Slaying Dragons and Gender Stereotypes in Skyrim
Originally Published: June 25, 2012
Revised: September 5, 2012
When I first opened the box to The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, I knew that I was about to play an extraordinary video game. For those of you who don’t know, Skyrim is a role-playing game where you create a character and then go on to do whatever you want from fighting dragons to becoming a bard.
Skyrim also has one of the largest virtual worlds ever designed, and the developers did not cut a single corner when it came to creating a gorgeous landscape that changes weather constantly and makes the player feel as if he or she is actually in a raging blizzard or on a windy plain. What I did not know was that Skyrim would break barriers not only in the graphics and game play departments but also in its representation of sexuality, specifically gender roles and sexual orientation.
When you play a game centered on slaying dragons and hunting for treasure, the last thing you expect the game designers to have put a lot of thought into is gender, gender roles or sexual orientation.
For starters, Skyrim moves beyond the stereotypical video game style of presenting men as the muscular heroes and women as helpless, big-breasted characters only there to be looked at and fantasized over. Instead of placing emphasis on heroic male characters and sexy-submissive female counterparts, Skyrim gives the player a choice to play as his or her very own self-designed character.
Video games are a major part of our culture and can serve as a powerful way to spread the message that all people should be treated equally and fairly.
You can choose the species of your character—be it an Argonian (a lizard-like humanoid), an Orc or some variation of what we would consider to be a “normal” human. You then determine the body size of your character. You’re not limited to the usual dazzling and buxom or built and handsome choices either. The choices in body type and size range from skeleton-thin to a hulk-like build. Perhaps the greatest variation in character creation comes from the customization of the character’s face, since you can choose your character’s facial hair, hair color, chin shape, nose size and eye color, among many other details. It is possible to create your stereotypical toned men or curvy women, but it’s great that you’ve got a lot of other options.
In addition to the appearance of your character, gender doesn’t determine what you can do in the game. A female character can become a powerful warrior or blacksmith while a male character can become a healer or a bard. It’s all in the hands of the person playing the game, which is pretty exciting. In Skyrim, it’s refreshing to see a world that includes a variety of people in a variety of roles.
This equal treatment of the sexes is emphasized further by many cities in the game being ruled by queens, the presence of females as deities and the leaders of pirate ships or assassin guilds. These strong female characters show no submission to their male counterparts and are more than willing to fight to prove it. It’s one thing to have women fighting alongside men, but to really emphasize gender equality there must be situations where women are also in positions of power.
Throughout Skyrim, I came across these women, and I was impressed by the variation of roles and personalities that the programmers came up with. Women were not always benevolent and kind rulers as they are typically portrayed if given power. And in some situations, like the roaming pirate ships, the female leaders were far more vicious and terrifying than the males. It was thrilling for me to see female characters that I could respect, instead of the typical assortment of scantily-clad female characters that are so frequently used in other games.
While powerful female characters certainly add to the uniqueness of Skyrim, the groundbreaking part of the game is the treatment of sexual orientation and marriage. In Skyrim, like Fable and Dragon Age, not only does marriage exist, but it is offered equally for both heterosexual and gay couples. The game does not focus on relationships and marriage like The Sims III, so it came as a surprise to me that the designers would have put thought into ensuring that marriage in the game went beyond the standard heterosexual bond seen in many other popular games.
In order to get married in Skyrim, you must first wear a necklace that symbolizes that you are looking for marriage. Then you must win the approval of your desired partner by performing some sort of task, like finding something he or she lost or acquiring an ingredient he or she needs for cooking, smithing or alchemy. The fact that you can’t simply go up to another character and command him or her to marry you emphasizes that marriage is a two-way street where both partners have an equal vote. The fact that you have to perform a task for your desired partner also highlights that relationships require some effort on your part.
Once married, a player can choose to move into his or her partner’s home or the player can have his or her partner move in with him or her. Players are allowed to marry one character at a time and get a bonus for sleeping in the same house as their partners, which places an interesting emphasis on the idea that monogamy is a key component in many relationships.
Looking at all of these changes in the game, I began to wonder why the designers chose a portrayal of sexuality that isn’t typical in video games. I imagine that the game designers realized that the people buying their product were not just heterosexual males. Sure, video games like Skyrim are often stereotyped as a pastime for straight guys, but I personally know this isn’t true since I’ve met more than a few girls who say they bought the game because they loved the idea of playing a game that allowed players to do whatever they wanted.
Imagine unpacking a game you’ve been dreaming about for weeks only to find that your character cannot be your gender or can’t marry who you would want to marry. Suddenly the game that you couldn’t stop thinking about loses its thrill, because it clearly wasn’t made with you in mind. By expanding their portrayal of sexuality to encompass female players and gay players, the designers of Skyrim took a leap forward in acknowledging that people come in different genders, sizes, races and sexual orientations. Sure it’s easier to pretend that everyone playing the game will want to be part of a heterosexual marriage or play a male character, but this is simply not a realistic assumption given the fact that our society is so diverse.
I hope that the popularity of Skyrim will help promote the equal treatment of different genders and sexual orientation in future video games. Developers should look to emulate Skyrim by making their gameplay accessible and friendly to all people, not just the stereotypical player. Video games are a major part of our culture and can serve as a powerful way to spread the message that all people should be treated equally and fairly.
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