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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!