The following is a guest post from Bobby Arthur:
Bobby Arthur is a freelance writer and marketing communications professional living in Toronto. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and his XBLA Gamertag is WhiskerRub.
Odds are there is someone in your life who is spending their evenings slaying Dragons and amassing treasure in the most played game of 2011, Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Skyrim is an open world role playing game (RPG) created by Bethesda Softworks and is set in a fictional, mostly medieval, swords and sorcery land called, Tamriel. It is a game where I expected to be killing and looting, but never expected to be slut-shaming.
In the game players are able to create an avatar for themselves, choosing a race, a gender, a name, many physical characteristics and a style of play. Will you be a warrior, a thief, a wizard or some hybrid? The nuance in the game comes from having the player face moral dilemmas along the way. Through these myriad choices the player’s avatar takes on its spiritual form. Will you be a righteous defender of justice? Will you be a mercenary for hire? Will you be a healer or will you practice blood magic? Will you steal all of the gold or just most of the gold? During my playthrough I have robbed just about everyone blind and I have murdered in cold blood. By my current statistics, the game tells me that I have killed 1081 people and about 1300 other various zombies, animals, robots and demons (most of whom I have stabbed in the back). I have stolen 2498 items, including 1659 straight from my victim’s pockets. So why did I take such umbrage at being asked to slut-shame a woman in her own home?
In a town called Riften we can rummage around a place called Haelga’s Bunkhouse. Haelga runs a dormitory for the blue-collar workers of Riften along with her Niece, Svana. Speaking with Svana will open up a miscellaneous quest that knocked me out of the fantasy world of Tamriel. It brought me back into a world where at least one in four western women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes and where women’s clothing choices are brought forth as justification by authority figures for random sexual attacks; where girls in schools everywhere are ostracized for their choice to become sexual beings or even just the rumor that they have. I don’t like this world. This world makes women ashamed of their bodies and afraid to express themselves sexually and freely. I hated that my fantasy gaming was colliding with such ugly reality.
Svana was orphaned and her Aunt Haelga took her in. Svana is an adult and cleans to pay her room and board. Seems like a fair deal to me, but Svana has other ideas about that.
“Work? I suppose you can call it that. I call it slavery. I work my fingers to the bone keeping this disgusting place clean.
Ever since my parents died and Haelga took me in it’s been a nightmare. How was I to know she was such a wretched woman?”
And what is it that makes Haelga so “Wretched”?
“It’s not just the work. It’s everything about her. She’s disgusting. I think she takes her worship of Dibella a bit too seriously. Do you know she slept with three different men in the last month alone? What kind of woman would do such a thing? Just for once I’d like to see her squirm…to rub her nose in it.”
Yes, rub her nose in it. Like you might a dog that has ruined your rug. This is an unattached woman having consensual and spiritual sex in her own home. For reference, Dibella is the in-game deity of love, and sex to her followers is a religious observance. So, what are my dialogue choices for responding to this diatribe?
“There must be a way.”
One choice. In a game full of choices, I can either go along with this or walk away. At no point am I given the option to talk her out of this – to say “hey, maybe you’re being a little hard on the woman that took you in after your parents were murdered.” Or, “it’s none of your business what she does in her bedroom.” Or, “do you think she’d be open to a fourth lover this month?” No, the only option is an enthusiastic “Ya, let’s teach that whore a lesson.” And from a gameplay standpoint, such a response is not in character with the hero I’ve created, but no alternative choice was given.
“Actually, there is. But I don’t think I could get away with doing it. She’d kill me if she found out. You see, after she makes love she gives her partner a token of her affection called a Mark of Dibella. If you confront her with three of the Marks, she’d be so embarrassed… well, I don’t know what she’d do.”
At this stage I can tell Svana, “Sure. I’ll help you” or “Maybe another time.” Such a polarity of choices. So, off I am sent to retrieve these baubles of shame from the three men. On my way though, I can enjoy some of the contextual flavor that the game designers provided for this quest. I can visit Haelga’s bedroom where a pot of honey and potions of stamina rest on shelves. Her nightstand includes two erotic novels. Her bed has working shackles and underneath we find an animal tusk and leather strips i.e. a dildo and whip. The message here presumably is that Haelga enjoys a kinky sexual lifestyle and is therefore even more worthy of degradation than your average sexually active woman. Under the other side of the bed are some gold coins. A suggestion that Haelga is compensated for her abilities? Additionally we can read a love letter addressed to Haelga from one of her paramours.
Last night was the most wonderful night of my life. The things you showed me…the things we did… I could never have dreamt that it was possible. Who even knew that someone could manipulate their body in that manner while wearing Daedric Armor boots? You are a true master of the Dibellan arts, my love… a credit to your religion. Perhaps we’ll meet again soon but next time allow me to bring the trout.
Your secret lover.”
Poor joke aside, everybody seems happy. Time to destroy that, I guess. Makes sense. The three men offer little resistance. One gives me some righteous indignation, one feigns ignorance and one pleads for discretion. You see, he’s married. I wonder, why am I not rubbing HIS face in it? With little effort on my part these three gentlemen sell Haelga out and give me the Marks. After confronting Haelga with the evidence of her rampant sluttiness we are given this response.
“What? How?…Where did you get these? No. Don’t tell me. Look, we need to keep this quiet…between you and me, okay? No one else needs to know about it. If word got out that I was practicing my Dibellan arts in Riften, they’ll run me out of town. Here, take this and don’t mention a word of this to anyone, especially, Svana!”
Still protecting her ungrateful niece after all this time. Svana however, is positively tickled at her aunt’s shaming.
“Isn’t it wonderful? I bet she was squirming like a skeever when you pulled them out of your pocket. I think things are going to be a lot different around here from now on and I have you to thank for it.”
Well, that’s one less brazen hussy terrorizing the penises of poor Tamriel. Such a noble endeavor. I think my problem with this quest was the lack of any kind of moral spectrum. She was either a wanton whore and therefore in need of punishment or I could just choose to not do the quest. There was never a time when I could side with Haelga. Haelga’s lifestyle was never to be considered positive. Some people may say, why make such a big deal about this? It’s just a throwaway quest in a massive game where you are able to commit atrocities against your fellow man and woman. This is true, but it’s small things like this that are so pervasive and surprisingly influential.
We all know that killing is wrong. We all know that theft is wrong. We all know that raising the dead is wrong (and unlikely). There are way too many of us however that do not know that slut-shaming is wrong and continue to use it as emotional blackmail or worse, an excuse for violence. By denying the player the option to be sex-positive it perpetuates the problem. Bethesda really missed an opportunity to not necessarily take a stand, but to let the player at least make that choice. Because choice is what RPGs are supposed to be about.
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APPENDIX: FULL DIALOGUE
Svana: Work? I suppose you can call it that. I call it slavery. I work my fingers to the bone keeping this disgusting place clean.
Ever since my parents died and Haelga took me in it’s been a nightmare. How was I to know she was such a wretched woman? So now I’m stuck living here while those pigs she calls customers grope me and say the most awful things.
You: Why do you hate Haelga so much?
Svana: It’s not just the work. It’s everything about her. She’s disgusting. I think she takes her worship of Dibella a bit too seriously. Do you know she slept with three different men in the last month alone? What kind of woman would do such a thing? Just for once I’d like to see her squirm…to rub her nose in it.
You: There must be a way.
Svana: Actually, there is. But I don’t think I could get away with doing it. She’d kill me if she found out. You see, after she makes love she gives her partner a token of her affection called a Mark of Dibella. If you confront her with three of the Marks, she’d be so embarrassed… well, I don’t know what she’d do.
You: Sure. I’ll help you. OR Maybe another time.
Svana: Oh, this is going to be great! You need to get the Marks of Dibella from Bolli, Hofgrir and Indalyn. Not sure how you’re going to do that, but try your best. Then just confront Haelga with them and the rest works itself out. Try and get those Marks without violence please. I don’t want to be responsible for their deaths…or yours.
AFTER RETURNING WITH THE MARKS
Haelga: Can I help you?
You: I believe these are yours.
Haelga: What? How?…Where did you get these? No. Don’t tell me. Look, we need to keep this quiet…between you and me, okay? No one else needs to know about it. If word got out that I was practicing my Dibellan arts in Riften, they’ll run me out of town. Here, take this and don’t mention a word of this to anyone, especially, Svana!
AFTER CONFRONTING HAELGA
You: I gave the Marks to Haelga
Svana: Oh I know. Isn’t it wonderful? I bet she was squirming like a skeever when you pulled them out of your pocket. I think things are going to be a lot different around here from now on and I have you to thank for it. Here, I want you to have this. It was my Father’s but I’m certain you’ll put it to good use.