At the time of its release in 2011, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim was the pinnacle of role-playing games for the previous console generation, extending an invitation to the player to ‘live another life’ in a fully-realized, lifelike open world. And I, like so many millions around the world, accepted that invitation from Bethesda, and to date have put well over 1,000 hours into the game (and who knows how many more once I pick up the Special Edition re-release).
But unlike what other players may experience, in all the hundreds of hours I’ve put into Skyrim, I’ve never been able to fully replicate myself within the game. I can only live another life, in another person’s shoes. As a 21-year old living in England, my age is easy to replicate in a character creation menu. But with the limited categories for racial identity, I can’t even come close to representing my mixed race heritage.
As is customary with the Elder Scrolls series, the player is given the choice to customize their character at the very beginning of the game. There are a litany of options, including cosmetic additions like warpaint, all the way down to the shape of the eyebrows on their face. However, the player is only given a single option when it comes to the race of their character, presented with a variety of choices from the standard humanoid Imperials, all the way to the alien-like Argonians, and the cat-like Khajiit.
While the player might have paid little attention to their choice of race in the character creation menu, they’re forced to realize the gravity of their decision during their first journey to the Nord stronghold city of Windhelm. It is here that they first encounter the strong racial undercurrent of the game, as two Nords threaten to “pay a visit” to a local Dark Elf after sundown. What crime has the Dark Elf committed? As she tells the Dragonborn in a subsequent dialogue, nothing more than being a Dark Elf in Skyrim.
It’s at this point that the player realizes the race of their character will affect them for the rest of the game. If they choose to be a Dark Elf, an Argonian (like I did) or a Khajiit, many of the Nord characters will treat the player with open hostility, especially in Windhelm. These races are seen as second class citizens within Skyrim by the native Nords, and just as the Witcher games mirror the struggles of Native Americans through their depiction of elves, Skyrim’s Dark Elves become an allegory for the racial minorities and refugees living in the western hemisphere today.
But if the player choose not to play as either of those three races, the game changes entirely. No longer are the Nords hounding the Dragonborn, and unless the player is a Nord or Imperial, they will have significantly less at stake with regards to the outcome of Skyrim’s civil war between the Imperial Empire and the Nordic Stormcloaks.
This framing of racism revolves around which race the player chooses for their character, and it encourages two scenarios: either you’re the victim of it as a Dark Elf, or you’re impervious to its impact as, say, a Breton or Imperial. For a game that sold itself on the customization of the player character and the freedom within its world, Skyrim firmly divides the players into these two separate, and very rigid camps.
I bring up the difficulty of recreating myself within Skyrim’s character creation menu not just because it’s impossible to represent my mixed cultural background, but because I can’t experience both sides of the cultural coin. I grew up in a thoroughly middle class household, with family roots going back to my Indian family in Coventry, a hub for immigration from Asia in the mid-twentieth century. My life is divided into two camps—the times I haven’t experienced racism, and the times I can’t avoid it. My childhood environment dictated a certain degree of privilege, but when I take trips to visit family back in Coventry, I see the poverty more than half the Indian community live in, trapped in a cycle of poorly paid jobs.
Skyrim, a game that does not back away from depicting racial tension, doesn’t allow the player to experience both sides of segregated society. It firmly divides the player base into those who are targets of racism, and those who are able to ignore the ongoing oppression of the Dark Elves, Argonians and Khajiit. These three races are hounded by the hostility of the Nords, even as other player characters of other races can go freely about their business, impervious to the hot points of racial tension within the map, such as Windhelm or Markarth.
Science fiction frequently becomes a commentary on the way society functions. For example the Star Trek episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” ridicules the racism of 1960s America, pitting two similar but warring alien species against one another. “Epic” or “high” fantasy uses similar methods; both Skyrim and The Witcher 2 use race to explore modern divides in society. Whereas The Witcher series highlights the systemic oppression that Native Americans have faced throughout American history, Skyrim explores the treatment of refugees and racial minorities in western society through the Dark Elves, Argonians, and Khajiit.
But Skyrim, and to a lesser extent The Witcher, only allows the player to either experience racism face to face, or see it from a distance, with no overlap between the two. People of mixed backgrounds aren’t rare in modern society; the chance that my personal experience is an anomaly is practically zero. And yet, even in games explicitly about race and the diversity of human experience, there is no nuance or in-between.
Skyrim depicts race as a rigid, divided experience, and in real life, race is anything but.