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!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The World of Skyrim: Race

Race has been an essential component to the TES series since the beginning of the franchise, with each humanoid race featuring distinct gameplay advantages (Nords have a high resistance to frost-based attacks, while Argonians can breathe underwater, and so on; for a convenient summary of these attributes, click here).  This use of racial attribute differentials is a time-honored part of the RPG legacy.  In fact, many of the races of Tamriel are unapologetically based on the Tolkien/Gygax paradigm: high elf, wood elf, dark elf, orc, dwarf, goblin.  Some races, while not necessarily unique to TES, are less "canonical" in RPGs: Khajiit (cat people) and Argonians (lizard people).  What separates TES from other RPGs in the fantasy genre is the interpolation of real-world human ethnic groups into distinct races (as opposed to a single race called "human") for PCs and NPCs: Nord, Imperial, Breton, and Redguard.  This incorporation of real ethnicity in a virtual setting has had an impact on the way players (and perhaps the game designers themselves) see the purely fictional races of Tamriel -- an impact which can best be seen in the latest title, Skyrim.

With the release of Skyrim in November 2011, gaming forums have been speculating with increasing frequency on the identification of all of the playable races (both human and non-) with racial stereotypes in the real world.  When discussing a fantasy RPG, even one with such a long history and voluminous lore, the thoughtful player should bear in mind that the game designers are utterly free to combine elements from disparate real-world cultures, ignore important aspects of ethnic history, and invent racial attributes out of whole cloth.  To complicate matters, Bethesda has remained largely silent on the issue, so there are no "right" answers; however, even a cursory examination of the races of TES V: Skyrim yields a few obvious, albeit superficial, connections. 

The human races are, not surprisingly, the easiest to read.  Nords, as suggested by the name, are most like the Norse of Scandinavia; their physical appearance, personal names, political structures, architecture, warrior culture, and religious beliefs all contribute to a Viking motif.  Imperials, with their Latin names and legionnaire armor, are most likely based on ancient Romans.  Bretons seem to be a loose interpretation of the Gauls and Celts that populated Western Europe during the Iron Age -- some Breton NPCs lean toward the Irish/Scottish/Welsh end of the spectrum, while others appear to be more proto-French.  Redguards have dark complexions and frequently possess scimitars and flowing robes, so they seem to represent North Africa and perhaps the Arabian Peninsula -- the Medieval Moor. From here, ethnic correspondence becomes more tentative.

Skyrim posits two non-human racial groups: the Mer and the Beast races (although some of the lore implies that these two groups are themselves distantly related).  Drawing connections between these races and real-world ethnicities is a bit more difficult.  The Mer are the collected Tolkien-esque races: Altmer (High Elves), Bosmer (Wood Elves), Dunmer (Dark Elves), Orsimer (Orcs), and Dwemer (Dwarves).  The Altmer physically resemble the Feudal Japanese, but their voice actors speak in a high British accent, and the behavior of their main NPC faction in Skyrim (the Thalmor) combines the Nazis' fixation on racial purity with the Inquisitors' zeal for hunting religious heretics.  Bosmer, with their woodcraft and animal skills, seem to be based on Native American or other Aboriginal groups (the role of the Breton subgroup the Forsworn and the introduction of the mysterious Snow Elves complicates this identification).  Dunmer clan systems mimic Chinese family groups, but many of their names and words borrow heavily from the Assyrian and Babylonian languages.  Orsimer names and cultural traditions evoke Mongolia during the time of Ghengis Khan.  The architecture and scientific achievement of the lost Dwemer people resembles the ancient Greeks with a overlay of Aztec and Sumerian touches.  The Beast races, the Khajiit and the Argonians, are even harder to nail down.  The feline appearance of the Khajiit, along with their merchant caravans, suggest an elision of the ancient Egyptians and the apocryphal etymology of the term "gypsy."  The reptilian Argonians are probably the most difficult, as their physical appearance provides no solid foothold; some argue that their role as a topical seafaring race corresponds to Southeast Asian or Polynesian ethnic groups; this identification, like most others of its type, is highly debatable.

This salmagundi of racial and ethnic attributes, while potentially confusing, actually provides a boon to the examination of moral agency.  Because the fictional races are reminiscent of real peoples, the player sees them as familiar and is therefore more likely to engage in the story.  Because the fictional races are not exactly equivalent to real peoples, the player is less likely to bring his own outside history and prejudices into the story.  The overall effect encourages the player to adopt the race of his PC and experience issues of race within the confines of the game, free from the tyranny of historical accuracy. 

Aside from the racial bonus mentioned above, race does little to impact the PC's gameplay.  A few NPC interactions may be affected (Hadvar's dialogue during the Unbound quest, the ability to enter an Orc stronghold uninvited, and so on), but for the most part, race mainly affects the "feel" of the game.  An American Caucasian player running a Dunmer PC, for example, might experience the racial segregation of Windhelm differently from the way he experiences the racial segregation in his own country's history.  Skyrim's nuanced employment of racial identity grants the player unprecedented access to issues of justice, and therefore opens up an area of moral agency often underused in gaming.

1 comment:

  1. Nice bit of information. I like being treated like a second class citizen so I usually choose the Argonians or the khajiit.