Race And Gender In The Elder Scrolls

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There aren’t many games that let you play as a black woman. Skyrim is one of them.

Of course, players are not required to play as a black woman. It’s only one option out of the ten playable races and two genders. Most games that allow playing as a black woman have a similar approach; for games with fixed protagonists, said protagonists are overwhelmingly white men (or Asian men). The rarity of fixed female and/or minority protagonists means their gender and ethnicity inevitably become points of discussion, while the white men have the luxury of being viewed simply as characters. It’s only in games with a wide choice of playable characters (which usually means role-playing games like Skyrim) that we can play as women of less represented ethnicities without a lot of extra baggage. Or can we?

When I first played Skyrim back in 2012, the last big budget role-playing game I had played was The Witcher 2. It was just before I started this blog, in fact (and I later replayed it and wrote about it here). That’s a game with a fixed protagonist who is a white man. Well, actually he is a mutant, and he often faces fear, distrust, and prejudice from those he meets. But he looks like a white man. In the Witcher games, race and gender matter a lot. Elves and humans clash constantly, the elves reduced to guerrilla warfare and terrorist attacks against the human settlements. Women are expected to be subordinate to men, and even the all-powerful sorceresses are held to a double standard compared to their male colleagues. These things are central to the narrative, to the choices that the player, as Geralt of Rivia, must make.

The Witcher games were among first role-playing games I’d played to deal with racial and gender-based discrimination so overtly. In 2009, the same year the original Witcher game was released, Bioware released Dragon Age: Origins, which similarly emphasized issues of racism (and which I have not played), but before that it seemed that role-playing games rarely touched on such things. They were more in line with heroic fantasy literature and the Dungeons and Dragons game system, where a character’s race is more important for the abilities and proficiencies it confers than for any social ramifications. Well, I suppose there was a form of racism in these games, in that they often cast another race as the enemy (like orcs or goblins), but the races available for player characters tended to get along just fine. And a player’s choice of gender typically made no difference whatsoever while playing.

That’s how I remember the earlier Elder Scrolls games. The first one I played was Daggerfall, which is actually the second game in the series. While I have not played it in a long time, I am fairly certain that the player’s choice of race and gender makes absolutely no difference when interacting with other characters. Non-player characters rarely seem to care about each other’s race or gender either. Enemy adventurers, who can be encountered on occasion, are just as likely to be male or female, and I recall a good spread of representation among the key characters I encountered. Things do vary by region, however. Daggerfall is set in the Iliac Bay region, which includes western High Rock and its native Bretons (who are white) and northwestern Hammerfell, with its native Redguards (who are black). These groups represent the majority ethnicities, but other races are scattered throughout, and no one seems to care that much.

Morrowind, the next game in the series, strove for a deeper cultural backdrop, complete with deep-held prejudices. But those prejudices are directed against players no matter what race or gender they play. Even a Dunmer, native to Morrowind, is discriminated against as an outsider, having not been born on the island of Vvardenfell. All players must earn the respect of the locals as they play. The Imperials, who have set up colonial settlements that stick out like sore thumbs in the strange lands of Morrowind, clash with the Dunmer of the Temple, who dislike outsiders of any kind. Neither group gets along with the Ashlander tribes, Dunmer who live by the old traditions away from the cities. But players are not subjected to any special level of hate if playing as an Imperial. All of that is in the background, and Morrowind lets players create any character they wish and still receive the same cold reception.

After players choose their character’s race in Oblivion, the sequel to Morrowind, they are immediately subjected to racist remarks from a fellow prisoner. These occur no matter which race a player chooses; they seem designed to demonstrate the meaningfulness of the choice just made, and to emphasize how each race is perceived in the world of Tamriel. After this moment, ironically, the player’s race barely matters at all. Oblivion displays the most harmonious society of any Elder Scrolls game I’ve played. The Imperial province of Cyrodiil is a cosmopolitan and tolerant place, where elves and Nords happily coexist near the Skyrim border in Bruma, Orcs run shops in the Imperial City, and people of all backgrounds and genders fill the ranks of various guilds.

When I first played Skyrim, it was clear that Bethesda wanted a shift in tone. I’d like to think they were inspired by The Witcher, but it’s far more likely the inspiration came from Dragon Age: Origins and Game of Thrones. Skyrim is set two hundred years after Oblivion, and Tamriel is a much crueler place. After the demonic invasions of Oblivion, a radical faction of Altmer (also known as High Elves) rose to power and began a racist crusade across Tamriel. After a long war, a peace treaty was signed that no one is happy with. The Altmer presence has rekindled ancient hatred between the Nords of Skyrim and elves in general, and sparked a civil war within the province. To make matters worse, a natural disaster in Morrowind means eastern Skyrim is flooded with Dunmer refugees, while a small ethnic minority is running its own guerrilla campaign for independence in the western Reach. Racial tensions run high on both fronts.

Still, though, it didn’t feel like these things actually mattered. Bethesda built this volatile situation, but it never erupts. My first character was an elf, but not even the most racist Nords seemed to care. My elf could even have joined the fight to expel all elves from Skyrim if he’d wanted to. But since he didn’t, nothing ever happened; the two armies in the civil war never clashed, the rebels in the Reach sat around and waited. Like Morrowind, the social situation in Skyrim didn’t react to my player character at all. It was there for me to react to, but it didn’t involve me. In Morrowind, there was at least an effort to explain why any player character would receive the same treatment from those they met. And indeed, the player does actually get treated poorly by most. In Skyrim, however, such hostility is only directed at other non-player characters, never at the player.

Coming off of The Witcher 2, Skyrim felt positively tame in comparison, despite the attempted shift in tone. In fact, I had planned to write a post lauding the Elder Scrolls games for presenting a society where race and gender don’t matter all that much. I had already decided that my next character would be female, and I figured I’d wait until then to write the post. Well, having finally gone back to play as a woman, I’ve found that it’s not quite as equitable as I remembered.

Skyrim is the first Elder Scrolls game I’ve played that makes an issue out of gender, at least that I can recall. While people in Oblivion truly didn’t seem to care about anyone’s gender, in Skyrim it’s often a subject of discussion among people I meet. Townsfolk will tell me that it’s hard being a woman in Skyrim, but that if I keep trying I can eventually win men’s respect. Many women that I meet speak of their struggles in the professions they chose, because men didn’t think they could do it. I found a female bandit leader who had been writing a letter to her father; in the letter she’d received from him, he lamented that he’d been unable to marry her off because she was too ugly, but that he didn’t want her resorting to banditry. She responded that she didn’t give a damn what he thought.

It’s also very easy to stumble upon the multi-volume Biography of Barenziah, or its anonymously-penned counterpart, The Real Barenziah, as these tomes are lying around everywhere. And both versions betray a sexist worldview. Barenziah, a Dunmer, played an important role in the first Elder Scrolls game (and only entry I haven’t played), Arena, and players could also meet her in the sequel, Daggerfall, where she had become the Queen of Wayrest. In the officially sanctioned biography, she is described as a chaste and demure woman, who constantly needed protection from men, and whose important contributions came primarily through marriages and having children. She played a passive role in battling the villain in Arena, by spying and sussing out information while the player character (who, in fairness, could be a woman if the player chose) did all the fighting and adventuring. The Real Barenziah gives a different account of her life, which may well be fictionalized. But it describes how she became romantically (and sexually) involved with nearly every major male historical figure in the history of Tamriel, including Tiber Septim (the first Emperor of Tamriel) himself. This includes falling for the villain of Arena, and she is shown to be helpless to resist him, or anyone else. She is eventually able to use sex and charm to get information she needs, use it against the villain, and reach some kind of redemption in the eyes of the anonymous author. The subtext is that, as a woman, she can only fight her enemies through seduction and trickery.

What bothered me most about reading these accounts again, however, is that they are some of the older books in the series. I’m pretty sure players could find them as early as Daggerfall (and in that game, if I recall correctly, certain passages in The Real Barenziah are actually pornographic and were censored in later games in the series), which made me wonder if earlier Elder Scrolls games weren’t as fair about gender as I remember. I suspect that Daggerfall relied too heavily on procedural generation to craft much responsiveness in that regard, but perhaps other books in that game were full of troubling depictions like this? I remember a few instances of sexist characters in Morrowind, but now I’m worried there may have been more systemic examples there too.

For all of that, however, my new Skyrim character Nhazki (a name I constructed using the same algorithm used to procedurally generate Redguard names in Arena and Daggerfall, because I am a nerd) hasn’t really had any problems with sexism. Other women tell me how hard it’s been for them, but my character hasn’t experienced the same. No one batted an eye when I informed the Jarl of Whiterun that I’d killed a dragon. The Companions, a centuries-old organization of fighters and mercenaries that dates back to the first human settlers in Skyrim, had no problem accepting a black woman into their ranks. And, while they are outnumbered by the men, there were already three female members, including one of the higher-ups in the Circle. In fact, when I first set foot in the Companions’ home of Jorrvaskr, I got to watch one of the women beat one of the men in a fistfight. The Thieves’ Guild, which my first (male) character joined, seemed just as accepting of women as the Companions are. At least three of Skyrim’s nine Jarls (regional rulers) are women. In the cities it does seem that women are more likely to stay home and take care of households than men are, but there are women in other professions too, from guards to warriors to blacksmiths and shopkeepers. The bandits I encounter are just as likely to be women as men. When Nhazki went to meet the Greybeards — who, true to their name, are an all-male order of monks who study the ancient art of the Thu’um, language of dragons — they didn’t care one bit that she was a black woman, and were eager to train her. And, so far, my guide and principal ally in Skyrim’s main storyline has been a woman.

The result is a weird mixture. It feels as though matters of race and gender have been grafted onto a series that has always championed player freedom, celebrating the opportunity to do anything and overcome all challenges. In terms of game mechanics, Skyrim is the most accommodating in the series, letting players learn every skill and join any group without the restrictions of previous games. But it means that my female character never has to overcome sexism herself. And I find I miss that challenge, of slowly earning respect and trust from the locals, that existed in Morrowind — as much as I miss the truly open and accepting society of Oblivion.

So far, I don’t think Skyrim quite works in this regard. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been enjoying myself. I’d forgotten just how compelling the game is to play, and I’ll have more to say about that (and about how I’m liking the suite of mods I’m using) soon. Stay tuned!

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5 Responses to Race And Gender In The Elder Scrolls

  1. Simo Vihinen says:

    I don’t think Daggerfall is procedurally generated (as is commonly believed), just the different quests send you into one of multiple possible locations.

    Personally I think too much of this might fall under “they didn’t care enough about racism/sex discrimination as an issue to go out of their way to implement tons of gender-specific or racist remarks just for it to be there”. Of course the male/female dichotomy is the simplest one, only two alternatives exist there, so it would have been the least work to work in. On the level of speech that is, if they wanted the behavior to change as well, I guess that’d come in the form of some net of racial/gender relationships that affect your bartering chances or other checks. I don’t think any of the games have that either do they? Such a system would be massively against the base idea of leaving everything open to the player – if they couldn’t even join some guild just because of what they’d chosen earlier. So it’s a trade-off: the games are more bland (and that’s why I can’t really get into them) to ensure a more smooth composition. Like some kind of… yoghurt?

    That’s why I wouldn’t try to read too much into it – maybe it can be used as a counterpoint to games that did do something of the sort though.

    There’s this typo: “invovle”

    • waltorious says:

      I don’t think Daggerfall is procedurally generated (as is commonly believed), just the different quests send you into one of multiple possible locations.

      Most of Daggerfall was procedurally generated by the developers and then saved, so it would be the same for every player. That’s how they got so many different dungeons and town layouts, but most of them are the same for everyone. I know that an algorithm was used to create the names of all the non-player characters (except for major characters, who have specific names), but I’m not sure if these were pre-generated by the developers or if they are randomized “on the fly” for each player. Sidequests are somewhat randomly generated as you say, pointing to different dungeons or locations each time.

      Personally I think too much of this might fall under “they didn’t care enough about racism/sex discrimination as an issue to go out of their way to implement tons of gender-specific or racist remarks just for it to be there”.

      This is likely true, at least in terms of reactivity towards the player. But I think that this had the (possibly inadvertent) effect of creating a place where race and gender didn’t really matter, and that can feel refreshing after the recent trend towards representing prejudice in role-playing games. This is especially true in Daggerfall and Oblivion, where it doesn’t even seem to matter to non-player characters; even ignoring the player, the scripts in those games don’t touch on these subjects at all. In Skyrim, the script does — but it still doesn’t include the player, which makes it feel really odd (as I described in the post).

      Such a system would be massively against the base idea of leaving everything open to the player – if they couldn’t even join some guild just because of what they’d chosen earlier.

      Actually, earlier Elder Scrolls games did prevent players from joining builds because of what they’d chosen earlier. In Daggerfall, many guilds are mutually exclusive, and if you try to join a new one, an earlier one might get mad and kick you out. In Morrowind (and Daggerfall too, I think?), all guilds have skill requirements, so if you’ve never picked up a spear in your life you’ll have a lot of trouble gaining admittance to that one Great House that really values spear fighting. Plus many of the guilds in Morrowind don’t accept outsiders (at least not at first). Oblivion and Skyrim are the only games in the series (that I’ve played — I don’t know about Arena) that let players join any and all guilds with no restrictions.

      There’s this typo: “invovle”

      Thanks, fixed!

  2. Simo Vihinen says:

    Guilds: Right. I just meant it doesn’t matter what sex and race you are… Ofc it matters what questlines you’ve been following.

    I think it’s more fruitful to consider these things in terms of what kind of experience each game leaves you with the way they happen to be built, as you’re doing, rather than as any kind of serious comment on sex/racism issues. I think it’s a big step from “let’s make a fun game” into “let’s change people’s minds” – at least would be for most dev teams, and most would be unlikely to go half-and-half if you’ll agree. It just seems like something you have to go all-out on.

    To me “procedurally generated” means it happens as you’re getting started, but I see that it’s technically correct to apply it on whatever the devs did, but I don’t think that’s usually even brought up. Daggerfall isn’t procedurally generated, it WAS procedurally generated to the degree outlined. I didn’t know that stuff in quite so much detail.

    • waltorious says:

      Regarding “let’s change people’s minds”: I’m not sure that any of the games I mentioned in the post were trying to do this (although I haven’t played any of the Dragon Age games, so I can’t speak for those), and I wasn’t trying to touch on that in this post either. Instead, as you say, I was more interested in how these worlds feel to visit. In The Witcher, the prejducie and discrimination create situations with no easy “right” answer, and provide the player with a lot of tough choices. That can be really compelling, because Geralt is right in the middle of it, and his choices affect himself and his friends as well as the various factions in the game. Skyrim, on the other hand, attempts to show a world with similar problems, but because it doesn’t include the player in that aspect of it, it kind of falls flat. I found the contrast with earlier Elder Scrolls interesting too, because their more accepting societies were comparatively pleasant places to visit, especially versus something like The Witcher.

      The caveat to this is that I haven’t delved into the aspect of Skyrim most likely to have an impact related to racial issues, which is the civil war. I could decide to help the Imperials and their tenuous alliance with the elves, or I could fight to expel all elves from Skyrim and establish an independent nation. Either of those options may have lasting effects and might make the “volatile” situation in Skyrim actually feel volatile. There are also indications that the elven faction will play a role in the game’s main storyline, which I’m following for the first time with my new character, so maybe these tensions will come to the forefront there too.

      Regarding procedural generation, you are correct, although I learned (by googling before responding to your last comment) that some of the outdoor countryside in Daggerfall is actually procedurally generated on the fly. But in this post, all I meant was that much of Daggerfall was generated with algorithms rather than hand-designed, which means there was little opportunity to introduce details like societal customs and attitudes.

  3. Simo Vihinen says:

    Hope you’ll see something interesting in the Elven storyline: I only played Morrowind and Oblivion so don’t fear spoilers in my comments!

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