'Skyrim' and the danger of self-serving stories

Drew Dixon

Steven Sukkau
December 20, 2011

Great article! I am struck by how simplistic and self-serving my own "righteous" videogame fantasies are becoming. By always making the "right choice" in games I'm not edifying my spirit but more or less just patting myself on the back.

Drew Dixon
December 20, 2011

Thanks Steven!

Josh Foreman
December 20, 2011

You bring up some interesting ideas here.  Most of which I think have significant counterpoints that you don't address.  

For instance: "
This is largely the appeal of video games. They not only give us stories that center on us, they are giving us stories that we can mold around ourselves. "

The problem I have with this statement is that the 'science' of the avatar, and how that entity relates to the player is far from settled.  As an artform, critical best practices are yet to be established, especially as regards the avatar.  Consider the following plausible informal review of inFAMOUS:  "So Cole is a courier, and he gets electrical powers, and then you have to choose whether you are going to use them for good or evil.  I decided to be purely good the first time I played."

Note the way the pronoun shifts constantly.  Cole/He/You/I.  The fact that this is common in reviews and conversation about games illustrates that the entity known as the avatar is multi-faceted, and approached differently by different people at different times.So I don't know how to critically analyse the meaning of your statement about games centering on us.  If by "us" you mean the avatar, then yes, that is necessary as a mechanism of any interactive experience.  But how much of our personal ego or personality is embedded in that avatar varies from game to game and even within the same game.  And so I think your statement: "our goal in playing is the same: we want to feel important. "
is not universally applicable in the world of videogames.  In fact, I'd say this may be a minority view.  Generally what drives most people to play games is a combination of interesting mechanics wrapped in an aesthetic world that appeals to them.   The fact that most avatars are important in the world of the game is more a mechanism of story telling then it is of videogames.  It's the same reason most novels are about important people, and most fantasy and sci-fi stories are about people with some kind of power.  That's what makes events interesting as opposed to mundane.   
the best way forward for Christian gamers is to stop confusing ourselves with our avatars.  "

I think this is an interesting proposition, but the following paragraphs don't connect to this in any way I can tell.  Can you be more specific about how de-coupling one's ego from the avatar enhances a Christian's experience or teaches them something?

I also find this a curious thing to say: "
Yet we gain little from game worlds if they merely aid us in conveniently escaping our own."
Now, I may simply be biased here, since my career is creating these games,  (I build levels for Guild Wars 2) but I don't think I agree with the implicit idea here that one ought to approach a piece of art with utility in mind.  I think I simply take umbrage with this kind of utilitarian view of art.  Yes, art affects us and shapes our worldview.   And it's healthy to take a step back and approach it critically from time to time to analyse the hidden premises within the enthymeme.   My problem comes when you propose that there is a proper "Christian" way to approach my artform's artifacts.  Especially when that proposal appears to be a purposeful divorce of the player's ego from the avatar's existence, which in many cases is a vital factor in the aesthetic success of a game.  To me, this is like saying the "Christian" way to watch a magic show is to stand behind the magician so as to see how he's doing the tricks.  

Much of the 'magic' of videogames is contingent specifically on "confusing ourselves with our avatars." because that is where the power of the artform is most potent.  That is WHY the experience of living in the simulated world is compelling and aesthetically successful.  So much of our energy as game developers is poured into creating and maintaining a suspension of disbelief, and it seems to me that you advocating shattering this element for spiritual reasons.  If this is the case, I think you ought to reevaluate your position on the artform.  If you consider being part of an avatar is spiritually unhealthy, and being part of an avatar is a vital element of the medium, then you may simply have to be opposed to the medium to be consistent.

Which brings me back to my first point about how our industry does not understand the nature of the avatar.  So it's also possible that you are representing a certain segment of the population that psychologically responds a certain way to avatar-hood, that others don't.  It's also possible that certain KINDS of avatars in certain kinds of games are the target of your critique.  For example, the avatar in Tetris is very different than the avatar in Grand Theft Auto and he's very different than the avatar in Skyrim, and ALL of them are different depending on the player playing them.  It's very hard (I'd say impossible) to lump all avatars together AND all player psychological profiles together into one category for critique.  And I feel like that's sort of what you did here.  

Anyway, thanks for the thought provoking article!  


December 20, 2011

Isn’t real life complicated and challenging enough without losing oneself into an avatar in a violent, faux reality game? I appreciate the honesty of Josh Foreman whose point was that the avatar experience is critical to the appeal of a successful video game.  Marshall McLuhan talked about cool mediums and hot mediums and video games are the hottest of all with complete sensory overload. Good bye reading. My young adult daughter and her husband stayed at my house for 4 months. I rarely saw my son-in-law because he was completely absorbed in World of Warcraft. In real life he is a day laborer, making minimum wage with not enough motivation to start and finish college. Alternate reality is much more fun.

Drew Dixon
December 20, 2011

Hey Josh,

Thank you for the thoughtful response to my article. I think you illustrated a few areas where I probably overstated my case.

A few notes of clarification. I enjoy videogames--I play them and write about the regularly. I think Christians don't think about them enough--I am trying to help them do that. 

I said "perhaps the best way forward for Christians is to stop confusing ourselves with our avatar." I think the "perhaps" in that statement is important. I definitely think sometimes we should assume ourselves to be our avatar. For instance in a game like Red Dead Redemption--we definitely should not think that we are John Marston--the guy has a family, a past, and makes his own decisions. I think the same can be said to some degree of more open games like Skyrim--I shared some examples of the type of character I chose in Skyrim not being something that I feel represents me--I still found the whole experience meaningful.

I would agree with you that different games call for different relationships between player and avatar. I think most Christians have typically viewed their avatar as them and viewed most open world games as an opportunity to simulate heroism (I mean have read that sentiment in countless Christian game blogs/articles). I think that is naive and narrow view to take and this article was meant to encourage Christians not to limit themselves to that view. At the end of the day, I think we are in agreement on this point.

With regard to your comment about my arguing for a utilitarian view of art, I would say I see how you would think that and that I phrased that line poorly.

I think if you read the entire article, I am arguing against a utilitarian view of art--what makes games valuable is not necessarily whether they teach us something good or not. What is most valuable is the experience and what I found valuable about my experience with Skyrim was how it mirrored the real world in some significant and meaningful ways.

I think I overstated my case by saying that "we gain little from game worlds if they merely aid us in conveniently escaping our own." However, even that statement is a bit more nuanced than you let on. I said "we gain little" meaning if its just mere escape then we don't gain as much as if it moves us in some meaningful way. I think there is value in mere escape. 

Anyway--time and space won't allow me to say more at this time, but thanks for your thoughtful comment--it definitely got me thinking and its clear to me that you are in the business of thinking through these issues carefully which I greatly appreciate.

Josh Foreman
December 20, 2011

Ok.  I can see how I inflated some of your nuanced proposals into bold assertions.  Thanks for the clarification.  

But now I'm still getting hung up on your statement that "an opportunity to simulate heroism" is a "
naive and narrow view to take".  Maybe I'm reading too much into the word 'opportunity', because that's exactly how I see it.  The power and brilliance of a procedural world is that it provides a variety of opportunities.  Choices are most meaningful when there is a robust and well-developed antithesis.  Most games don't provide that, and the avatar is very fatalistically attached to rails, only able to exercise agency in the lower level details of mechanics.  For example, playing as Mario or Link, I can never decide to forget about the princess, join their captor and pillage the countryside.  The most I can do to subvert my 'heroism' is to stop playing or keep dying.  But open world sandbox games like Skyrim give us the chance to truly simulate heroism by providing meaningful alternatives to heroism.  (Still not as far as possible, but moving in that direction)  I think in this context the simulation of heroism is a spiritually healthy exercise.  How much of one's ego they infuse into the avatar has a direct correlation to the impact this exercise will have.  That's why I take umbrage with your advice to emotionally divorce oneself from the avatar.  On the flipside, I find when I play sandbox games and choose the 'evil' path, I DO distance myself from the avatar, viewing it more as a device for exploring mechanics than as a character that I am a part of.  I think this is instinctive because my soul truly wants to be righteous.     What I hope the future holds for my medium is a better simulation of moral fortitude with more difficult choices where righteous actions carry heavier short-term ramifications for players.  Currently my industry hyper-obsessed with instant gratification, and as a result they want to make all choices equally fun and balanced.  This creates a procedural rhetoric (Ian Bogost's term) of extreme relativism.  And I wonder if you are indirectly reacting against THIS more than the composite nature of avatars.  Once we have the artform and technology to a certain point we will be able to more faithfully model a positive soul-shaping rhetoric of delayed gratification and other concepts that the fun-fun-fun police don't let us do right now.

Josh Foreman
December 20, 2011

I think it's a mistake to presume that if X entertainment did not exist then a particular person would be doing something constructive with their time instead of X.  Before videogames there was TV and movies, before that, radio and comics, before that drinking and gambling, etc.  I recognize that videogame compulsion is a real issue affecting many people.  But I think it's the compulsion to escape reality that fuels it, and in the absence of video games it would be something else.

Drew Dixon
December 20, 2011

Hey Josh,

Man--there is a lot in that little comment of yours, I am honestly scratching my head a little to sort out exactly where we disagree.

I don't think I am arguing against the power of procedural worlds with choices--I think that is what I was marveling at with Skyrim--it was a complex and robust world that didn't make heroism simple (as it shouldn't be)--I greatly appreciate that about Skyrim. I honestly love the game. I think it's one of the best open world games in terms of making the player feel like the world doesn't revovle around him and yet keeps them wanting to come back.Also, I don't think I am encouraging anyone to "emotionally divorce themselves from their avatar." I am simply saying that I think sometimes we shouldn't confuse ourselves with our avatar. That is different than saying we should be emotoinally detached from them.

I care a great deal for my dark elf avatar (with full nerd disclosure)--but I realize that what she faces are things I will never face. Playing as her is truly fascinating and interesting and worthwhile. Making decisions that I feel are consistent with who she would be in this particular world alongside what I think is best--is a strange dance. I don't rightly know how to handle that dance best, however, I do want to figure that out. I would say at the very least, playing as her has taught me some empathy but mostly I have just had fun playing the game in a way that contributes something of worth to the world.I would wholeheartedly agree that there are myriad of meaningful ways to play an open world game like Skyrim. I wouldn't limit Christians to one particular way. I think many Christians have limited themselves to one particular way and I think THAT is a narrow approach. I certainly did not mean to imply that everyone should approach every game in an emotionally detached manner. If I am indicating that in this post, perhaps I need to write a follow up of sorts ;)

Anyway--thanks for pushing me on this--I enjoy discussing these things.In closing, I would say that I very much agree with you when you say:

"What I hope the future holds for my medium is a better simulation of moral fortitude with more difficult choices where righteous actions carry heavier short-term ramifications for players.  Currently my industry hyper-obsessed with instant gratification, and as a result they want to make all choices equally fun and balanced."

I have actually written on that subject quite a bit recently. 


December 20, 2011

Nothing, no other diversion takes escapism to such a high degree and complete sensory involvement as video games. It is also such a solitary diversion. Movies are most often seen in a theater with a community or in a home with a family and friends as we laugh in unison or squeal in fright together. Televison is simply a medium. Some of us can work on reports or even read the newspaper while watching TV (and my watching usually consists of either the science channel, the history channel or the BBC). People drive cars while listening to the radio and the music may be expressing some truth about life. Radio is usually in the background. Reading requires the imagination to fill in the details about how a character looks, how the morning smells or the snow crunches. Reading often conveys ideas, helps construct moral frameworks and adds to the philosophical richness of life. However video gaming is most often a solitary experience (though one could be networking with other disembodied avatars), completely engaging the senses and provides a kind of illicit escape where one can be powerful, sexy, heroic, immoral, cruel or murderous without any consequences. Hours pass quickly in alternate worlds and bring a comfortable numbness to uncomfortable, messy reality. My school teacher friends are watching children grow more obese, less active and more ignorant as they disengage from reality into digital media of all kinds.

Drew Dixon
December 21, 2011

I think we have talked about this before Rickd.

But just to clarify--72% of American Households play games. 65% of the time they play with other people in-person. 1 in 3 parents play videogames with their children in person. And we haven't even tapped into how people play games together over the internet. So just like you enjoy laughing, cringing, squeeling while watching movies--apparently lots of people do that together with games. Only there is a difference--games often require them to think critically, to work together, and provide shared experiences that people are not just observing but actually participating in.

Yes, its a more immersive medium than reading but I can't imagine that you actually believe that that is a wholly negative thing.
Your comment reads like mediums that allow for us to do other things while we do them are categorically better. That strikes me as odd for a few reasons. First because I am terrible at multitasking, so if that were true, I would be doomed to failure. Secondly, things that require more of our attention also require more of our thinking--I cannot envision that being a wholly negative thing.

December 21, 2011

So Peter, do you play Skyrim with several people in the room? Joystiq gave a perfect score to Skyrim citing, "This is the deepest, loveliest world ever created for a single player to explore." IGN gave the game a rating of 9.5 out of 10, stating "It's a mesmerizing game that draws you into a finely crafted fictional space packed with content that consistently surprises... playing Skyrim is a rare kind of intensely personal, deeply rewarding experience." Wired.com also gave a perfect score of 10 out of 10, writing "The game's greatest accomplishment is that it is a paradise of escapism, a lavish love letter to immersion." Edge gave Skyrim a rating of 9 out of 10, saying that "in the instance of breathless excitement, triumph or discovery, you invest completely in its world." GameSpot also rated it 9 out of 10, adding that "Skyrim performs the most spectacular of enchantments: the one that causes huge chunks of time to vanish before you know it." 
“Mesmerizing”, “intensly personal”, “a paradise of escapism”, “huge chunks of time vanish”, “a love letter to immersion”.
So I believe you when you say “I care a great deal for my dark elf avatar”. The medium itself, sitting motionless in front of a video monitor for hours is unhealthy, not to mention the hazards of role-playing. Just because so many people play video games does not make it a healthy habit. There are statistics on pornography viewing that would be in the same range.
But you are right. As technology advances, video games are only going to become more immersive, more consuming, more emotionally “deeply rewarding”, requiring more intense concentration, offering sensory overload, eliminating any remaining multi-tasking skills that you might posess. Almost like real life, except, not quite.

Josh Foreman
December 21, 2011

I don't think it makes sense to judge a medium by how social it is or how some people become addicted to it.  Reading is extremely anti-social and (depending on the subject matter) extremely healthy and thought provoking.  It's also unfair to judge a medium based on the content of some of it's artifacts.  As you know, there are many pornographic and hyper violent novels out there that people read to escape from the real world and live out fantasies.  

I will cede you one point regarding the all-encompassing nature of videogames.  I believe this makes them the most powerful medium that has ever existed.  And once we overcome our many technological and design hurtles it will be stronger still.  I simply have a problem with blaming an outlet (whether that be an artform, substance, activity, etc) rather than the one who is filling a void with said outlet, for failing to recognize the imbalance in their life.

Drew Dixon
December 21, 2011

I would say I agree with Josh Foreman's comment below.

I would simply mention that in my previous comment in response to you, I was responding to your assertion that videogames "are such a solitary diversion" and seemed to indicate that other things like movies were more socially inclined mediums. I think that is patently false (I don't mean to be blunt--but I think I demonstrated how that statement is inaccurate). That is why I wrote what I did in first part of my comment.

Sure Skyrim is immersive--that is part of what makes it a deeply rewarding game. Is it the type of thing that people can get lost in unhealthy ways? Sure it is. Does that make videogames a worse medium than books or movies? No, I don't think so. It makes the different. It makes them unique. Each Christian needs to know himself well enough to be able to navigate those waters carefully and thoughtfully in a way that honors the Lord but I do think that Josh Foreman has done a nice job of laying out how immersion makes videogames a uniquely powerful medium.

I would just encourage you not to throw the baby out with the bathwater on the medium of games. You don't have to play games--I don't think any of the above mediums are necessarily something we should force people to like (save for maybe reading--that is pretty important, particularly when it comes to reading Scripture in terms of our spiritual formation). I would say, however, there are some amazing and wonderful and creative things going on in the world of games. They are diversifying like never before. The games that get the most press in mainstream media are certainly the games that lend themselves more to mere escapism (and as Josh mentioned too, there is value in escapism itself), but there are many games that are doing more. I think Christians can have meaningful experiences with such games. Just because some people have ruined their lives by becoming addicted to games doesn't mean the medium itself is devoid of value.

Jason Summers
December 22, 2011

Drew and Josh,

Thanks for this excellent discussion!

I'm reminded both of the old literature (Brey, 1999?) on ethics of action in videogames requiring volition and choice and fascinated by Josh's point about the risks of the current obsession with balance and "fun-fun-fun." In the kind of game-based training and learning I work on, I've been worried about that problem too, particularly with respect to long-range and secondary consequence for action being appropriately represented.

I'm also reminded of Nick Yee speaking at an IARPA workshop some while ago on players' relationships to their avatars. He'd take a kind view of Drew's female avatar, but at least one psychologist in the room at the time (who shall remain nameless) would be a bit more worried. I think Nick's understanding of the fluid and complex nature of the relationship is more correct than the older psychologist who saw a much more rigid relationship.


Drew Dixon
December 22, 2011

Thanks Jason, I am glad you found the discussion and the article interesting.

There are so many different ways to play these sorts of games--what can be learned/gained from them

December 28, 2011

What you said was correct, but in the book of Deuteronomy chapter 18 verses 9-14 it says not to practice fortune-telling, or use sorcery, or interpret omens, or engadge in whitchcraft, or cast spells,or function as psychics, or call forth the spirits of the dead. Anyone who does this ( by playing the game Skyrim you are doing this, the devil wants you to think that you are not doing anything harmful, when Dungens and Dragons came out you had to do something to show your loyalty, many people murdered others because that was one of the many tasks they had to do, you raise things from the dead, you cast spells, and you steal! Thats one of the 10 commandments!) is detestible to the Lord....... but the Lord your God FORBIDS you to do such things. Once you play any game that consults of what it says in Dueteronomy you are disobeying Gods word. The Devil wants you to do that. He has created a way of getting you to do something that will give you a ticket to Hell. I am 15 years old and have given up on all Call of Duty, Modern Warfare, SKYRIM- i was a nord at first and created a dark elf, thanks to my grandma she helped me out and showed me why i am not supposed to play those games, if your child doesnt want to give up there games show them why, tell them to get there bible and look up that verse and as they read over the parts that say we anr not supposed to do tell them to reread it. my grandma is a loving person and she showed methis verse and dont want anyone going to hell because the devil used one of his ways of getting into our life to ruin it.

December 29, 2011

If you see this post could you post some games you think are appropriate for Christian Kids to play. I would be very interested as I have a son with Autism who loves his Wii but seems to have an eidetic memory. The games get more violent as they get older and even some like Lego Star Wars are plenty violent for him. I would appreciate the opinion of a 15 year old who has given up the violent games if I'm not hijacking the thread. :) Assuming you haven't given up games completely.  - Thanks

December 29, 2011

You are very wise Pigjammin. Most of us know the word of God and few of us obey it. Good call on your part. "
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things."
Philippians 4:7-9

January 2, 2012

Friend, first, let me say I admire your convictions.  I'm glad you're responding to the burden God has laid on your heart to avoid these types of video games.  What I'm about to write is not meant to dissuade you from continuing in your personal convictions.
That said, I think your interpretation of Deuteronomy is off in two key ways.  First, as Christians, we are no longer under the Old Testament law.  The New Testament, especially the book of Galatians, teaches us this.  So while books such as Deuteronomy are incredibly valuable for us and certainly worth studying, we cannot take our moral imperatives from it any longer if we claim to be under Christ.
Second, pretending to do something and actually doing something are worlds apart.  Consider, for example, a church having an Easter drama.  Would the person playing Pilate be guilty of condemning Jesus?  Would the person playing Judas be guilty of betraying the Messiah?  Of course not!  Why?  Because they're acting, they're not actually doing the thing they're pretending to do.  In the same way, doing something in a video game do not actually preform that action.  I've been playing video games that involve magic for several years; I have yet to cast a single spell.

Two other points -
1, as Christians, we can't be given a ticket to hell.  Our sins are forgiven, we've been adopted into God's family.  Hell holds no fear for the believer.
2, I've played Dungeons and Dragons before.  Nobody ever came close to anything close to murder.  The most violent we got was towards our Cool Ranch Doritos (those chips never stood a chance).  What you're repeating is largely urban legends.

January 3, 2012

I get the impression that Rickd is implying that doing things that can be considered anti-social is somehow, in his eyes, wrong.  (Maybe I misread what he said) I work in technology for a public school district and I would personally assume to sit in a room by myself than have to associate with people regularly. I'm not obese and I'm clean cut and look like a 'normal' person as do a lot of other people with more introvert personalities.
"Skyrim" is a game just like "Monopoly" is a game. The point of "Monopoly" is to own everything and to bankrupt your opponents and I've never read anything about it being 'evil' because it promotes greed. I fail to understand how people can promote some mediums but then put down others as being 'unhealthy'. I know many people that ONLY want to read and own 100s of books and they would just assume sit in a quiet room and just read. I really don't see how that is any different but for some reason they applauded for their efforts of reading.

January 3, 2012

Rusty, of course I am not criticizing anti-social behavior. And I would be the first to support reading (I have those anti-social tendencies as well). Some may regard me as old fashioned (sorry Josh), but I side with the teenager in this blog who cited Deuteronomy 18 which warns not to practice fortune-telling, use sorcery, interpret omens, engage in witchcraft, cast spells, function as a psychics, or call forth the spirits of the dead. He also cites the 10 commandments which prohibit murder, stealing and lying. The majority of video games are designed for young males and they encourage you to practice this behavior without actually doing it. So by actively killing someone in virtual reality you are rehearsing the deed without consequences. And it seems that most games focus on these sorts of behavior, unlike most books which allow you a meditative distance. In a video game you actually participate in the behavior. As the video game designer in this blog comments, “I believe this makes them the most powerful medium that has ever existed.  And once we overcome our many technological and design hurtles it will be stronger still.” There’s a scary thought for you. I am not criticizing Drew Dixon or being judgmental towards those that play these games, nor am I blaming the current plague of adolescent obesity on video game playing. As you say Rusty, you appear to be  healthy. I am supporting the opinion of Pigjammin and believe he has made a wise choice for himself.

David Hawley
February 1, 2012

Instead of saying "simulating heroism", we could say "rehearsing heroism". Play is rehearsal. I'm sure there are theories of play which could be brought to bear on this topic.

April 23, 2013

I want to thank you drew for this inspiring article. I am much into gaming and a Christians view of this game has shown me that what we can do in a gaming world can influence our actions in the real world. now, i have no doubts that if a game does not fall fully into gods grace it is not a game i would want to play. After playing games like Call of Duty i find my self feeling depressed at the loss of any human life, even in video games. if we truly want to follow god and live our lives to the fullest we should obey his commandments and live our lives knowing that the most powerful being who created the heavens and the earth is watching. thank you for this chance to open my bible and really see what god says.

May 7, 2023

This is something I have struggled with but not for the reasons listed here. Skyrim is rife with sorcery (an abomination) and worse, forcibly being made to serve daedra. Evil entities in the game. Mehrunes Dagon is actually Satan representatively. We know this by having played Oblivion. And it encourages idol worship and serving more than one God. I feel like it is the very antichrist of games. I wish it wasn't. I really miss playing it. And occasionally I try to see if there are loopholes around it but when I typed this all out, the Spirit revealed how utterly vile to God this game is. It has pretty much everything God abhors in it. And it's why I don't play it anymore. Sure I miss it. And it's a very fond memory of life before I was truly saved. But I cannot grow in Christ and play this game that He would despise.

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