skyrim

Skyrim: The Ethics of Player Choice in Open World RPG

From “Arrow in the Knee” memes to sidequest distractions, Skyrim has created a gaming subculture that is all its own.  For better or for worse, the game (and the Elder Scrolls series) has had an impact on the culture.  But which is it?

For those few people who have not had much exposure to Skyrim, perhaps an introduction is in order.  In the high fantasy world of the Elder Scrolls series, dragons are not cool buddies of How to Train Your Dragon.  They’re trouble.  Big trouble.  Think about if Smaug and all of his evil cousins decided to have a party in the same world.  It’s not pretty.  But in Skyrim, dragons have long been considered a myth.  They’ve not been around for centures.  But then, all of a sudden, dragons start coming back again.  With little in the way of defenses against enormous fire-breathing monsters, the people of Skyrim can only look to the legend of the Dragonborn: a mortal who is born with the soul and power of a dragon.  Only he can stop Alduin, the first dragon created by the evil dragon god Akatosh, prophesied to devour man and destroy the world.

Essentially, your job as the player is to kill dragons, and ultimately to discover a way to kill Alduin himself.  But the game is a whole lot broader than that.  This isn’t old-school Legend of Zelda; it’s open-world RPG, which means the world you travel through is enormous, subplots and quests abound, the potential for additional gameplay can seem nearly endless.  This is particularly the case if you purchase the Game-of-the-Year Edition, which contains all downloadable content expansions.  As a result, we have not just one story to consider in a review of Skyrim, but potentially hundreds.  So instead of doing that, I’m just going to raise a couple of points that are worth considering when it comes to Skyrim, and more generally games like Skyrim – other high fantasy open-world RPGs.

The first of those issues are what we might call player choice.  Part of what makes games like Skyrim so intriguing is the ability to make different choices and end up different places – much like a modern adaptation of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” book.  But unlike the Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew “Choose Your Own Adventure,” the choices you can make as a player have different moral implications.  Will you kill this traitor, or give him a second chance?  Will you go undercover with this criminal organization, even if you have to pickpocket people in order to do so?  If you’re caught breaking and entering, do you fight the soldiers, or submit yourself to an arrest?  When you need information, do you just ask, or do you try to bribe them?  If you choose to become a mage, will you raise zombies to fight for you, or stick to fighting with spells like flames and ice?

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Each of these decisions can have moral implications.  This is where the video game medium can be considered quite different from other mediums, such as films or novels – rather than seeing another person make certain decisions, good or bad, and seeing the consequences, you are in effect the one making the decision.  And in the format of an RPG, the story is not, in most cases, leading you to a particular decision for a particular point.  Instead, you are in a sense the captain of the ship.  You make the decisions.  In such an open world, are there implications for the moral choices you make that take place in an imaginary world?

I believe there are.  I would point to the wise words of Gene Veith Jr., who in his book Reading Between the Lines, has this to say about what he calls vicarious sin:

“Just as we must avoid sinful actions, we must avoid sinful imaginings.  Jesus puts this is no uncertain terms: if our eyes lead us into sin, it is better to gouge them out than to allow them to lead us to Hell (Matthew 5:29-30) . . . we must never willingly cultivate habits that Scripture condemns.  Lustful and angry fantasies are clearly forbidden by Scripture.  It would follow that the imagination can be a source of evil as well as good.”

The application for this when it comes to games in which the gamer is making the moral decisions is pretty clear.  By engaging in the actions vicariously, the gamer is cultivating moral habits by making, in essence, moral decisions.  And in the case of a game like Skyrim, those are many decisions made over many hours of gameplay.

Now let me be clear: this is not intended to say that by the mere existence of the choice that the game’s structure is inherently vile.  That would be simply ludicrous.  Instead, games like this provide an opportunity for us to cultivate good habits and decisions, as well as bad.  Consider if a game likes this existed in the Lord of the Rings universe, for example.  The player could then choose to play out the courage of Aragorn, the faithfulness of Sam, and the selflessness of Frodo.  The fact that the players could have chosen otherwise (assuming they did not) would not put a moral blemish on the structure of the game.

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Thankfully, the game does not require by its structure for its players to enter into generally sinful lifestyles.  The game is a violent one, for sure, and players slay for more people than they do dragons.  In the best case scenario (based on player decisions), this is usually due to encountering villains of some sort, such as road bandits, vampires, or evil sorcerers.  I hesitate to compare the game to the carnage of other violent media (it’s not nearly so detailed or gory as war films or, say, The Walking Dead), but that certainly is a consideration.  Some players may also notice that the world’s mythology takes after a very pagan way of thinking about deity that seems very Greek and Norse, and not very Christian at all, but this mythology, for the most part, plays no larger part than filler for loading screens.

But once those elements are accounted for, there really is a lot that Skyrim has to offer.  The Dragonborn is working against an explicitly evil force, to possibly his own demise, for the good of the whole world, some of which have mistreated him.  That is, in effect, the core of many an epic fantasy story that has Christian undertones.  This story does not have those undertones, but does retain the general image of true character, courage, and valor.  The typical alliances of fantasy tropes hold true.  Vampires are evil.  So are zombies.  There is white magic, but there is also dark magic.  Hints of other worldview elements find their way into the subplots as well – the ugliness of racism in particular crops up at many points.

The world of Skyrim is a beauty, as well, especially if you are able to get the new Special Edition (the graphics upgrade is the only noteworthy thing in that upgrade, but it is noteworthy).  The need to travel through so much of the world can be tedious at times, but the expansiveness of the world makes, on the whole, a mesmerizing gaming experience.

Skyrim does, admittedly, have the potential for vicarious sin.  It also has the potential to complement a continual cultivation of good moral character.  Taken in that way, and considering the game’s enormous entertainment value, Skyrim is but little short of a home run.

2 thoughts on “Skyrim: The Ethics of Player Choice in Open World RPG

  1. Skyrim actually has a problem of severely limiting player choice. There are a ton of quests that you flat out can’t start if you want to make good, Christian decisions. Entire quest chains in fact. Daedric weapons? Forget it. Dark Brotherhood? Nope. Thieve’s Guild? Uh-uh. This may be a mirror for the real world, but in a game about player choice, you’d expect alternatives to be given. Fallout 3 (mostly) gave alternatives, so why couldn’t Bethesda be bothered with Skyrim?

    In general, the Elder Scrolls games are like high fantasy GTA (which I won’t touch fyi).

    • Your note about specific quests is a good one. When I speak of player choice, I don’t mean to imply that every quest is one a Christian can go on in good conscience, but that the player has a choice in general as to what kind of person they will be in the game. My point of emphasis is that it’s still entirely possible to go through the game and have a load of fun without engaging in those arcs. For that reason, I think the comparison to GTA is a tad harsh. That said, I can understand why the presence of the alternative in the game would be a source of discomfort for Christians, but I don’t think Christians who play and avoid those elements are in any trouble.

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