‘Skyrim’ and the danger of self-serving stories

Perhaps the most common evangelical misconception about the concept of “story” is that good stories teach good lessons.

This misconception lies behind nearly every Christian debate about censorship. Some distrust the Harry Potter phenomenon under the assumption that it promotes witchcraft, Twilight out of fear that it prematurely awakens youthful passions and video games because they supposedly encourage violent behavior. While this seems reasonable, particularly with reference to protecting our families, such an approach is inherently flawed. It is indelibly self-focused. We want stories to serve us.

This is largely the appeal of video games. They not only give us stories that center on us, they are giving us stories that we can mold around ourselves. Yet the true story of a game occurs in the dance between player and developer. This dance makes it very difficult to determine what lesson a given game is teaching us, much less whether that lesson is positive or negative.

"Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim" is perhaps the most open-ended game to date. "Skyrim" sets before the player a massive and detailed game world and gives the player tremendous freedom with which to explore and influence it.

Many Christians feel comfortable embracing "Skyrim" because of its emphasis on choice. You can, in theory, be good. You can make honorable choices, fight thugs and tyrants and live above the game’s rampant oppression, mayhem and racism. Additionally you can be a terror to mountain villagers. You can steal from them, bully them and even murder them.

While playing as a good character may seem the most Christian tactic, both paths suffer from the same flaw: they are deeply sycophantic. The player who roams Tamriel as a noble do-gooder is likely projecting heroic qualities onto himself. The player that chooses to be a tyrant is exploring criminality free from most of its attendant consequences. Either way, our goal in playing is the same: we want to feel important.

Perhaps then, the best way forward for Christian gamers is to stop confusing ourselves with our avatars. This way we can impartially assess our actions on screen. I made a conscious effort to do so with my character in "Skyrim." I am playing as a female dark elf, the single most discriminated race in Tamriel. When I go into an inn, I'm told my kind shouldn’t be frequenting this side of town (this is far from my experience as a middle-class, Protestant, Caucasian American male). I discovered an incredibly complicated world, one with myriads of competing races, ideologies and interests.

It’s a world that doesn’t offer easy solutions to big problems. Whatever cause you take up is likely to have an adverse affect on another. Choosing to help one person typically means neglecting another. The race you choose will affect people’s perception of you as well, sometimes even hindering your ability to address problems. The guilds of "Skyrim" are also a complicated lot. At first glance, many of them appear to be fighting to end oppression but, upon closer look, are riddled with rampant racism. Join a guild and your nobility will certainly be put to the test. Perhaps this makes "Skyrim" a morally relativistic world. I think, however, this is what makes it a meaningful experience.

Video games often tend toward power fantasies. We save the world by doing things we would never do in real life. Yet we gain little from game worlds if they merely aid us in conveniently escaping our own. While in an immediate sense, it is possible to save "Skyrim" from the dragons terrorizing it, it is impossible for the player to transform its world. You can’t change the hearts its residents. This bears an important resemblance to the real world, which can only be saved by the grace of God and never by human achievement. Much like our world, "Skyrim" cannot be saved by good works.

(Photo courtesy of Bethesda Softworks.)

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Great article! I am struck by how simplistic and self-serving my own "righteous" videogame fantasies are becoming. By always making the "right choice" in games I'm not edifying my spirit but more or less just patting myself on the back.
Thanks Steven!
You bring up some interesting ideas here.  Most of which I think have significant counterpoints that you don't address.  

For instance: "
This is largely the appeal of video games. They not only give us stories that center on us, they are giving us stories that we can mold around ourselves. "

The problem I have with this statement is that the 'science' of the avatar, and how that entity relates to the player is far from settled.  As an artform, critical best practices are yet to be established, especially as regards the avatar.  Consider the following plausible informal review of inFAMOUS:  "So Cole is a courier, and he gets electrical powers, and then you have to choose whether you are going to use them for good or evil.  I decided to be purely good the first time I played."

Note the way the pronoun shifts constantly.  Cole/He/You/I.  The fact that this is common in reviews and conversation about games illustrates that the entity known as the avatar is multi-faceted, and approached differently by different people at different times.So I don't know how to critically analyse the meaning of your statement about games centering on us.  If by "us" you mean the avatar, then yes, that is necessary as a mechanism of any interactive experience.  But how much of our personal ego or personality is embedded in that avatar varies from game to game and even within the same game.  And so I think your statement: "our goal in playing is the same: we want to feel important. "
is not universally applicable in the world of videogames.  In fact, I'd say this may be a minority view.  Generally what drives most people to play games is a combination of interesting mechanics wrapped in an aesthetic world that appeals to them.   The fact that most avatars are important in the world of the game is more a mechanism of story telling then it is of videogames.  It's the same reason most novels are about important people, and most fantasy and sci-fi stories are about people with some kind of power.  That's what makes events interesting as opposed to mundane.   
the best way forward for Christian gamers is to stop confusing ourselves with our avatars.  "

I think this is an interesting proposition, but the following paragraphs don't connect to this in any way I can tell.  Can you be more specific about how de-coupling one's ego from the avatar enhances a Christian's experience or teaches them something?

I also find this a curious thing to say: "
Yet we gain little from game worlds if they merely aid us in conveniently escaping our own."
Now, I may simply be biased here, since my career is creating these games,  (I build levels for Guild Wars 2) but I don't think I agree with the implicit idea here that one ought to approach a piece of art with utility in mind.  I think I simply take umbrage with this kind of utilitarian view of art.  Yes, art affects us and shapes our worldview.   And it's healthy to take a step back and approach it critically from time to time to analyse the hidden premises within the enthymeme.   My problem comes when you propose that there is a proper "Christian" way to approach my artform's artifacts.  Especially when that proposal appears to be a purposeful divorce of the player's ego from the avatar's existence, which in many cases is a vital factor in the aesthetic success of a game.  To me, this is like saying the "Christian" way to watch a magic show is to stand behind the magician so as to see how he's doing the tricks.  

Much of the 'magic' of videogames is contingent specifically on "confusing ourselves with our avatars." because that is where the power of the artform is most potent.  That is WHY the experience of living in the simulated world is compelling and aesthetically successful.  So much of our energy as game developers is poured into creating and maintaining a suspension of disbelief, and it seems to me that you advocating shattering this element for spiritual reasons.  If this is the case, I think you ought to reevaluate your position on the artform.  If you consider being part of an avatar is spiritually unhealthy, and being part of an avatar is a vital element of the medium, then you may simply have to be opposed to the medium to be consistent.

Which brings me back to my first point about how our industry does not understand the nature of the avatar.  So it's also possible that you are representing a certain segment of the population that psychologically responds a certain way to avatar-hood, that others don't.  It's also possible that certain KINDS of avatars in certain kinds of games are the target of your critique.  For example, the avatar in Tetris is very different than the avatar in Grand Theft Auto and he's very different than the avatar in Skyrim, and ALL of them are different depending on the player playing them.  It's very hard (I'd say impossible) to lump all avatars together AND all player psychological profiles together into one category for critique.  And I feel like that's sort of what you did here.  

Anyway, thanks for the thought provoking article!  

Isn’t real life complicated and challenging enough without losing oneself into an avatar in a violent, faux reality game? I appreciate the honesty of Josh Foreman whose point was that the avatar experience is critical to the appeal of a successful video game.  Marshall McLuhan talked about cool mediums and hot mediums and video games are the hottest of all with complete sensory overload. Good bye reading. My young adult daughter and her husband stayed at my house for 4 months. I rarely saw my son-in-law because he was completely absorbed in World of Warcraft. In real life he is a day laborer, making minimum wage with not enough motivation to start and finish college. Alternate reality is much more fun.
Hey Josh,

Thank you for the thoughtful response to my article. I think you illustrated a few areas where I probably overstated my case.

A few notes of clarification. I enjoy videogames--I play them and write about the regularly. I think Christians don't think about them enough--I am trying to help them do that. 

I said "perhaps the best way forward for Christians is to stop confusing ourselves with our avatar." I think the "perhaps" in that statement is important. I definitely think sometimes we should assume ourselves to be our avatar. For instance in a game like Red Dead Redemption--we definitely should not think that we are John Marston--the guy has a family, a past, and makes his own decisions. I think the same can be said to some degree of more open games like Skyrim--I shared some examples of the type of character I chose in Skyrim not being something that I feel represents me--I still found the whole experience meaningful.

I would agree with you that different games call for different relationships between player and avatar. I think most Christians have typically viewed their avatar as them and viewed most open world games as an opportunity to simulate heroism (I mean have read that sentiment in countless Christian game blogs/articles). I think that is naive and narrow view to take and this article was meant to encourage Christians not to limit themselves to that view. At the end of the day, I think we are in agreement on this point.

With regard to your comment about my arguing for a utilitarian view of art, I would say I see how you would think that and that I phrased that line poorly.

I think if you read the entire article, I am arguing against a utilitarian view of art--what makes games valuable is not necessarily whether they teach us something good or not. What is most valuable is the experience and what I found valuable about my experience with Skyrim was how it mirrored the real world in some significant and meaningful ways.

I think I overstated my case by saying that "we gain little from game worlds if they merely aid us in conveniently escaping our own." However, even that statement is a bit more nuanced than you let on. I said "we gain little" meaning if its just mere escape then we don't gain as much as if it moves us in some meaningful way. I think there is value in mere escape. 

Anyway--time and space won't allow me to say more at this time, but thanks for your thoughtful comment--it definitely got me thinking and its clear to me that you are in the business of thinking through these issues carefully which I greatly appreciate.
Ok.  I can see how I inflated some of your nuanced proposals into bold assertions.  Thanks for the clarification.  

But now I'm still getting hung up on your statement that "an opportunity to simulate heroism" is a "
naive and narrow view to take".  Maybe I'm reading too much into the word 'opportunity', because that's exactly how I see it.  The power and brilliance of a procedural world is that it provides a variety of opportunities.  Choices are most meaningful when there is a robust and well-developed antithesis.  Most games don't provide that, and the avatar is very fatalistically attached to rails, only able to exercise agency in the lower level details of mechanics.  For example, playing as Mario or Link, I can never decide to forget about the princess, join their captor and pillage the countryside.  The most I can do to subvert my 'heroism' is to stop playing or keep dying.  But open world sandbox games like Skyrim give us the chance to truly simulate heroism by providing meaningful alternatives to heroism.  (Still not as far as possible, but moving in that direction)  I think in this context the simulation of heroism is a spiritually healthy exercise.  How much of one's ego they infuse into the avatar has a direct correlation to the impact this exercise will have.  That's why I take umbrage with your advice to emotionally divorce oneself from the avatar.  On the flipside, I find when I play sandbox games and choose the 'evil' path, I DO distance myself from the avatar, viewing it more as a device for exploring mechanics than as a character that I am a part of.  I think this is instinctive because my soul truly wants to be righteous.     What I hope the future holds for my medium is a better simulation of moral fortitude with more difficult choices where righteous actions carry heavier short-term ramifications for players.  Currently my industry hyper-obsessed with instant gratification, and as a result they want to make all choices equally fun and balanced.  This creates a procedural rhetoric (Ian Bogost's term) of extreme relativism.  And I wonder if you are indirectly reacting against THIS more than the composite nature of avatars.  Once we have the artform and technology to a certain point we will be able to more faithfully model a positive soul-shaping rhetoric of delayed gratification and other concepts that the fun-fun-fun police don't let us do right now.
I think it's a mistake to presume that if X entertainment did not exist then a particular person would be doing something constructive with their time instead of X.  Before videogames there was TV and movies, before that, radio and comics, before that drinking and gambling, etc.  I recognize that videogame compulsion is a real issue affecting many people.  But I think it's the compulsion to escape reality that fuels it, and in the absence of video games it would be something else.
Hey Josh,

Man--there is a lot in that little comment of yours, I am honestly scratching my head a little to sort out exactly where we disagree.

I don't think I am arguing against the power of procedural worlds with choices--I think that is what I was marveling at with Skyrim--it was a complex and robust world that didn't make heroism simple (as it shouldn't be)--I greatly appreciate that about Skyrim. I honestly love the game. I think it's one of the best open world games in terms of making the player feel like the world doesn't revovle around him and yet keeps them wanting to come back.Also, I don't think I am encouraging anyone to "emotionally divorce themselves from their avatar." I am simply saying that I think sometimes we shouldn't confuse ourselves with our avatar. That is different than saying we should be emotoinally detached from them.

I care a great deal for my dark elf avatar (with full nerd disclosure)--but I realize that what she faces are things I will never face. Playing as her is truly fascinating and interesting and worthwhile. Making decisions that I feel are consistent with who she would be in this particular world alongside what I think is best--is a strange dance. I don't rightly know how to handle that dance best, however, I do want to figure that out. I would say at the very least, playing as her has taught me some empathy but mostly I have just had fun playing the game in a way that contributes something of worth to the world.I would wholeheartedly agree that there are myriad of meaningful ways to play an open world game like Skyrim. I wouldn't limit Christians to one particular way. I think many Christians have limited themselves to one particular way and I think THAT is a narrow approach. I certainly did not mean to imply that everyone should approach every game in an emotionally detached manner. If I am indicating that in this post, perhaps I need to write a follow up of sorts ;)

Anyway--thanks for pushing me on this--I enjoy discussing these things.In closing, I would say that I very much agree with you when you say:

"What I hope the future holds for my medium is a better simulation of moral fortitude with more difficult choices where righteous actions carry heavier short-term ramifications for players.  Currently my industry hyper-obsessed with instant gratification, and as a result they want to make all choices equally fun and balanced."

I have actually written on that subject quite a bit recently. 

Nothing, no other diversion takes escapism to such a high degree and complete sensory involvement as video games. It is also such a solitary diversion. Movies are most often seen in a theater with a community or in a home with a family and friends as we laugh in unison or squeal in fright together. Televison is simply a medium. Some of us can work on reports or even read the newspaper while watching TV (and my watching usually consists of either the science channel, the history channel or the BBC). People drive cars while listening to the radio and the music may be expressing some truth about life. Radio is usually in the background. Reading requires the imagination to fill in the details about how a character looks, how the morning smells or the snow crunches. Reading often conveys ideas, helps construct moral frameworks and adds to the philosophical richness of life. However video gaming is most often a solitary experience (though one could be networking with other disembodied avatars), completely engaging the senses and provides a kind of illicit escape where one can be powerful, sexy, heroic, immoral, cruel or murderous without any consequences. Hours pass quickly in alternate worlds and bring a comfortable numbness to uncomfortable, messy reality. My school teacher friends are watching children grow more obese, less active and more ignorant as they disengage from reality into digital media of all kinds.
I think we have talked about this before Rickd.

But just to clarify--72% of American Households play games. 65% of the time they play with other people in-person. 1 in 3 parents play videogames with their children in person. And we haven't even tapped into how people play games together over the internet. So just like you enjoy laughing, cringing, squeeling while watching movies--apparently lots of people do that together with games. Only there is a difference--games often require them to think critically, to work together, and provide shared experiences that people are not just observing but actually participating in.

Yes, its a more immersive medium than reading but I can't imagine that you actually believe that that is a wholly negative thing.
Your comment reads like mediums that allow for us to do other things while we do them are categorically better. That strikes me as odd for a few reasons. First because I am terrible at multitasking, so if that were true, I would be doomed to failure. Secondly, things that require more of our attention also require more of our thinking--I cannot envision that being a wholly negative thing.
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