One of the most significant developments for me came about six months ago when I started to let my eleven year-old son play. Even though the game comes with an M rating, by June I felt that I had a sufficient handle on the game's content to permit my son to play under my supervision. While I wasn't going to force him to copy my playstyle, I have occasionally required him to explain and/or justify his actions, which has led to some fascinating debates. What follows are some of the more valuable aspects of his playthrough.
Before I let him play, my son had already formed some strong preferences. In contrast to my "ranger" playstyle (predominately Warrior, with enough Rogue to specialize in Archery and Sneaking), my son expressed an interest in running a "battlemage" character (primarily Mage, with enough Warrior to survive without magic). Accordingly, he chose an Altmer character in order to take advantage of the High Elf racial benefits (extra starting Magicka and enchanced Magicka recovery). I helped him choose an appropriate Altmer name ("Erefor"), then assigned him his first narrative task.
Because every PC, regardless of race, gender, or playstyle, begins the game as a prisoner of the Empire, facing execution for sneaking across Skyrim's closed southern border, the role-player has to create a believable backstory in order to explain his predicament. My backstory was easy to compose; a Nord returning to Skyrim needs little explanation. My son, on the other hand, faced a more complex project. Why would a non-Thalmor Altmer travel alone to Skyrim in violation of the Imperial order? I was impressed with the depth and inventiveness of my son's answer.
Erefor, having grown up under the Aldmeri Dominion, became a member of the Thalmor in order to serve his homeland with honor. Over time, he grew disillusioned with the goals of the Dominion -- in particular, their obsession with the eradication of Talos worship seemed pointless and wasteful. When Erefor voiced his objections to his superiors, the Thalmor rewarded him by stripping him of his position and gear, beating him senseless, and dumping him just inside the Skyrim border, where he was discovered by the Legion. This backstory not only explains Erefor's presence in the game, but also demonstrates a nuanced understanding of character motivation and a clear moral standpoint -- particularly for an eleven year-old player.
The Civil War
Although I was not shocked that my son and I ended up on opposite sides of the Civil War (the contrarian apple doesn't fall far from the tree), his rationale surprised me a bit. When Erefor joined the Stormcloaks, I challenged my son to provide one good reason for an Altmer to join an army of Nords who hate his kind and wish to drive them out of Skyrim; he gave me three:
- The Empire tried to execute him for something that wasn't his fault.
- The Empire had acquiesced to the Thalmor, who had betrayed him.
- Freedom of religion is an absolute. The Empire relinquished its right to rule when it forgot that.
Another area of difference between my playstyle and son’s concerns the role of the follower. For me, followers are like colleagues: we partner for a specific purpose to achieve a specific goal, and once the quest is complete, we go our separate ways.
I have a number of reasons for using this model – some pragmatic, other more role-playing oriented. On the practical side, unless I am heading into a large battle against multiple opponents (Civil War, Dawnguard) or situations in which I am likely to be ambushed and outnumbered (Blackreach, In My Time Of Need), followers often get in the way more than they help. Some of them don’t sneak well, and my Ranger/Rambo style of play suffers when a follower starts tripping booby traps. From a role-playing perspective, I get nervous unless my follower is clearly prepared for a dangerous quest. My first follower, Sven, was a nice guy, but I wasn’t sure that a small-town bard was really prepared to go dungeon-delving, so I didn’t employ him until after I cleared Bleak Falls Barrow, and then only to help me loot the bandits and draugr I had already killed. My housecarls, on the other hand, are trained bodyguards, so I have outfitted each with specialized equipment to help me with certain types of quests – Argis the Bulwark, for example, is my Dwemer ruins partner, and therefore I have given him Dwarven equipment enchanted with fire damage and shock-resistant magic (especially useful against Dwarven automatons). Furthermore, if I'm being honest, I have to admit that I like the "lone hero" narrative for my character.
My son, however, has yet to dismiss his first follower, Faendal. He sided with Faendal during A Lovely Letter because, as a Bosmer, Faendal might well have the same antipathy toward the Thalmor as Erefor. My son has really enjoyed having a follower NPC, so his playthough has become a "buddy adventure" starring Erefor and Faendal. On a practical level, Erefore is essentially a Battlemage archetype, so his desire to create a small army makes sense, as doing so maximizes power and minimizes risk. During dungeon crawls, for example, he continually casts Conjuration spells (mostly Flame Atronachs) so that he has at least two allies backing him up at all times. While I would find that kind of playstyle chaotic and difficult to follow, he finds it rewarding and reassuring; each successful quest is a kind of team victory.
I have noticed an inconsistency in the moral aspect of my son’s playstyle, specifically around the issue of crime. Generally, he plays a Chaotic Good character: benevolent and compassionate, but with little patience for the rule of law. If he needs to increase his Pickpocketing skill, for example, he sees nothing wrong with lifting a few gold coins or a sweet roll from the town guard [in fact, I tortured him during my Thieves Guild quests by stealing the required item in order to fulfill the objective, then replacing it with an item of equal or greater value], but he criticizes his friends who arbitrarily kill shopkeepers and other non-hostile NPCs. The inconsistency arises when he does something that violates the (admittedly unarticulated) moral code of his character.
An instance of this contradiction occurred during our separate playthroughs of Scoundrel's Folly. The stage in which the Dragonborn follows Gulum-Ei into the East Empire Company warehouse in Solitude was very challenging for me as a moral agent. The warehouse guards, all mercenaries (as opposed to Solitude town guards), were immediately hostile to my presence, but I could not justify killing them; they weren’t doing anything wrong, and, my good intentions notwithstanding, I was in fact trespassing. Through a combination of high Sneak skills, Invisibility potions, and a well-timed Battle Cry, I managed to navigate the warehouse without a single drop of blood spilled. My son’s character, however, lacked the skills to avoid detection, and found himself in a battle fairly quickly. When I pointed out that he had just killed a bunch of guards who hadn’t done anything wrong, he reminded me that playing with moral agency is my project, not his.
What interests me about his answer is that he didn’t even attempt to justify his character’s actions, which, while difficult, was not impossible. Instead, he distanced himself from the moral aspect of the game and razzed me for taking it too seriously. I suppose, given his age, I should have expected his reaction; a child’s first forays into moral abstraction (Stages Three and Four) are frequently marked by rigid absolutism, which makes moral dilemmas very hard to negotiate. Faced with mutually exclusive choices – murder the guards and fulfill the objective, or spare the guards and fail the objective – he opted out of the exercise; killing the guards no longer mattered because it was “just a game.” By excusing himself from the moral task, he inadvertently highlighted the power of the game as a moral laboratory.
Despite its M rating, Skyrim has been a useful and rewarding point of connection for my son and me. It has allowed us to have conversations about religious tolerance (the Thalmor), drug addiction (skooma), racism (the Grey Quarter), and many other topics that can be utterly daunting in the real world. In the low-stakes setting of a video game, moral issues can be considered and debated without the emotional weight of personal history and anxieties. I hope to continue the conversation for a long time.