I’ve made some of these comments before on other blog posts, but I think the topic merits its own discussion. There is a whole lot of chatter around TESWiki and other cyber-places about “racism” in Skyrim, especially in reference to NPC’s in the Skyrim Civil War storyline. I think that tossing around terms like “racist” or “bigot” to describe video game characters is frivolous at best, but beyond that, to equate the relations of different peoples in Tamriel to the difficulties of different ethnicities in the real world and pass judgment on the fictional characters’ actions by the standards of our reality here on Earth is both ignorant and erroneous. Let me explain fully what I mean, and then I’ll leave the rest of you to throw comment-shaped stones at me.
The races in the Elder Scrolls universe should not be confused for what people on Earth refer to as “race.” It has often been said that there is only one race on our planet, the Human Race, and since we are all created equal there is no justification for making moral or racial distinctions between ethnicities. This very basic principle assumes that each human being’s character is independent of their ethnic background. That, however, is not true in Tamriel; there, the races really are different species, with totally different attributes and origins, and what you will typically find in conversation with NPC’s in TES games is that practically everyone makes judgments about the people around them based on their race. This does not translate to hatred or bigotry, it is simply a fact of life in Nirn – different races are different creatures, plain and simple, and unlike the human beings of Earth, one’s race is a fairly accurate indicator of how an NPC will react in certain circumstances.
Think of the random encounters of mercenaries you meet on the road in Skyrim, the ones in heavy armor who call you a milk drinker and try to lop your head off if you stare at them too long – they are either Nords or Orcs or Redguards, in almost every case, which no one versed in TES lore (or Fantasy literature in general) will find surprising, because that’s just the way that those archetypes act, they’re warrior peoples. That doesn’t make them racially superior or inferior to any other, it’s just a fact that an Orc is going to be more naturally talented at splitting your face open than sneaking undetected around a guarded outpost, or conjuring a bound Dremora, because they’re born with particular skill sets. The inverse goes for an Argonian or a Khajiit: most won’t be able to intimidate any dragons or Deathlords with a fierce battle cry, but chances are they’re quite adept at slicing a man’s throat in an alley and lifting the valuables from his corpse without a sound – an awfully valuable skill to have in many dark corners of Tamriel. They aren’t relegated to the docks or to roadside caravans just because they talk funny or look like lizards/cats or because no one wants to sit behind them on the city bus – the segregation isn’t that simple because the facts aren’t that simple.
The facts are that Khajiit are cunning and dangerous by nature more than by choice, and have proven over the ages that if you give them an inch they’ll have an ell before you even know it, not because they’re avaricious or dishonest, but because they’re born takers. The facts are that Argonian eggs hatch out some of the best natural assassins and thieves in Nirn, and those assassins and thieves recently effected a savage vengeance on Morrowind for their long centuries of enslavement. The facts are that the Dunmer, for their part, literally wrote the book on honor feuds and ritual killings; they’re also naturally skilled in destruction magic, stealth assault tactics and slave trading. The facts are that High Elves are born with a superiority complex so prominent they make Heinrich Himmler look like a UN ambassador. The fact is, it’d be stupid to ignore all of these facts in favor of treating every sentient species exactly the same, just as it’s stupid to call the leaders of a province bigots just because they know that the people in their jurisdiction have more to fear in their day and time than just fear itself.
[Caveat: A handful of the characters in the game truly are prejudiced in destructive ways – Rolff Stone-Fist comes to mind, as well as Elenwen and most other Thalmor that you encounter. In fact, the entire premise of the Thalmor government is bigoted in nature, and sets itself at odds to the aims of any other faction or people group in Skyrim. But then, a haughty superiority complex has been characteristic of many of the high elves throughout the TES universe (e.g. Mannimarco), so perhaps that in itself is a product of the cultural as well as biological DNA of Summerset Isle. If there were ever a game in which self-assurance was a skill, I think Altmer would have a natural +10 starting bonus. However, among the population of Skyrim these are the extreme minority, and aside from the Thalmor none have any exercised authority. If you disagree on account of the Stormcloak leadership, I challenge you to name one statement made by Ulfric or action you directly watch him take in-game that subjugates a non-Nord people group purely because they are different. You won’t find one.]
The problem with referring to Nords or Elves or whatever as “racist” is, it doesn’t take into consideration that in Tamriel, your race is integral to your personality. Most of the people in discussion forums putting these politically correct and culturally ignorant labels on the characters seem to be Americans or other strictly Western thinkers, which I think has something to do with it, because the concept of Nationalism as a positive force is totally lost on most of the “New World” population who also own video games. In most pure cultures, being from somewhere is what makes you somebody. Likewise in Tamriel, where cultural boundaries are very nicely articulated by province, the nationality and identity of a totally separate race actually does change who individual people are, which can’t really be said of those living in a melting-pot like, say, North America, where the identity of place and belonging to the land have largely lost meaning. It’s different elsewhere, and it’s not such an archaic concept to associate a person with where they come from, especially if it actually has a strong culture of its own. For a real-world contrast, I dare you to read up on Executive Order 9066 and the treatment of the Nisei in America during World War II – President Roosevelt made some very morally questionable decisions, and what he did would never be tolerated in today’s political climate, but there was a rational basis to the choices made. Even a progressive like FDR acted on an ancient principle: if you were truly a different person who was born and raised into a completely different country and culture, with a different language and belief system where the gods all had different names, that other you wouldn’t see the world in the same way or believe quite the same things as the present you does. This is even more true if the other you wasn’t a human being at all, but a talking, self-aware orangutan – point being, a different species has a different identity completely, and a different moral compass, if any at all.
It seems to me that many in the leading demographics of TES gamers find it hard to understand that Nationalism does not equal racism, and that there is a fundamental difference between racial diversity among humanity in the real world, and the races of these fictional times and places. The difference is this: in Nirn, an individual’s personality, character and identity are in large part determined by the race which breeds that individual. Whereas human beings are all equally capable of exercising their free will in any scenario, the races of Tamriel are more predisposed to be one thing than another. A Breton and a Nord an Imperial can be customized to look very similar, but they are fundamentally different beings and as NPC’s will make different choices in certain settings; they are predeterminately bent toward certain behaviours simply because they are different races. There’s no moral judgment in that statement, it’s just a fact.
If you’re going to have an opinion about politics in Skyrim, you need to understand that it’s not 2012 here, it’s 4E 201, and the differences between races and cultures are four long and eventful eras in the making. We weren’t there for the genocidal massacre on the Night of Tears, or during the betrayals at the Battle of Red Mountain, or watching the slaughter of thousands at Elven hands in the Great War or for the Forsworn’s bloody raping rampage of the Reach. We’re new around here and many things have changed even in the two centuries since we last saved Tamriel, so open your eyes and learn better how this world works before you make up your mind. If your Dragonborn character wants to ignore these facts, wants to resent one of the Jarls or the Stormcloaks or some other faction for its reasonable suspicion of a people group based on their track record, he/she is obviously free to do so, but I hope the players of those characters can acknowledge that this warped variation on “colorblindness” is not equality, and it is not a fair perspective. This self-righteous tendency of Western Civilization’s children to measure every other government against their preferred Constitution and be the ethics police for cultures and belief systems they don’t understand is not enlightened thinking – it is hypocritical ignorance.