So I recently have fallen back in love with Skyrim and subsequently have spent 40+ hours in the last two weeks riding round on OG Shadowmere doing various ethically dubious things. During this time I started to find an incredibly rich world that references and plays with ideas of academia – of how research, communication, learning and engagement happens within this virtual world. Being the incredibly nerdy person that I am I started to take notes, to document how researchers were, well, researching (or, at least being portrayed as researching within this space). The result was a Twitter bot and several pages of observation.
The twitter bot can be found here: https://twitter.com/Skyrim_Academia
It systematically tweets quotes found in books, conversations, objects and general things you can overhear or see in the world that reference how academics / research / education works within the world. It’s not inherently valuable but it is kind of fun as someone engaged in research to empathise and find resonance in a game space.
As for my observations: I will distill them here briefly:
The game makes some pretty powerful arguments about how research, studentship and academic practices work within the world – and many of these resonate far beyond the game.
Whilst a lot of the discussion of academia / research is not core to the world or your position neccesarily within it, it still plays a huge role in the bigger picture, in understanding the people, places and structures in the system. Bandits will reference not having the money to travel to college, or not being well-informed on their options for education. Those studying “softer” subjects – such as restoration, are often chastised and can be heard defending their subject area, expounding the wider value and doing their best to pick up the pieces when they are not heeded. Female researchers can be heard complaining about having to prove themselves above their male counterparts. Arguments between scholars occur through letters, books and public confrontations – their rhetoric shapes how the world is seen and understood and the outcomes of these discussions shapes your place within the world. Students are often seen as expendable, as a commodity or as a resource [economic or work-wise] – those that rally against the academy are seen as outcasts and there is one account which bemoans how expensive creating books is now that the author is not playing in the system. If you play as certain races within the game, and attain high-ranking positions in the college (through what amounts to essentially mass murder and other nefarious means) people in the world can still be heard saying “I never thought an x could do y” style of statements.
You do not ever directly pick up a pen to write your research [that I have found so far] and for some reason you can become the head of a college through basically killing off a bunch of other people. The surface level representations that you engage with as a player are pretty dire tbh. But despite these things the academic systems and depictions are surprisingly rich in what they tell us about the world – about how the academy and research interplays with other complex systems. The Bethesda writers have done a wonderful, and very clever job, of leveraging the struggles of the academy in a way which is subtle, but when thought about, has resonance far beyond the screen. They also tie into the other systems within the game – whilst there is not explicitly an “education system” that you can engage with – the idea of education, academia and research have huge impacts on the game world [economy, status, ethnicity, gender, value etc].
The point, I guess, that I am trying to make here harks back to the idea that I clumsily stumbled into during my Masters research: that superficial representations of things, or the players actions, are only one part of what makes interesting – or even accurate – claims about the way which the world works. It’s a wonderfully deconstructionist approach that is embedded in the game subtly, it makes you question why the world works that way – why is destruction magic favoured over restoration? Why are students seen as a resource? When you start to ask these questions the game stabs you in the gut with the realisation of the systemic biases and constructs on which the world works. Skyrim can be seen as “just a game”, but the construction of it asks questions that extend beyond the superficial representations, beyond the hack-and-slash acquirement of a primary position, and actually begins to explore the impacts that complex systems – of economy, class, etc etc have on education, research and academia.
I am aware that this sounds ridiculous – if not meta ridiculous – doing an academic assessment of academic structures within a game as an academic. But it kinda highlights that games are not just about visual representation – or textual representation – but about the systems that underpin it. Those systems can be executed through code, to be played with by the player, or, as is the case in much of Skyrim academia – they exist as structural inequalities, behemoths that are too big to play with, too big to topple, structures that shape and influence the world and your [as well as so many of the poor collateral, struggling NPCs] place within it – for better or [as is more often the case] for worse.