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.)