Quite apart from the question of whether it deserved to be one, I think we can all agree that Skyrim was a commercial success. 10 million copies sold, to date. 10 bloody million. Once a number gets up that high it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to perceive. I can’t imagine 10 million things, that’s for sure. I can tell you one thing, though: there ain’t nothing small about 10 million. 10 million is a lot.
But in fact, it isn’t enough. It actually drastically underestimates the number of people who have actually experienced Skyrim. For example, the true number of sales is higher; I’ve just rounded down for ease of use. At the time of writing, 10.5 million is probably more realistic and, depending on how far in the future you’re reading this, perhaps it’s passed 11 million by now. We should also factor in shared copies of the game: one unit sold might serve a pair of housemates, or perhaps a family of four. And piracy ought to be plonked on top of that, as, by definition, those experiences fall outside the sales figures. Finally, let’s throw in second-hand sales, which will keep the population of Skyrim ticking upwards for some time yet. In the end, it’s pretty much impossible to say how many people have traversed that snowy and mountainous terrain, periodically shouting fire into a dragon’s face.
So let’s just say 10 million, shall we? It’s a nice, round, conservative estimate. Certainly the true number will never be less than that, not now it has passed the mark. A game can gain players, but never lose them. 10 million people. That’s impressive, there’s a good few decent-sized cities that can’t boast a population that high. Jakarta, Tokyo and Mexico City come close. London, New York and Hong Kong are a few million short. Rio de Janeiro and Singapore are about half way there. Durban, Berlin and Madrid? Barely worth mentioning. And it isn’t just cities: Skyrim’s 10 million puts it well inside the top 100 most populous countries in the world, sitting pretty just above Hungary and Somalia. Doubling the population of either Denmark or Finland. Positively towering over Mongolia and Jamaica. Qatar? Mauritius? Montenegro? Don’t make me laugh.
I’m being facetious, of course. Skyrim isn’t a place, it’s a videogame. Well, it’s the name of a fictitious place within a videogame. But playing Skyrim isn’t going to Skyrim, is it? At best it’s momentarily suspending your belief in yourself to inhabit the lizard-faced, fireball throwing, kleptomaniac, werewolf of a Dragonborn, who does go to Skyrim. Also, it’s a single player game, so there’s no population of 10 million Dragonborn here. There’s just one, repeated with minor variations through the different versions of Skyrim: mine, yours, and 9,999,998 others. I’m the Dragonborn, but so are you. Different but the same.
It’s just about there that things start to get interesting.
Taking its lead from its predecessor, Oblivion, Skyrim’s crowning glory is its geography, and what geography! There is genuine pleasure to be had in taking off into the wilds of this game. From a frozen and barely habitable precipice, you can make your way down into the woodland at its base, worrying the wildlife as you pass. Instinct might attract you to the sound of running water, and emerging from the gloom of the forest you just might find the sun shining strong, glinting across a river of pure mountain water that snakes away across the grassland ahead.
Familiar? How about that trek up the 7000 steps to High Hrothgar, culminating with a violent introduction to the temper of Frost Trolls? Or the view from the Throat of the World? Sky Haven Temple anyone? Ok, what about Tamriel’s version of the Northern Lights dancing across the sky over Whiterun? You get the idea. These landmarks are experiences that we share, they cross the borders of our individuality and create commonality between you and I. Community.
But none of that solves that essential problem above: Skyrim is not a place. However convincing the graphics, however plausible the terrain, however involving the politics, it is not real. The ground beneath my feet, that’s a place. England is a place, and it carries on being a place until you get to a point where you cross into a different place. But borders in the real world are a bit weird, aren’t they? Take a wide and thin patch of land in central Europe: for quite some time that was just an anonymous chunk of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, until 1918, when it became Czechoslovakia. That was nice, up until the Second World War, when for all intents and purposes Czechoslovakia ceased to exist and became an extension of Germany. But then the war ended and Czechoslovakia came back, right up until the last minute of 1992, when there stopped being a Czechoslovakia and in its place the Czech Republic and Slovakia were born. Borders, springing up and dissolving seemingly at will. It must have been weird, going to sleep on the 31st December 1992 a Czechoslovakian and waking up either a Czech or a Slovakian.
But it’s not just physical limits that nations are based on. There are other factors, though they’re all rather easily deconstructed. Ethnicity? A laughable idea, although that doesn’t stop some unsavoury characters from persisting with it. Cultural differences? Better, but so changeable as to be an unreliable basis for anything; Britain’s favourite food is curry, anyone care to argue that that’s culturally indigenous or exclusive? And this can go on and on until finally, we might start thinking, ‘Hang on a minute, this nation lark, is it all in my head?’
Perhaps it is. In 1983, Benedict Anderson published Imagined Communities, a seminal work in the discussions surrounding nationhood. For Anderson, our ideas of community are exactly that – ideas. In any community larger than a tiny tribe, where face-to-face interaction is a possibility, the sensation of integration has to be imagined simply because, in Anderson’s words, ‘the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion’. That’s not to say it’s a lie, as such, we’re not using ‘imagined’ in the sense of fabricated. The nation, indeed the community, certainly exists. It is ‘imagined’ in that it is created and maintained within the realm of ideas. That’s why a community’s borders are so flexible, be they physical, ethnic, cultural, or whatever. It is, quite literally, what we make of it.
This isn’t the time or place to go in-depth into Anderson’s ideas, but let’s talk about one I have always found striking: In tackling how the above imagining of a community actually takes place, Anderson employs the term ‘’simultaneity” to discuss how geographically diverse individuals such as you and I might begin to imagine the kind of connection which might in turn develop into a sense of community, despite our distance. Simultaneity describes the link created between individuals through their impression that their individual experiences are being shared by a wider group. For Anderson, who was writing back in the early 80’s, the prime example of simultaneity was the advent of mass-circulated print media, particularly the daily newspaper, which delivers throughout its community the sensation of a simultaneous experience. Sitting at the breakfast table and reading the paper, the individual imagines herself as part of a much wider group all partaking of the same activity, absorbing the same information and discourse, all at the very same time.
All this reminds me of a letter series between Leigh Alexander and Kirk Hamilton which Paste published last year. It’s well worth taking the time to read right through if you can, but the gist of the thing is this: Kirk had not played Final Fantasy 7 while Leigh, a hardcore FF7 fan, had just finished a repeat playthrough. Kirk decided to make his way through the game for the first time, taking periodic moments to discuss the game’s impact with Leigh. Through their back-and-forth letters, the pair compare and contrast their experiences, and what quickly becomes clear in the letters is that certain points in the game become landmarks on which the writers base their discussions. Kirk introduces each of his letters with something along the lines of ‘So, I’ve just gotten to…’ while Leigh’s letters adopt an increasingly excited tone once Kirk has taken on certain battles or passed certain events. As the series progresses, it becomes clear that while Kirk and Leigh are not playing FF7 together, or even separately at the same time, a gradual bond is developing between them which is based on this shared experience. Gameplay is empty time, time apart from real time, which allows simultaneity to be separated from simultaneousness. Like an ancient building, a single-player game resounds with the footsteps of all those who’ve gone before us.
As the letters draw to an inevitable end they take on an increasingly tender tone, perhaps even a sense of sadness. That which has, up until now, created continuity between these two people is coming to a close, and this is a cause of anxiety for both. In the last couple of letters, Leigh and Kirk move beyond their FF7 experiences and spend a touching few paragraphs relating to one another’s childhoods, as though looking for further communal experiences to use to maintain their connection.
Remember those familiar scenes from Skyrim? Things I’ve seen and done, that you’ve probably seen and done, and 10 million other people have seen and done? That’s a type of simultaneity right there. We may not be in the same space at the same time, but through those interconnected experiences we can regenerate and share experiences between us. In his Zero Punctuation series, Ben ‘Yahtzee’ Croshaw often describes these as ‘watercooler moments’, picturing people who come together at the watercooler in an office to go over their version of the game – what they’ve done, where they’ve been, how they built their character. Often these discussions take the form of ‘Have you done X yet?’ or ‘Have you been to Y yet?’ as players seek out moments in which their experiences have coincided.
Despite the impossibility of encountering another human being in Skyrim, its players all occupy the same imagined terrain through their shared experience. In this way, Skyrim does have that population of 10 million Dragonborn. Sure, we’ll never come face to face in our different Skyrims, but I’ll probably never come face to face with 99.9% of the rest of England’s population either. That doesn’t stop England being a nation. Our experience of any community is built from a mix of individual isolation and the impression of interpersonal links. In this way, Skyrim is a nation in its own right.