It is almost impossible to describe the mind-boggling immensity of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. In its simplest form, we could describe it as a fantastic, fun game worth checking out. At its highest accolades, we call it a trend-bucking win for gamers, and for the industry. But if you peel back the praise showered on this game for its detailed environments, exciting combat, engaging plots, and freedom of choice, the issue of sexism begins to come forth.
Interestingly however, Skyrim itself isn't the problem. We can see sexist tropes and memes present throughout its design, but to call out this single game would be to misplace our focus. So let us instead observe the true issue of sexism, through the lens of Bethesda's masterpiece. Let's look at how, while Skyrim didn't create this hostile mindset, it hasn't done much to challenge it. Let's look at the game's community as a representative sample of our subculture at large. Let's not blame Skyrim, but observe it and learn from it.
In his review of Skyrim, Tom Bissell commented, "If you have no idea what the Elder Scrolls franchise is, you are probably either (a) an adult woman, or (b) the sort of person who once beat up the sort of person who likes the Elder Scrolls franchise."
It was intended as a joke, but to some it wasn't funny, and I count myself among that crowd. Because it isn't funny to me when, even as a joke, my entire gender is dismissed. I don't laugh when people assume that, because of what rests between the legs, women must inherently be opposed to things like Skyrim. It's an attitude equivalent to a "No Girls Allowed" club, and if I can let you into my life as a child for a moment, I confess I never really had a fondness for those, either. But my frustration doesn't come from one critic making a bad joke. It comes from both his assumptions and Skyrim's content being so status quo, so utterly representative of a patriarchy that pervades all of this industry we so love.
Right about here is where you say I'm crazy. Right about now is where you say, "Fuck this, I'm not reading a stupid feminist rant. She's making a big deal out of nothing."
Well, I'm not crazy. And neither is any other woman who is offended when someone makes a "joke" about what she should or shouldn't enjoy, video games included. Sexism is a problem within the video game subculture, and anyone willing to actually look around will notice. It's not hidden. It's not hard to find. The most popular Skyrim mod on Curse right now is for nude females. By a 5 to 1 margin it beats out the better performance mod, meaning the subculture you and I belong to would rather see tits than see a game run better.
Somewhat... miffed at my mistreatment by the Nords and Imperials alike at the execution block, stuck in a land of unforgiving snow and fierce predators, I sought to soothe my troubled mind. Having some skill with a bow and practice as a pickpocket, I knew I could make an excellent addition to the Thieves Guild. Here, Brynjolf and the others welcomed me, though not with eager, open arms. Through time and dedication, I proved myself to them. The word of a thief is no word at all, but the skill is something to respect.
So it was that I uncovered a plot by then-guild leader Mercer Frey to steal all of the thieves' belongings, leaving them high and dry. Karliah, whom Frey had labeled a traitor of the Thieves Guild, was found to be innocent, and with her guidance, Brynjolf and I were shown into the fold of the Nightingales. We defeated Mercer and rescued the guild from the brink of destruction. What's more, thanks to Karliah, we were now servants of Nocturnal, gifted with extraordinary resources and abilities.
I was honored to have served under Karliah. She was capable and strong. She had experience and knowledge that I had not. Now that her betrayer was slain and the guild was once more stable, I assumed Karliah to be the one to head the Thieves Guild. Not so. Instead, she relinquished control to Brynjolf and I. To think myself a leader of the Thieves Guild was impossible; I had barely just met many of the Riften misfits, many of which I had not so much as spoken to.
Surprised but honored, I left Karliah, never to see her again, and worked instead with Brynjolf to restore the Thieves Guild even further, elevating them from common thugs to reputable and honorable folk. I sometimes find myself wondering about Karliah and what she does, out in Nightingale Hall by her lonesome. I wonder about her wellbeing, and I wonder why; Why did she not come back with us? Why did she give up the honor and respect she had been fighting to retrieve from Mercer Frey? Any thief can steal a trinket. Frey had stolen Karliah's entire life. Why was she not returning to it now that she could?
It is a question I cannot answer.
When I asked my friends if I should write this column, if they felt the same way or saw things the same way as I did, they suggested I try to see the game through the eyes of someone else; of someone detached from our modern conceptions of sexism and fairness of gender portrayals. What I found was a game that wasn't as offensive as I originally thought. Plus let's be honest, it's hard to stay mad at a game that lets you dual-wield magic and swords.
So let's make this absolutely clear: I say none of this with contempt in my heart. I'm having a blast with Skyrim. I think it's a great game. I'm not mad, I'm disappointed.. I'm disappointed because Merrillia has no role models. And growing up, neither did I.
When I was little, my brothers got me a screen printed t-shirt that read in great, bold letters, "I SUCK." It was required attire if I ever wanted to play the NES or Genesis. I was never to think of myself as a player on the same level as they, and there was no way that tight, itchy shirt would ever let me forget it. Each member of my family was an athlete: my father a weightlifter and wrestling coach, my mother a cross-country runner, one brother a basketball player, the other a baseball star. And I liked video games.
My concern with the video games of yesterday and today, as exemplified by Skyrim and countless others, is that they aren't doing anything for the girls stuck in the same situation now as I was then. That girls don't have enough role models in the gaming community. I don't want girls to see this hobby as something that excludes them. They are valuable additions to our community, not something to be taken for granted, mocked, or turned away.
You and I know that the Dragonborn can be male or female. You and I understand that Shepard can be hero or heroine. But is that something readily apparent to everyone? Is it as obvious to the girl picking up a controller for the first time as it is to us? I don't think so. I think there's still something to be said. I think there are still paths to be traveled, people to witness to.
Having set the thieves straight on their feet, I set my sights on the Companions next. A hardy group of warriors, steeped in lore and legend of the Nords, I was expecting them to be a bit more... hesitant to allow a Dunmer amongst them. Yet it was relatively easy to prove myself even to these sturdy warriors, and soon Kodlak, leader of the Companions, honored me with acceptance. The Companions have a secret, however, and it is one I shall not journal here, for fear of its finding. I will only say instead that this secret causes great conflict with a band of zealous mercenaries that roam the Skyrim mountains and valleys.
This secret, and in turn the conflict, eventually led to Kodlak's death. Jorrvaskr came under siege and not I, nor anyone else could protect our wisened leader. We set upon a bloody quest for vengeance at first, furious and angered by our loss. We soon realized however that we had to turn our attention inward, turn it towards helping Kodlak's passage in death to Sovngarde.
A great many dungeons and fortresses lay in our path to salvation, and one by one my closest Companions left my side, staying behind. Except for Aela, the Huntress. She had been the one to share the Companions' secret with me, and was a fiercely determined woman. It was she who led a great many of the attacks against our rivals, and it was she who stood by me to the end of our journey. At the innermost sanctum of Ysgramor's Tomb we found his restless spirit and calmed its bestial passions.
And once again, I found myself... admittedly shocked. Though Aela had been with me throughout all of my ordeals, though she had superior skill and seniority within the Companions, Kodlak's spirit bestowed upon me the title of Harbinger. I was now what could be considered a leader of the group, though once again I felt a great, misplaced weight, as I did when Karliah left the Thieves Guild to Brynjolf and myself.
After reconvening with my fellow warriors, I set them, as I had the Riften thieves, on their way. They were fully suited to carrying on without me, and my destiny still waited amongst the snowy peaks. My destiny as a Dragonborn.
Ah yes, the Dragonborn. Despite a major feature of the game being the ability to customize one's race, gender and appearance, in Skyrim's advertising, parody videos, and machinima, we see the horn-helmed male figure who stunned us all as star of the game's first gameplay trailer representing the hero. It was assumed, even before we knew what this new hero so much as looked like, that it would be male. Recall the final, spine-tingling words of the very first teaser:
"...there is one they fear. In their tongue, he is Dovakhiin. Dragonborn!"
Whenever a game is released that features the ability to customize a character's gender, the prominent presence associated with its ad campaign is almost universally the male one. This was the case in Mass Effect from the very beginning, as it was with Dragon Age, Saints Row, and Skyrim. But it's really just marketing bullshit. It doesn't have to be that way.
Take a look at these stats from the Entertainment Software Association:
42 percent of players are women
48 percent of purchasers are women
37 percent of the entire gaming population is made up of women 18 years or older
Now if those numbers were in the twenties, I could understand not catering to a female audience. But that's not the case, and when I look around I see too many great women doing great things for this industry to ignore our sex. I see too many talented gamers, industry personnel, personalities, forward-thinkers and writers. I read too many female commenters here on Destructoid. I hear too many distraught voices. We are not small. We are not insignificant. But we are not being treated equally.
The year 2011 did nothing to change that, and while Skyrim was in prime position to do so, it didn't. It challenged the industry's standards on what we as gamers have been told to expect from games – particularly over the last five or so years – such as online passes and a need for multiplayer, but it doesn't deny what we as women have been told to expect from our games for most of our lives, which are namely:
Women are not the heroes. They are designed to highlight form over function. They are sidekicks and lovers, but not heroes.
Women are not to advertise games, even if the game features customizable player-characters. The predominantly male consumer can only identify with another of his sex, so women do not represent the games in the public eye.
Women do not lead the hero. Men can make demands of the hero or lead them, but a woman may only ask for help.
Women are not in a position of power or respect. If both king and queen sit before you, each with seemingly equal power over their citizens, it is to the king you will speak.
This is not to negate the likes of Samus Aran, FemShep, Claire Redfield, or other strong female heroes, or even a female Dragonborn in Skyrim. But for every well-written, thoughtfully-designed, independent lady out there, we find ten pieces of vapid eye candy, the kind of empty personalities that populate utterly base, degrading, stupid shit like this Maxim list, The Top 9 Video Game Vixens. Here's a sample of how video game heroines are perceived, courtesy of the entry on Lei Fang from Dead or Alive:
"...you're hoping she might kick you again, if only to get just one more glimpse of those white cotton panties she's wearing."
If you're thinking to yourself, "Well duh, that's Maxim, they're paid to be pervs. The rest of us aren't like that," I'd like to once more point you to the nude mod for Skyrim. Five to one over better performance.
Now, the women of Skyrim are far less likely to wind up on such a list, and at first may even seem admirable by comparison. Maven Black-Briar runs the organized crime in Riften and has no qualms about pushing you around. Three of the nine Jarls are women, and Astrid, a woman, leads what may be the deadliest guild in Tamriel's lore. But even these come with the typical backhanded stereotypes of women attached. Maven is, frankly, a huge bitch. The female Jarls are completely optional in terms of interaction, unimportant to the main quest. Astrid is a traitor who gets everybody fucking killed because she is scared of the guards, and cries over the fact.
If you've been reading the prose interspersed throughout this column, you'll notice a running theme: Merrillia saves the day, assisted by a strong female, who at the last minute is bafflingly shoved aside to make way for a male or Merrillia herself to take power. I understand player empowerment, but there comes a point where a sense of progress is impeded by the game handing heaps of praise and awe onto my character without reasonable justification. It forces characters whom I once viewed favorably, such as Aela and Karliah, to act out of character; they must suddenly be disempowered so that I may take their place. The easiest way to do that, of course, is to fall back to gender stereotypes, i.e. sexism.
Think back to Metroid: Other M. A character initially thought to be a strong, resilient soldier and all-around space badass, Samus is reduced to -- literally -- a weeping little girl in the face of danger. Can you imagine Master Chief stopping to wipe a few tears in the middle of a Covenant invasion? Can you imagine any male character being so scared by his enemy that he breaks down into sobs? SPOILER ALERT: Dom fucking dies in Gears of War 3, and Marcus doesn't shed a tear. He does the stereotypically masculine "Noooo!" and then threatens to rip out the throat of anyone who brings it up. END SPOILER.
In order for our subculture to progress, we must defy the stereotypes. We must say no more. And we can do that, by simply not buying products we feel have let us down, by writing to developers, by standing up for what we think is important. You could even write something on, oh I don't know, a video game website like this one? Because once you've done your part, The challenge falls to game designers and writers. It's up to them to play against the stereotypes of women being emotionally fragile and men being incapable of any emotion but rage (a stereotype as equally offensive, but I'll leave it to the males out there to express their distaste of that portrayal of their gender) to create well-rounded characters we can still relate to. So, you know: Their jobs.
Here's an oft-discussed example: Alyx Vance from Half-Life 2 is frequently praised for her strength and personality. And to a point, I agree. She's certainly well-written, strongly voiced, and superbly animated. She's also of great use to the player by possessing useful combat AI and warning us of dangerous surroundings. But she's not your equal. Nor is Elena Fisher from Uncharted. Nor is Mona Sax from Max Payne. Nor is Sheva Alomar from Resident Evil 5. The spotlight is always squarely on the male protagonist, lovable and/or useful though the women may be. In order to have the spotlight shine on a strong female, one almost has to go so far as to write fan fiction.
I cannot even know how such a thing as me being a Dragonborn could be true, but it is. After fending off a dragon attack from the hold of Whiterun, the same township that held the Companions' meeting hall, I could feel the dragon's power... melding with mine. I absorbed its strength as the flesh seared into ash and fluttered away in the wind, leaving only sand-white bone. I was Dragonborn, the only kind of person who could permanently slay a dragon.
I was, however, untrained. I had seen writing in the ancient dragon language throughout my adventures, but never knew how to speak them, nor how to control their power. I was instructed to meet with the Greybeards on High Hrothgar, and they in turn would teach me the power of the Voice, the way to control dragon power.
With training and confidence in my newfound abilities, I set forth on an adventure that would take me from the deepest dungeons to the farthest holds, gathering allies and artifacts along the way. I would encounter the Thalmor and the Imperial Legion, as well as Ulfric Stormcloak himself. I would destroy those that came against me while turning a diplomatic cheek to the civil war of Skyrim.
In none of my adventures however, did I find another like myself. Nowhere amongst the citizens did I find a female who not only took charge, but did so commendably and respectably. I may be the latest – and perhaps last – Dragonborn, but it is just as disheartening that I may be the first of my female kind.
Skyrim isn't the root of these problems. It's not the sole offender. It is simply the most recent, relevant example. It is emblematic of the problems that have persisted in gaming, even through the year 2011. It was also the game I most hoped to see change that pattern. I was sadly disappointed. Yet I don't blame or hate Bethesda for the way they've designed Skyrim. I don't believe there's any malice behind it. I don't think they thought of making the Greybeards some kind of sisterhood and then said, "What are you kidding me? Women as the wise old masters? Fuck no!"
So try not to rush to Skyrim's defense with, "But it's based on patriarchal Norse mythology, so it's realistic!" A game based in a completely fictional world crafted by dozens of designers where you can run around as a humanoid cat, wielding a flaming sword in the absolute nude (with mods) is not going to carry that argument. Similarly, I'm not saying Bethesda condones sexism, merely that they passively stood by while it took place when they could have actively worked to change the course of gender politics in video games.
But instead, I would wager the same thing happened with Skyrim that happens with most fiction writing: they didn't even consider strong, respectable female roles as a possibility in the first place. I wouldn't blame them. They'd be traversing largely unexplored territory. It's rare for a game where gender is chosen to have a trailer featuring the one with tits. It's rare to see a respectable female give you orders. It's rare to see a female partner to be considered an equal. Hell, so few developers have made a game featuring a main female character at all.
Every one of the major, negative trends listed above is seen within the game and its advertising. While Skyrim should be applauded and held aloft as an example of goodness for all it does different, we can see that there are still a great many attitudes to change, a great number of paths to forge, and we should just as well hold Skyrim – and the industry that birthed it, as well as the community that supports it -- accountable for what hasn't been done differently.
The reason sexism is a problem isn't because there are malicious designers conspiring around tables to exclude women from games. It's a problem is because we haven't demanded that this change. It's a problem because we're complacent with this concept that is so ingrained, so expected for men to fill Role A while women fill Role B that not even Skyrim, a monumental testament to human innovation and imagination that sparked the excitement of millions would truly challenge it.
*The journal ends here. You set it down, across the cold, stone tablet covering the grave of Merillia, the legendary Dragonborn who slew Alduin and saved not only Skyrim, but all of Tamriel. A statue of the lady elf stands towering before you as a monument to her heroic deeds. You look around you at the snowy peaks and evergreen pine. The wind blows hard through your clothing, a chill that cuts to the bone. You step away, assured that your own bard-worthy adventures lie ahead.*