Please read this first.

Welcome! This blog is devoted to considerations of morality in the The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim by Bethesda. Rather than a fansite, review, or walkthrough, it is a serious attempt to examine the game through a moral lens. Please note that the purpose of this blog is to discuss morality within the context of the game, not to determine whether playing the game is immoral in and of itself; the latter type of "discussion" tends toward tedium and inhibits, rather than promotes, a meaningful conversation.

If you have not visited this blog before, it might be helpful to read the posts labeled "Orientation," most of which are the first few entries in the blog archive (see right). These posts include a short introduction to this project, a content-specific author bio, and a few other pieces that explain key concepts relevant to this study. These posts are of particular use to those readers less familiar with Skyrim (or video games in general).


If you have visited this blog before, thanks and welcome back!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Skyrim as a Moral Setting

Despite the very real differences between religious faiths, most moral systems in the everyday world are very different from in-game morality, largely because of the kinds of challenges presented to the players.  Mercy and compassion are core values of most modern religions, but they have no place in chess, in which deception and ruthlessness are celebrated.  This does not mean that chess is immoral; it means that the moral code of chess is appropriate for the game, but not necessarily for daily life.  Likewise, the moral environment of an RPG is best evaluated within the context of the fictional world it creates

Fantasy RPGs tend to take place in Iron/Middle Age settings, in which violence is a daily occurrence.  Skyrim, because it cribs so extensively from Beowulf and the Poetic Edda, occurs in an Anglo-Saxon/Viking moral setting; valor in battle and personal loyalty are more important than mercy, and cowardice is considered worse than assault in most cases. Some NPCs, like Uthgerd the Unbroken, cannot be recruited as followers or approached as potential spouses until the PC brawls with them. fistfights aside, all other battles are to the death. If an opponent's health drops low enough during a (non-brawl) fight, he might cry "Mercy," but as soon as the PC stops attacking, the opponent will resume fighting once his health regenerates.  Conversely, the PC can yield during a battle, but only Hold guards will accept the gesture; all other enemies will continue attacking.  Most quests cannot be completed without killing at least a few enemies.  While Skyrim allows room for finishing some quests successfully without actual combat (through sneaking, speech, or fear spells), a truly pacifist PC would be excluded from most quests, and main questline in particular.

However, even though mortal combat is commonplace in Skyrim, the game still forbids certain kinds of violence.  Children, for example, cannot be harmed by the PC; if the player attacks a child, other NPCs will immediately turn on the PC, but a health meter will not appear above the child; in other words, attacking a child leads to instant punishment, despite the fact the child literally cannot be harmed.  The game has a different, but just as effective, way to discourage violence against women.  All adult NPCs are capable of attack, most are armed at all times, and there is no difference between men and women in battle statistics.  Therefore, if a male PC attacks a non-combatant female NPC, he may be in for a real fight.

Because TES V: Skyrim is a combat-based RPG set in a fantasy version of a Viking-like warrior culture, violence is the rule, rather than the exception, and any moral code the player wishes to follow must take the setting into consideration.  More often than not, the moral dilemmas will revolve around fighting.  Do I kill the bandit leader just because the Jarl said he would pay me to do it?  Do I side with the Empire or the Stormcloaks in the Civil War?  Should I sneak past the Thalmor guards or just kill them?  Is it acceptable to kill an NPC to gain another NPC's trust?  I need to get this NPC to stop harrassing another NPC -- should I persuade, bribe, threaten, or just beat him up?  In order to navigate this setting as a moral agent, the player must tailor her PC's moral system to the violence that forms the basis of many of the in-game challenges.

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