Skyrim & the Unequal Application of Bigotry Pt. 1


Aela the Huntress, all-around bad ass

I’ve spent a large portion of my summer playing Skyrim, because I only play games after everyone has collectively decided that they are worth playing. I’ve really loved how immersive the experience has been (and I even downloaded a bunch of survival mods to push it further), and I’ve got a lot of thoughts about how the game deals with language, gender, and race, especially given the moment in time it appeared on the scene (2011). So hold onto your butts for Stephanie bitching about all the things that annoyed her about Skyrim.

Gender in Skyrim is an interesting thing. Like many games of this type, the gender of your character doesn’t affect game play. Males and females have equal abilities and opportunities, and the world is populated with men who keep house and clean and women who run lumber mills and work as sellswords. On the surface, then, Skyrim seems to be gender equitable society. However, this is undercut in a few ways. For instance, once a character’s gender is chosen, it is treated as absolute – any dialogue with gendered language (“shield-brother/sister,” for instance) is determined at that moment. Additionally, any clothing that you pick up, no matter what it looks like when you pick it up, becomes gender-appropriate when you wear it; a tunic and breeches you pick up off a man will turn into a dress when a female character puts it on. In short, Skyrim doesn’t permit any genderbending or nongendered characters. And while the playable character may marry men or women regardless of gender, they seem to be the only queer character in the entire country, since all other couples you run into are cisgendered and heterosexual.

Additionally, misogyny is widespread in Skyrim, even if a female Dragonborn isn’t on the receiving end of it. Sneaking around bandit lairs gives you a chance to overhear complaints about unfaithful women lying about the fatherhood of their children, but this is only the tip of the iceberg. One of the most disturbing quests is recovering a necromancer’s journals from Yngvild Barrow. The barrow is filled with ghostly women, and reading the journals reveals that Altermeri necromancer Arondil, after being shunned by the attractive young women of Dawnstar, retreated to the barrow to continue his experiments. After reanimating a number of female corpses to obey his orders, Arondil found their company agreeable, with heavy overtones that the relationships became sexual, and when a live women was captured by his reanimated slaves, he tried a different kind of experiment to create these spectral beings that, when touch, produce “a sensation unlike any other, as if her essence were invigorating [his] very soul, connecting with [him] on a level no woman of flesh and blood could do” (Arondil’s Journal #4).

At the end of the dungeon, after defeating Arondil, the Dragonborn enters his bedroom to find one of these spectral women in his bed.


Susanna the Wicked, who ends up dead in Blood on the Ice

The Blood on the Ice quest in Windhelm also involves a necromancer targeting women. The quest unfolds much like a police procedural, with the Dragonborn stumbling upon a crime scene, questioning the witnesses, talking to the priestess of Arkay for the forensics report, and following the blood trail to the killer’s den. At first, the wrong man, Wunferth the jarl’s wizard, is imprisoned, either on the word of busybody Viola Giordanno or the actual killer Calixto Corrium. Then, when the Dragonborn returns later to Windhelm, another woman has been killed, and Wunferth is able to provide knowledge that gives the Dragonborn the chance to stop the real killer.

These two quests are in part so disturbing because of the façade of gender equality throughout the rest of the game, but no one has to die for Skyrim to be misogynistic. Let’s take a few moments to consider Haelga, the owner of the Bunkhouse in Riften. She’s a generally unpleasant woman, rude to the Dragonborn and, according to her niece Svanna, abusive. Svanna is equally disgusted by Haelga’s philandering ways, asking the Dragonborn to help take Haelga down a notch by finding the Marks of Dibella she has bestowed upon the three lovers she’s taken in the last month and rubbing them in her face.

That’s right, people, it’s Slut Shaming: The Quest.


Haelga, who likes having sex

So I went around finding these Marks of Dibella, just to see what would happen, and you know what one of the men, Bolli, said to me? He said that he thought she had slipped something into his drink, a very serious accusation that never gets followed up on. Moreover, because Bolli and Haelga are often seen together socially (in fact, you can overhear a conversation between them about possibly running away together), this sounds a lot like a man who regrets having a sexual encounter with a specific person (or at least getting caught) and now claims rape, which is exactly the narrative that men’s rights activists use to discount claims of rape made by women. Eventually, you collect all the Marks of Dibella, you go back to Haelga, she asks you to keep quiet because if people found out she was practicing “the Dibellan arts” she’d be run out of town, and Svanna is pleased to see her aunt eat crow.

A few things here about how this quest maybe should have played out:

1. If Haelga did in fact slip something in Bolli’s drink, that should have been treated as more serious. There should have been an option to investigate the claim and a stricter punishment than just embarrassing her.

2. If Haelga did not in fact slip something in Bolli’s drink, that claim should not have been made by Bolli or he should have been chastised or punished for the claim. The way this plays out just further reinforces a damaging narrative that people lie about being raped and therefore we should not take rape claims (especially rape claims made by men about women) seriously.

3. Or maybe a quest about shaming a woman who likes to have sex with multiple partners (including relatively kinky sex, given the kinds of items you can find in her room) should have been completely removed from the game entirely. Or maybe another option for resolution of the question could have been written in, a resolution that involved Svanna learning that it’s wrong to shame people for their desires and Haelga learning to treat the people around her better.

Of course, how a player feels about this entire quest depends a lot on how they feel about Haelga. If Haelga were more likable, players may have been more reluctant to take on this quest (depending on how they are role playing the game). However, like Svanna, the player is expected to feel satisfied, I think, by Haelga getting what’s coming to her. Additionally, the question of religious freedom is never completely explored here: Haelga claims that her sexual activities are in honor of Dibella, but that she would be ostracized if found out, but we have no one else in the game that can either confirm or deny her assessment that casual sex is part of Dibellan worship. And whether it is or isn’t, a claim of religious persecution should be taken more seriously in a game where one of the primary narratives, the Civil War, is weighted heavily with questions of religious freedom (I’ll be taking up the Civil War in another post focused on race).

When looking at these phenomena holistically, we might call this the unequal application of misogyny — other women in the game appear to experience misogyny and rape culture regularly while the playable character is exempt. I’m left with somewhat mixed feelings about this. If, for instance, misogyny were equally applied, players would be punished for choosing a female character, and that’s not a good thing. On the other hand, this kind of unequal application may allow male players of women characters to further ignore the misogyny around them because it doesn’t affect them. Think about how often men have argued that street harassment isn’t that big of a deal because they never see it happening. Action RPGs like Skyrim could have the potential to be pieces of procedural rhetoric about the regular experiences of misogyny.

Alternately, if Skyrim really were to present an equitable society in relation to gender, we could have men being turned into sex slaves by necromancers of both genders and women necromancers preying on other women.

So, other Skyrim fans, what do you think? How did you experience gender in the game?


P.S. In Part 2, I’ll be taking up the issue of race in Skyrim, as well as the Civil War storyline.

Captain Blood – Communicating with Aliens

I recently finished reading Neal Stephenson’s Anathem and I’m still trying to collect by thoughts before I begin trying to post about it, so I thought I’d take a little stroll off my usually path into the world of video games. L’Arche du capitaine Blood, or Captain Blood as it is known to its English-speaking players, was made in 1988 by ERE Informatique. In it, you control the biotic arm of Captain Blood, a video game designer who go sucked into his own video game. Unfortunately, when that happened, five duplicated were made of Blood, stealing from him vital fluids necessary for keeping him organic. The biotic arm is the first sign that Blood is becoming slowly more robotic. You must find a duplicate, disintegrate it, and reclaim your vital fluids at least once every 2.5 hours in order to maintain your organic body.

Gameplay in Captain Blood is broken into three main parts: locating inhabited worlds on your galaxy map using X/Y coordinates, navigating planet surfaces in your small organic landing craft, and talking to aliens to try to get information about your duplicates, other inhabited planets, and whatnot. Most of your time is spent in conversation trying to get information. Of course, all the aliens don’t speak the same language, so it’s fortunate that Blood’s ship is equipped with a translation device that utilizes icons in place of words.

Conversation, then, can be quite stilted, though the number of icons is fairly extensive. For example, a typical opening to a conversation might go something like this:

Alien: Howdy You. Me Croolis-Ulv Dead Genetic. Me Great Warrior. Me Like Kill Enemy.

Blood: Me Blood. Me Search Duplicate.

Alien: Me Search Information Enemy. Me Know Danger Missile.

Blood: Me Want Know Danger Missile.

Alien: Me Like Danger Missille. (Laugh Laugh). Me Search Female. Odoyante Good Female.

And so on and so forth. Each icon represents a word, so in the image above, the alien is saying, “Me Give You Planet Duplicate 234.” Of course, this nouns, verbs, and adjectives also do double-duty as names, so in the above hypothetical conversation, one might think that the alien was a Croolis-Ulv without any possibility for reproduction, a genetic dead-end, but actually his name is Dead Genetic.  Same thing with Danger Missile (though I haven’t actually found Danger Missile, so he might just be talking about a planet with dangerous missiles). Planets can have equally puzzling names: Trap 1, Great Fear, Kill You, Insult 4, etc. It’s often difficult to tell (1) if a name is actually a name, and (2) if that name is a planet or an individual. There are some clues in the verbs: individuals go with the verb “kill” and planets go with the verb “destroy” (so far, I’ve mostly been dealing with the Croolis-Ulv and the Croolis-Var, a pair of warring races who really just want to obliterate each other).

Interestingly, though these aliens do not share a language, the icons suggest a shared culture: the fact that a picture of a skull means “dead” across language says something, I think, about a shared cultural experience. Likewise, the image for “pop”, or father, shows one tall stick figure standing next to a smaller stick figure: a father and child. Yet in that icon is the assumption that across alien races the young are always smaller than the father.

At the same time, words don’t necessarily mean the same things in every conversation, especially as speech acts. Some groups of aliens have to be threatened, some have to be flattered, some need overtures of friendship, and some just need to be allowed to whine for a while about how they can’t reproduce. For some aliens, the phrase “Me destroy planet you” (I will destroy your planet) is a great joke, but it strikes fear in the hearts of others. Additionally, each group of aliens seems to have its own set of commonplaces — the Croolis-Ulv want to kill all the Croolis-Var and vice versa while the Buggols are really more worried about their upcoming presidential election.  The game also has its own sense of kairotic moments, moments that are predetermined and not always distinguishable: you c ask the same question five times, but until you get to “the moment,” that alien is not going to give you any kind of coherent answer.

In terms of game play, this game is really unique. For example, in most spaceship shooters, language isn’t an issue at all; in Star Control II, for example, you talk to aliens, but there are no translation issues and you’re given a list of predetermined statements to choose from. Likewise, in most point-and-click adventure games, you are given entire sentences to choose from, with the occasional linguistic puzzle; the one that still haunts me is The Secret of Monkey Island‘s “How to Get Ahead in Navigating.” In Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, you have instances of having to pick up on clues in what the NPC is saying and make the correct response. What you sometimes find out in these pre-prepared statements is that your character knows more than you do (this was painfully obvious when I played The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the Serrated Scapel). Instead, in Captain Blood, your avatar only knows as much as you know (hence the need to actually take copious amounts of notes, because Blood isn’t going to remember anything for you).

Ultimately, Captain Blood provides a immersive illustration of the langue/parole split, making it one of the most frustrating games I’ve played, since you know you’re saying things, but the things you’re saying apparently don’t mean the things you think they mean. Hooray for linguistic uncertainty!