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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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear