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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Marc Maron: a conversation with the anxiety co-pilot

Now that the interview-based podcast WTF has had millions of downloads and featured guests from Iggy Pop and Barack Obama, what does its host Marc Maron want to say?

Richard Pryor decided to talk about race. Sam Kinison used his fame and his family history to talk about God. Bill Hicks asked why nothing produced in America seemed quite worthy of the people who consumed it. Now that the intimate, interview-based podcast WTF has had millions of downloads on iTunes and has featured guests from Mel Brooks to Iggy Pop and, this summer, Barack Obama, what does its host, the comedian Marc Maron – adopter of stray cats, recovered addict and vinyl hoarder – feel he has to say?

“I think the type of conversations that I have on the show are something that is missing in our lives,” Maron told me one recent Friday, down the line from the garage in the garden of his home in Highland Park, Los Angeles, where WTF has been recorded twice a week since 2009. “We’ve lost the knowledge that it’s not that hard to have an hour-long conversation with someone. You’re built to carry whatever problems they have. I think it’s good for the heart.”

If the Maron family crest bore a motto, it might be that timeless adage: “Wherever you go, there you are.” Born in 1963, Maron was raised by a real-estate broker mother and an orthopaedic surgeon father, first in New Jersey, then in Alaska, then in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “My father is and was both an overactive hypochondriac and a physician,” he wrote in his 2013 memoir, Attempting Normal, “which is a bad combination.” After studying English at Boston University, he began performing stand-up comedy at the age of 24.

“I don’t think of myself as a joke guy,” he told me. “Most of what I do is creating a dialogue around my own problems. Some people call it ‘navel-gazing’ but I’d prefer to call it ‘compulsive self-awareness’.”

And there have been many problems. Maron, now 51, began his 2013 comedy special Thinky Pain by telling the audience in the basement of the Village Gate nightclub in New York that he didn’t “have a lot of respect for people that don’t have the courage to lose complete control of their life for a few years”.

When Maron was 35, unhappily married, hoovering up booze, weed and cocaine most evenings, he met a beautiful aspiring comedian 12 years his junior, who told him he looked dreadful and offered to help him get sober. And she did, more or less. He divorced his first wife and pinned his hopes on his second. By 2009, he was living on the US west coast, divorced for a second time, barely able to work and newly dismissed from the morning talk show he’d co-hosted on the left-leaning Air America radio network.

“It was a period where I needed to talk a lot,” he said, “but also to sort of re-engage with something I think I had practised as a child: being part of somebody else.” With the former Air America producer Brendan McDonald, Maron began recording conversations with comedian friends, seeking advice, delving into their lives. He asked stock questions, such as “What did your old man do?” and “Who were your guys?”, as if they might provide some clue to where he had gone wrong. Then people started to listen.

“I started getting emails saying somehow or other the dialogue with my guests, or my monologues, were making people feel better or getting them through dark times,” he said. “I never anticipated people would get that type of help from the show.”

In a recent episode with Ian McKellen, Maron explained to the British actor that his listeners were “sensitive, slightly aggravated, usually intelligent people”, not so much “a demographic, more of a disposition”. By 2010, WTF had attracted a cult following. Robin Williams came to the garage and talked about his depression. Maron’s fellow stand-up Todd Glass came out as gay on the show after a string of suicides among young LGBT people. Friends whom Maron had known throughout his career, including David Cross, Sarah Silverman and Bob Odenkirk, joined him to reminisce. His 2010 interview with Louis CK, arguably the best-known US comedian of recent years, was voted the greatest podcast episode ever by the online magazine Slate.

“Comedians in their infancy are generally selfish, irresponsible, emotionally retarded, morally dubious, substance-addicted animals who live out of boxes and milk crates,” Maron wrote in his memoir. Yet, as they mature, they can become “some of the most thoughtful, philosophical, open-minded . . . creative people in the world”.

“The best comics are people that have taken the chance to live a life independent of mainstream culture and expectations,” he told me. “They’re constantly looking for an angle on the information coming in. They write things down. It’s the life of a thinker, or a philosopher, or poet – however you want to put it.”

I suggested that poetry was an ideal analogy for comedy, not only because poets reframe reality in a truthful way but also because they can be savage and resentful, particularly to fellow poets. It’s a fact Maron openly concedes about himself.

“I’m the clown that thought Louis CK’s show Louie should be called F*** You, Marc Maron,” he said at the 2011 Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal. The episode of WTF with Louis CK, a friend since the late 1980s, is remarkable not only for the moment when CK becomes audibly emotional as he discusses the birth of his first child, but for the way in which he unflinchingly airs his grievances with Maron, who confesses to envying CK’s success so much that they lost contact for a time. “You were being a shitty friend by being jealous,” CK says. “I could’ve used you . . . I got divorced. I got a show cancelled. I could’ve used a friend.”

So, in 2015, with a TV series about his life on the IFC cable network concluding its third series, the widely discussed interview in which Obama opened up about parenting, gun control and racism in the US and a series of high-profile appearances in Dublin, London and Sydney booked to showcase new material, surely the glass at last looks half full? “Maybe,” he said. “There are some people whose ego is able to accept the love and adoration of an audience. I’ve always been one to question that.”

Yet the improvements to his life – recognition, financial security, reconciliation with old friends – are undeniable. “Most creative people move through a tremendous amount of insecurity, which can turn to hostility. But the podcast became socially relevant and some of the insecurities dissipated. I could accept myself, for the most part, and realise that all the hard work I’d done for half my life had manifested into something that connects with people.”

Maron’s biggest anxiety today, he explained at the end of our talk, before opening the garage door to face the day, is that he’s “swamped with work all the f***ing time”.

“I beat myself up feeling like I should be out in the world, seeing a play or some art or something. Often, when I do monologues, I think, ‘I’ve got nothing to talk about.’ But then I go on and talk about nothing.”

The truth is that Marc Maron isn’t Richard Pryor or Bill Hicks – but that’s OK. We live in a different time. Perhaps what listeners need most is not more opinions, but a little help getting out of their own way: a co-pilot to navigate the anxieties of living day to day. “That’s exactly right,” he said. “The little things.”

Marc Maron performs at the Southbank Centre, London SE1, on 3 and 4 September

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses