“Wow, this game does not discriminate based on gender,” said my friend, as we watched a graphic cut-screen of my female orc merrily decapitating a heavily-armoured female Bandit Chief.
As someone who has spent over 800 hours of my life playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, part of me wants to agree with this assessment. In some ways, it’s entirely accurate. In Skyrim, there’s a distinct absence of many of the gendered tropes that put me off mainstream videogames. In all my extensive play time, I never felt like I was willfully ignoring offensive portrayals of my gender in order to enjoy the rest of the game. In Skyrim, as in many open world RPGs*, your character is completely customisable; their gender, their appearance and their skill set all come down your own choices. Both male and female bodies are equally idealized (though even the bulkiest lady body does not look strong enough to wield a warhammer). In general, female armour is not more revealing or sexualised than equivalent male armour. (Albeit, there are some female sets that have an inexplicable chest windows, which, considering the climate of Skyrim, always makes me think “wow her tits must be cold”.)
It may seem bizarre to note such paltry concessions to the existence of female players. However, in context of a wider gaming community that is hostile to the idea that game developers should stop alienating women – let alone actively include them – mostly non-sexy armour reads as a huge victory. So too does the general design and structure of Skyrim. The female NPCs** are fully clothed for the most part, with a few notable sexy exceptions such as Aela the Huntress and the “Tavern Clothes” outfit. The randomly generated bandits who you will spend a significant chunk of the game fighting also feature lady bandits at a ratio of roughly 1:2. Three out of sevens Jarls are female and there are plenty of prominent female warriors/thieves/mages who play important roles in key quest lines, such as Delphine in Riverwood and Karliah in the Thieves Guild. You also encounter women in positions of power within the various hold communities, such as business owners and religious leaders.
All this seems good and positive and progressive, right? And yet, despite the fact that there are ostensibly strong women everywhere in Skyrim, I’ve always had a nagging sense that this world still doesn’t really belong to them. I was never able to fully articulate where this feeling comes from, until I read this discussion thread on Tumblr. It was then I realized that the veneer of gender equality presented in Skyrim is precisely that; a veneer, a veil, a faux-progressive paint job. Consider: in the society of Skyrim, women can fulfil any role – labourer, warrior, farmer, shopkeeper, blacksmith, divine entity – without facing any gendered scrutiny or prejudice. On the surface, it seems that this is a society without patriarchy, a society where men and women stand on equal footing in all political, social and economic spheres. But if this is a society without patriarchy, why do patriarchal values consistently permeate the stories and shape the interactions of the people of this world?
Riverwood is intended to be the first town the player visits. In Riverwood, you can help resolve a love triangle in which two men are trying to win a woman’s affections by deceiving her. Men competing with each other for a woman’s hand with no actual input from the woman in question is part of patriarchy. As you move on to the city of Whiterun, you will encounter Carlotta Valentina, who is being harassed by the bard Mikael. Mikael, it transpires, is the author of A Gentleman’s Guide to Whiterun, which is essentially a pick-up artist’s guide to the women of Whiterun, rating them by attractiveness and discussing risks and considerations for getting them into bed. Mikael views women as objects to be evaluated and acquired – how did he develop such a misogynistic perspective in a purportedly egalitarian society?
Olfina Gray-Mane, another Whiterun resident, will confidently tell the player that “there’s nothing a man can do that I can’t do better.” On the surface this could be viewed as a feminist statement, but why is she so defensive about her gender if she has grown up in a society where women can be anything they want to be? In a gender egalitarian society, there is no need for feminism and no need for women to forcefully assert their competence in contrast to that of men.
In Winterhold, we encounter a classic Jack the Ripper storyline: young women are being butchered in the streets at night and it is up to you to catch the murderer. It turns out the culprit is an aspirant necromancer trying to resurrect his dead sister, but the story never really explains why he only targets young women. Perhaps because the writers felt like they didn’t have to explain. In a patriarchal society, it’s a given that dangerous men will prey on women because women are, by default, more vulnerable than men.
And finally, when you delve into a dungeon overrun with bandits, you will often hear this charming piece of ambient dialogue: “… lyin’ little harlot… that brat ain’t mine… could be anyone’s… won’t get one rusty septim from me…” The concept of the mercenary slut who falsely claims child support to wring money out of an honest man is so inherently misogynistic that I don’t even know where to begin, and yet here it is, embedded in the framework of a supposedly gender-neutral society.
I’m giving examples from Skyrim because of my in-depth knowledge of this world, but this post isn’t actually a criticism of Skyrim in particular. It’s more that Skyrim suffers from a fundamental world-building problem that plagues many works of fantasy and science fiction, whether they be books, comics, videogames or TV series. As one of the most popular videogames of all time, it’s often held up as an example of excellence in world-building. In many ways, this accolade is warranted. Building on four previous Elder Scrolls games, its lore is complex and its history is detailed. The sheer depth and breadth of the world means that, in 800 hours of playtime, I have yet to complete every single quest, uncover every single secret. Skyrim is a colossal imaginative undertaking, but when it comes to gender equality, it falls at the first hurdle: it fails to imagine a world where the power relations between men and women are fundamentally different to what we know and accept in the real world.
We also see this failure of imagination with regard to Skyrim’s marriage mechanics. In Skyrim, you can marry any one of a set of available NPCs, regardless of their gender. This implies that Skyrim is a society that thinks homosexuality is perfectly normal. And yet, out of all the characters you will encounter on your journeys, there is not one visible NPC gay or lesbian couple. If you choose to marry your character to an NPC of the same gender, your relationship will exist in a vacuum. You can choose to be gay, but the world around you will remain staunchly heteronormative.
Gender equality isn’t something you can just slap onto your fictional world like a coat of paint. The reality of daily lives is that we all swim and breathe in the soup of patriarchy, and in that context it’s a huge feat to coherently imagine what real equality might look like, even for female creators. This is why, even while attempting to be progressive, writers end up leaning on comfortable patriarchal narratives to flesh out their worlds. To create a world with true gender equality, you have to rip up the foundations of your own assumptions and question everything you considered normal or default, including the most basic definitions of “man” and “woman”. Perhaps such a feat is not and should not be in the wheelhouse of a popular game developer, especially when it’s so much easier to make one out of every three guards a woman and call it a day. It’s also easy to argue that high fantasy is necessarily restricted by our received notions of faux-Medieval societies – complete with whores and tavern wenches and damsels in distress – and that challenging creators to deconstruct those tropes would mean deconstructing the genre itself.
But I’m someone who believes in both the potential of videogames as a medium and high fantasy as a genre. I believe the intersection of this genre and this medium is a perfect arena to deconstruct and challenge the status quo. A fantasy world without patriarchy would look and feel nothing like the world know. That’s exciting. To build it would require creators willing to stretch their imaginations far beyond the bounds of comfort and familiarity. That’s challenging. Forget dragons and wizards and ancient artefacts of indescribable power; a world built on gender equality from the bottom up? Now that would be something truly fantastic.