We’ve found it! We’ve found an escape from the politically entrenched matters of representation in the media. Just imagine: instead of having a casting director painstakingly and often mistakenly choose the bodies that must represent a wide variety of races, genders, and sexualities, each viewer gets to personally create a body through which to experience the media, and on top of that, the viewer chooses how they want their story to be told. Doesn’t this sound perfect? Well, this platform exists…but only sort of.
In Role Playing Games (RPG) like The Elder Scrolls, viewers can usually create their own avatar and navigate the story with much more freedom than other narrative-based moving image forms. However, the design and navigation of the RPG world is still embedded in the external politics of representation and hegemonic narrative structures.
That world can include more than one individual video game; the Elder Scrolls Universe has Morrowind, Oblivion and Skyrim, all games, as the Oxford Dictionary defines, “in which players take on the roles of imaginary characters who engage in adventures, typically in a particular computerized fantasy setting overseen by a referee.” The “referee” can either imply a flesh and blood human being that provides structure and direction for the players involved, as in Dungeons and Dragons, or a coded platform accessed through a gaming device, as in the Elder Scrolls games, which are played through such platforms as the xbox 360. At the core of the RPG is the player embodying an imagined character who exists within a created world.
Within the context of new media, the RPG has fascinating implications that tie into a complex net of identity politics, film history and narrative structures. Take the Elder Scroll games as an example. In all three games, players develop an avatar with a unique identity consisting of both physical characteristics and personal traits.
Progressing from the first game, Morrowind, to the most recently released game, Skyrim, the avatar creator has significantly increased in detail and specificity; however, some aspects have remained constant throughout all three games. Let us take a closer look at these constants, which include both the choice of gender and the choice of race. First and foremost, the player is given the option to either be male or female. Second, the player chooses their race. These races consist of the following: Altmer (High Elf), Argonian, Bosmer (Wood Elf), Breton, Dunmer (Dark Elf), Imperial, Khajiit, Nord, Orsimer (Orc), and Redguard. All in all, there are ten races split into three main categories: men (pretty self explanatory), mer (elves), and beast-folk (lizard people and cat people).
Here is a moving image platform where the body is implicated where the player – the viewer – chooses how they are to be represented within their personal experience of the media. But only to a certain extent.
The act of being able to choose is certainly a progression from previous forms of representation such as film and TV, but from the very first “choice” the player is immediately asked to participate in The Great Binary of gender. Once the player chooses a category to belong to between Male and Female, the player is then asked to choose a race. While the races within the Elder Scroll world do not directly reflect the races that make up our world, there are aspects of the Elder Scroll races that reflect specific histories. For example, there are oppressed races within the Elder Scrolls universe, and two of these races have a history of brutal enslavement; both of the races with history of enslavement are beast-folk. In other words, the oppressed classes do not possess human bodies and thus cannot be directly linked to any human race. Through this, Bethesda, the company that makes The Elder Scrolls, is attempting to remove its fantastical universe from any sort of social or political hierarchy that exists within our current cultural context. However, in doing so, Bethesda does not successfully avoid talking about race or ethnicity. In some ways, Bethesda entrenches themselves further in problems of race by creating the oppressed class of people as so significantly Other. Because, of course, aligning colonized and enslaved people with animals is among the most prevalent tactics that actual colonizing/enslaving societies have used to justify their actions.
As a player, you are implicated in the choices you make with regards to race. While it seems like problems of representation might fade with the advent of personalized character creation, this is not the case. Problems of representation become more complex and perhaps even more entrenched in the constructs of norms.
Games like The Elder Scrolls also rely heavily on both the iconography of cinema (i.e fantasy tropes) as well as the cinematic story line arch – hero, quest, pitted against evil.
However, unlike purely spectatorial media, there is more room for subversion depending on how the player interacts with the world the creators have set up: the player can choose not to be a hero to a certain extent, the player can focus less on the main quest and more on side quests, the player can just fool around and not complete any quests while still interacting with the open world.
There is also more room for subversion (as well as more hegemony) when one looks at the role of mods within video games. Players will often seek out mods, codes that change qualities of the game. For example a player may choose to add more hairstyle options within character creation or make the natural-virtual world around them more lush and inviting. Within other RPGs where there are more companion characters, mods can be found to alter the sexuality of these characters, making them either straight or queer. Reinforcing or subverting hegemony becomes up to the player. Bethesda, as a company, makes it especially easy within their coding for gamers to add mods. However, a fair majority of mods are used for hypersexualizing female characters, which is an example of how hegemony can be reinforced through the use of mods.
While The Elder Scrolls plays into many cinematic tropes and traditions of fantasy narrative, the audience experience is significantly different than that of cinema. While analyses of video games are still emerging within the realms of media studies, more scholars are beginning to write about the experience and effects of the immersive qualities of game play.
Michael Nitsche in his book, Video Game Spaces, explores this concept, stating that “game spaces evoke narratives because the player is making sense of them in order to engage with them, the player generates new meaning.” As a player navigates through games that possess 3D graphics, like The Elder Scrolls, they interact with space and can navigate the information of a game space from an infinite amount of perspectives. Like any world, the game world is comprised of signs, but the interaction with these signs is significantly different in 3D game spaces than in any other medium. This allows for the creation of meaning within the realms of imagination that could never be achieved in the static compositions of previous moving image mediums.
Nitsche proposes five planes that help in analyzing video games which include: rule-based space, mediated space, fictional space, play space, and social space. While many RPGs still fall into a problematic web of denying the presence of representational politics and hegemonic barriers, these games have huge potential for rich and active thought on both the part of the creator and the viewer through the creation of spaces that invoke a realm of imaginative navigation and thus new meaning.
John Fiske points out in Television Culture that a piece of media will never be perceived in a single static way. While he applies this idea to television, it may be true to even to a further extent in video games. The meaning of a video game, especially a 3D game space like The Elder Scrolls, is constructed by the player and the player is not passive in this construction of meaning.
While RPGs such as The Elder Scrolls are not necessarily at a point of progressive representation and storytelling, the format of RPGs themselves holds exciting potential for the actualization of media that is imaginative, subject to a dynamic flux of meaning, and evocative of a platform that is ultimately freeing, a platform that opens doors for representation and narrative structure rather than closing them. Clearly they have work to do, but in my opinion, Role Playing Video Games possess a unique potential to lead us into a rich arena of media consumption where forms of narration and representation inherently offer an active and inclusive space of productive discourse, new meaning, cognizant feeling and resonant thought.
An Interview with Game Player and Thinker, Quinton Isaacs [Personal interview]. (2016, November 30).
An Interview with Game Player and Thinker, Tessa Mahan [Personal interview]. (2016, December 3rd).
Shoddycast. “Elder Scrolls Lore: Ch.16 – Khajiit of Elsweyr.” YouTube. Accessed December 15, 2016.