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!

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Second Anniversary Update

I’ve been playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim for about two years now, and while I’ve documented most of my thoughts on the moral aspect of the game on this blog, I find that every so often an issue will come up that, while interesting, does not really belong in a typical post.  Here are a few of those developments:

In case you haven’t heard of it yet, QuizUp is the trivia game app that is currently distracting most of my students on their school-issued iPads.  I began playing myself when a student challenged me publicly in Word Definitions; how could I not pick up that gauntlet?  Anyway, I noticed that the developers were inviting players to contribute content to the game, and seeing how there was no Skyrim category, I offered to write the questions for them.  The good folks at PlainVanilla accepted, and I spent the better part of my vacation creating the quiz.  I have submitted the questions, and according to QuizUp, the Skyrim category should be live in a few weeks.  I’ll post again when it’s up and running.

If you read last year’s update, you’ll recall that when my son began playing, he adopted a different type of character with a different moral profile from mine, which led to some really entertaining arguments between us.  Since that time, he has played Skyrim less frequently, preferring to invest his screen time in Minecraft. This Christmas, while Santa brought him a good lot of Minecraft merchandise, my son bought me Dishonored.  I had not really expressed a desire for the game, although I did say some months ago that it looked like something I’d enjoy, owning to its opportunities for moral agency.

Those of you who have played Dishonored know that, while it does offer some binary choices (takedown or assassination?), it is not as robust from either a moral or a role-playing perspective; this statement is not a criticism, but rather an observation – I am really enjoying the game so far.  What I find funny, though, is that when my son observes me play, he spends most of the time making fun of my non-lethal playstyle, even going so far as to reiterate his previous “it’s just a game” argument from the East Empire Warehouse debate.  What follows is an approximate transcript of the exchange that followed:

Me: “So, if it’s just a game, why do you care how I’m playing it?”

Him: “Because it’s annoying to watch you restart every time you have to kill a guard so that you can play the ‘moral’ way.”

Me: “Look, the guards think I assassinated the Empress, so I can’t really kill them for doing their jobs.  In their heads, they’re fighting the villain of the story.  If it bothers you that much, don’t watch.  Besides, you know how I play; I’ll finish playing this way, then play a more lethal way, just like I’m doing in Skyrim.  I’m interested in different playstyles.”

Him: “Yeah, but which style do you always do first?  Which one do you care about more?”

Boom.  He had me dead to rights.  If I’m being honest, I do care most about the first playthrough – the one that most closely reflects my own worldview.  While this might be irritating for my son (who, I think, actually enjoys watching me play so that he can needle me about everything I’m doing “wrong”), it is even more troubling for me.  If I accept that my first playthough is usually the one that I’m the most invested in, what does it say that, even though I took down or sleep-darted everyone in Dr. Galvani’s house, I still let the rats out of the pantry, know full well that they would devour the sleeping guards?

The Continuing Adventures of Katnys Evyrdene
I’ve slacked a bit in posting about my second playthrough (see QuizUp above), but I will pick it up again soon.  The posts on the Civil War and the Dark Brotherhood will likely be substantial, given that they are the primary raison d'être for this character.  I appreciate those of you who have been commenting on this second moral profile, and if I haven’t responded to your individual comments, I will get to them very soon.



  1. The way different people approach video games is interesting. I have trouble doing immoral deeds in RPG's like Skyrim, but I have no issues with doing them in strategy games. I am fine with creating oppressive slave-driving dictatorship empires in Rhye's and Fall of Civilization (a Civ mod which simulates real history), for instance.

    Not everyone is like that. I, for instance know people who refuse to play Hearts of Iron as Nazi Germany and its allies - something I wouldn't have any trouble doing, had I played HoI. And there're people who approach Skyrim the way I approach strategy games.

    1. For me, there are two factors:

      1.) Immersion: The more immersive the game, the less likely I am to do something contrary to my own moral profile. I don't know if you remember Lemmings, but I had no trouble blowing up a few lemmings to finish a level because the game was did not concern itself with emotional investment

      2.) Historicity: The closer a game is to historical reality, the less likely I am to do something contrary to my moral profile. I can find a way to be a Dark Brotherhood assassin, but play as a Nazi? That's a bridge too far for me.

    2. Well, strategy games like HoI are less "immersive" on a personal level then RPGs.

  2. uh, I've recently run into a bit of a dilemma. See, I restarted my male nord character, and I've begun to question whether or not I made the decisions that my character would have actually made (the first time around), given my profile for him. To elaborate, Kalthar (his name, which I took from the previous elder scrolls game because I thought it sounded cool (Do you know what it means? I don't.)) is a morally good character (though not strictly adhering to the law, as he's more concerned with helping people) who was, at a young age, traumatized badly by the death of his parents at the hands of the Dark Brotherhood, who he became terrified of (shortly afterwards, he developed an unrelenting hatred of bandits when he caught them defiling his parents grave). About 2-3 weeks after it happened, he was adopted by his best friend's parents (a Breton male and Imperial woman), so things turned out a bit better (Though I'm not sure if 2-3 weeks would be adequate time to be mental ready for adoption) Originally, I had him slated to join the dark brotherhood after the main quest, due to Astrid's presence causing him to have a very severe panic attack/moment of weakness that resulted in him being a coward and taking the life of all three hostages so he wouldn't be killed by the dark brotherhood (He's never been afraid of dying up until that point, though he was more afraid of HOW he would he killed, and being killed so fast he doesn't even realize it terrifies him (the assassin that killed his parents made it VERY clear just how easily and quickly he could have killed Kalthar (with the only reason that he didn't being that the contract called for a witness to be left behind)). Heck, during Kalthars first encounter with an assassin, I pretend he's having a sever panic attack, and have him race to an isolated location where he calms down after about 3 hours. =C2=A0Lately, however, I question whether or not he could actually get the courage to face the symbol of his parents killers and destroy the dark brotherhood. =C2=A0I honestly thought it made for a good, dramatic character arc for Kalthar to join the brotherhood, actually grow attached to them, and receive some closure about the emperor at the end of the arc that helps him decide to join the Imperial Legion. Though now…Now, however, I wonder if I shouldn't save the dark brotherhood for my female nord, Hroa, (I take it as technically being "canon" that the 'official' dragon born is the one scene in the trailers and posters (the female and male nord dragon born), who, in a stark contrast to Kalthar, never lost her parents, but was raised to basically be her mothers personal assistant from a young age (her mother, for the record, is fully capable of physical activity (and is a very racist, VERY traditionalist Nord who completely supported the Stormcloaks (and, through her…connections, is living in Bruma without anyone suspecting her allegiance )), but uses her daughter for spying, errands that she can't be bothered with, and to deliver letters an such.), and had a father who, while very much supportive of his daughter, was a very uninvolved man, who mostly kept to himself and didn't question his wife, aside from maybe an aside comment. Now, Hroa had become a very stoic, quiet individual around the time of the game, and had no real qualms about killing people (though she was fully capable of empathy and (miraculously, due to Kalthar befriending her at around the age of 12) wasn't even slightly racist. Now, obviously, the character growth I have in mind for her is independence from her mother and making decisions for herself, but I'm not sure if I should have her join up with the Dark Brotherhood (I want my "canon" Nords to take rather different routes in life) just to balance out Kalthar's choices. For the record, though I WANT one of them to join up. (P.s, I posted this on your google page as well, for reasons I elaborated on in that post

    1. I'm really having a hard time wrapping my head around Kalthar's decision to join the Dark Brotherhood. I suppose that there could be a Dexter-like identification with his parents' killer that might make sense, but honestly, I would expect him to just flat-out kill Astrid.

      That said, I'm really curious about the idea of your two characters meeting. Although I've been kicking around a post in which Lothar and Katnys debate each other, I don't think I can imagine them existing simultaneously; to use your specific example, how do you reconcile the redundancies enough to imagine that these two have actually encountered each other?

    2. That's just it; I have it that he's terrified of the dark brotherhood, and Astrid's presence (coupled with how easily the brotherhood kidnapped him), causes him to have a harsh flashback to his parent death, and how easily the assassin could have killed him back then. This causes him to (more or less) have a severe panic attack and join unwillingly, because he feels like the brotherhood is invincible and that they could kill him at anytime (again, he's not afraid of dying, he's afraid of how easily (at least, that's what he thinks) they could kill him). I had though it would be Kalthars critical moment of weakness that leads him down a dark path. However, like I said, I've recently begun to rethink this, and thought that it might make more sense for him to (after having had several encounters with the brotherhoods assassins and killing them) gather up the courage to destroy what he perceived as his parents killer. Like I said, I had initially thought that Kalthar would grow up a little from the experience (and get the clarity he needs to join the legion after having met with Titus Mede II)

      Maybe it's because my post was one long paragraph, and one might miss out on the details in it, but I already mentioned the Kalthar and Hroa have meet-they were about 12-13 and while they didn't strike up a friendship immediately, Kalthar tried to encourage Hroa to have some independence from her mother (with SOME success) and while Kalthar himself was rather reluctant to use magic (in public, anyway), his adopted brother, (I think I also mentioned this) more or less, made it one of his many life missions to help Hroa grow independent. While Hroa and Kalthar are far from best friends, they know and have some fondness for each other (purely in a platonic sense), as Kalthar is a very kind (if blatantly naive) and encouraging person to Hroa, and Kalthar see's Hroa as a very capable and reliable kind of person who he hates to see be her mothers servant. They occasionally met up over the years, though her mothers demands kept them from seeing each other that often. If they were to actually meet up by the games time, they'd probably have a friendly chat about how things are going for each other.

      A decent portion of the characters I've created I imagine have already met each other, or at least have heard of each other, if only a little. Ironically, I actually deleted a decent portion of them and made some composite characters in order to give some legitimate imagined character development for them. I had actually created Kalthar's brother (an Imperial magic rogue named Damon who loved destruction magic and fooled a lot of people into thinking he was best at illusion by drinking fortify illusion potions to the extent he became comically addicted to them (for some irony, I have it in mind he has to buy the potions because he's ludicrously terrible at alchemy), but there just wasn't enough character development I could imagine him going through, aside from, perhaps, learning to restrain himself when it came to screwing with people (for the record, he and Kalthar really do care for each other as brothers, adopted or not). It was the same for my Khajit (a conspiracy theorist who needed to leaner to trust others), my argonian (needed to stop being shy), and my wood elf (needed to curb her enthusiasm).

      What redundancies? And do you know what "kalthar" means in english? Because I'd like to know.

    3. By "redundancies," I mean that, if we imagine two Dragonborn PC's co-existing in the same universe, then Helgen gets destroyed twice, Mirmulnir attacks the Western Watchtower and gets killed twice, Delphine comes out of hiding twice, and so on. How do you account for that?

      As for the etymology of Kalthar, while I've searched a number of sources, I can't find any definitive meaning for the name "Kalthar." Some possible origins:

      1.) Kalthar is the name of a Golden Age comic-book hero. According to the lore, the name means "God-Son" in the name of the tribe who found him:
      2.) "Caltha" is the Latin name for marigold.
      3.) "Kal" as a word element can refer to Potassium (Latin), frostbite (Icelandic) or synagogue/community (Hebrew); "thar" as a word element is probably a reference to the Anglo-Saxon/Germanic element þar, meaning "there" or "in that place."

    4. In a Nordic context, 'Kal' may mean either 'kale, cabbage' - which may be a bit mundane for your character - or it may be a variant of 'Karl', which means "man, male servant", although in Skyrim it's a unisex title (Lydia, for instance, is a "housekarl").

      "Thar" is harder to account for. It may be a variant spelling of "Thor" (as in, god of thunder), but since there's no such god in the Elder Scrolls mythology, that doesn't seem to work. It could also be derived from an Irish word meaning "place". So "Kalthar" could be "a man in his place", or "man of a place". In the context of a Skyrim hero, it could adopt a mythic quality - the Dragonborn is really "the man of the place" (Skyrim itself). Works for me.

  3. I have great admiration for what you have done with this blog. I read every entry and was amazed at what I learned about Skyrim. The game has so much depth and re-playability if time is spent developing a full character with in-depth cultural background and motivational proclivities. My tendency to want to complete quests used to outweigh the discomfort I felt having to do something my character would consider morally reprehensible, but now I avoid those quests and don't feel compelled to complete them. The game is a richer experience when played that way. Anyway thank you for the time you spend sharing your thoughts on morality and Skyrim. It is thought-provoking.

    1. Thank you, Carol, for such kind comments. Certain games really reward morally-conscious play, and these games realize the potential of video games as an art form analogous to the best movies our culture can produce.

      If you enjoyed this aspect of Skyrim, you might also enjoy Dishonored, which I'm playing a lot of at the moment. It is more linear than Skyrim, and you play a fixed character, but it nevertheless provides many opportunities for moral agency. Each mission can be be completed a number of ways, and the player always has non-lethal options for every enemy. Check it out if you have a chance.