Why Skyrim isn’t racist enough.

So for those of you who have been living under a rock: I have wonderful news! The Elder Scrolls dropped its fifth installment 9 days ago. So far it has gained critical success and sold millions upon millions of copies.

Gotta love vikings and dragons.

I have personally dumped in about 40 hours into the game, and I barely scratched the surface of what exists in the game. My quest log is overflowing with things to do and not enough time to do them.

I have a few game play/bug problems I’d love to chat with BethSoft about, but bugs are bugs. It’s hard to avoid them.

One bone that I have to pick with the design of the game however is this: it’s not racist enough.

Now before you call the ACLU, I assure you if anything that is meant to be very inoffensive.

Before I continue, I will say this about Skyrim: this is the perfect exercise of video games as an art form. The countless moving pieces of Skyrim fit together to make a perfect picture of a world that is compelling and enthralling. It forces the player to think and at times, feel.

With any art form it has a powerful story, much of Skyrim’s events are focused around large scale conflicts. The overriding conflict is the civil war between the Aldemeri controlled Empire and the Rebellious Nord Stormcloaks. Now, when working with such a divisive issue as a civil war, the people will be seething anger and discontent for each other. As you walk through the Province of Skyrim you can hear people shouting at each other down city streets damning the opposition and swearing vengeance. People will approach you to help one faction or the other. This conflict runs deep through the game and it creates an atmosphere of overbearing pressure and uncertainty, which parallels and compliments the Dragon threat nicely. So the civil war represents the political struggle in this game. However, tied into the Imperial occupation of Skyrim is the second conflict, the worship of Talos. The Aldemeri Dominion has sent a detachment of the Thalmor, a group of devout Elven warriors who can be most accurately be compared to a Secret Military Police. The Thalmor are present in Skyrim to help keep order, but also to ensure the end of the worship of Talos, the 9th Divine. Talos is a divine of specific importance to Skyrim, not only was Talos born a Nord, Tiber Septim, but he served as the uniting force that established the Empire. So this conflict with the Aldemeri Dominion serves as the religious conflict in Skyrim.

These cultural, political, and religious conflicts help define and shape the world of Skyrim. A world that feels as though it is tearing apart at its very seems, and there are only a few honestly trying to keep it together.

One qualities of Skyrim that is unique to the series is very well defined races. Each of the races has an extraordinarily unique personality that is a result of both superior design and years of refinement.

The Elder Scrolls: Arena released in 1994 and featured 8 of the now 10 races in Tamriel. Since then The Elder Scrolls has released 13 Games and Expansions. Each installment further contributing to the racial identity and history of these 10 cultures.  This rich history provides a cultural understanding of each race that, I can say with strong confidence, exists in almost no other game.

(For those that don’t know what the Khajiit here’s a sketch – Khajiit sketch)

The races of Tamriel are not only beneficiaries of a long history in games, but they all draw their distinctive identity from their impeccable design. Each is designed with features and nuances that allow the player to embellish their understanding of each race subconsciously. The Elder Scrolls races all have a connection to real life races and creatures allowing the player to take their understanding of those parallels and apply it to the Tamriel race.

I’ll take for example one of my favorite races, the Khajiit.

The Khajiit are a cat-like humanoid race. When you first see a Khajiit, your first thought is probably,

‘Holy shit, that cat is standing up and talking to me’.

Once you get past the initial strangeness of having a chat with Mr. Fluffy, you’ll start to make assumptions about the race. First, the feline nature of the Khajiit makes the player think that perhaps the Khajiit share similar attributes to cats. Is it possible that they are quick, graceful, quiet, and mysterious like felines? All of these thing are true, and as such the Khajiit have always had bonuses to speed, sneaking, and agility. If the player is a seasoned RPG veteran, they will begin to form ideas about the role a Khajiit could play. Quiet and light classes come to mind: thieves, assassins, rogues, warriors of speed, and so on.

Beyond their physical appearance is their voice. When you listen to the Khajiit, it is true they have a unique way of speaking that lends itself to what one might expect a cat would talk like if it spoke English. However upon closer examination, you will notice the Khajiit’s accent is actually Arabic in nature. This may seem unoriginal or irrelevant in some regard, but it is actually the greatest strength of some races.

In other games, alien and foreign speech usually has a layered sound effect to make their voice sound unique. Sometimes the actor’s pitch is higher or lower than is normal for a human speech. Effectively accomplishing nothing more than establishing that: Yes indeed, this creature I am speaking with is not human.

(Brings a whole new meaning to cat burglar)

However, Tamriel’s race connections to the real world help players establish race identity subconsciously. As a clarified earlier before, the Khajiit have an Arabic speech pattern, many players may not immediately recognize it consciously, but unconsciously it begins to conjure up many different pieces of cultural identity.

Geography: arid lands and dry climates. It just so happens that Elswyr the province from which the Khajiit hail is:  “harsh badlands and dry plains,”.

Culture: Intelligent, sly, and clever people with battling factions and classes. Upon examination it turns out that there is a class hierarchy in Elswyr based on the vast wealth disparity.

Economy: A strong trading economy with the entire world for its unique resources. Elswyr is known for exporting the psychotropic drug Skooma made from resources unique to Elswyr. Not to mention Khajiit caravans can be seen throughout Tamriel and Skyrim.

It startlingly how many comparisons can be drawn between the Middle Eastern cultures and that of Khajiit.

Taking in mind the time setting, and I begin to imagine an ‘Arabian Nights’-esque scenario with warring Khajiit Families vying for control of the region, sending rooftop thieves and assassins to undermine each other. What follows from such behavior is a reasonable measure of distrust, these trade-conscious (aka greedy) merchants and foreigners simply can’t be trusted.

Clearly the essence of this race’s characteristics is now being shaped by the mind of the user without ever having to see a piece of information to confirm it, but it is all true.

That is incredible character design at work, it’s refreshing and new to players well acquainted with the Tamrielic races; and it is easily identifiable and unique to players unfamiliar with the series.

Seeing how the different races of Skyrim benefit from the design creating more complete identities; it follows that the developers have more to work with. They can address racial issues in game, and they do! Sort of…

Throughout the game there are several cases in the game where NPCs are attacked or berated based on whether they have hair, fur, pointy ears, or scales. These moments are great. They illustrate further a world filled with strife over politics, religion, and race that is tearing asunder.

However these sequences are squandered, the player can seldom interact with the exchanges either by entering the conversation (and telling the bigots to sit and spin on a sharp icicle) or knocking some manners into the racial ignoramuses (which currently has no street justice value because the guards arrest you just the same). So the racism in Skyrim is only seen and not felt.

If you are going to develop rich cultural identities and races, and if you are going to bring racism into the game (for better or worse): make it impactful.  Don’t make racism a set piece for the player to watch and quietly comment,

‘Aww, that’s terrible! That mean drunk is yelling at that strange cat person.’

What needs to happen is the player needs to interact with the racism.

If the player character is a Khajiit, I want the game to restrict me from entering Whiterun just like the rest of the Khajiit merchants camped outside the city walls. Make me work for it. If the Khajiit player wants to enter the city, force them to pay off the guards, sneak in, or get the Jarl’s attention for an audience. Make an adventure of proving yourself  as above the racist element in the game. There already exist parts of the game where you must work hard in order to gain acceptance, why not add a new dimension to that? (This has been found to take place when non-Orc players encounter Orc encampments).

Challenging the player empowers the player.

Make it so that when the Khajiit thief I am playing is finally made a Thane of a Skyrim Hold; I can approach the city guard who denied me entrance and chew him out, or simply smile as he says ‘Good day, Thane! Anything you need?’ (Thane is an official title in Skyrim, equivalent to a Lordship or a Knighthood)

Furthermore, extend this racism to companions. My first time entering Windhelm I encountered two Nords harassing a Dunmer, blaming her for one thing or another because she was a Dark Elf. At the time my companion was the Dunmer priestess of Azura (Aranea Ienith). She sat there doe eyed and spoke not a word of it.

This is where BethSoft can take a page out of the book of Bioware. Common in BioWare RPG’s is when companions in your party challenge your moral standing if you overlook some sort of violence or discrimination.

Why didn’t my companion jump to the defense of her fellow Dunmer and harangue the racist Nords? Or couldn’t she at the very least have said something to me about her discomfort in a place where Dunmer hate was unabated. If upon entering a city I am stopped and asked to leave my unwanted companion outside, that’s going to make me angry, I am going to right that wrong.

Making conscious decisions regarding race makes the ugliness of the racism more apparent. It sticks the issue in the face of the player and tells them to deal with it. In the real world to deny that racism exists, is idiotic. If that is so, why not use a safe medium like video games to educate about the nature of racism? If I had to choose between forcing someone to be the victim of real life bigotry or in-game bigotry, I would certainly choose the latter if the same understanding could be gained. I don’t believe the experience of real life bigotry could ever be captured in game, nor should it. But if players can be shown the vileness of racism and discrimination in a game, while adding depth to its racial and cultural environment; shouldn’t we do that?

By forcing the player into racist scenarios you’re going to get them thinking about racism. Chances are whatever they choose to do about in-game racism will stick in their minds after they finish their play through.

Making Skyrim more racist actually creates a environment that makes players intolerant of racism.

...Then they seek out that racism. And kill it with fire that they spew from their hands.

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7 thoughts on “Why Skyrim isn’t racist enough.

  1. Pretty well-written article, actually. Though having the racism being more interactive and overlying in Skyrim would be awesome, saying that is a little like criticizing your favorite ice cream sundae because there’s not quite enough whipped cream on it as you would have liked.
    I mean, it’s still a pretty awesome ice cream sundae.

  2. True enough. As I said: “this is the perfect exercise of video games as an art form”

    But there is always room for improvement. And I think this is one area that could be improved to make a better game experience.

  3. I also think that the relative lack of racism that your character experiences can lead you to believe that it’s easily overcome (do a couple of things to help out the locals and they’ll make you Thane, so maybe those other khajit/dunmer/etc just aren’t trying hard enough). Maybe it wouldn’t work well to make the game too different for different races, especially as race is selected so early and isn’t changeable. I like your ideas, though.

  4. I can see what you mean about the danger of making the racial experiences too different, and how players may stay away from playing them.

    But honestly, isn’t that the purpose of Role Playing Games? Multiplicity of experience. If two people can play through the game and then discuss their experience and discover that they played two entirely different perspectives of the game, then I believe it is good game.

    If your concern is that playing as a minority race would become unpopular, think about it this way; each race has physical deficiencies or capabilities, yet Bethesda has always provided a balanced experience. What’s to say they couldn’t balance this experience by giving minorities some other advantage elsewhere in the game? I agree that in doing so they would dilute the ‘racist’ element of the game by offering some competing incentive to play a minority, but that is a conscious design choice to ensure players actually play the minority races.

  5. Yes, I suppose the incentive could be as simple as members of your own race acting more favourably towards you, which might come in handy situationally (I don’t know as I haven’t played most of the game yet). Along with that, the consequences of choosing a particular race could be made clear at character creation. I do really like your idea and would like to see it in the game.

  6. Pingback: Voice Over: Not a button you can simply push. « Connor Monahan

  7. I actually expected more racism specially towards altmer, my favourite race, qafter the war and all…There is just name calling and that’s about it which anyway makes sense, stronger raciasm is a bit pointless after having lived all the races together under the imperial rule for ages.

    I believe within the context of the game and the history of Tamriel, racism in Skyrim is well portrayed, the only universe stating racism that really dissapointed me was Dragon Age, whose racism seemed really really really tame and their racist characters actually in the evil side of the scale,

    I liked it more in Skyrim because Ulfric isn’t a redneck scumbag, just a guy who saw an opportunity to advance himself but honestly believes he could drive things better than they are driven and seems to actually think about his country and kinsmen, but also hates elves kind of guy than the evil enslaver rapist genocide kind of guy that didn’t ever existed…

    Even Hitler awaited until 1941 (he won the elections on the early 30’s, so that’s eleven years of rule before he put his genocidical ideas into practice) to take the Final Solution, racism just doesn’t work like that in real life in any period of history. Racism thorgough history is about try to justify why you see your race as better than the others, like in “Dunmers of Skyrim” or “Nords Rise” or however it is called, it’s about Altmer culture saying that the mer are descended from the Aedra and therefore divine in origin and men are not, not about having elves living in a slum and breaking in weddings to get some elven pussy…that’s just how nobility worked in the middle ages, racism in the middle ages was more about confiscating jewish property and forcing them out of the land.

    Which is what the Stormcloaks are all about. That said I sided with the Imperials.

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