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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Man in the mirror-ball: Simon Armitage's The Unaccompanied

With this mature, engaging and empathetic work, the poet softens the pain of passing years. 

The Unaccompanied, by Simon Armitage
Faber & Faber, 76pp, £14.99

“The centuries crawl past,” Simon Armitage notes in his new collection, “none of them going your way”. After a decade of acclaimed travelogues, transgressive prose poetry, and above all translation, Armitage has combed those centuries to produce innovative versions of ancient and medieval texts: Pearl, The Death of King Arthur, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Georgics. In The Unaccompanied he returns, refreshed from his sojourn in the past and bringing the classics with him; in the book’s dystopian present, in “Poundland”, Odysseus meets the ghost of his drunken comrade Elpenor not in the Underworld, but “slumped and shrunken by the Seasonal Products display”, the poem’s pseudo-archaic English underscoring its ironic rewriting of Homer. Meanwhile, the protagonist of “Prometheus”, holed up in a post-industrial wasteland, sees his father retrieve not fire, but a Champion spark plug.

To lighten its nightmarish visions, The Unaccompanied offers the same beguiling playfulness that has characterised Armitage’s verse from his 1989 debut, Zoom!, to the “Merrie England” of Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid (2006). “Tiny”, for instance, reads like an old-school Ladybird Book (“Simon has taken his father, Peter,/to the town’s museum”) and “The Poet Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party” makes a mischievous nod to Yeats. As ever, there are pinpoint references to popular culture; in “Gravity”, it is the “six-minute-plus/album version” of Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara” that plays on the stereo in the sixth-form common room. Yet Armitage’s concern for the socially excluded – the “skinny kid in jeans and trainers” from “The Ice Age” to whom the poet offers a spurned coat, “brother to brother” – burns unabated.

This collection articulates a new anger that is more personal, a lament for individual mortality, the sadness of time moving on too far and too fast. In “The Present”, the poet attempts to take an icicle home to his daughter:

a taste of the glacier, a sense of the world

being pinned in place by a
diamond-like cold

at each pole, but I open my hand

and there’s nothing to pass on, nothing to hold.

Armitage’s fluid poetics are pitch-perfect and his imagery remains incisive. The bare winter larch trees become “widowed princesses in moth-eaten furs”. In “Poor Old Soul” an elderly man sits, “hunched and skeletal under a pile of clothes,/a Saxon king unearthed in a ditch”. This is the measured poetry of late middle-age, in which only the promise of more loss fills the “white paper, clean pages”. In “Kitchen Window”, the poet’s mother taps the smeared glass before she falls away “behind net curtains” and then further “to deeper/darker reaches and would not surface”. “Emergency” (published in the NS in 2013) could almost be his audition for Grumpy Old Men. “What is it we do now?” he asks as he details the closed banks, and pubs where “tin-foil wraps/change hands under cover/of Loot magazine”. W G Hoskins’s gentle topological classic is referenced in “The Making of the English Landscape”, though a very different country is seen at dusk from a satellite:

like a shipwreck’s carcass raised on a
sea-crane’s hook,

nothing but keel, beams, spars, down to its bare bones.

In “Harmonium”, the poet’s father – who, in 1993’s Book of Matches, berated him for having his ear pierced – helps his son lug an unwanted organ from their local church and reminds him “that the next box I’ll shoulder through this nave/will bear the load of his own dead weight”.

Armitage’s poetic world is instantly recognisable, always inclusive. We know the faded ballrooms that turn into even sadder discos in “The Empire”. Or the clumsy children’s shoe fitter of “The Cinderella of Ferndale”, who leaves her own footprints of disappointment. As the poet stumbles on a farmers’ fancy-dress parade for a breast cancer charity in “Tractors”, the slight incident bleeds into the universal shock of diagnosis: “the musket-ball/or distant star/in your left breast”. Critics often cite Philip Larkin as an influence on his work, but Armitage’s highly tuned sense of such “mirror-ball” moments – small but refracting repeatedly across time and lives – is all his own. Thankfully, with this mature, engaging and empathetic work, he is back to record them for us, softening the pain of passing years. 

Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. “Letting Go: Mourning Sonnets” will be published by Agenda Editions in July

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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