Edit: this post doesn’t deal with some of the fundamental issues with dealing with racism in fantasy/SF settings. nor do I advocate making sure players feel ‘oppressed’ in every game; games are about escapism. this is specifically about Skyrim, because that’s a game that ostensibly tries to be about racism.

I’ve just been re-reading A.L. Brown’s post on the failure of Skyrim to appropriately depict racism and it really resonated with some of the things that irked me about that otherwise great game. Playing as an Argonian or Khajit (either of the game’s socially-excluded ‘beast’ races) and being welcomed by the xenophobic nationalist Stormcloaks as some sort of fabled savior really clashes with the way that NPCs of the same race are included in the game. Brown’s piece isn’t the first example I’ve seen of this complaint, but it is one of the most in-depth. I just want to info-dump a little about how this sort of thing can be tackled from a design perspective.


As far as I know – there’s no mod for the PC version of Skyrim to introduce more system racism. Searching for this, I found several reddit threads on the topic of how to better implement racism in the game. Interestingly, manly of the participants of these discussions seem to interpret racism solely as “being called mean names”. I found some people even complaining that the game was too racist because their Kahjit or Argonian was being called names. But what I (and Brown) mean by a more meaningful portrayal of racism is to systemically treat the player differently based on the race they chose. Dialogue shouldn’t be the be-all-and-end-all of this.

New Vegas attempted this to a small degree by making female PCs have a more difficult entry into Caesar’s Legion, although that approach tends to reify the idea that it’s only horrific cartoon villains who “do” sexism. The whole point of Skyrim, as a political backdrop, is that both of the major factions are morally quite ambiguous. You’re supposed to be able to see noble and ignoble traits in both sides. But you’re never really directly subjected to the latter.

I wanted to take a quick look at this problem from more of a developer-centric perspective. The only real acknowledgement Skyrim makes of your initial race-selection really boils down to statistical difference and how you look, as well as the odd comment thrown your way in combat. But here’s the thing about modelling discrimination by actually excluding players from some activities in a sandbox – you don’t really have to add much new stuff as much as gate off what’s already there. A handful of extra lines of dialogue to the effect of “we don’t like your kind” but more importantly, to just prevent certain races from being able to do certain things (or, to model privilege – from having to do things the player might not want to do). Maybe there’s only one shopkeeper in Windhelm who will serve an Argonian, and so on. There’s no content to add, and if you’re scared this will upset players, you can always telegraph it on the character creation screen early on.

Brown makes a good point about DragonAge games doing this better. At the same time I would argue that this is less a case of both games trying equally as hard to do something with different degrees of success, and more to do with design ethos. DragonAge is an RPG, but it’s not a sandbox in the truest sense. Sure, it’s non-linear and you can choose at any point to fight, talk, craft etc. but it doesn’t have the same sort of “arsing about doing nothing in particular, GTA with swords and magic” appeal that Elder Scrolls games have. You can see similar differences in the ways that these two series differently treat religion; in DragonAge you see little evidence of any of the major faiths being ‘true’ in the literal sense. DragonAge is ‘about’ religion in a narrative sense (because its a more narrative-oriented game) whereas Elder Scrolls games for the most part treat religion as just another mechanical element of the sandbox (worship the God of Trees to get a bonus to Sweet Nugs or whatever).

I would argue that Bethesda’s general aversion to making the narrative theme of discrimination any more tangible to the player is less a case of “tried and failed” and more a case of “avoided trying at all for reasons relating to markets”. In a 2013 video posted on Gamasutra, a speaker from WB Games suggests that midcore games (or ‘bros’ more disparagingly) are a really important market to capture – making up >80% of console owners – but are fickle; easily frustrated with games which seem inaccessible or unfair. It’s likely that the Conan-esque muscular viking imagery was foregrounded in Skyrim’s promotional material for this demographic (after all, Wizards are for turbodorks who read manuals). An RPG that properly acknowledges my character-creation choices by actively excluding me from certain paths has a massive appeal to me and gamers like me – but perhaps publishers are wary of how these sort of design decisions might play out with that broader audience. This is particularly pronounced in a genre that is so heavily marketed on a “go and do whatever you want” kind of appeal.

skoomaIf Bethesda were so intent on making a game which was quite overtly ‘about’ xenophobia, nationalism etc. then they need to get over that aversion to locking players out of $$$content$$$. Developers need to stop thinking about games as buckets for content and begin to pay more attention to how gating said content can provide an important kind of social immersion in the gameworlds they spend so much time and effort building.

Developers can make RPGs that better acknowledge the characters players make – and that doesn’t always mean needing to add features or even new lines of dialogue. After all, discrimination is mostly a subtractive process; its about being denied something that others take for granted; work, citizenship, safety, protection, friendship, conversation etc.