The ideological conflict between linearity and openness in video games has been widely argued recently, while the underlying concepts that give rise to the two forms—agency and structure, free will and determinism—have been largely ignored. Given the role of systems in determining the experience of play, the topic is one that deserves to be discussed. The recently re-released The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, with its expansive world and freedom of choice appears to present itself as an apt case study of the way that player freedom can transcend gameplay structures to create a sense of infinite possibility. However, the opposing concepts of structure and agency work together in games, as in life, to limit freedom while obscuring the possibilities that are beyond the individual’s reach.
Central among debates within contemporary sociology is discussion of the role that structure and agency play in determining the course of human lives. Within this discourse, structure refers to the limits and opportunities imposed by factors largely beyond individual control, such as geography, socio-economic status, and gender, while agency is defined as the ability and willingness of individuals to make decisions and alter their circumstances. According to Ambreen Hai, “the social sciences” privilege the role of “structure to an extreme degree of social determinism,” while the primacy of agency is forwarded by the field of philosophy, which focuses on “intention and rationality to the exclusion of social institutions and frameworks” (15). However, Anthony Giddens, one of the most influential sociologists of recent times, argues that this binary opposition is fundamentally flawed. Steven Loyal sums up a core tenet of Giddens’s thesis when he writes, “’agents’ only become ‘agents’ in and through ‘social structures’” (2), thus suggesting that the concepts are intrinsically linked and interdependent. No matter what perspective is taken, however, the debate is grounded in the underlying philosophical oppositions of free will and determinism, and the inevitable interactions between human beings and socio-environmental systems. Similarly, video games are built upon systems that govern the range of actions that players have access to, ensuring that the structure-agency spectrum is an integral aspect of the medium. Unfortunately, commentary on this topic is usually limited to banal discussions of the dichotomous frameworks of linearity and openness, with little attention paid to the true extent of player freedom. Few titles present themselves as readily for examination of the interplay between structure and agency within video games as Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, with its sprawling world, blank-slate protagonist, and broad array of skills to be exercised.
The Systems of Skyrim
Originally released in 2011 and recently remastered as a ‘Special Edition’ featuring a range of visual and mechanical tweaks and upgrades, Skyrim presents itself as both a virtual tourist location and a digital interpretation of a living world. Implicit in the game’s design and explicit in its marketing is the promise of a second life, which players can occupy as either an escape from or supplement to the real world. Although this approach to game design is fairly common in massive multiplayer online games, Skyrim is one of few single-player games to attempt such an ambitious goal and, thanks to its numerous underlying systems and the relatively convincing simulation arising from their interactions, one of fewer still to come close to achieving it. The digital landscape lies at the heard of all else the game has to offer, its ecological diversity of permafrost tundras, sky-scraping mountains, thick forests, and swamp-bound rivers providing a space for sentient and bestial beings alike to roam, live, and interact. Unfortunately, such interactions are too frequently predicated on violence; hunters and bandits attack wildlife with reckless abandon while dangerous animals, including bears and wolves, are, perhaps, a little more aggressive than is strictly believable, or even fun. The likelihood that NPCs hostile to the player will appear is affected by the geographical layout of the surrounding area and the game’s 24-hour cycle, though both systems are flawed, sometimes spawning creatures in unlikely and illogical situations. Nevertheless, as a means of simulating a natural environment, encompassing all of the randomness that nature is capable of producing within the limits of computer-bound logic systems, Skyrim’s approach certainly is good enough.
Similarly, the social fabric of the nation of Skyrim comprises a range of factions that provide services and employment to the player, including The Companions, The Mages Guild, and The Dark Brotherhood, while NPCs act as merchants, messengers, guards, and other miscellaneous cityfolk. Thus, each city acts as a microcosm of human society within a feudal framework, but the simulation falls apart under close scrutiny as each city is a self-contained enterprise with no visible trade across borders and few quests to actively span more than one hold. Indeed, the only means by which Skyrim seems like a cohesive nation is through the prevalence of commentary on the civil war that rages in the background of the narrative. The Imperial legions and Stormcloak rebels vie for control of the nation, but the war lacks any sense of impact through the absence of unscripted skirmishes between the two factions, a feature that failed to make it to final release. Taken together, these narrative conflicts and systemic interactions form the framework of a world in which the player, personified through a blank-slate avatar, apparently has absolute freedom and endless promise written upon their customisable brow.
Forms of Freedom and Constraint
Layered atop the systems that govern the rules and cycles of Skyrim’s world are those reserved for the protagonist, which provide the actions at the player’s disposal. To borrow from Wolfgang Iser’s discussion of the interaction between literary text and reader, “we must search for structures that will enable us to describe basic conditions of interaction” (1525) as doing so will reveal the extent of the player’s freedom. Ostensibly, the player has an immense amount of agency: the ability to barter almost any item within the game, the freedom to travel to any point on the map, and the liberty to play according to personal preference. This ludic freedom is reinforced by narrative ambiguity. Although players assume the role of the Dohvakiin, a legendary saviour whose coming is foretold by the Elder Scrolls, the character is a blank canvas, their race, appearance, proclivities, and history all left to the player’s inclinations and imagination. More than anything else, this example of free creation separates Skyrim from its contemporaries: Mass Effect’s Commander Shepard and Ryder siblings are all humans and heroes from the outset; Fallout 4’s main character is either a mother or father seeking their lost child; even Dark Souls, with all its ambiguity, assigns players the role of warrior. Jean-Paul Sartre writes that authors, and by extension developers, “appeal . . . to the reader’s [or player’s] freedom to collaborate in the production of [their] work,” meaning that “the book [or game] is not . . . a means for any end whatever; the end to which it offers itself is the reader’s freedom” (1203-1204). Iser agrees, suggesting that “reader participation” in literature is premised upon a kind of co-authoring (1532).
Although Sartre’s and Iser’s comments emerge from a different theme and refer to a different medium, their ideas of co-authoring as a means of reader freedom is highly relevant, as the interactivity of video games makes each playthrough a personalised adventure influenced by both the developer’s vision and the individual’s playstyle. Through its tabula rasa character creation system, Skyrim invites players to participate in the forging of a story more fully than most other games, reinforcing the apparent lack of governing structures by leaving character archetypes entirely to the player’s discretion. Further emphasising the sense of agency is the game’s intuitive, use-based levelling system, which encourages experimentation in order to find a suitable playstyle and to unlock the perks that will increase the practicality of each particular skill. These skills vary wildly in the degree of impact that they have on the experience, with combat and magic describing the “basic conditions of [many moment-to-moment] interactions” (Iser 1525) as the main forms of gameplay ; while alchemy and enchanting, for example, are relegated to menus; and speech and sneaking are passive, affecting, though not indicating, the character’s proficiency at particular tasks. Thus, a liberal approach to gameplay design combines with narrative ambiguity and a blank avatar to provide a sense of agency, however, that freedom, in keeping with Giddens’s sociological theory, is reliant on the structures that give rise to it.
The structural limitations that describe player freedom in Skyrim stem primarily from three sources: quest structure, level design, and endgame goals and activities. The least proscriptive of these frameworks is the quests, most of which come to the player through conversation with NPCs. Such missions are split into two broad categories, the straightforward Miscellaneous Quests and the more attentively-crafted Named Quests. No matter how simplistic or complex, however, most quests can be boiled down to the fundamental goals of acquiring an item, killing an enemy, or both. Thus, the game privileges development of the action-based skills, with few quests demanding proficiency in other areas. The single-path approach to dungeon design that permeates the game further restricts the utility of particular skills. For example, rogue-build characters, with their focus on stealth and long-range assassinations, while viable, are disadvantaged by the relative weakness of archery, the frequent absence of high or low ground through which to break enemy sightlines, and the prevalence of combat encounters with large groups of enemies. Finally, the nature of Skyrim’s endgame highlights just how forcefully the game directs players into the role of an adventurer. Despite the ability to barter good, or ascend to leadership of the various guilds, such paths do not represent endpoints for the player’s journey; becoming a merchant, scholar, or entertainer is prohibited. Instead, the procedural quest generation system generates hunts, bandit conclaves, and fetch quests ad nauseum, sending players into Skyrim’s wildernesses time and again, and making the “legendary freedom of choice” advertised in the game’s marketing ring hollow. However, as Sartre writes, “the imagination of the spectator has . . . a constitutive [function]” as well as a passive one (120), and thus the player’s subjective experience fills the hermeneutic gaps that inexorably arise from the current inability of logic systems and limited means of control to simulate the freedom of movement and action experienced in the physical world. Despite this subjectivity, or perhaps because of it, Skyrim is an example of Giddens’s sociological theory practice, with player agency and gameplay structures linked in a mutually supportive relationship that govern the extent of player freedom while effectively obscuring the near-endless range of inaccessible actions and paths that other games display more clearly.
Sociology and single-player video games may seem to be as divergent fields of study as exist anywhere, but they are linked through their shared interest on systems and interactions. However, few games give rise to a discussion of the interplay between structure and agency as readily as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. The systems and structures present in Bethesda’s fantasy RPG follow Anthony Giddens’s sociological theory of the interdependence of freedom and restriction in determining the range of actions and options available to the player, while hiding from view those paths that cannot be trod.
Hai, Ambreen. Making Words Matter: The Agency of Colonial and Postcolonial Literature. Athens: Ohio UP, 2009. Web.
Iser, Wolfgang. “Interaction between Text and Reader”. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent Leitch, et al. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. 2010. Print.
Loyal, Steven. The Sociology of Anthony Giddens. London: Pluto Press, 2003. Web.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. “From What Is Literature?”. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent Leitch, et al. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. 2010. Print.