The Tolkein-inspired world of Skyrim. Image: Bethesda
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How Skyrim is teaching university students about the decline of US empire

Rice University’s psychoanalytics course "Scandinavian Fantasy Worlds: Old Norse Sagas and Skyrim" uses an open-world action role playing video game as its core reading.

Sometimes I browse through university prospectuses. Not because I’m interested in studying, but because I’m interested in what others might be. I’m interested in what British institutions have to offer. And I’m interested in the ways in which they figuratively showcase their educational wares on crisp, glossy A4 pages, as well as within streamlined, digitally formatted PDFs; the dual-pronged approach to advertising seemingly fitting for this perceived age of media convergence in which we live. The old-meets-new agglutination makes me especially interested in the plethora of hybrid, diversified and culturally endowed courses available to today’s prospective undergraduates. Film, media, television, theatre, comparative literature - the arts are all well represented, waiting to be discovered on paper and/or at the click of a button.

Well, almost all. If you have a penchant for video games, you’ll likely struggle to find modules over and above the standard programming and development classes.

But why is this? Why is film or television or theatre legitimised in creative academic circles, acknowledged as "art", yet video games as a medium - surely the cultural medium of the twenty first century - is not? "Scandinavian Fantasy Worlds: Old Norse Sagas and Skyrim", taught at Rice University in Texas, lends little credence to the increasingly tiresome debate. Introduced by Professor Donna Ellard in 2012, the 15 week long module uses the popular video game Skyrim as its core text and, by holding a mirror to modern day America’s political spectrum, draws comparisons between Skyrim’s mythical institutions and the Land of the Free’s economic and governmental establishment.

Aimed predominantly at students interested in psychology, politics, and history - and perhaps crucially those with little video game experience - Professor Ellard explores why America has a tendency to fantasise towards a historical period inconsistent with its own, and how Skyrim’s Tolkien-esque themes and setting can help students to understand America’s place on the world stage against a tide of ever-receding imperialism. In doing so she attempts to portray how video games can and should be considered valid academic platforms.

“We have no historical relationship to the British mediaeval past, and, even further afield than that, we’ve got no cultural kinship with Scandinavia,” explains Ellard in reference to the United States in modern context. “So the class is really interrogating why we have such strong cathexis to a medieval period that is not our own and also to a medieval period that is markedly Viking. The course couples readings with Norse sagas and also mythology, Freudian psychoanalysis and Skyrim itself to try and think about why, in this cultural moment, we love Skyrim so much. It’s not just sort of me as a mediaevalist reflecting on the Middle Ages in some sort of historicist mode; it’s very much thinking hard about what’s happening in this moment towards a past that’s not ours whatsoever.”

Generally, Ellard feels that psychoanalysis is a way of looking at life on a wider scale, but feels video games, as products of human psychology, must be viewed through this lens. Fantasy and play are both key components in psychoanalysis, therefore Ellard points out that these concepts can be applied more broadly towards any piece of art. From this standpoint, Ellard’s initial attraction to Skyrim was purely academic.

Although never previously interested in video games, whilst watching over her nephew’s shoulder one afternoon - where he wrestled not only with the game’s host of formidable fantasy antagonists, but also its complex socio-political themes - she became entranced. And although something almost entirely new to her, Ellard was able to draw fairly distinguished parallels between Tolkien fantasy lore, modern US politics, and Skyrim itself. She identifies the time period during which the Lord of the Rings trilogy was written as Tolkien’s attempt to manage what it meant to be British, against the frailties of a nation and empire sandwiched between two world wars. Ellard believes Skyrim echoes this status disparity, and in a wider sense the overarching concept translates to real world American politics.

“[Skyrim] comes in a world post-9/11. [This] was a moment in which the US started to realise it was an empire on the rocks and its popularity through the beginning of the 2000s very much corresponded both to its insecurities as a nation and as an empire that recognised itself as no longer the tour de force that it thought it was,” she says. “I think that even though we talk about globalisation, stories of nation and empire are stories of identity formation. Britain lost at the end of WWII and America began to rise as a world power. I think that the Victorian era is one that we are mourning, or least are attempting to mourn, now particularly in America where we can finally see that the sun has set. We’re not doing a very good job of letting that go.

“Mourning and grieving are Freudian concepts, going back to the course, that we associate with what we do in our personal lives; someone dies, and you mourn their passing as a means of reconstructing your own - an identity in the present tense without them. I think the same thing is true when you’re talking about nations - we hitch our stars to these little stories that we get told in history classes about where we come from as a people. Once those narratives and myths are no longer valid we struggle as a people until we make new myths for ourselves; ones that perhaps have a black president, for example, and you know how that’s not gone so well in the US. Or a myth in which our forefathers aren’t all Anglo-American, and you can see our inability to come up with the immigration bill in the US. That’s another inability to grieve and move forward toward a new set of myths and fantasies. 

“You can see this in Skyrim: the Stormcloaks [a group which wishes to secede from the Empire] and the Empire act as a through line in the main quest, and nation and empire is critical to playing the game. It's fantasy mix-and-match with these creatures that come out of a Tolkienian wellspring, and [they] are part and parcel of all that.”

Once thinking in these terms, there are perhaps an abundance of parallels to be drawn between the in-game political narratives portrayed in Skyrim, and those which exist in the real world - not necessarily exclusive to the American spectrum. As Skyrim itself is the class primary text, the course is centered around three core modules whereupon students complete different portions of its main quest, encouraged in turn to arrive at this potential myriad of conclusions themselves. At the end of each module, students dissect YouTube videos which showcase players at various stages in the game’s storyline - similar to when literature students read poems as homework which are then discussed in the classroom, suggests Ellard.

Consistent with any other course of academic study, assessment takes the form of a midterm and a final examination, whereby students must frame a connection between Skyrim lore and a psychoanalytical reading covered in the weeks prior, as well as answering questions relevant to video sequences of the game in action.

By putting the relative snobbery and pretension at times associated with academia to one side, the Scandinavian Fantasy Worlds: Old Norse Sagas and Skyrim course is a perfect example of the potential video games carry in not only transcending stereotypes, but in actively encouraging learning. As an interactive medium, video games have arguably more power than any other in conveying their desired message, as the learning process becomes an idiosyncratic, two-way operation. There will no doubt be those who scoff at these attempts to integrate the medium into the classroom, however, perhaps surprisingly, the majority of Professor Ellard’s student enlistment came from medievalist backgrounds who were not video game enthusiasts. The rest came from even further afield.

“Most of those who took the class were not videogame players - they had taken many medieval classes with me and so they were approaching it from a kind of similar perspective,” she says. “The ones who came to me from mathematics, or engineering disciplines that are pretty far afield from literary studies - I found them to be the most interested, because it challenged them in so many different ways the way that they thought about what literature could do.

“In terms of marks, I would say I got some of the best student papers I got at Rice.”

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Pirates of the Caribbean’s silly magic still works – but Johnny Depp doesn’t

This fifth sequel makes no sense, but my former teenage heart still jumped. It’s Johnny Depp who’s sunk. [Aye, spoilers ahead . . .]

“One day ashore for ten years at sea. It's a heavy price for what's been done.”

Ten years ago, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), having replaced the sprawling villain Davy Jones as captain of the Flying Dutchman, spent his only day on land before leaving his bride, the incumbent King of the Pirates, Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), for ten years, to fulfil his cursed fate and bring the dead at sea to their eternal rest. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) was sailing away to new adventures, again running after his beloved ship, the Black Pearl. It was 2007, I was 14, and the trilogy I had put all my teenage heart into was ending with the third instalment, At World’s End, on a bitter-sweet and loyal salute to the series.

But whatever the posters said, that wasn't quite the end, and what came after was awful.

First, the third film’s traditional post-credits scene showed Elizabeth waiting for her husband’s return, a ten-year-old boy by her side. She, the King of the Pirates, who in the same movie had just led a fleet to defeat the East India Company, had been sitting on the sand for ten years, raising a kid, instead of sailing, even while pregnant, to save Will like a fictional Ann Bonny? I was furious. Then, in 2011, Disney released On Stranger Tides, a sequel so hideous that even this former fan could not bring herself to like it. Bloom and Knightley had moved on, and without the original lovers’ duo, Johnny Depp’s legendary Sparrow had no substantial character to balance his craziness. Somehow, it made money, leading Disney to plan more sequels. Hence the fifth story, Salazar’s Revenge (Dead Men Tell No Tales in the US) hitting theatres this weekend.

Admittedly, it didn’t take the fourth or fifth movie for Pirates of the Caribbean to stop making sense, or just to be a bit rubbish. After the surprise success in 2003 of The Curse of the Black Pearl (young man associates with pirate to save young woman from more pirates and break a curse, adventures ensue), Disney improvised two more stories. Filmed together, there was 2006’s Dead Man’s Chest (couple’s wedding is interrupted, curse threatens pirate, fiancé wants to save his father from said curse, adventures ensue) and 2007’s At World’s End (everyone goes to the end of the world to save dead pirate while piracy is at war with East India Company and man still wants to save his father, adventures ensue). Chaotic plots, childish humour, naively emphatic dialogue and improbable situations quickly lost much of the audience.

Yet I’ve loved the trilogy for it all: the swashbuckling, sword-fighting and majestic ships on the high seas, the nautical myths, the weird magic and star-crossed love story. Everyone knows the main theme, but there are more hidden jewels to Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack. “One Day”, the melody to the couple’s last day together, is a beautiful backwash of nostalgia, as they embrace in the froth. Detailed costumes and stylish sets (At World’s End had stunning shots, such as a Chinese junk navigating the icy waters of the world's end) worked their magic every time.

As expected, there's little subtlety in Salazar’s Revenge. It’s over-the-top comedy and loud action, unnecessarily salacious jokes and copied scenes from the original. Its villain, Capitán Salazar (Javier Bardem), is a parody of a nightmare, but then not everyone can convey terror from under layers of CGI the way Bill Nighy could. It is a story of sons and daughters – Turner’s son Henry is following in the family tradition, trying to save his father from a curse – usually the sign that a series is dangerously lurking into fan fiction (here's looking at you, Harry Potter’s Cursed Child). Praised for being a feminist character, the new female lead Carina (Kaya Scodelario) spends half the film being sexualised and the other half defending the concept of women being smart, where previous films let Elizabeth lead a fleet of men without ever doubting her sex.

But the promise has been kept. Exactly ten years after leaving in a flash of green, Will Turner returns and brings some of the original spirit with him: ship battles and clueless soldiers, maps that cannot be read and compasses that do not point north. Zimmer’s theme sounds grand and treasure islands make the screen shine. The Pearl itself floats again, after disappearing in Stranger Tides.

Yet the one bit of magic it can't revive is in the heart of its most enduring character. Johnny Depp has sunk and everyone is having fun but him. Engulfed in financial troubles and rumours of heavy drinking, the actor, who had to be fed his lines by earpiece, barely manages a bad impersonation of the character he created in 2003. Watching him is painful – though it goes deeper than his performance in this film alone. Allegations of domestic violence against his ex-wife Amber Heard have tarnished his image, and his acting has been bad for a decade.

It should work better, given this incarnation of his Jack Sparrow is similarly damaged. The pirate legend on “Wanted” posters has lost the support of his crew and disappoints the new hero (“Are you really THE Jack Sparrow?”). The film bets on flashbacks of Jack’s youth, featuring Depp’s actual face and bad special effects, to remind us who Sparrow is. He is randomly called “the pirate” by soldiers who dreamt of his capture in previous movies and his character is essentially incidental to the plot, struggling to keep up with the younger heroes. He even loses his compass.

Pirates of the Caribbean 5 is the sequel no one needed, that the happy end the star-crossed lovers should never have had. It is 2017 and no one will sail to the world’s end and beyond to save Depp from purgatory. But all I wanted was for "One Day" to play, and for the beloved ghosts of my teenage years to reappear in a sequel I knew should never have been written. The beauty was in that last flash of green.

And yet the pirate's song sounds true: "Never shall we die". Pirates of the Caribbean has, at the very least, kept delivering on that.

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