A Basic Feminist Critique of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a medieval fantasy role playing game that was initially released in 2011 by legendary game studio Bethesda Softworks LLC. The company is known for its other worldly settings that include medieval and post-apocalyptic worlds. As the title suggest, Skyrim is part of a long running series that takes place on the fictional continent of Tamriel, and it features things one would expect from a fantasy game like a detailed world, magic, and fantastical creatures and storylines. Skyrim’s plot revolves around the Dragonborn, the only character you play of dragon descent amidst the return of actual dragons. The main storyline follows you on your journey to defeat the dragon Alduin whose goal is to bring about the fall of mankind. Other branching storylines exist in the game that are just as (or even more) detailed than the main on, and the gameplay features medieval-style combat, government, espionage, mystery, and even homemaking. Video games that have resulted from the era of New Media have provided new opportunities of learning and socialization for today’s society. The extent of these benefits, however, has shown to be limited while marginalized groups still experience erasure and one-dimensional representation in this newfound way of interaction. Skyrim, despite its intense critical and audience praise, is a prime example of such a video game. Through analyzing the exclusionary nature of the game’s storylines, dissecting the different gender and racial roles at play amongst its vast number of characters, and applying the concept of archival power to the game’s medieval setting, it becomes simple to see how popular representations of overall culture do not hold true to real life experiences had by real life people.

Despite Skyrim’s seemingly endless amenities and paths for the individual to enjoy, and like many games of its category, it falls short of gaining an exemplary grade in feminist ethics. Representation for players of color falters amongst the vast majority of Skyrim’s storylines and even side quests. Gabriela T. Richard and Kishonna L. Gray’s essay “Gendered Play, Racialized Reality” highlights how people of color experience intense erasure when it comes to forefront characters in video games (Richard and Gray). From the wise Greybeard priests that guide the character to the Jarl leaders of the county-like governments, this whitewashing of key game figures does not escape Skyrim. Arguably the second biggest storyline in the game, the civil war between the Imperial and Stormcloak factions reveals that this racialized context does not stop at main characters. The Stormcloak faction, mostly made up of Nords, claims to be native to Skyrim and thus waged a war on the supposedly invading empire that rules over the continent. Upon taking a deeper look at the sentiments within this faction, the surface-level patriotism they display is rendered void by the xenophobic comments made by a large number of Stormcloak actors. Should they have chosen to play as an Elf or a Redguard, among other non-white character options, reality proves to be harsh as Stormcloak after Stormcloak wishes the player “return to their homeland”. Richard and Gray’s essay further applies to Skyrim in reference to what they call Black Cyberfeminism, the belief that race is always present and a key component in how people interact digitally (Richard and Gray). Furthermore, the Nords of Skyrim are all white people, so this positions any foreign body as an “Other”. Players may choose to play as any race, but this does not obfuscate the fact that darker skinned and humanoid characters are treated as unwanted invaders by the game’s second biggest questline.

Players of Skyrim, as mentioned before, are able to customize the character they play from options of gender, race, size, and facial features. One aspect of character creation that is worthy of praise is how the default special attributes for each race differ. For example, the three different Elf races gain magic skill points at a faster rate while the reptilian Argonian race has default armor and stealth-related perks. Differences between races are celebrated in Skyrim as each player can pick which fits their playstyle the best, and no race is more advantageous than the next since gameplay relies on the player’s skill. However, the ability to choose a male or female character does not ameliorate representations of women in the game. Anita Sarkeesian and Carolyn Petit’s article “Female Representation in Videogames Isn’t Getting Any Better” from Wired indicates the lack of connection between the rising number of women in games and the quality of that representation (Sarkeesian and Petit). Skyrim’s dynamics of the presentation of women sadly mirrors this. There are only two prominent archetypes of women in the game: the nurturing/kind and abrasive/brute woman. Providing the game’s female characters with merely two-dimensional personalities indicates how the game industry prioritizes the presence of women over establishing justice in representation in order to quell feminist critiques. Additionally, the misplaced prioritization can be seen in the major absence of women leaders in all but a few of the game’s storylines, and there is even a quest that allows the player to impede a woman from rising to the throne as Skyrim’s high king. Both the racial and gender disparities are quite intense at times when analyzing the characters and plot of Bethesda’s larger-than-life adventure game.

Finally, it is necessary to dive into how the setting of Skyrim interacts with feminist critiques. Its medieval world that features dungeons, dragons, and swords (oh my!) is not the product of an entirely original concept. Hollywood and popular media alike have always been fascinated with and depicting medieval settings, so one has to wonder how popular conceptions of what is medieval came about. Historical records are obviously central to society’s memory of times before current living generations, and these records are part of controlled archives. “Archives, Records, and Power” by Joan M. Schwartz and Terry Cook notes that archives are created and maintained by people and those people have immense power (Schwartz and Cook). Archives and the records that constitute them are what is known colloquially as “history”. Thus, whoever controls archives controls history, in a way. Recognizing this power dynamic allows the realization that these controllers of archives, of history, have an indirect hand in creating Skyrim. Elements of the game like the language, food, and technology all constitute the conception of medieval culture that is dictated by archives. Furthermore, connecting this archival theory to the game’s expression of various identities explains why women and people of color are represented inaccurately in Skyrim.

The racialized and gendered representations of characters, storylines, and the setting in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim show how games and gaming are not an exception to the feminist critiques of New Media. Skyrim displays xenophobic and Othering traits in reference to its treatment of people of color within the intricate storylines and myriad of characters. Additionally, the low-dimensional treatment of woman characters exposes how the game industry believes quantity will satisfy feminist demands. Overall, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim deserves a C+ grade when using aspects of an intersectional feminist lens. This is because the pro-feminist intricacies of the game are actually not intricate at all as stereotypes and phobias of people of color and women abound in almost every gameplay context. Finally, though not every game needs to be a feminist powerhouse, Skyrim does nothing to contest the systems of oppression that impact real people’s lives day in and day out.

References

Bethesda Game Studios. 2011. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Bethesda Softworks, LLC. https://elderscrolls.bethesda.net/en/skyrim/

Richard, G.T., & Gray, K.L. (2018). Gendered Play, Racialized Reality: Black Cyberfeminism, Inclusive Communities of Practice, and the Intersections of Learning, Socialization, and Resilience in Online Gaming. Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 39, 112–148.

Sarkeesian, A. (2019, June 14). Female Representation in Videogames Isn’t Getting Any Better. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/story/e3-2019-female-representation-videogames/

Schwartz, J.M., & Cook, T. (2002). Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory. Archival Science, 2, 1–19.

Undergraduate at the University of Kansas. Political Science and Gender Studies. This is where I post my undergraduate writings. I’d love to hear critiques!