Thomas Lecaque is currently an Assistant Professor of History at Grand View University in Des Moines. He earned his PhD at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville in medieval history. His research focuses on medieval southern France and the early crusades, but he is increasingly teaching in both game studies and pre-Columbian American history.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda Game Studios, 2011; hereafter Skyrim) is a game about making choices while fulfilling your destiny—which factions to join, quests to complete, locations to explore, houses to build, and beings to kill. An open-world, first-person roleplaying game, in a series known for sprawling storylines, Skyrim offers nearly-limitless opportunities—as long as you are comfortable playing in a world defined by violent settler-colonial interactions. The game, both the main storyline and the various minor subplots, is defined by the kind of history that feels eerily similar to American self-mythology: a settler-colonial history of atrocity rewritten and memorialized as a series of heroic ventures, turning occupiers into embattled heroes and mass murderers into gods. The premise of The Elder Scrolls is a glorification of a process of violent conquest, occupation, and settlement predicated on multiple eliminatory campaigns. Skyrim is a story of settler colonialism, where all of the factions and groups the player can interact with are, on one level or another, settler societies established through the destruction of the native cultures of Skyrim and the occupation of their land. Whether you side with the Empire or the rebellious Stormcloaks in the game’s civil war, your character, the Dragonborn, is a product of a settler society. The central narrative of Skyrim is scripted for settler-colonial outcomes, a fundamental problem in the narrative of The Elder Scrolls world and indeed most fantasy.
Skyrim is portrayed as the homeland of the Nords, the “master race” of the Third Empire, the ruling imperial power throughout the series. The entire historical framework of The Elder Scrolls games exists within the aftermath of a settler-colonial occupation of the continent of Tamriel: the Third Empire not only controlled all of Tamriel at its height, but occupied colonial territories on multiple continents, following a pattern of empires in the gameworld’s history that celebrated violent conquest, subjugation, and even genocide in their race for power. The Third Empire, under the Septim Dynasty, most aggressively embodied this identity—pushing an idea of Skyrim as the Nordic fatherland of the human race, celebrating the legendary Atmorans as the progenitors of all humanity, and reveling in their identity as conquerors and occupiers of the mer, the most numerous native inhabitants of Tamriel. The game reinforces problematic narratives that focus on race “as a single, somatic event (skin color, in most cases),” instead of the more nuanced understanding that critical race theorists like Margo Hendricks (2019) argue for; namely, “that race be seen in terms of a socioeconomic process (colonialism).”
Patrick Wolfe’s Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology (1999) arguably gave birth to the “Settler-colonial turn,” the idea that there needs to be a distinction between extractive colonies and their impact on the landscape and settler colonies, “premised on displacing indigenes from (or replacing them on) the land” and which continue to focus “on the elimination of native societies”
(Wolfe, 1999, 1-2, emphasis in original). Settler colonialism is not necessarily genocidal—indeed, in Skyrim, the organizing premise of genocide itself seems absent—though this is due to a lack of significant in-game consequences for choosing the Stormcloaks. As Wolfe puts it, “settler colonialism is inherently eliminatory but not invariably genocidal,” and the “primary motivation for elimination is not race … but access to territory” (2006, 387-8). In the case of Skyrim, this is evinced in almost all factions—not only Stormcloak and Imperial, but also the Thalmor and even the Falmer, Orsimir, and Reachmen, in a series of complex layers. Wolfe has written that:
settler colonialism has both negative and positive dimensions. Negatively, it strives for the dissolution of native societies. Positively, it erects a new colonial society on the expropriated land base—as I put it, settler colonizers come to stay: invasion is a structure not an event. In its positive aspect, elimination is an organizing principal [sic] of settler-colonial society rather than a one-off (and superseded) occurrence. (2006, 388)
The phrase “invasion is a structure not an event” has become the best-known aspect of Wolfe’s settler colonial theory, but it also becomes reductionist, allowing engagement with the theory to be surface level and neglecting Indigenous people and Indigenous Studies (Kēhaulani Kauanui, 2016). In Skyrim one cannot escape neglecting the Indigenous people of the province—the Giants—who are present across the game but who are not given dialogue or means of peaceful interaction. As Kehaulani Kaunaui writes, “indigeneity itself is enduring—that the operative logic of settler colonialism may be to ‘eliminate the native,’ as the late English scholar Patrick Wolfe brilliantly theorized, but that indigenous peoples exist, resist, and persist,” and the Giants do indeed persist and resist all threats to their continuing existence—a topic for another piece.
The problematic relationship between the two competing Civil War factions in Skyrim acts as a window to the broader settler-colonial framing of the game. Nords and Imperials, the two races most closely connected to the game, are both descended from a Viking-esque race of settler-colonizers from another continent: giant, blond, bearded white men from the lost northern continent of Atmora. The central conceit of the Stormcloaks is that the Nords, a white supremacist group, are the “true sons and daughters of Skyrim” according to the oath they swear to join the Stormcloaks (Call and Lecaque). The Stormcloaks are engaged in a process very similar to the way European Americans turned New England into the center of American culture by extinguishing the Indigenous inhabitants from the record even as New Englanders continued to interact with them (Kaunaui, 2016; O’Brien, 2010). This depiction of the Nords as the true children of Skyrim, and the claim to indigeneity it involves, is unfounded, as they originally come from Atmora. In addition, this claim erases the existence of the “Snow Elves,” better known in the game as Falmer; the Dwemer; and the Orsimer, whose enclaves are still deeply separated from Skyrim society and placed in the marginal regions of the mountains to the west. These are the three mer races who inhabited Skyrim before the Atmorans came.
The player cannot speak to the Falmer directly until the Dawnguard expansion when the player can meet Knight-Paladin Gelebor, the last surviving Snow Elf in the region, who describes his people by stating: “We were once a wealthy and prosperous society that occupied a portion of Skyrim. Unfortunately, we were constantly at war with the Nords who claimed the land as their ancestral home” (Bethesda Game Studios, 2011). The settlement of the Atmorans in Skyrim, including the building of a capital at Saarthal, led to skirmishes that finally erupted into violent conflict, with the Falmer sacking Saarthal and destroying the Atmoran’s first settlement. The Atmorans would come back in the Return, as the Nords called their ancestor’s conquest of Skyrim, with Ysgramor—the founder of the kingdom of Skyrim—and his army the Five Hundred Companions. They returned to Skyrim to massacre the Snow Elves, defeating their last forces at the Battle of the Moesring, when their leader, “the Snow Prince,” was killed (Bethesda Game Studios, 2011). After Ysgrammor slaughtered most of the Snow Elves, the remnants were taken by the Dwemer to be blinded, poisoned, enslaved, and mutated until they became the Falmer. As the in-game text “The Falmer: A Study” describes: “After their defeat by the Nords, the dwarves of old agreed to protect the Falmer, but at a terrible price. For these Dwemer did not trust their snow elf guests and forced them to consume the toxic fungi that once grew deep underground. As a result, the snow elves were rendered blind” (Bethesda Game Studios, 2011).
The Stormcloaks revel in this history and use it as propaganda against the Thalmor. As the anonymous in-game text “Nords, Arise!” states:
Do not let the lessons of history go unheeded. The Aldmeri Dominion and its Thalmor masters made war upon men, just as the elves made war upon Ysgramor and our people in ancient times. Shining Saarthal was burned to the ground, reduced to ruins and rubble in their treacherous assault. But Ysgramor and his sons gathered the 500 Companions and made war upon the elves, casting them out of Skyrim. In The Great War fought by our fathers, the elves again betrayed men by attacking us unprovoked. The Dominion and the Thalmor cannot be trusted! (Bethesda Game Studios, 2011)
By explicitly comparing Ulfric Stormcloak to Ysgrammor, the Stormcloaks glorify in the settler-colonial violence that led to Skyrim as a land for men, not mer, and even then they do not welcome all men, only Nords. As Rolff Stone-Fist, a beggar harassing a Dark Elf refugee the first time your character enters the city of Windhelm says, “Get out of our city, gray-skins! This is Nord land!,” among other increasingly racist and xenophobic comments (Bethesda Game Studios, 2011). This is a call for ethnic cleansing—the expulsion of non-Nords out of Skyrim. Even neutral factions in Skyrim draw from this violent history—the “Companions” of Whiterun, who act as the game’s Fighter’s Guild, traced their origins to the Five Hundred Companions of Ysgrammor and model themselves on that organization. Their hall, Jorrvaskr, is made of an overturned longboat from the “Return.”
The Empire, much like the Stormcloaks, also relies on a structural assumption of Atmoran superiority, just without linking them to the Nords. The Stormcloaks worship the founder of the Third Empire in the form of the god “Talos,” the Atmoran who conquered all of Tamriel. When he died, he was declared the God of War and Governance and added to the traditional Elven pantheon of the Eight Divines, as part of the process of establishing the Imperial Cult alongside other religions throughout the realms. The Empire, then, is based on a humanocentric model of control, not only on Tamriel’s physical landscape but on its spiritual landscape as well. While their goal is control and subjugation, instead of the elimination of all non-Nords as pursued by the Stormcloaks, the Empire is still an example of settler dominance. The Empire garrisons fortresses in between major cities, occupies urban areas, and patrols the lines of communication between them. While farms and the “wilderness” are not all held by Imperial troops, the provinces are dominated by Imperial military forces.
Open-world video games do allow extensive choice—a player can simply roam the landscape, admire the work of the true natives of Skyrim, the Giants, as they herd mammoths across the land, and refuse to engage in any of the pre-scripted questlines. But the main storylines of the game are written as a settler-colonial text. The playable factions are engaged in the domination of an occupied landscape while falsely claiming to be the native inhabitants. One can, of course, play against the narrative—the Dragonborn can be of any race and does not have to engage in the Civil War or the most egregiously settler-colonial quests. The player can admire the beauty of the landscape without dominating it—as Alex Duncan (2018) writes, in most video games “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,” but that imprint, as Kat Barnes (2019) points out, is a distinctly “Western, colonial perspective that sees nature as a threat to be harnessed.” The story presents multiple possibilities, and recognizing how the scripted world operates as a settler-colonial text offers players the opportunity to bypass, critically engage, critique, and/or subvert. As Beth Dillon (2008) writes, “Traditional storytelling relates to understanding the world, why things are the way they are, and how to be within the world. These aspects of Indigenous storytelling are transferable to games when they are seen as an interactive space that constitute a storytelling event.” Recognizing the ideological framework of the story is an important first step in seeing how settler-colonial ideology is imprinted throughout The Elder Scrolls—and indeed the majority of fantasy media—and pushing for change.
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