to the undead, rising to once again walk the earth as vengeful corporeal adversaries is a theme repeated across cultures from the draugr of Iceland to the ghoul of Arabia and the Chinese jiangshi. Despite their varied heritage and behavioral nuances, they share the same main role of deterring desecration of burial sites. This observation makes true of the way we focus on what is fundamentally similar in the literature, and disregard the differences. Levi-Strauss (1978) acknowledges the coincidental themes that reoccur in the mythology of once segregated cultures and suggests their creation to be the human psyche exploring deep seated philosophical questions pertaining to our existence. Levi-Strauss considered these myths to have been developed in a closed system, within societies that had very little ability to communicate and share ideas among one another. However, today in our networked society, mythology has become exposed to new minds across the globe and mutated from its original purpose to explore the boundaries of human understanding, philosophy and entertainment. For example, the significance of the mummy for ancient Egyptian religion arose from the natural dehydrating and preservation process the pit graves in hot, dry sand had on the body. This evolved into the belief that mummification was essential for living well in the afterlife. It soon became a ritualistic practice. It wasn’t until the early 1800’s that western literature introduced the malevolent walking undead version. A similar evolution process has taken the Haitian Zombie from a real-life, catatonic, walking slave to an unrelenting, brain-eating, animated corpse.

Thanks to Romero’s 1968 milestone film Night of the Living Dead, the term zombie now conjures thoughts of bloodthirsty creatures with no concern for their own well-being and of limited intelligence that attack until the bitter end. As such an internationally well-known trope, through its use in literature, movies, television and computer games, it’s stereotype has begun impacting on ancient mythology. Today, the Icelandic term uppvakníngar, once used to describe the corporeal undead and a type of draugr, now translates to zombie. Here, the Icelandic mythology suffers from the loss of its rich literary history.

Zombies make for the perfect computer game opponent in that they take human form and hence possess human strength and ability, are perceived as an imminent threat and provide the player little morale regret when disposing of them. Many other enemy characters in games are also portrayed and programmed in this way. It’s a repeatable and successful mechanic, whether they are alien, monster or evil scientist. However, the undead characters and those with similarities to the zombie trope, such as the draugr in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, are under greater threat of losing their unique identity. When players are eager to be dropped into the action with little time for cut scenes, game designers must rely on the knowledge the player brings with them. This knowledge can be assumed to have been obtained through popular culture. Mythology fulfils the indispensable function of codifying belief, morality, and ritual (Malinowski, 2014) and when used in a game provides players with the charter of their player's life, facts about the game world, motives and morals. It's okay to kill a zombie. They are life threatening, will kill you if you don't kill them and have been deindividualized to the point that their disposal has become a trivial task. In the mind of the player it’s a seamless transition to stereotype anything that looks and acts like a zombie to that class. No other computer game character fits the physical description better than the Skyrim draugr with their undead, dishevelled, half decayed bodies.

As will be revealed in this chapter, playing with the undead in computer games, has lead in the case of the zombie, to an antiquity of diverging beliefs and rituals aimed at entertaining the player both on a story and interactive level. Zombie lore in games has settled upon the Romero trope and is a far cry from its true historic origins. While the draugr hasn’t enjoyed a long history in games and the same narrative exploration as the zombie, it too could be at threat, through play, at a shift in its mythology. However, to fully comprehend if the draugr and zombie are binary identities or close dialectic cousins, a comparative analysis of the mythologies in both literary lore and computer game narrative is presented to the ends of answering the questions: Can an investigation of the historical representation of zombies and other undead inform a more complex representation of NPCs in future games? and, In the discourse of digital games are the undead at threat of becoming zombies?