-by Gabrielle Friesen
Skyrim sure is a game that I enjoy sometimes. The plot and setting are kind of derivative for the fantasy genre (dragons and forests and surface-level references to Norse mythology wow, amazing, never before seen), and its not particularly challenging, but I still enjoy wandering around the environment and clearing random dungeons for hours on end. I enjoy the character creation a lot – I have thirteen characters right now, it’s a bit of a problem. The game lacks character interaction and development, which are normally some of my main criteria for buying a game. Basically the game isn’t stellar, but I still enjoy it. I’m weirdly addicted to building houses and sending out my Dragonborn and their spouse to slay draugr. They have matching warhammers, it’s cute.
And, hey! That’s cool! A game with marriage as a mechanic that allows same-sex marriage too! Great? Sort of. Skyrim takes a stab at inclusivity with the ability to marry any of the available love interests, which is nice, that they added in marriage and didn’t just restrict it to straight marriage. But that’s as far as the game goes. It very much takes the real-world stance that marriage access equals equality, and promptly stops trying to integrate same-sex attraction on any further level, even though straightness is embedded far deeper in the game in places other than the marriage function.
If the player’s Dragonborn wears an Amulet of Mara (the world’s Goddess of Love), they are marked as open to marriage, and certain Non Player Character’s (NPCs) will express interest. This places the romanceable NPC’s in a sort of nebulous zone – they may be coded as same-sex attracted, but only if the player initiates it by wearing the Amulet of Mara. A character not wearing the Amulet won’t get the dialogue, meaning that any characters who are romanceable are essentially devoid of sexuality. And if sexuality isn’t explicitly stated, the general assumption is that the person is straight, since straight in our society is coded as the norm.
Which, ok, the Amulet is kind of a weird mechanic if you think about it. And why should it matter that all the characters have to tell you that they’re attracted to you specifically in order to be coded as same-sex attracted? Because, if the romanceable characters don’t express attraction to your same-sexed character, there are no characters that are explicitly same-sex attracted in the whole game. There are however, an overwhelming number of straight characters in the game, many of whose straight relationships are integral components of major plot/questlines.
You can talk to Adrianne Avenicci, the blacksmith in Whiterun about her husband who runs their shop, or overhear a fight between Amren and his wife, which you can then solve in a sidequest. Elisif the Fair’s husband was killed in a duel, Anneke Crag-Jumper’s husband wants her to settle down and stop adventuring before she’s killed, Carlotta Valentia’s husband died at some point, and now she’s receiving unwanted advances from the men in Whiterun, including the bard Mikael. All the orc chieftains have multiple wives. Oh no, betrayal in the Thieves Guild wherein Karliah’s lover Gallus is murdered and she’s framed for it. Astrid runs the Dark Brotherhood in Skyrim, and her husband is one of the assassins in the organization. Grosta thinks her husband abandoned her, but he actually died, go find his body and then let Grosta know. That one unmarked camp with the two lovers who ran away together but died in the wilderness. Drelya Alor and Captain Veleth have a secret relationship, Aphia Velothi wants her husband Crescius Caerellius to drop his conspiracy theories, Bujuld the Unworthy is a terrible leader, resulting in her, her husband, and the other Thirsk members being kicked out of their mead hall.
Look at just how long and tiring and bloated that paragraph is. I didn’t even list everyone.
But there is not a single same-sex attracted couple in the game.
It’s not like that level of inclusion would have been hard: Brynjolf off-handedly mentions a boyfriend he had in his youth, who became a city guard just as Brynjolf joined the Thieves Guild, resulting in a nasty break-up. Anneke’s wife wants her to stop adventuring, she’s too old to be mucking about in draugr-infested caves, does she want her to have to explain to their daughter that her mother was killed by the walking dead because she couldn’t just stay at the mine? There, done.
I’ve also been using “same-sex attraction” throughout for a reason, rather than “queer” or “lgbtq.” Trans* characters do not exist, even though it would also not to be difficult to include some trans* folks in the world of Skyrim. Faendal still has the male character model, but uses “she” pronouns. Uthgerd the Unbroken rejects any gendering of themself, they would rather just engage in friendly fist-fighting, let’s brawl. Fantastic. This would literally require no extra resources on the developer’s part (what game companies do care about), and would have meant representation of marginalized groups (what game companies should also care about but generally don’t).
In addition, certain game mechanics function in ways that not only code the character as straight, but also reward the player for creating a straight character. Namely the “Allure” perk. If a character levels up their Speechcraft skill to level 30, they can unlock “Allure,” which gives them “10% better prices with the opposite sex.” Ok, but why would my Dragonborn be better at talking to men than women? I guess allure implies that she flirts with them? Fine, but Dragonborn #5 (Hroki), who is super ethical and super lesbian, would never flirt with a man to try and get lower prices. But I also wanted to play her as a great orator, who had unlocked all the Speechraft perks, except now I can’t because I have to unlock “Allure” in order to unlock the ones further up on the skilltree, but on principle and due to roleplaying I no longer can. Hroki balks at the thought.
The DragonBorn add-on, the last downloadable content to be released for the game, includes multiple sidequests whose end result are more perks, gifted to your character by an Elder God. One of the possible perks the player can acquire over the course of the Black Book quests is called “Lover’s Insight,” whose benefit is that your character will now “Do 10% more damage and get 10% better prices from people of the opposite sex.” Straightness is then once more signified as a focal point for economic benefit, as well as physical prowess – in a game whose main gameplay mechanic is “do damage.”
“Lover’s Insight” and the original “Allure” perk can stack, giving you the benefit of both. It is literally more profitable to play a straight character; your character is stronger, the player can make more money, and the game is easier if your Dragonborn takes the perks that code them as straight. Now, I suppose that on a role-playing level, one could create a work-around for their character having perks that code them as straight– it’s not that Dragonborn #3 (Greer) is actually into dudes, she just knows how to flirt with them to make them lower prices, and then rides off into the sunset with her wife Jenassa after swindling every dude vendor in Whiterun, stealing their merchandise and then selling it back to them at exorbitant prices– but taking the game at face value reveals the ways in which straight characters, and usually straight gamers are privileged in the game-world.
The two perks are especially baffling considering Skyrim’s publisher, Bethesda, also published Fallout: New Vegas, which had a way better perk system. The 10% damage bonus and unique dialogue options with the opposite sex still existed in the Black Widow (for women characters) and the Lady Killer (for men) perks. The game also includes Cherchez La Femme which grants a woman character the bonuses against other women, and Confirmed Bachelor for men against other men, effectively allowing the player to code their character as same-sex attracted. In addition the player can pick both options, so a man could have both Confirmed Bachelor and lady Killer, allowing the player to code their character as bi- or pansexual. Fallout: New Vegas was released in 2010 and Skyrim in 2011, so the perk system is a step backwards in terms of representation being integrated with game mechanics. Publishers do not really have control of something like the perk system, but nonetheless, a precedent was set for a better system in a game by the same developer.
Skyrim’s version of representation is basically the equivalent of those equal sign icons on facebook, the videogame counterpart of the Human Rights Campaign’s politics. Marriage as the end-all, be-all issue facing queer communities, we can’t talk or think about anything else. If we just put gay marriage in our game, that’ll placate the queer community. It doesn’t matter that representation is otherwise non-existent, or that straightness is still far more privileged and confers literal in-game benefits, with heterosexuality as a game mechanic that makes your character more powerful. I appreciate that I can have my characters get married in the game, I really do, but it’s a band-aid over a larger and deeper wound of systematic heterosexism built into the core mechanics of the game. It’s a start, nice try Skyrim, but I sincerely hope the minimal effort it involved to include same-sex marriage does not become the high goal to shoot for in terms of representation in videogames. It’s well-meaning surface-level representation at best, and cheap pandering as an after-thought at its worst.