Lately, I’ve been playing a good deal of Skyrim. Primarily as a means to ease stress, a way to switch off and relax. Unlike many and most gamers, I find playing the most relaxing when I’m thinking critically about how I’m playing. I care less about completion, difficulty level, and fighting other players or monsters than I do about exploration and creating my own narratives through setting. The years I played World of Warcraft, I spent most of my time stealthing (and running) through zones far beyond my level just so I could see them. There were multiple times I leveled up thanks to exploration, which of course vastly outnumbered the times I was instantly killed being somewhere I shouldn’t have been.
Being somewhere I shouldn’t have been. Every game feels like this to me. As someone with zero interest in murder but bored with the lack of tension many crafting games offer, I find gaming feels more and more like a foreign activity. I find myself always attempting to create a narrative link between all the games I play as a way to make it all feel less otherthan. So, I started up a new save in Skyrim about a month ago when my D&D group had to take a break for a couple of weeks. So I took my half-orc barbarian/wizard and set him on the path of the Dragonborn.
Comparatively I’ve not logged a lot of time playing, according to Steam 156 hours on the Special Edition. But nearly all of that time has been spent avoiding quests, climbing mountains, reading books, and exploring ruins. It was inside one of the draugr filled barrows looking through burial urns and the entombed corpses I began to wonder, “How am I not a bad guy here?” By which I mean, I was grave robbing. I was hardly the first person to think this:
Does it matter? Perhaps the most common and obtuse sentiment was “realize that none of it is real and that you are playing a game.” And yeah, I get it; we all do. This response is meaningless. A better response is “Considering how most Dragur are the result of Dragon Cult rituals… I’d judge it as being less like Grave Robbing and more like spoils of war against Alduin’s followers.” Now this intrigues because it’s grounded in the mythos of the game creating a contextual response paralleling real world ethics.
This goes further with the in-game book Amongst the Draugr. In this tome, we read the account of a member of the College of Winterhold living with them as a sort of Jane Goodall of the undead. It asserts the draugr give their lifeforce to the dragon priest to sustain it in the afterlife speculating they were most likely buried alive making what adventurers encounter the drain husks of their true selves. This is some quality lore.
While this gives us a foothold into the barrows littering Skyrim, it doesn’t quite satisfy. Why? I think because it substitutes looting for gain with at best self-defense in a place where one has no right to be and at worst desecration as an act of revenge. Neither are morally acceptable.
This is because the player/adventurer is trespassing in arguably one of the most private of spheres with the intent to do what, exactly? Steal an artifact? Perhaps recover one, but most of the quests for item retrieval are so it can be sold, used as a weapon against others in yet still more morally questionable ways, or to simply be kept for sentimental reasons. Invading someone’s sacred space is akin to asserting what they hold dear is inferior to your own whims and desires. It is an act denying the agency of a sentient creature. Agency ought to be inviolate. Denying it and then breaking it is a supreme act of violence as well as of dehumanization. There are, of course, degrees, but each act is morally suspect and build upon each other.
So when I enter a barrow whether on a quest or not, I am trespassing. The degree of my moral crime is amplified by my duration and destruction of what is there. There is no crime committed in-game. Or, rather, the penalty for this moral crime is being set upon by draugr and possibly character death. In this sense, the draugr operate as stewards acting in self-defense reinforcing the player/adventurer’s role as criminal invader. I think there may even be a wider metaphor here pertaining to one of the game’s main storylines, that of Imperials vs Nords. Yet the metaphor isn’t a clean analogy; it’s more of a richly ambiguous allegory. This, of course, makes the game more fun. It deepens and widens the game’s impact allowing players to come back to it again and again. I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t love coming back to Skyrim whether or not they’ve ‘beaten’ it. The game rewards ongoing play even if a player is acutely familiar with it. I tend to agree with players who create their own play-through rules (i.e., ethics) that doing so makes “the game bit more challenging and fun.”
Now when I play Skyrim I refrain from looting. I still trespass as I am inherently an explorer when I game, but I tend to avoid anything needlessly combative. My current character is at level 51 and yet to complete a major storyline quest, because I’m not into that. You can be, have fun. I’m not, and there ought to be room for it in a quality game. Skyrim is a quality game.
I like that playing this game has led me to think about all of these issues. It complicates the game. It forces me to articulate just what I am doing and then decide, is this the kind of person I want to be? Why do we play games if not exactly for this reason? To give us an outlet to know what it would be to be other as well as to be better than who we currently are like all good fiction.
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