United States of Skyrim 4

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.

Jim Ralph

About Jim Ralph

Jim Ralph currently resides in sunny Winchester, England. He'd love to hear from you, personally, with any thoughts on his writing or lucrative job offers.

4 thoughts on “United States of Skyrim

  • Bobb d'Azraele

    In his essay “On Fairy Stories”, JRR Tolkien describes a sim­i­lar the­o­ry in a lot of detail.

    Basically he’s say­ing that bio­log­i­cal her­itage does­n’t define our eth­nic­i­ty or nation­hood, but the lan­guage group and group sto­ries that we grew up with. Tolkien believed that lan­guage and story were inti­mate­ly inter­twined and con­nect­ed and were the only thing that real­ly con­struct­ed a “nation”.

    I found that idea mind­blow­ing, but when I researched it a bit, I found that this had been a cen­tral aca­d­e­m­ic belief in eigh­teenth & nine­teenth cen­tu­ry philol­o­gy (does­n’t exist any more — been sort of divid­ed up into lin­guis­tics and soci­ol­o­gy) — before it got shoved aside as a the­o­ry of race by biol­o­gists and race suprema­cists types.

    You talk about bonds being cre­at­ed through shared expe­ri­ences… but they’re not real­ly. They’re built by peo­ple recount­ing the story of how they faced the same chal­lenges in-game. The rela­tion­ship, the things peo­ple have in com­mon, etc, are all based on a shared text expe­ri­ence in which a story is told about some­thing an indi­vid­ual expe­ri­enced all by him­self.

    Tolkien, in this essay, talked about sto­ries shared in a group’s com­mon lan­guage, but which might have sim­i­lar — but slight­ly dif­fer­ent — ver­sions in dif­fer­ent lan­guages, and there­fore dif­fer­ent groups. He said it was the dif­fer­ences which were sig­nif­i­cant, because dif­fer­ent soci­eties changed ele­ments in order to fit their needs as a soci­ety.

    In the case of Skyrim, the com­mon story is the sce­nar­ios offered by the game, and the local dif­fer­ences are in the sto­ries play­ers tell each other about how they tack­led them. And rela­tion­ships and bonds form between peo­ple who tack­led them in sim­i­lar — or maybe even iden­ti­cal — ways, and don’t form between peo­ple who did them dif­fer­ent­ly.

  • SomekindofJim

    Thanks for the response, it’s cer­tain­ly an inter­est­ing topic. I’m not famil­iar with ‘On Fairy Stories’ but I’ll def­i­nite­ly check it out. To be hon­est I’m quite resis­tant to any­thing which sim­pli­fies the con­struc­tion of nation­al iden­ti­ty only to ‘lan­guage and story’. While I’m con­vinced that nation­al iden­ti­ty is devel­oped in the realm of ideas, I think it’s a much more com­plex act which takes into account a great many things, includ­ing shared sto­ries and mythol­o­gy, but also such ele­ments as polit­i­cal lean­ings, her­itage, reli­gious belief, even fash­ion. We ought to pay close atten­tion to that old con­fu­sion of cor­re­la­tion and cau­sa­tion. Differing sto­ries might well reflect dif­fer­ences in soci­eties, but that doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly mean they are the com­plete expla­na­tion.

    I think what is also impor­tant is to avoid any­thing which might become exclu­sion­ary. One crit­i­cism of Anderson, and one which per­haps may be made of Tolkein but since I haven’t read it yet I won’t make that leap, is that his work presents a homog­e­nized view of the nation, as if every­thing and every­one were the same right across the board. This is patent­ly false, though at the time of both their writ­ing it was per­haps a more desir­able idea than now. Nations, and indeed any com­mu­ni­ty, are inter­nal­ly very diverse and tumul­tuous. Finally, in Britain at least, we are com­ing to a point where we begin to accept and even cel­e­brate that fact, which is very pos­i­tive in my view. What I’m not inter­est­ed in is some­thing which says ‘You do not share [for exam­ple] our mythol­o­gy and there­fore are not a part of this com­mu­ni­ty’.

    This whole article’s (per­haps slight­ly obfus­cat­ed) inten­tion is to demon­strate that if you can make a case for some­thing as abstract as Skyrim as a ‘nation’, then you must begin to doubt the solid­i­ty of the con­cept of a ‘nation’ itself.

    So in fact I must dis­agree with your dis­agree­ment of me. I don’t believe that com­mu­nal bonds can only be cre­at­ed through iden­ti­cal or sim­i­lar expe­ri­ences. Internal diver­si­ty might well result in inter­nal group­ings, which is fine. To bor­row your final exam­ple, I think that the com­mu­ni­ty is devel­oped at the point when two or more peo­ple relate a shared sce­nario in Skyrim. From there inter­nal divi­sions might devel­op between those who react­ed with vio­lence and those who talked, sneaked, mag­icked, or whatever’ed their way out of the sce­nario. However, it is quite fea­si­ble (nec­es­sary, in fact) to be a mem­ber of sev­er­al com­mu­ni­ties simul­ta­ne­ous­ly. Those inter­nal divi­sions need not dis­rupt the over­all unity.

  • William Coberly

    You should def­i­nite­ly read “On Fairy Stories,” though. For other rea­sons, too. It’s a real­ly inter­est­ing essay.

  • Bobb d Azraele

    William — too right. Jim… dead inter­est­ing reply, thanks a lot :D

    Definitely read “On Fairy Stories”. I’ve gross­ly over­sim­pli­fied what Tolkien says in it — main­ly because I found it quite dif­fi­cult to under­stand and had to read it sev­er­al times. One thing I can say, though, is that Tolkien dear­ly trea­sured diver­si­ty.

    Communal bonds cre­at­ed only through identical/similar expe­ri­ence — I don’t know, that’s only been my expe­ri­ence… main­ly, I guess, because I’ve met peo­ple who were only inter­est­ed in me if I shared their inter­ests and weren’t inter­est­ed in the things about me that made me dif­fer­ent to them — maybe I’m a bit cyn­i­cal. But I can’t imag­ine what other things might cre­ate bonds — although being part of a nation isn’t about the bonds you cre­ate, but the ones which you’ve inher­it­ed, I think.

    Dead fas­ci­nat­ing sub­ject, though! (Wish I under­stood it bet­ter…)

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