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!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Rules of Engagement for Katnyss

Since my goal this time was to play with moral agency from an alternate moral profile, I thought it best to lay out some ground rules at the start, just as I did with Lothar.  Instead of recreating the exhaustive list from the corresponding first playthough post, allow me to point out those areas in which Katnyss’s moral composition differs from Lothar’s.

As a Nord Legionnaire, Lothar usually thinks more about principles than about people, the big picture more than the immediate situation.  He sided with the Empire because he believed a united Empire was the best defense against the Dominion, even though the ban on Talos worship was an egregious offense.  He spared Paarthurnax because the dragon had done the right thing in helping Lothar to overcome Alduin, his brother and former leader.  He destroyed the Dark Brotherhood because they wanted him to kill potentially innocent people solely on their command.  He joined the Thieves’ Guild in order to create a more stable and unified Skyrim.  While not all of his actions are laudable, nor all of his rationalizations convincing, he tends to consider his actions in an abstract, impersonal manner (which action is more just?) rather than a concrete, personal one (which action is best for me and those for whom I care?)

Katnyss, on the other hand, considers the world in terms of relationship rather than principle.  The rightness or wrongness of an action depends mostly on how it affects those around her; abstractions are useless at best, dangerous at worst.  The primary moral obligation of a person is to those with whom she is connected: family, friends, allies.  People outside of these relationships are secondary or tertiary considerations, if at all.  An action is right if it benefits her “tribe,” wrong if it hurts them, and morally neutral if it doesn’t affect them.

Consider the example of Lothar’s relationship with Uthgerd the Unbroken.  During a quest, Lothar accidentally killed an innocent Stormcloak in the midst of a larger battle.  Because I received a bounty, I know Uthgerd ratted on me.  Using Lothar’s profile, however, I had to admit that I admired her adherence to the law, and dealt appropriately with the bounty.  Were Katnyss to find herself in a similar situation, she would see Uthgerd as a traitor who reneged on her obligation to support, protect, and care for her friend.  Uthgerd should have valued her loyalty to Katnyss above her belief in the rule of law.

This difference of worldview has profound implications for the game.  Her parents, loyal to the Nords who took them in, put themselves on the line for the sake of the Empire to which Skyrim belonged.  The Empire, however, abandoned them to the Thalmor.  The Empire failed her again when she lived in the Cyrodillian orphanage, allowing her to be neglected and abused by those who were supposed to be caring for her and her sister.  Then the Empire killed her sister.  The Empire, therefore, must be destroyed, along with the Thalmor they apparently serve.

There is more to this moral profile than revenge, however.  Valuing relationships over principles has led Katnyss to form very strong attachments to certain factions and followers.  It also provides a lens through which she judges the NPCs she encounters, even if they have no significant attachment to her.  I’ll elaborate on these aspects as they come up.  All of the other rules for Katnyss’s decision-making follow from this prioritizing of personal connection.  When she steals and from whom, how she decides which quests to take, and how she understands her role as Dovahkiin will originate from this moral profile.


  1. I love how deeply you read into this game and play characters in a true role playing fashion. I'm only on my first play of this game but I'm hooked. I'm going to have to play a second time the way you do.. sticking with a strict set of morals and use much deeper role playing. Im about 50 hours in, mostly I've just wandered about helping people with their problems. I haven't done really any of the main story. I still haven't even seen the greybeards haha. I am playing as an imperial and so far with the moral choices I've had to make, I've just done what I think I would have done in these situations. Such an amazing game.. and a great blog! I will definitely be reading more.

    1. Again, thanks for your kind comments!

      I find that games like Skyrim really open up when you approach them with an eye toward moral agency. The role-playing aspect is fun, to be sure, but the role-playing is always in the service of examining the moral conflicts behind the story. Like Kohlberg, I'm more interested in why a player makes a decision than in the result of the decision itself.

      Have fun with your playthrough, and I look forward to reading your comments (and perhaps a few arguments).

  2. This is excellent. I love the distinction between a morality based on principles (Lothar) and one based on relationship (Katnyss). I've never been able to side with the Stormcloaks based on principle (though I think your son's freedom-of-religion angle is worth considering). But I can easily see how one might do so based on relationship. This seems like a good perspective-stretching thought experiment for a principle-based person to engage in.

    That said, how does Katnyss end up not siding with Saadia, just as Lothar did? Of the two, Lothar seems much more likely to hand Saadia over to the Alik'r. Well, perhaps a future post will enlighten me.