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).

PLEASE NOTE: HERE BE SPOILERS!

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

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The World of Skyrim: Gender, Sex, and Marriage

One of the grand ironies of fantasy RPGs (both tabletop and video) is that, despite their Iron/Middle Ages setting, the in-game roles available to female PCs and NPCs are sometimes more varied than they are in modern society.  In Skyrim, for example, gender has absolutely no impact on gameplay -- no skill or ability advantages as there are for race.  A PC of either gender can play any kind of character type and can achieve the maximum level in any skill.  Male characters have no advantage in combat, and female characters have no advantage in cooking.  As far as the mechanics of the game are concerned, gender is a purely aesthetic distinction, affecting only a character's appearance (including male and female versions of every clothing and armor type).  This gender equity extends to NPCs as well, both fixed and radiant.  Skyrim boasts female jarls (Idgrod Ravencrone of Morthal, Laila Law-Giver of Riften, and Elisif the Fair of Solitude), bards, and housecarls (all "fixed" characters), and the randomly-generated (or "radiant") bandits, necromancers, and Forsworn have even chances of being either sex.

Gender becomes even more interesting when one examines the marriage feature in Skyrim.  Once a PC obtains the Amulet of Mara, he or she can marry one of several eligible NPCs of either gender.  Bethesda scripted the marriage function to operate without regard to gender; in other words, gay marriage is legal in Skyrim.  This programming choice allows players to run homosexual PCs while simultaneously rendering the PCs sexual orientation inconsequential to gameplay.  In fact, from a gameplay perspective, the profession of the spouse is the only factor worth considering; merchants usually mean better available goods and perhaps more household income, but warriors can actually go on quests with the PC, providing backup in combat and assistance with carrying loot. While marriage itself provides other strategic benefits as well (see below), the gender of one's mate is utterly irrelevant.

A side effect of this arrangement that, because the default courtship initiating dialogue for many NPCs is gender-neutral toward the PC, a paradoxically gender-specific picture of romantic love emerges.  Once the PC establishes a positive relationship with an eligible NPC (usually through completing a minor miscellaneous quest), the default opening dialogue (the line an NPC speaks when the PC comes into range, but before the player chooses the "Talk" option) for male NPCs is...
"You've been a good friend to me.  That means something."


...while the opening dialogue for a female NPC is...
"It's a fine day with you around."
The overall effect is that female romantic interest comes across as recognizable flirting, whereas its male counterpart makes desire sound more like an intense form of camaraderie.  If a female PC marries a female NPC, neither becomes less feminine.  Likewise, if a male PC marries a male NPC, neither character becomes less traditionally manly-- truly fascinating in such a hypermasculine setting.

While the fact that Skyrim allows gay marriage (for PCs at least -- there are no overtly homosexual NPC pairs) might not sit well with moral conservatives, the fact that the sexual options for the PC are completely limited to marriage falls right in line with the traditional Judeo-Christian view of sexuality.  Moreover, the physical aspect of marriage is only implied, never depicted.  The most explicit reference to PC sex is the "Lover's Comfort" bonus: a 15% boost in skill improvement speed for 8 hours after sleeping in the same bed as one's spouse.  While sex outside of marriage is discussed (most notably in Haelga's Bunkhouse), there are no explicit images of sex in the game.  Even if the PC is in the bedroom of a married couple (while attempting to steal something, for example), all the player will see is two clothed figures, perhaps even wearing armor, lying separately on top of the covers of a double bed:
Jarl Idgrod Ravencrone and her husband/steward Aslfur, alseep in their bed [his position is slightly glitched in this picture]

Despite the game's M rating, the PC has no options for sex outside of marriage, nor will the PC witness any sexual behavior.  Furthermore, if one's spouse dies (on an adventure or in a dragon attack), one cannot remarry, and there are no scripts for divorce in the game's code.

Skyrim presents a very progressive view of gender roles, but a fairly traditional (and demure) picture of marriage.  This arrangement has a double-sided effect on the player's moral agency.  One the one hand, the player, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, is able to create a character with which he or she can fully identify.  On the other, issues of sexual promiscuity and fidelity are completely off the table.  While one could create a scenario in which one's spouse might not like the constant running off on adventures with other NPCs, such a story is directly contradicted by the in-game dialogue:

This PC [not mine] married Camilla Valerius, a merchant from Riverwood

In total, TES V: Skyrim presents marriage as a partnership of equals, regardless of gender or orientation.  Whether the PC's spouse is a valuable asset in battle and dungeon-delving or a shrewd steward of the household income and resources, the institution of marriage takes a position of high honor, unsullied by some of the more complex moral entanglements presented in the game.

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