17 votes

“Elves are Jews with pointy ears and gay magic”: White nationalist readings of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

22 comments

  1. [21]
    Atvelonis
    (edited )
    Link
    Excellent article. Although disturbing, the author's take is correct. It is very challenging to argue with the principle that, whatever the authorial intent might be, a white nationalist reading...
    • Exemplary

    Excellent article. Although disturbing, the author's take is correct. It is very challenging to argue with the principle that, whatever the authorial intent might be, a white nationalist reading of Skyrim is indeed "as valid as any other decoding of the game."

    Skyrim is something I know a lot about. I am decidedly not keen on how the game has been taken to be "political" in very much the wrong way by the far right, including white nationalists. I slightly disagree with the author that the authorial intent is not apparent: Skyrim offers real political commentary on what you could broadly construe as "history," but which is inextricably linked to the identity politics of the United States. The 2017 interview that the Pete Hines quote comes from reads like a PR statement; that's his job. "Bethesda doesn't develop games to make specific statements or incite political discussions." Maybe Bethesda doesn't, but writers do. Just talk to Michael Kirkbride and his exploration of sexuality in the 36 Lessons of Vivec and The Song of Pelinal. Hines is just giving the company plausible deniability here, knowing full well that a large portion of its audience—white, teenage boys—are inclined toward conservatism. Further to my point is this comment from a 2018 interview with Todd Howard:

    The actual underlying theme was: do you take a nationalistic view of your own country, or look at the whole world? I think that’s still pretty topical today.

    Perhaps Oblivion and other titles are somewhat lacking in this regard, but Skyrim has some real social commentary. I'm confident in saying that the intent from developers was not to portray the Stormcloaks as the "good guys," although I would clarify that they are not automatically the "bad guys" either, contrary to the standard liberal reading of the game. The faction exists as an abstraction of religious conservatism combined with that of anti-colonialism, characteristics that don't necessarily map onto a cohesive contemporary body 1:1; their purpose therefore being to represent the complexity of humanity in war and culture. And I'd argue that, for most players, this complexity has real value. There's actually a surprising amount to be said for either side of the game's civil war, given the ideological nuance that exists within each one. But, as the article says, "the creators of media products have little control over who uses their product, and why, or how they perceive the product." And thus we end up with Skyrim as just another video game for white nationalists to fawn over; the Nordic dream realized in this power fantasy whose protagonist has no real weaknesses; no depth to speak of, barring that provided by the player themselves in the form of roleplaying. Like many video games, what is intended to depict a complicated and heart-tugging narrative has the capacity, if read in such a way as this, to serve a decidedly sinister purpose.

    This leads to the question of what constitutes subversion of intent in an open-world game with so many possible actions and interpretations. If an action is designed to be possible, is it a subversive result of an oppositional reading by the player? Or should it be considered a dominant or preferred reading, as the game indeed allows for it, and may not even discourage this reading by punishing certain actions through game mechanics? The intent the of the designers may not matter at all if we focus on the mechanics of a game. Every designed possibility could be considered “intentional”, even if not consciously intended by the authors or rewarded by the game mechanics. And when dealing with complex open world systems, it is hard to say what is “intended” by the authors and not. And it isn’t really that relevant, as we are dealing in the domain of imagined affordances.

    The artist–audience power struggle is ultimately a problem with any piece of art, although I suppose it's particularly visible in video games, since you technically have direct control over the player character and thus your actions as the audience are that much more viscerally connected to your persona in the real world. And unfortunately, "the affordances created by the intersection of the game and of [White Nationalists'] political position, allows the game to be experienced as a White Nationalist power fantasy, potentially strengthening their narrative and position." If we can deconstruct the framework such an interpretation is built upon then of course it loses its power, but that is beyond the scope of the game. I appreciate academic readings of video games that treat the medium for what it is: an analogue, like all art, for our own thoughts, experiences, and beliefs. I believe that further exploration of this topic is in the interest of the industry and indeed of our enlightenment as fans, and as people.

    17 votes
    1. [3]
      viridian
      Link Parent
      It's also worth noting that for all of the fever dreaming over Skryim's culture, in TES lore the Nords are pretty clearly one of the least advanced races, in magic, technology, and culture. They...

      It's also worth noting that for all of the fever dreaming over Skryim's culture, in TES lore the Nords are pretty clearly one of the least advanced races, in magic, technology, and culture. They were historically the most easily controlled imperial asset, and cling to Tiber Septim for dear life in spite of the first emperor representing something far greater than his birthplace. As far as Aryan power fantasies go, it's a pretty poor one. The folks coming to the conclusion that TES leans in to this sort of thing have to go out of their way to misunderstand the lore. The Aldmeri Dominion even reference the fact that the Stormcloaks are useful idiots in undermining the Empire's provincial control while they are busy building an army during peacetime on the Summerset Isles.

      7 votes
      1. [2]
        whbboyd
        Link Parent
        The Thalmor are also… really obvious Nazi expies. (An authoritarian minority faction takes advantage of a crisis to seize control of their government? Rapidly conquers neighboring territories?...

        The Thalmor are also… really obvious Nazi expies. (An authoritarian minority faction takes advantage of a crisis to seize control of their government? Rapidly conquers neighboring territories? Leads purges of dissidents and undesirables in their homeland and occupied territories? Sound familiar at all?) I guess technically speaking you can ignore all that, but I would certainly assert that such an interpretation is in no way "as valid" as any other.

        4 votes
        1. viridian
          Link Parent
          Sort of, but they are closer to the world's most efficient doomsday cult, than a fascist regime. They largely seek oblivion (the idea, not Mehrunes Dagon's playground) rather than domination, the...

          Sort of, but they are closer to the world's most efficient doomsday cult, than a fascist regime. They largely seek oblivion (the idea, not Mehrunes Dagon's playground) rather than domination, the white-gold concordat and their subjugation of man is just an unfortunate middle step between now and the bringing of mundus into Oblivion (Dagon's realm) seen to by activating the towers. Skyrim as a game does a poor job of portraying them in this regard, for two reasons:

          1. they come across as overly fascistic and gleeful in the subjugation of man
          2. they do not mention once, they don't even hint at, wanting to activate/destroy the throat of the world. Even as a part of the mage's guild quests where do run into Psijics. I know they need to abolish the Talos meme and genocide man as well, but activating the towers accomplishes all of the necessary steps to throw off the shackles of the material world in one fell swoop, and not a single mer in TES:V seems to give a damn about the giant mountain that would move that needle.

          Point two really frustrates me.

          5 votes
    2. Heichou
      Link Parent
      I'm always impressed by people like you who can so eloquently expand on these kinds of things. I greatly enjoyed reading this, and it gave me a great second perspective on this article that I...

      I'm always impressed by people like you who can so eloquently expand on these kinds of things. I greatly enjoyed reading this, and it gave me a great second perspective on this article that I initially went "hah, what a tool" to

      5 votes
    3. [16]
      vegai
      Link Parent
      But I wonder, if we are to take this seriously as a mechanism for influencing peoples' behaviour and thoughts, does it follow that we should take violence in general in games just as seriously?

      But I wonder, if we are to take this seriously as a mechanism for influencing peoples' behaviour and thoughts, does it follow that we should take violence in general in games just as seriously?

      2 votes
      1. [4]
        Whom
        Link Parent
        We're due for a return to the violence in video games conversation that isn't tainted by memories of the ridiculous extent the media pushed that in the 90s. It's essentially impossible to...

        We're due for a return to the violence in video games conversation that isn't tainted by memories of the ridiculous extent the media pushed that in the 90s. It's essentially impossible to seriously discuss because everyone still associates it with their mom not letting them play Mortal Kombat or saying Doom caused Columbine or whatever.

        Not that gaming communities are anywhere near ready for discussions like that, given that we're only barely beginning to move beyond the damage that gamergate did.

        9 votes
        1. [3]
          Akir
          Link Parent
          It's crazy that at the time they used Night Trap as an example, calling it a rape simulator. But now there are actual video game rape simulators! Not only that, but there is a much richer...

          It's crazy that at the time they used Night Trap as an example, calling it a rape simulator. But now there are actual video game rape simulators! Not only that, but there is a much richer depiction of gore in a lot of games today than was even technically possible at the time.

          I think it would be worthwhile to spend at least a little bit to further research what effects this kind of imagery is having on people.

          5 votes
          1. tindall
            Link Parent
            Kotaku has done some interesting journalism on the impact creating such things has on the people who do so.

            Kotaku has done some interesting journalism on the impact creating such things has on the people who do so.

            5 votes
      2. [11]
        arp242
        Link Parent
        I always found it rather interesting that portrayals of violence in video games influencing people's behaviour is waved away as "nonsense", while at the same time portrayals of other things such...

        does it follow that we should take violence in general in games just as seriously?

        I always found it rather interesting that portrayals of violence in video games influencing people's behaviour is waved away as "nonsense", while at the same time portrayals of other things such as "sexualized characters" is taken very seriously – often by the same people – and that it's taken as a given that it influences people's behaviour. It has always seemed to me that one of these two isn't exactly true, or perhaps neither is.

        At the end of the day, it's complicated, depends on many details, and almost certainly differs per person as well. I've seen people claim that Star Trek (the original series) is the pinnacle of libertarianism and individual freedom, which is quite a different reading than I have, but that's okay. We generally see in fiction what we want.

        The real question, especially for things such as Skyrim, is if it turns people into White Nationalists, or if it's just a bunch of people who were already White Nationalists wanking over it because it's roughly similar to their wet dream? The article pretty strongly claims it's the last:

        A negotiated position involves making the game their own and reinvent Skyrim as a White Nationalist playground. A negotiated reading would imply that the player understands or sees the intended message, but allows himself the freedom to re-interpret it. Skyrim might be pushing the same multicultural agenda, or Bethesda might even be owned by a Jew, but through mods and subversive gameplay the White Nationalists manage to make the game their own. With this negotiated reading, they tell a somewhat different story.

        At any rate, I think this sort of stuff is interesting intellectually, but little more.

        7 votes
        1. [9]
          tindall
          Link Parent
          I think @Whom's comment is spot-on here. There are real discussions to be had about violence in video games, and real conversations to be had about sexualization and sexism in video games - but...

          I always found it rather interesting that portrayals of violence in video games influencing people's behaviour is waved away as "nonsense", while at the same time portrayals of other things such as "sexualized characters" is taken very seriously – often by the same people – and that it's taken as a given that it influences people's behaviour. It has always seemed to me that one of these two isn't exactly true, or perhaps neither is.

          I think @Whom's comment is spot-on here. There are real discussions to be had about violence in video games, and real conversations to be had about sexualization and sexism in video games - but DOOM captured the cultural imagination in a way that, say, Leisure Suit Larry didn't. The cultural discourse around violence in video games is poisoned.

          That said, there has been a lot of work in the tabletop scene on similar issues, beginning with Call of Cthulhu (which explicitly disincentivises violence as a problem-solving technique) and continuing in many games in the Apocalypse World heritage, which often adopt the conventions of their associated literary genres to tackle violence. For instance, The Sprawl exists in no less violent a world than, say, Neuromancer or Snow Crash, but just as Gibson and Stephenson use graphic description to invite self-reflection and discomfort (more explicitly so in the case of Snow Crash), Cameron uses game mechanics mirroring the cinematic ultraviolence of cyberpunk to very explicitly criticize our real-world relationship with violence and those who perpetrate it, especially on behalf of the state.

          Similar self-conscious borrowing does not exist in most video games, in my experience. For instance, JYDGE takes only the most surface elements from its comic-book inspiration, Judge Dredd, cribbing the style, socioeconomic division, and violence, and playing up the silliness in order to create a narrative disengagement from the actions the player is committing, without making even the questionable socioeconomic and political commentary of the source material.

          In other words, the problem is not that violence can be done in video games, but how the games themselves handle it - but that is not a problem we, as a culture, seem to be mature enough to discuss without falling into demonization.

          EDIT: On the other hand, there are some indie games that do this well, like EXTREME MEATPUNKS FOREVER: BOUND BY ASH which, among other things, grapples with the ethics and impact of violence against the oppressor.

          10 votes
          1. [2]
            Akir
            Link Parent
            As a side note, That's a game that I never thought I would hear anyone talking about ever.

            EXTREME MEATPUNKS FOREVER

            As a side note, That's a game that I never thought I would hear anyone talking about ever.

            3 votes
            1. tindall
              Link Parent
              It's really good! HTHR might be my favorite indie dev, tbh.

              It's really good! HTHR might be my favorite indie dev, tbh.

              2 votes
          2. [6]
            Heichou
            Link Parent
            It seems like Doom is so far over the top, that it almost feels campy. It knows it's ridiculous, and embraces it. And while it is super gory and may encourage violence, it's so far detached from...

            It seems like Doom is so far over the top, that it almost feels campy. It knows it's ridiculous, and embraces it. And while it is super gory and may encourage violence, it's so far detached from reality (demons, sci-fi, alien angels, hell armor, etc.) that it's hard to completely take seriously.

            3 votes
            1. [5]
              tindall
              Link Parent
              Absolutely! And yet, people did.

              Absolutely! And yet, people did.

              3 votes
              1. [4]
                Heichou
                Link Parent
                I am genuinely curious, what have people done in the name of Doom? I shudder to think of any real world analogues lol

                I am genuinely curious, what have people done in the name of Doom? I shudder to think of any real world analogues lol

                2 votes
                1. [3]
                  tindall
                  Link Parent
                  There was a great deal of hand-wringing over this around the time of the Columbine shooting, since it was widely reported that the shooters were into video games. It has significantly poisoned the...

                  There was a great deal of hand-wringing over this around the time of the Columbine shooting, since it was widely reported that the shooters were into video games. It has significantly poisoned the discourse on violence in video gaming to this day.

                  4 votes
                  1. kfwyre
                    Link Parent
                    It was actually more than this. One of the Columbine shooters designed his own DOOM WADs (which were play tested by the other shooter), and at the time it was a widely believed that he had...

                    It was actually more than this. One of the Columbine shooters designed his own DOOM WADs (which were play tested by the other shooter), and at the time it was a widely believed that he had designed one to resemble the halls of the school with facsimiles of classmates in it as a sort of "training" for the real event.

                    This was false, but at the time fact-checking wasn't as easy as it is now, so this narrative took hold of many -- myself included.

                    4 votes
                  2. Heichou
                    Link Parent
                    Ahh right, the OG Doom. I was worried the newer ones had influenced some people to action. I somehow didn't consider the original ones

                    Ahh right, the OG Doom. I was worried the newer ones had influenced some people to action. I somehow didn't consider the original ones

                    3 votes
        2. Heichou
          Link Parent
          I think the flexibility of narrative in video games definitely lends to confirmation bias for the people playing it. I would find it hard to believe that somebody with no particular leanings would...

          I think the flexibility of narrative in video games definitely lends to confirmation bias for the people playing it. I would find it hard to believe that somebody with no particular leanings would be completely and maliciously indoctrinated by a video game with gore or political commentary. But to someone who may already lean towards certain behaviors or schools of thought, they may serve to reinforce these leanings. And that ambiguous kind of overlap inevitably results in an (in my opinion) moot argument or concern, as the video games aren't usually the problem. They're an outlet for more serious issues. Video games are just a way flashier and easier scapegoat than mental illness, family issues, etc.

          3 votes
  2. Happy_Shredder
    Link
    Another angle: Tolkein -> DnD -> TES. Can you trace race politics back to Tolkein? Actually, this has been discussed to some extent, except that people read dwarves as analagous to Jews.

    Another angle: Tolkein -> DnD -> TES. Can you trace race politics back to Tolkein? Actually, this has been discussed to some extent, except that people read dwarves as analagous to Jews.

    2 votes
  3. Removed by admin: 9 comments by 5 users
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