This month, the Ontological Geek has a theme: religion and/or theology in games. We have a great bunch of articles lined up, from the very personal to the deeply theoretical, from both regular OntoGeek contributors and several guest writers. We’d love to hear from you with your thoughts on specific articles and the month as a whole – comment freely and e‑mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Integral to religion, especially as the West understands it, are the Rules that subscribers to the religion voluntarily (in most cases today) impose upon themselves. From a cultural standpoint, it’s handy to know what Thou Shalt Not. A common trope of religion is the notion of sanctification of nouns; there are, especially in the Judeo-Christian family of religions, a great many ways and reasons to make holy or otherwise set apart persons, places, and/or things. Generally speaking, when these things are trifled with or disturbed, they are said to have been profaned by the meddler.
Over spring break I picked up Skyrim again – I seem to have an on again/off again relationship with the game – and found myself sinking hours into it. I have loved the Elder Scrolls games since the mid-90s, with my early exposure to Daggerfall, which deepened when I met Morrowind in 2002, but I’m only now coming to terms with a love for Skyrim, though I could do with more big cities. I do rather like the game, apart from the surreal effect that the leveling system seems to have (like fur-swaddled bandits sporting high-powered Daedric weapons), but it’s nothing spectacular. It’s not exactly Literature, but it’s pretty good.
My biggest problem with Skyrim, though, is a thematic one. The game, more than any other game I’ve played, and I have played a game where the object was literally to murder many deities, makes me uncomfortable from a religious standpoint. Skyrim doesn’t make the player commit deicide or lead a Crusade, or anything so cosmically harmful. What it does instead is encourage the player to trample through burial grounds and disturb the remains of those who lie within. A lot.
Of all the five hundred locations where a wandering Dragonborn might venture through Skyrim and its expansions, forty-seven of them are tombs (Source). Its1 predecessor, Morrowind, with all of its expansions, featured one hundred ten in total. Though the games structure the player’s interaction with the tombs differently – Morrowind, though containing more than twice the number of tombs as Skyrim, did not make quite so much a habit of forcing the player to plunder them and indeed seemed to treat the areas with more reverence – it is plain that the developers of Skyrim want to make sure the player spends a lot of time raiding tombs.
It is a pretty universal trope among video games that the Protagonist ought to make violent, plunder-tastic ventures into crypts from time to time. Why, though? Why is it so ubiquitous in games to desecrate the resting-places of so many (often nameless) fallen, to tramp about blithely ignorant of their struggles in life and only too happy to disturb their eternal slumber to pilfer their few coins, or the dagger holding a minor enchantment that may have been their one valuable possession but to the player is so much vendor trash?
Moreover, these tombs which we raid often feature some sort of spirit guardian that will attack you as you galumph through their sacred spaces. In Skyrim, the spirit guardian du jour is the Draugr, undead Nord warriors buried in the tombs to protect them from knaves like you. These, logically, would have been installed when the tomb was consecrated through whatever rites the ancient Nords used. By entering this sacred space, regardless of your reason, you, PC, have disturbed sanctified ground. And by powering through the tomb guardians like they were just another enemy you have to farm for XP and gold (for the Draugr always carry gold), you have ascribed to your character a degree of amorality which ought to make you squirm.
Another thing to consider is that you never meet regular people in your adventures through tombs. The NPCs you encounter in tombs are either bandits or vampires, with the odd thrall of a Daedra (essentially major-league demons) or slave. Tombs are not places where Skyrim’s wholesome denizens hang out and swap yarns over a pint of ale. The only ones who hang out in tombs are bad guys.
So what does that make you?
Let’s be honest for a moment. If you go into a tomb and start taking things left by the loved ones of the deceased, that behavior is morally questionable, to say the least. I’m not about to make a Grand Theft Auto argument and say that some of you will start disturbing burial grounds in search of treasure if you play enough Skyrim, but it irks me that the player is encouraged to take part in an activity, habitually, that is, in fact, bad, and that is presented with no consequences.
In my almost ninety-five hours (at time of writing) exploring Skyrim’s beautiful land and her many tombs, I’ve only encountered two people who will even acknowledge that tomb-raiding is bad. One was a mercenary leader who told me to go and kill bandits who were scummy enough to take treasure out of a tomb, whose comment seemed more a wink to the fourth wall than actual castigation. The other was a young man who asked me to help him clear out evil spirits in his family plot. As I took gold willy-nilly from the burial urns of his ancestors, he at first expressed displeasure, but resigned himself to my pilfering’s inevitability and decided it was okay so long as he helped me clear the tomb of the evil spirits (and its valuables).
Skyrim, and many games like it, throws us into tombs and tells us to raid them. And unlike NPCs who do such things, no condemnation is leveled against us when we do the exact same things they do. Why are we so okay with undertaking this troubling activity and having it treated as routine? Given that we now live in a post-Spec Ops: The Line world, where the player’s actions may be called into question and the act of playing is a form of complicity, are we as players really content to accept that “PC makes right”?
It seems that we are more than willing to accept what is presented us with no questioning it. Plumbers who stomp on turtles and eat mushrooms non-recreationally? Sure! Whatever! Give me a dopamine hit! This certainly is in keeping with the structure of Skyrim (and games in general); the tombs in Skyrim are designed like, well, levels in a video game.
The layouts for most of the caves, tombs, fortresses, or other adventurable areas in the game are more or less the same: several rooms connected to each other in a more or less straight line, filled with enemies and traps (and, of course, treasure for you to pillage). There may even be puzzles for you to solve, which changes the pace of the game nicely. These rooms eventually lead you to the final room, where you are met with not only a new ability of some kind (more often than not), but also a leveled Boss Monster and some leveled loot.2. By applying this same structure to tombs, which in the game world are places which should be treated with respect and reverence, the game de-values the sanctified space. That it does so with such focus and dedication makes my skin crawl just a little.
Perhaps it is because of the escapist nature of the medium, encouraging us as it does to be the worst asses we can be. I imagine that you, reader, have shot many more people in games than you have in real life. Put simply and obviously, games give us the opportunity to do things we don’t get to do in real life. Why else are games like Saints Row: The Third so popular? Games let us break rules without breaking rules; we don’t even need the Ring of Gyges to do whatever strikes our fancy, even if our fancy should include, say, plundering tombs for gold like a common criminal.
I mentioned previously Spec Ops: The Line in the context of complicity. I haven’t played it yet, but I feel as though it is a necessary step in the process of the maturation of gaming as an art form that we as player/audience be confronted with the Truth of our antics, that they cause harm and not merely a dopamine surge. I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m upset with Bethesda exclusively; they are hardly the only developer complicit in this irresponsible theming. Skyrim just happened to be the first game where I realized what I was actually doing in these tombs. Now that I have realized it, I’m beginning to take genuine issue with games’ lack of respect for sanctified spaces, and that it has become such an accepted trope of gaming, to be problematic.
I’m not even asking that the option to desecrate tombs be removed from games. Bethesda has proven itself more than capable of making Player actions actually mean something. If I murder the Emperor, guards will talk about it next time I walk into town. If I successfully spread the power of the Thieves Guild, you can bet I’ll hear about it.3 Why shouldn’t it be that I hear about somebody breaking into a tomb and cleaning it out, killing all the spectral guardians within?
Bethesda has shown an interest in making the player’s choices paramount in the direction of the story. Why can’t their bad actions, their moral lapses, also factor in? Guards chide you for being a member of the Thieves Guild or sneaking around locked doors. Why can’t we hear about a rash of horrible pillaging of tombs? Skyrim’s very dead are no longer sanctified! Their ancient bones have been picked clean of what valuables they took with them, and their brave, ageless warriors now lie dead.
You’d think somebody would be more upset.