Alex Duncan is a software developer and digital media artist based in Brooklyn. His work engages with representations of nature and non-humans in digital media.
It is hard to talk about playing the fantasy role-playing game (RPG) The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim without talking about its digital environment. Its vastness. The freedom with which players can move through it. With an impressive “16 square miles” (Hong p. 42) of digital landscape on offer, there certainly is a lot of world to explore.
In a game, a series, and, even more generally, a genre that emphasizes being in a digital space, it is important to critically examine how the world presented to the player is structured, and what the implications of these structures might be. In Skyrim the game world is segmented into cities and the areas between them, creating a more or less rigid division with civilization/urbanity marked as distinct from nature/wilderness. The non-urban is portrayed as a threatening space that must be overcome by the heroic player-character, and by doing so the player is able to dominate this virtual environment, represented by game elements like “clearing” dungeons and the ability to “fast travel.” For all the magic in Skyrim, this world structure follows a logocentric paradigm (i.e. privileging reason as primary in importance and in determining humanity)—one that serves to support the conquest and exploitation of nature by the rational subject. As ecofeminist thinkers like Val Plumwood have stressed, the binary division between civilization and nature is part of the conceptual structure justifying race- and gender-based oppression: those aligned with nature and wilderness are different and inferior, and so can be denied full rights and subsequently colonized (p. 43). The environment depicted in Skyrim is a virtual one, but the paradigm that it both reflects and reinforces is one with dire consequences for all things deemed “natural.”
Creating an Inside and an Out
In Skyrim, urban spaces, especially the capital cities of each Hold (political province) are privileged places that function as centres of ordered society and safety. Philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer have addressed this conceptualization of cities in Enlightenment thought, claiming that they exemplify “the social order… established on the basis of fixed property” (p. 9). In Skyrim’s cities, everything belongs to someone, and when the player looks at any of the objects in various houses or inns contained therein, they find red text beneath the object’s name, giving the option to “steal” the item from its rightful owner. Should the player do so, they will accrue a “bounty,” meaning that guards will attempt to arrest them, or, if they take the item unseen, they will be unable to sell this item through the usual channels, necessitating the use of a fence. In these cities, the rule of law prevails. Media theorist Bernhard Siegert, in his analysis of doors, argues that this relation between law and city is an inherent one, as “city space, door, and law have been bound up with one another from the beginning of the history of civilization” (p. 9). In Skyrim, these places are not just represented as sites of order, but function as sites of safety, rest, and resupplying. Inside, players can sell their goods, learn spells, buy weapons, accept/complete quests, etc.
The outside wilds are conceptualized in contrast to these centres. In the early stages of the game, much of the player’s actions revolve around moving from settlement to settlement through the wilderness. The majority of quests are received in urban spaces, as the headquarters of the primary quest-giving factions are located in cities—the Companions in Whiterun, the Bard’s College in Solitude, and the Thieves Guild in Riften. These quests then task the player with going somewhere else in Skyrim, necessitating a passage through the outside wilderness where there are numerous randomly occurring enemies. From wolves, which “are feral, savage beasts” according to one loading screen, to trolls that can be found “wandering the wilds” according to another, the wilderness is a place of potential danger. This is compounded by other randomized events, such as ambushes by bandits or dragon attacks. Standing in contrast to the game’s orderly cities, the wilderness is a place of unpredictability, chaos, and danger.
The division between civilization and wilderness is reinforced by their in-game functional separation. When passing from the wilderness to an urban centre, the player must wait for the game to load the new area, marking the distinction between inside and out. Each time, the player is crossing a threshold: something that is made apparent by the temporal delay when making the transition. Siegert argues that transitional space, marked by the door, is the element that creates the concepts of inside and out: “the door puts inside and outside into a special relation in which the outside first becomes properly outside and the inside first becomes properly inside” (p. 9). The distinction is also expressed by the game’s world map, as the game starts with only the capital cities identified. Everything else exists as negative space. As the player continues in the game, more destinations will be “discovered” and added to the map, but these will almost always be centred on a structurally segmented place complete with its own loading screen (like a city) or a physical structure (“Locations (Skyrim)”). With few exceptions, anything that isn’t a structured settlement, building, or encampment is displayed as the lack of these things on the game map. In Plumwood’s words, to be natural is to be defined “as the ‘environment’ or invisible background conditions against which the ‘foreground’ achievements of reason and culture (provided typically by the white, western, male expert or entrepreneur) take place. It is to be defined as a terra nullius [nobody’s land]… available to be annexed” (p. 4). The wilderness is established as a negativity surrounding the positive places of urban settlement, a key conceptual underpinning of colonialism (Plumwood p. 111).
In part through this process of “discovering,” in Skyrim the landscape moves gradually from the unknown to the known. At the beginning of the game, the player must traverse the wild spaces in order to complete quests which send them from city to city. Areas they encounter are claimed to be “discovered,” and added as markers to the world map, filling in the negative, the unknown, with the positive, the known. This reflects Adorno and Horkheimer’s characterization of Enlightenment thought, in which the subject seeks to dominate and control the unknown: “humans believe themselves free of fear when there is no longer anything unknown. This has determined the path of demythologization, of enlightenment” (p. 11). As Paul Martin argues in his analysis of the preceding Elder Scrolls game, Oblivion, the landscape moves from “something that is vast and overwhelming to something manageable, comprehensible and perhaps even pedestrian.” The markers indicate the player’s gradual understanding of the space, but also functionally allow for a mechanic called “fast travelling.” Fast travelling, a common feature in digital RPGs in general, means that the player can move instantly from anywhere in the game world to any other “discovered” area. In instances where the player elects to use this ability, the wilderness moves from being an outside space to being—as it is on the game map—a negative space, the existence of which is indicated only by a loading screen and a change in the game’s clock. As Adorno and Horkheimer claim, this is one of the ultimate goals of Enlightenment: “nothing is allowed to remain outside, since the mere idea of the ‘outside’ is the real source of fear” (p. 11). These spaces remain wild, and should the player go into them they will face randomly spawning enemies as before, but they can now choose to forgo facing these dangers entirely.
Progression as Domination
Quests are prominent forces that push the player to move through the outside wilds, but they are not the only ones. A key aspect of Skyrim, as with many other RPGs, is that everything the player kills drops “loot” of some kind with a specific monetary value. In contrast to urban environments, however, taking these items never counts as theft, and as such it is within the rights of the player to claim these items as their own. This can take the form of the very skins of animals, which can be sold or used to craft items. Certain quests take as their entire structure the accumulation of various goods taken from the wild, such as “Grin and Bear It,” which tasks the player with collecting ten bear pelts. Even other humanoid characters in the wild are deprived the right of possession, meaning the player can kill them, claim their items, and legally sell them in a city. Plumwood makes clear the relation of this characterization of nature and forms of oppression, as “the view of nature as terra nullius available for annexation… underlies and is implicit in early liberal arguments for the legitimacy of private property” allowing the annexation of both these spaces and “the work of marginalized groups, especially women and the colonized” (p. 111). Regardless of the quest they are on, the player is incentivized to progress in the game by conquering the wild and taking from it in order to become more powerful. The mere act of doing so provides the player with “experience” which enables them to “level up.” As Adorno and Horkheimer claim, this is an integral aspect of human domination of the natural world, as “what human beings seek to learn from nature is how to use it to dominate wholly both it and human beings” (p. 2).
While typically the wilderness outside urban centres is figured as empty space, as background, there are exceptions to this. Certain places “discovered” by the player are things like forts, ruins, barrows, tombs, and caves, which function as interiors within the exterior. These exterior-interiors are some of the most dangerous sites in the game where powerful enemies like the blind and disfigured Falmer and the zombie-like draugr present a feared inverse order that is irrational and subhuman. Marking those outside patriarchal Western norms as subhuman or as “closer to the animal and the body” is a tool for the subjugation of these groups through “racism, colonialism and sexism” (Plumwood p. 4). These beings and their social order are monstrous, dangerous, and threatening to ordered society, justifying its invasion, appropriation, and destruction. Adorno and Horkheimer claim that monsters like the Cyclops from Greek myth represent a “truly barbaric age” (p. 50) that has “no systematic, time-managing organization of work and society” (p. 50). Drawing on Odysseus’ mastery over the Cyclops Polyphemus, Adorno and Horkheimer address “the feud between the elemental popular religion and the logocentric religion of laws” that must be “fought out” (p. 51). Part of the player’s domination of the uncivilized world must bring them into conflict with these spaces, which they do either through quest prompts or for the high-quality loot found within. This loot is also unpossessed since these societies lack a “model of fixed property” (Adorno & Horkheimer p. 51), making them ideal spots for gathering the resources required to become more powerful.
The domination of these sites, however, takes a different structural form. Typically, when moving through something like a barrow, the player will traverse several thresholds—indicated by a loading screen—that take them deeper into these alien spaces. Once they reach the end, they face a particularly powerful creature. Upon eliminating this creature, the player is told that the dungeon is “cleared” when they view it on the map, meaning that they have conquered that space. Many of these sites are now safe to return to at any time, free of dangers, and while in others enemies will eventually respawn, the player is reminded of their previous conquest of that space every time they view it on the map. Thus over the course of the game, the player not only maps more spaces but also conquers them, reducing the areas left to overcome. As Martin argues about Oblivion, the map becomes a “symbol of conquest in the game’s closing sequence.”
While I have focused my analysis on Skyrim in particular, many of these same critiques could be leveled at other RPGs. As early as what is generally considered the first graphical massive multiplayer online game role-playing game, fittingly titled Habitat, the designers implemented a “system to allow thievery and gunplay only outside the city limits. The wilderness would be wild and dangerous while civilization would be orderly and safe” (Morningstar & Farmer). It has even been argued that video games in general take “‘man against his environment’ approaches” to the game space, making “the history of computer games… the mastery of virtual space” (Babic). Regardless to the extent to which this is true, what is clear to me is that many games that have large worlds, Skyrim being a prime example among them, reinforce a paradigm that creates a hierarchical binary between nature and civilization. While there are different ways of playing any game, including Skyrim, its structure pushes players to adopt an antagonistic and colonial attitude towards the natural world. From skinning bears, to fast travelling, to discovering and clearing dungeons, the game gives the player the encouragement and the means necessary to dominate the undiscovered wilds.
Adorno, Theodor, & Horkheimer, Max. Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Translated by Edmund Jephcott, Stanford University Press, 2002.
Babic, Edvin. “On the Liberation of Space in Video Games.” Eludamos, vol. 1, no. 1, 2007.
Bethesda Game Studios. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. PlayStation 3: Bethesda Softworks, 2011.
Hong, Sun-ha. “When Life Mattered: The Politics of the Real in Video Games’ Reappropriation of History, Myth, and Ritual.” Games and Culture, vol. 10, no. 1, 2014, pp. 35-56.
“Locations (Skyrim).” The Elder Scrolls Wiki. Accessed 12 Feb. 2018.
Martin, Paul. “The Pastoral and Sublime in Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.” Games Studies, vol. 11, no. 3, 2011.
Morningstar, Chip & Farmer, F. Randall. “The Lessons of Lucasfilm’s Habitat.” Cyberspace: First Steps, edited by Michael Benedikt, MIT Press, 1991, pp. 273-302.
Plumwood, Val. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. Routledge, 1993.
Siegert, Bernhard. “Doors: On the Materiality of the Symbolic.” Grey Room, no. 47, 2012, pp. 6-23.
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