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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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State