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, July 19, 2014

Sidebar: Jonathan Haidt — The Psychology Behind Morality

I'd like to take a break from chronicling Katnys's moral descent in order to bring to your attention a podcast that a colleague recommended to me recently.  In it, Jonathan Haidt discusses some of the psychology that informs certain moral stances, which is a key concept in my consideration of moral issues within Skyrim.  While the whole podcast is worth a listen, the following except from the transcript is particularly relevant:

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm. You use some really, um, helpful metaphors and analogies. You talk about the moral matrix. Um, give us that. That...
Dr. Haidt: Okay, first, so yeah, that comes straight out of the movie The Matrix.
Ms. Tippett: Right.
Dr. Haidt: The matrix is a consensual hallucination. And that’s kind of cool. And you know, the internet, and all that stuff. But, um, it was just the perfect metaphor for the moral world that we live in. It defines what’s true and what’s not true. Um, it is a closed epistemic world. What I mean by that is, it has within it everything it needs to prove itself. And it has within it defenses against any possible argument that could be thrown at it. Um, it’s impossible to see the defects in your own moral matrix, so again...
Ms. Tippett: So it becomes impossible to think beyond.
Dr. Haidt: Exactly.
Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.
Dr. Haidt: Exactly. And that’s why foreign travel is so good, getting disoriented is so good, reading literature can be so good. Uh, so, there are ways of it getting out of your moral matrix. But it’s hard, especially in the context of any — any sort of intergroup conflict. Then it — we’re just locked into it, and our goal is defend the matrix, defeat theirs.
Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm. You know, I think a question that gets raised in this country, and I imagine that it might be on people’s minds in this room right now is, um, that the people who most would benefit from those relationships...
Dr. Haidt: Mm-hmm.
Ms. Tippett: ...or from stepping outside or seeing beyond their matrix, are precisely the ones who are not going to go on the trips to the West Bank, right?
Dr. Haidt: Right. Yeah.
Ms. Tippett: Or whatever the other examples would be. Now, I think that we in this culture — we tend to actually focus on the extreme poles, and think that they are the ones who have to be convinced. And we always center the debates around them, and maybe that’s what we do wrong. Do we need those — do we need those extremists, or do we...
Dr. Haidt: No, we don’t.
Ms. Tippett: ...start without them and that’s fine?
Dr. Haidt: Yeah. So, first, uh, let me be clear, that while each side, uh, can’t see the flaws in its own matrix, there is a symmetry here, and left and right are similar in some ways. But one of the clearest differences between left and right, psychologically, is that the left is generally universalist, almost to a fault. And the right is parochial. Um, often to a fault. And what I mean by parochial isn’t just narrow-minded, and dumb. What I mean is, um, the — so we have a survey at where we ask like how much do you care about, or think about, or value people in your community? People in your country? People in the world at large? And, you know, okay, so, uh, conservatives value people in their nation and their community much more than people in the world at large.
Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.
Dr. Haidt: Well, then you might say, okay, well, that’s parochial. But what do liberals do? Liberals on our survey actually say they value people in the world at large more than people in their own country or than people in their community. So liberals are so universalist they often don’t really pay much attention to their own groups, as my mother said about my grandfather, who was a labor organizer. He loved humanity so much that he didn’t really have much time to care for his family.

The entire podcast can be found here:

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Dark Brotherhood, Part 5 (The Silence Has Been Broken) (Katnys)

By the time Katnys returned to the Sanctuary, Astrid had decided on a course of action.  While she still didn't trust Cicero, she could not deny that the Night Mother had indeed spoken to Katnys, and it would therefore be foolish to ignore the message. With Astrid's blessing, Katnys was now to travel to Volunruud in order to meet with Motierre and see why the Night Mother might be interested in him.

Before she could go, however, she needed to report her contract completions to Nazir. The news of Lurbuk's death brought the usual sarcasm with the gold, but when Katnys confirmed that she had killed Hern as well, Nazir dropped his sardonic veneer to offer his sincere respect for facing down a vampire.  He then suggested that she check for signs of vampirism herself, making reference to the Brotherhood's own resident vampire, Babette.

That's when it dawned on her: the ambush at Half-Moon Mill, the strange draining attack, that nagging thirst on the way home...Katnys had contracted Sanguinare Vampiris! She knew enough to understand that if she didn't act quickly, she would become a full-blown vampire before the week was out.  Katnys found the Cure Disease potion she had picked up somewhere along the way, opened the vial...and stopped.

Vampirism was bad, of course.  Katnys had encountered vampires before; she witnessed a vampire attack in Whiterun, and even though she didn't help the town guards and citizens put the monsters down, that one Dawnguard soldier took her aside and invited her to join his band of vampire hunters. At the time, she was too focused on avenging her sister and the whole "Dragonborn" business to get involved.  Now that she was infected, she was involved whether she liked it or not.

As she held the Cure Disease potion to her lips, she thought about those vampires; they were powerful, they could enthrall people, drain health from afar, even become invisible. But most of all, they didn't grow old and die.  Nazir mentioned Babette; look at what she had accomplished through this "disease."  What if Katnys needed more power, more time to exact her vengeance on the Empire? Wouldn't becoming a vampire actually help?  What did she have to lose?  She would talk it over with Jenassa on the way to Volunruud; Katnys had grown to really love and trust Jenassa during their travels together and her opinion meant more than anyone else's.

Once outside the Sanctuary, Katnys told her companion everything.  Jenassa, for her part, had little to say, but the little she did say decided the issue for Katnys: "We're one of the same kind, you and I. I'm glad to have met you. I am a lethal instrument, yours to command. Blade and shadow, silence and death - these are my arts. I'll make great art for you.  I am the shadow at your back.  Let's get going."  Jenassa would be beside her, no matter what.

Glowing from Jenassa's expression of acceptance and loyalty, Katnys led the way to Volunruud.  Once inside the tomb, she found a tattered journal next to what was, presumably, the author's skeleton.  Katnys opened the journal, fearing that she had failed to reach Motierre in time, only to discover that the journal belonged to some foolish explorer named Heddic; she pocketed the journal (there would be time to follow up on that later) and followed a noise to her left that sounded increasingly like muffled conversation.  In front of a large closed door lay the bodies of several vanquished draugr.  If Motierre was behind that door, he was someone to be reckoned with.

As it turned out, Motierre was indeed in the chamber beyond, but it was most likely his hulking bodyguard, Rexus, who had dispatched the draugr.  Katnys startled and raised her bow upon first laying eyes on Rexus in his Imperial armor -- was this some sort of Imperial trap?  Motierre, however, rushed forward to put her at ease.  He was obviously still shaken from performing the Black Sacrament, and was eager to get down to business.  Katnys, however, was not prepared for the target he was to offer: the Emperor!

It was all Katnys could do to keep the cold, silent demeanor she had begun to adopt as an assassin.  In an instant, in that stinking Nord crypt, listening to veiled insults of a Breton fop and his Imperial pet -- everything suddenly made sense.  How did Motierre put it?  The stars had aligned.  The dragon attack at Helgen, the Aretino boy, the Brotherhood contracts that tugged at her conscience, the Night Mother's revelation: it had all led to this.  With this contract, Katnys would finally avenge her sister.  The Emperor himself would pay for Prym's blood!

Quickly remembering herself, Katnys took some items from Rexus (she hadn't really been paying attention -- Motierre said something about an amulet, a letter, and killing some other people) and made straight for the Sanctuary.  Astrid was, of course, taken aback by the news, but then gave Katnys a quick history lesson and embraced the challenge Motierre had put before the Brotherhood:

She said the magic word.
The next step for Katnys was to get the amulet appraised.  For that, she'd have to make her way to Riften and connect with another shadowy group: the Thieves Guild.  Finding the Guild wasn't too hard -- it was a bit of an open secret -- but before she and Jenassa could enter the Ragged Flagon and speak with the fence, Delvin Mallory, they did have to kill a few thugs in the Ratway.  While the skirmishes in the Ratway were of little consequence in and of themselves, Katnys noticed that a few things had changed for her.  First, she could smell blood much more strongly, and it was now an appetizing aroma.  Second, she realized that, if she concentrated, she could see in the dark much better than before.  She even dared to try to make a thrall, and succeeded...even if it only lasted a few minutes.  But, there were more important matter to attend to.

Once inside the Ragged Flagon, Mallory confirmed that the amulet belonged to a member of the Emperor's Elder Council, and gave Katnys the letter of credit Astrid had mentioned. Upon her return, Katnys delivered the letter, and in exchange, Astrid revealed that to her that Katnys would carry out the first assassination herself: Vittoria Vici, manager of the East Empire Company's holdings in Solitude, was to be killed at her own wedding.  Slaughtering an Empire lackey in front of a crowd of Imperial dandies-- what a lovely opening act!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Dark Brotherhood, Part 4 (The Silence Has Been Broken/Kill Lurbuk/Kill Hern) (Katnys)

Having just earned The Brotherhood's trust and respect, Katnys was not about to allow an interloper to threaten her new-found family.  Therefore, Astrid's paranoia regarding Cicero's secretive meetings in front of the Night Mother became Katnys's fear as well, and she immediately agreed to eavesdrop on the jester and his accomplice while hiding in the Night Mother's coffin.

Concealing herself in the coffin with the desiccated corpse of the Night Mother was unpleasant, to be sure, but Katnys had had to do unpleasant things before in order to protect her family; this was no different.  Sure enough, Cicero entered the room and began gibbering to someone, but it soon became clear that he was muttering to the Night Mother herself.  In and of itself, this was harmless nuttery, but he then began to suggest that some in the Brotherhood were "coming around" to his point of view.  Could this be the treachery Astrid suspected?

Katnys would have little time to ponder the question.  Gradually illuminated by some dim, unwholesome light, the Night Mother spoke directly to Katnys:

More like iron womb, amirite?  Also, enjoy your nightmares.

Katnys was not a particularly devout Dunmer, but it's hard to ignore a talking corpse. The unearthly conversation with the bride of Sithis served to confirm something Katnys had already begun to suspect: she was destined to restore this family.  She did not yet fully understand what being the Listener meant or why she needed to meet with Amaund Motierre, but in some strange, deep way, her communion with the Night Mother felt more real, more vital than any of the Greybeards' lofty ramblings.

Once she shared her epiphany with Cicero and Astrid, Katnys deferred to Astrid's judgement; after all, Katnys may be the new Listener, but Astrid was still the head of the family -- and the head of the family needed time to think about this Amaund Motierre business.  In the meantime, Astrid ordered Katnys to get new contracts from Nazir.  Honestly, Katnys was relieved; Astrid wasn't the only one who needed time to process.

As it turned out, however, both of the contracts brought new complications.  The first, an Orc bard named Lurbuk, presented a even greater moral challenge than Nilsine Shatter-Shield. The contract on Lurbuk came with no story other than the fact that he was the worst bard in Skyrim -- surely not a capital offense.  Even if she imagined that there might be more to his background, Nazir pointed out that multiple people had put out contracts on Lurbuk, presumably for his musical incompetence.  Killing the Orc would be a pure act of cold-blooded murder -- no vengeance, no dark justice, no putting someone out of his misery, no preemptive end to a conflict that might spill out into the community...just murder.

Whatever her misgivings, the reality of the situation was this: Katnys was now the Listener of the Dark Brotherhood, and Astrid had ordered her to fulfill Nazir's contracts.  How could she say no to the Black Sacrament?  She was in far too deep, and this family was far too important to her for Katnys to turn back now.  Besides, who was the Orc to her or her people?  No one.  Not her concern.  Regardless of the reason, her family wanted him dead.  Thus ended poor Lurbuk, with a single, well-placed arrow in the back.

The second contract was on Hern the miller who, unbeknownst to the general population, was a vampire, along his wife Hert.  After the moral conundrum Katnys faced with Lurbuk, killing a murderous vampire almost felt like a vacation.  Katnys and Jenassa approached Half-Moon Mill very stealthily, and kept their distance while waiting for an opportunity.  They decided to wait until nightfall; even though the target might be stronger at night, breaking into the house would place them in a confined space where Katnys's bow would not be of much use.  Soon after the sun went down, Hern emerged from the house as Hert was about to go back inside...and that's when everything went south.

Apparently, the happy couple had been tipped off about the hit; before Katnys could get a bead on Hern, she heard a commotion behind her, followed by Jenassa's battle cry.  Before she could turn around, Katnys felt something -- a force of a kind she hadn't felt before -- hit her.  She wheeled around to see another vampire and his two thralls descending on her and Jenassa.  Even though she hadn't been wounded yet, Katnys's whole body suddenly ached, but there was no time to wonder what was happening; both Hern and Hert were now converging on what had obviously been a trap.  While Jenassa kept the ambush party at bay, Katnys ducked to the side and Shouted at Hern and Hert to buy herself some time.  With their attack disrupted, she quickly fired an arrow into Hert, killing her instantly.  Hern, unfazed by is wife's death, rushed at Katnys.  Before he could land a blow, she smashed his face with her bow and, while he staggered, lodged a shaft into his heart, putting him down for good. Katnys then turned her attention back to Jenassa, who had been holding her own: the thralls were down, and she had almost finished the third vampire.  Katnys waited for Jenassa to stagger her opponent before dispatching him with her bow.

Once the dust settled, Katnys took stock of the situation.  The contract had gone wrong -- really wrong -- but they managed to finish the job anyway.  It was time to return to the Sanctuary, both to report back to Nazir, but also to see if Astrid had come to any conclusions about Amaud Motierre.  Katnys felt uneasy, but she couldn't exactly figure out why.  She had been named Listener, she had been taken into the confidence of both Astrid and the Night Mother herself, and she had upheld the Brotherhood under difficult circumstances.  So what was this new, unsettling sensation coursing through her veins?