Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Filibuster: Skyrim reveals my in-game political immaturity

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Bethesda's latest mammoth title, has me reflecting on political choice in games and how that relates to real-world political thinking. I like to think of myself as a politically savvy person. I keep abreast of current affairs and try to weigh arguments before making judgements. I get my news from a variety of sources spanning the political spectrum to ensure I don't fall foul to party political bias or spin. I even allow myself to be swayed in my opinion by the weight of a convincing argument. However, as Skyrim has shown me, when it comes to in-game politics, I'm best described as immature.

Personal politics and voting tendencies are largely a compromise. Voters tend to align themselves to a party or an ideal that best fits their value system, or vote depending on which manifesto they believe will best benefit themselves. My game politics depart from this established, sensible mantra. In the gaming world, if my views don't completely align with the politics of any faction or character then I don't participate. My game ego doesn't allow me to settle for the best of a bad bunch - it causes me to strike out on my own, to shape the world as I would have it.

Although there are numerous political factions present in Skyrim, the story is anchored in the turmoil of the civil war waged by two major parties: the Imperials and the Stormcloaks. From the outset, the game has you choosing between the two and ushers you to pick a side as the story evolves. This is where my political immaturity came to light. I found it difficult to choose. Despite playing as a Nord character native to the land, and their separatist ideals being based on Skyrim for the Nords or similar rhetoric, I found it difficult to subscribe to the Stormcloaks' view of the world. I felt that the borderline racist rants of the faction's leaders and their unwillingness to compromise made it impossible for me to join their ranks. Yes, I'm a Nord. Yes, I think the Nords' homeland should be shaped by its natives. Yes, I believe people should be free to worship as they see fit but no, I cannot and will not abide prejudice on racial grounds – and in the case of the Stormcloaks, this prejudice runs deep.

So then, to the Imperials? I like that they are holding together an eclectic and inclusive society. I like that they see the Empire as stronger united than divided and I believe that a separated Skyrim would see both the diminished Empire and the lone province more susceptible to invasion or influence from outside parties. So surely my allegiance should lie with the Empire? Well, no. I can't make peace with the idea that they would give up their subjects' rights to worship to the demands of the Thalmor, the High Elf supremacist leaders of the Aldmeri Dominion. I don't like how they appear to be the puppets of these invaders. I can't reconcile their heavy-handed approach to those who would seek political change, but mostly, I can't forgive them for trying to hack off my head without trial or due procedure at the genesis of my quest.

This uncompromising gameplay trait has reared its head in other games too. Fallout 3, Fallout: New Vegas, and the Dragon Age and Mass Effect series all stand out to me as examples of choice-driven games in which I have been unable to compromise my sense of right and wrong to align myself politically. In New Vegas, my choice seemed to be between the “evil” Legion, or the “meddling” republic; I chose neither and my god complex led me to find my own solution. In Mass Effect, my personal politics and sense of right and wrong lead me to unleash a deadly insect race upon a Galaxy it once threatened, whilst I myself struggled to save it from another great danger. My feelings on the warlike Krogan and the genophage plague used to control the species' numbers left me struggling to trust Krogan, Turian or Salarian characters on either side of the argument.

My experience in my first play-though of most games is usually a “how would I handle it” approach, and it is in my first play-though that I struggle with political immaturity. Subsequent plays will see me acting as a shining beacon of goodness, or a despicable example of evil, and in these games I care not for the worries of politics. But when I'm approaching the game as I would – or as I would like to believe I would – a real-life situation, I find myself hamstrung by my code, my compass and the overwhelming sense of self-importance that any game engenders when it makes you the protagonist.

Is this political immaturity though, or is my reluctance to compromise a result of the fact that I don't have to? In the games I've described, players have the luxury of choice and an abundance of avenues of action, and ultimately thats what politics is: a choice between different ways of interacting with and seeing the world. Games that afford less choice, or even no choice beyond “shoot the guy in your iron-sights, or don't”, have a much less blurred political landscape. In Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3's campaign, there is little by the way of choice, but the plot is steeped in political intrigue and interactions on a global scale. Regardless of player politics, the game will play out the same way. In Batman: Arkham Asylum you adopt the politics of the costumed vigilante and you will bring down the Joker, or you simply won't complete the game. Your choice is limited to which tactic you'll use to pummel the bad guys as you close on your target. That's not to say the run-on-rails nature of games like these makes them bad - far from it - but the lack of player choice doesn't allow for player politics to add a new dimension to the game play.

When it comes to more open world, choice driven role-playing or sandbox games, the freedom of choice and action seeds my political immaturity - because to believe you can solve the world's problems on your own and not have to forge alliances to do so is naive. In any alliance there is compromise and my inability to do so in Skyrim would have major ramifications to the provinces' inhabitants. Skyrim won't run itself and for me to leave it suffering a civil war that I could end by picking a side is politically irresponsible.

My choice is the third way: I will shape Skyrim as I see fit. And why can I do this? Because unlike real life, my limitless respawns, vast power and moral compass won't let me settle for a less than perfect affiliation between my view of the world and that of a faction I support. I don't have have the maturity to compromise and am doomed to struggle against all factions in the game - at least in my first play-through.

**This article was written for Game Kudos and can be viewed in its edited format here**

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