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Patricia Maier: Mobility and Choices in Role-Playing Games

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 The cultural analysis of video games must consider at least two intersecting dualities. First, it needs to recognize that both the code underlying the game—and therefore its rules—as well as the fictional world play an important role, as Jesper Juul shows in his seminal work Half-Real when arguing that video games consist of “real rules and fictional worlds,” hence the title-giving “half-real” status of video games (Juul 1). Second, the cultural artifact of the video game includes both the cultural influences in and on the games themselves as well as the cultural context of the players. As Phillip Penix-Tadsen writes in his work on Latin American culture and video games, “[b]oth static code and subjective play have been shown to contribute to the process of meaning creation in games. But culture also comes into play, not only due to the particularities of the social contexts in which video games are produced and consumed, but also through symbolic, environmental, and narrative elements that contribute to meaningful in-game experiences” (1). For this paper, I will use his concept of culture, which he defines “in terms of the tokens, symbols and other devices that are employed in the context of specific semiotic systems (including but not limited to video games) in order to represent characteristics attributed to a group of individuals” (cf. 8-9). Penix-Tadsen puts an emphasis on the “commodified and negotiated nature” of this sense of culture, “while also accounting for the contrasting meanings that culture can take on depending on the semiotic systems and interpretive contexts in which its signification is generated” (8-9).

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 The role-playing game (RPG) is one genre of video game that bears especially close ties to mainstream US-American culture as its generic meaning-making is often tied to a major trope of Americanness: mobility. The concept of mobility will be explained in detail using Tim Cresswell’s work, which in turn will provide the basis for introducing Ann Brigham’s ideas on American road narratives. Analyzing these road narratives in terms of mobility, she includes the concept of incorporation to explain an exchange of ideas between the traveler and the place they are traversing. This concept bears close ties to that of Gordon Calleja, who uses it to find an alternative to the terms immersion and presence in video games. Relating these concepts to Michael Nitsche’s work on video game spaces and Miguel Sicart’s on morality in video games, they will form the basis for an analysis of an example in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.[1] In this situation, the player’s mobility and freedom is contrasted with that of one of the in-game “races,” the Khajit. In the encounter with the Khajit, the player’s status as special is revealed while the game also asks the player indirectly to make a moral decision regarding their engagement with the Khajit. As the player is free to ignore or engage with these choices, as is usual in open-world games, I claim that the freedom to choose is a direct result of the player’s mobility, and the related possibility of acquiring new information and a new perspective is the basis for making moral choices in the fictional world.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 To understand why mobility is such an important factor for the player of an RPG, a closer look at mobility as a concept in US-American culture as well as popular culture is necessary. “[M]obility is central to what it is to be human,” Cresswell states in the introduction to On the Move: Mobility in the Western World (1), and indeed discussions on who moves and who does not, who should be allowed to and who should not, and where movement is wanted, have been and still are some of the major debates of our time. Cresswell puts it fittingly:

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Mobility, it seems, is also ubiquitous in the pages of academia. It plays a central role in discussions of the body and society. It courses through contemporary theorizations of the city. Culture, we are told, no longer sits in places, but is hybrid, dynamic—more about routes than roots. The social is no longer seen as bound by ‘societies,’ but as caught up in a complex array of twenty-first century mobilities. Philosophy and social theory look to the end of sedentarism and the rise of foundationless nomadism. Finally, but perhaps most importantly, mobility bears a number of meanings that circulate widely in the modern Western world. Mobility as progress, as freedom, as opportunity, and as modernity, sit side by side with mobility as shiftlessness, as deviance, and as resistance. (On the Move 1-2)

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Furthermore, mobility is not only a concept but “[s]tories about mobility, stories that are frequently ideological, connect blood cells to street patterns, reproduction to space travel. Movement is rarely just movement; it carries with it the burden of meaning and it is this meaning that jumps scales” (On the Move 6-7); in other words, when people move not just physically but across scales, meaning is made (cf. 2). Because of the power relations inherent in these movements, Cresswell emphasizes that movement and mobility are not interchangeable. He defines movement “as abstracted mobility (mobility abstracted from contexts of power),” and it “therefore, describes the idea of an act of displacement that allows people to move between locations” (2). He thus relates movement to space while he sees mobility as “the dynamic equivalent of place” (3). Mobility includes all the implications space is missing as place is tied to ideology and power, a “meaningful [segment] of space” (3).

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 While Cresswell writes about mobility in the Western world, freedom of movement has a particular historical relevance in American culture because “mobility as a right—as a geographical indicator of freedom—has been most forcefully intertwined with the very notion of what it is to be a national citizen—to be American” (On the Move 151). Mobility in the sense of freedom to move where and when one wanted is therefore ingrained in American culture, and it is not surprising that free and unhindered movement in and exploration of a vast game world is an important, if not the major selling point for RPGs on computers and game consoles. Trailers and marketing material of games such as those of the Elder Scrolls, Dragon Age, or Fallout series focus on the expansive game worlds and the freedom the player will experience in traversing and exploring them. Games initially developed for the American market unsurprisingly put such stock in the willingness of players to spend hours upon hours traveling through landscapes.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 This is also tied to another concept: the idea of going ‘on the road,’ whether by foot or car, symbolized escape for the American traveler, a “flight from that which constrains us—society, the self, the family, the past, or the familiar” (Brigham 6). This is, as Ann Brigham notes, one of the major traits scholars have identified in American road narratives in literature and film (cf. 6). It is related to a notion that had a strong influence on what Brigham calls the Euro-American national identity: the “promise of mobility: the freedom to go anywhere and become anyone” (3). Therefore, the road trip as the quintessence of mobility “is not merely the means but the actual manifestation of an authentic American experience,” and the road narrative “reasserts the American as a mobile subject” and “mobility as an American subject” at the same time (Brigham 3).[2] Mobility and being on the road therefore stand for possibilities, for the chance to free oneself from the bonds of home and society. Traveling on the road holds the promise of escaping from anything that would hamper the individual, be it other people, work, or something less specific. It is hence seen as an “escape of tensions” (Brigham 6) as well as “read in terms of familiar binaries: home/away, domesticity/mobility, conformity/rebellion, stasis/movement, confinement/liberation” (Brigham 8). Brigham sees this in a negative light as mobility on the road may be seen as fixed, “self-evident,” and universal, while in truth mobility is constantly changing (cf. 6). The above-mentioned binaries are not applicable to road narratives either as they do not grasp the depth of the conflicts and engagements in them. This is due to the opposition of the mobilities presented in Brigham’s examples toward the ‘mainstream’ idea of mobility in American thought:

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Mobility does not function as an exit from society/home/the familiar, but instead emerges as a dynamic process for engaging with social conflicts. This makes sense because road stories themselves are plotted around unsettling processes: the crossing of borders, the courting and conquering of distance, the reinvention of identity, and the access, negotiation, and disruption of spaces. The road introduces an otherness that is both spatial and social, and so mobility becomes a process for working out the fact of difference. (Brigham 8)

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 These conflicts and “unsettling processes” the traveler is presented with and takes part in lead to a transformation of their subjectivity while simultaneously transforming the space they travel in as they are confronted with “an otherness.” The engagement with these conflicts hence means that the road narrative is not just about dealing with conflict in general but also about incorporation (Brigham 8). The traversal of space, be it across, through, or over space, is about being included—incorporated—into something different than the entity belongs to. This ‘something’ may be a social group, a town, or an idea or concept. As Brigham writes, it is about “joining with an entity larger than the self” (8). This “joining” happens due to the change in the traveler’s location, not just in the sense of physical location but also on other levels such as the social realm. “The tensions of incorporation, that is, the joining of, to, or with another, are expressed spatially with the movement between and across scales,” Brigham states. “Road narrative protagonists leave home, cross state lines, and search for America. Often their journeys develop as a change in the scale of identification” (10). Changing location therefore gives the traveler a new perspective, enabling them to incorporate new ideas into themselves (Brigham 8). According to Brigham, being on the road shows the link between the ideas of moving and becoming, of how movement across material space also leads to movement across immaterial lines such as social or sexual boundaries, among others. Road trips have therefore come to infuse popular culture as “a quintessential expression of Americanness” (Brigham 3), not just the ability to move freely but to “become” someone else by incorporation. How this looks in video games becomes apparent in the work of Gordon Calleja. In In-Game: From Immersion to Incorporation he introduces incorporation as “the absorption of a virtual environment into consciousness, yielding a sense of habitation, which is supported by the systemically upheld embodiment of the player in a single location, as represented by the avatar” (169). What he means by this is that the player incorporates the game world by traversing and acting in it. At the same time, the avatar the player controls incorporates them in this world.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 However, being on the road not only offer the chance of incorporation, it also “makes transitions between scales explicit; thus, its importance derives from its connection to, not detachment from, various scales” (Brigham 10). Analyzing this movement in particular helps dismiss what Brigham calls “the cultural romanticization of the road” in the US-American context while illustrating this romanticization’s origins and how certain “meanings and identities” are seen as bound to specific scales (Brigham 10). Drawing on geographical concepts, Brigham argues that “scale affects the possible forms that identity and social interaction may take, and these forms can enforce or challenge the status quo” (11). An important point about these scales is that they are not in any way natural but instead socially and culturally constructed. Scales are made, and mobility is one of the factors in creating them (cf. Brigham 11-12). Movements across scales hence makes apparent how those scales work in influencing culture, and they therefore “trouble scale,” as Brigham writes: “If social order is produced and sustained, in part, through specific structurings of geographical scale, then troubling scale serves to challenge the social order that scales support” (12). Mobility can create this troubling as well so that it is not simply a way to flee the constraints of the traveler’s life but also to build and criticize scales (cf. Brigham 12-13).

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Thus, as Brigham makes clear, narratives of people on the road are also always about ‘re-creation,’ meaning the destruction and re-building of ideas about mobility by bringing into focus different mobilities and how the mobilities of people of a different “class, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, culture, geography” stand in contrast to the mainstream concept of American mobility and identity (cf. Brigham 4). Therefore, “mobility is not a method of freeing oneself from space, society, or identity but instead the opposite—a mode of engagement. Indeed, this genre’s significance emerges in its demonstration of the ways mobility both thrives on and tries to manage points of cultural and social conflict” (Brigham 4). While mobility is usually seen as positive and often transgressive, this stands in contrast to the issues “of spatial and social otherness,” and the traveler may either incorporate that otherness or place themselves in opposition to it by “consolidating identity through the shoring up of sameness and exclusion of difference” (Brigham 9-10). This is especially important in RPGs, as the game worlds are usually recognizable to the player but not set in ‘realistic’ circumstances. Therefore, even if the player may feel a certain familiarity with in-game places, groups, or persons, this sense cannot be as strong as in real-life, and there is always a certain negotiation between the known and the unknown. As Robert Baumgartner writes, different fantasy worlds will be known or recognizable to the player to varying degrees (cf. 101), and this is due to game designers using “a culturally coded gamespace” to “add dimension to semiotic and narrative elements by contextualizing them within a specific environment with its own particular manners of conveying meaning” (Penix-Tadsen 175). The player will be aware of certain cultural connotations while seeing others as strange and different (cf. Baumgartner 99).

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 However, being on the road and encountering new ideas is not only about incorporation of the traveler but about incorporating something new into the world of the traveler in turn. In the road narratives Brigham analyzes, the process of travel incorporates new spatial or social concepts into a preexisting concept of America that can contain them. This boils down to the question of who and what America is, and who is included and excluded in the definition (cf. Brigham 9). Not only does the traveler question how to define America, but the road narrative offers the possibility of incorporation on both sides. The new is incorporated into America and America is being given shape. Brigham describes this process: “Because the idea of ‘America’ is also always a projection of an ideal, road narratives reveal the ways that abstract ideas (Americanness) and physical places (America) are in constant need of having their ‘shape’ substantiated” (Brigham 9). In parallel, a player therefore not only incorporates new ideas about the game world but at the same time substantiates it. By acting in it, the player confirms or denies the fictional world, similarly to road narratives showing how America and Americanness have to be constantly defined and redefined. Even before the player acts, the fictional worlds of RPGs may for example be initially substantiated by NPCs who are stating and repeating information and opinions and thereby explaining the world’s rules to the player. The player then substantiates the game world by acting in it and by adhering or not adhering to the ideas presented within. In video games, this is most apparent in a player’s acceptance of the rule that killing an attacker/bandit/enemy is not necessarily murder in the statistics of the game, or at least is not penalized by the game.[3] This is the most obvious of the rules a player would generally not accept in real life.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 The player’s actions are therefore vital to the game world, but to substantiate it, the player needs to understand it and how their choices will be interpreted in its context. Michael Nitsche describes this process of making sense of a fictional world in his book Video Game Spaces. According to him, “game worlds depend on representation and sign systems,” but “[g]ame spaces are approached not as foregrounded spectacles based on visual cues such as perspective and parallax but as presented space that are assigned an architectural quality” (3). The player does not engage the game world as they would a piece of art or picture. Instead, the space bears the same connotations as real space since the player recognizes its “architectural quality,” for example that a door may be entered, and acts accordingly. The player therefore engages with the game world according to the signs presented to them in the game world. By interpreting the visual cues, they can act accordingly if given the choice by the game. The player’s avatar will act as the player commands as “a surrogate body replete with powers and limitations” (Gee 18). However, their understanding alone will not influence their actions. For these actions to have a moral component, they need not only to understand but to become complicit in the game world.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Miguel Sicart writes about how video games can influence and challenge a player’s ideas of the world, specifically moral ones. He states that “creators of aesthetic experiences that deal with morality must be aware of their audience as an ethical and moral force that receives and constructs experiences” (21). Based on this premise, he develops his own concept of player complicity in which he claims that games ask players to adhere to “the logic of the ethical systems that structure the gameworld” in order to make sense of what the decisions they have to make will have in the game world (22). According to Sicart, this also means that players are aware that there is a moral component to those decisions and in turn will influence the game world accordingly (22). However, this idea gives little importance to player complicity or non-complicity in the game world when it is not tied to major decision as in games such as The Walking Dead or the Mass Effect series. In the minor decisions that are not specifically presented as such, the player still acts according to a moral code, be it their own, that of the game world, or an arbitrary one for the duration of the game. Furthermore, this code may be informed by advantages and disadvantages in terms of gameplay.[4]

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Sicart’s description indicates that these decisions are not meaningless:

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Player complicity means surrendering to the fact that actions in a game have a moral dimension. Players use their morality to engage with and adapt to the context of the game. When playing, players become complicit with the game’s moral system and with their own values. That capacity of players to accept decision making in games and to make choices based on moral facts gives meaning to player complicity. (23)

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 This complicity is closely related to the player themselves. As James Paul Gee claims, a player’s “avatar is also an identity that a player inhabits,” and this identity is shaped by what the player as the avatar can do, their skills, and their history and reasons for acting (18). Therefore, the player’s actions carry weight when undertaken in what Penix-Tadsen calls a “multimodal game environment” (176-77) that offers reaction to input.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 An example is the world of the Dragon Age series. Mages in this world are seen as dangerous and therefore locked in so-called “Circles” for life. These Circles are, for example, a tower on an island or an old prison complex at the edge of a city, and they are run and guarded by the armed section of the major religious organization in the game series. Mages trying to live outside the Circles are branded as “apostates” and hunted. If the player starts a new game in the first installment of the series, Dragon Age: Origins, and chooses a mage as an avatar, the ‘origin story’ they play involves helping a friend escape the Circle. The player can either help or report on the friend to the authorities of the Circle. At this point, the player is not yet aware of how mages are ostracized in this fictional world. In the course of the game, the player will encounter the people of the fictional world as well as other mages (even one apostate who joins the player’s party). The player is now confronted with the decision to accept the fictional world’s judgment of mages as dangerous and untrustworthy or take a different view to the mainstream fictional opinion and act accordingly by, for example, accepting quests from a society of mages secretly living in freedom. At the end of the game and in subsequent playthroughs, the player’s knowledge, awareness, and ability to interpret the situation due to new information will have been enhanced. Regardless of a change in their opinion about a choice, the player’s understanding will have been changed due to new knowledge and the awareness that the choices they make matter.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 To briefly return to Penix-Tadsen’s point that games react to input: the player’s actions are also meaningful because the game needs this input for anything to happen, for changes to occur. Nitsche explains why this contributes to meaning-making. Spaces in video games, and virtual spaces in general, are human-made and not directly connected to other spaces as the rules and needs of those ‘real’ spaces do not apply. They are missing “geographical, zoological, and most physical dependencies that heavily impact real-world locations” (Nitsche 191). As “a universe of coordinates” they are “spatial but not a place” (Nitsche 191). To add meaning to those spaces and thereby turn them into places, the player needs to interact with them:

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 In order for these data visualizations to become meaningful, they [the spaces] have to be engaged by the player. Through the active work of the player, through comprehension and interaction, the masses of polygons can transform into places. A genius loci is often defined by subjective experience of the location. (Nitsche 191)

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 The world is therefore shaped according to the player’s deeds, which are themselves shaped by how they understand the game world. In more linear games, decisions usually have an immediate result, and the player keeps playing in this newly changed world. On the other hand, RPGs in particular change with the player. In Skyrim, for instance, if the player kills an NPC, that character remains dead and the player can encounter their family or friends mourning their demise. If the player kills someone in sight of a peaceful citizen (or horse, as it were), a bounty is set and the player cannot traverse a part of the game world (the county in which they incurred the penalty) without paying a fine, going to jail, or fighting their way to their next destination. These decisions are not vital to further the story of the game nor are they enforced, but they still do force the player to “live” in and face the fictional world they both encounter and form at the same time.

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 While Sicart focuses mostly on games that specifically offer important choices, an example from Skyrim will illustrate how comprehension and complicity with the game world confront the player with more subtle choices but force the player to apply their knowledge and values in a fictional world without a clear guide to right and wrong or an initial awareness of the  importance of their choices. The analysis will show how the interplay of the fictional world with the game rules and the player’s ability to actually act according to (or against) their beliefs offers a deeper understanding of how rich an experience video games offer.

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 In the fictional world of Skyrim and the Elder Scrolls series in general, the player can play as—and encounter—what are styled as different “races,” among them humans and elves as well as people who have the fur and face of cats (Khajit) or the scales and face of lizards (Argonians). These two races are already set apart as different by their looks, and they have specific abilities that the player can use if the character is chosen accordingly. The Khajit have the ability to see in the dark while Argonians can breathe underwater. It is not only their looks that set them apart, however. While the player may hear verbal abuse aimed at them as many of the other “races,” it is more frequent if an elf, Khajit or Argonian is chosen. Furthermore, the player hears about the two “races,” especially the Khajit, that the inhabitants of Skyrim do not trust them. A citizen of Whiterun, Ysolda, explains when questioned that the townspeople do not trust the Khajit because of a few Khajit who turned to thievery and cheating. The Khajit, who are encountered as traveling merchants, are therefore not allowed to enter the cities of Skyrim, so they move from city to city and are forced to camp outside the city walls while they sell their wares. The placement of these camps not only physically places them outside the city, but also outside the city’s society.  As Tim Cresswell states, “[i]mplied in these terms is a sense of the proper. Something and someone belongs in one place and not in another. What one’s place is, is clearly related to one’s relation to others” (In Place 3). The relation of the Khajit is clearly as outsiders, both physically and psychologically.

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 In the encounter with the Khajit the player is confronted with some of the very few people who move around the game world themselves (albeit on predefined paths) and yet do not do so because of a privileged position but because they cannot settle in Skyrim. The juxtaposition of the player’s freedom of movement, which is seen as positive, and the distrust of Skyrim’s inhabitants against the mobility of the Khajit, exposes the game inhabitants’ underlying (mainstream) values. Building on Cresswell’s description of how this way of being too mobile has always been connected to deviance, Brigham states that claiming someone is out of place also “differentiates between kinds of places” instead of seeing place “as a moral world existing in clear-cut opposition to immoral mobility. Instead, certain spaces—in this case, the global—are perceived as dangerously mobile, capable of infiltrating other spaces like the nation-state and thus threatening an ‘authentic’ national identity” (Brigham 7). The Khajit as obviously “foreign” to Skyrim as well as too mobile carry real life connotations. They are the “global” of the world of Skyrim. Excluding and ostracizing the Khajit, who hail from a far-away realm and are mobile across the racial and ethnic territorial lines of the game world, is easily connected to real-life instances of marginalization. The player will therefore recognize the behavior of the townspeople and will understand that the way they are situated marks them as other. That the Khajit are expected to stay outside the walls corresponds to Cresswell’s statement that “expectations about behavior in place are important components in the construction, maintenance, and evolution of ideological values” (In Place 4). The player will understand how the Khajit are treated due to real-life counterparts. In the game, there are no rules to deny players interaction with the Khajit. Furthermore, due to their status as merchants, the Khajit are an important resource for the player to sell their inventory. As the player, especially in the later stages of the game, is usually encumbered with a variety of high-value items that they will have problems to sell due to a cap on money available to merchants, the Khajit offer additional persons to sell to and amass fortune. If the player decides to ignore the Khajit like the rest of the population does, they would have to stick to the cities’ merchants. Furthermore, the Khajit merchants are some of the rare merchants that sell “moonsugar,” a drug and an alchemical ingredient in the game. Hence the gameplay advantage of trading with the Khajit stands in contrast to their ‘racial’ condemnations within the game world.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 Furthermore, the encounters also reveal the player as the one who is able to trouble scale, being the only privileged person allowed to travel. With the player able to go anywhere and become anyone, troubling scale is in their hands. As Michael Nitsche writes, the player as the hero of the game encounters “quests as processes of personal growth and maturing” (59). This is especially apparent as the player’s mobility is not curbed even if they play as a Khajit. The player, as they expect to be, is allowed to enter the cities, a fact that sets them apart from the Khajit. Due to their importance to the game, the player belongs where the Khajit do not. In many games, the player’s movements are curtailed up to a certain point, so that they can not immediately reach every area of the game world. However, for the player it is always implied that if a certain task is completed, a stage is reached, or enough time has passed, they will be allowed to enter the entirety of the game world. Thus in-game work such as finishing quests or helping others enables the player to move forward while the Khajit remain static. This is not only due to them being NPCs but because they are images of a world in which Khajit do not have the option to move upward across scales. While they are moving due to their trade, they have no possibility to finally enter the cities or move up the social ladder unless they happen to be the chosen one (the implication being that there is only one). They move farther than most other NPCs in the game but do not gain by it. The situation of the Khajit in comparison to the player therefore enhances the player’s status as special. The game’s rules that demand the player move freely can here be taken as the reason why the player has more freedom. If they play as anyone other than a Nord, who are native to Skyrim, they should, according to the fictional world, not be allowed to move as freely as they do. This conforms to Juul’s suggestion that parts of a game’s fiction can be explained by the game rules if it clashes with the interpretation of the game world (130). The ability of the player to move as a Khajit can therefore be related to their status as the player and the need for them to move freely.

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 The important point to make about the encounters with the Khajit is that the player does not have to engage them. There are no major disadvantages in gameplay or story, so the player’s decision for action will be based on interest, curiosity, morality, or even greed. The freedom to choose is the main reason why the encounter has a stronger impact than a decision in, say, the first three games of the Mass Effect series that clearly tells the player if a decision is considered good or bad, going so far as to color-code certain answers in conversations to indicate the option’s direction. Instead of quickly clicking through the requisite answer to develop their avatar in the preferred direction within a clear moral binary, the player has to make decisions out of the blue and without further comment from the game. Skyrim, on the other hand, produces an atmosphere that makes most choice seem possible. As Markus Engelns writes in his essay on the game, Skyrim goes to great lengths to envelop the player in different atmospheres in different guilds and situations and therefore facilitates an atmosphere of murder in which no decision can be traced back solely to the player (cf. 149-50). This is especially important considering the free choices the player can make. They can accept to follow to the rules of the game world, i.e. shun the Khajit or support a side in the ongoing civil war. According to Engelns, the game does not endorse the murders the player commits but that is offers a potential for tension (Spannungspotential) in the clash of gameplay, atmosphere, and morals that leads to a unique player experience (cf. 150). It is that interplay that not only influences the atmosphere of murder, as Engelns calls it, but which also influences the whole experience of the game as the rules and morals of the game world stand in contrast to the need to think strategically for gameplay advantages while considering the player’s own moral code. Connecting this to Brigham’s idea of incorporation, the clash and Spannungspotential between the player’s values in real life and in the game world become apparent to the player.

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 This brief analysis of Skyrim has shown that the player’s mobility in the game is tied to a freedom of action and a freedom to change. On the road, the player will be faced with situations that demand their contemplation of both the moral and gameplay aspects of the game. Due to the overlap of the values of the player with those of the game world—similar to the incorporation in the road narratives Brigham analyses—the player is confronted with their own values. This, however, is only possible because Skyrim, and RPGs in general, offer the player a freedom of movement and choice that more linear games do not. The advantages that come with the mobility the player experiences come with possibilities of encountering and dealing with the other, especially as the player’s mobility is contrasted with that of NPCs in the game. This idea of mobility is intimately tied to an American cultural context that considers it as both blessing and threat. Given the large American share in the production of the most prominent games on the market, the tools developed by the field analyzing this cultural discourse are vital to understanding these titles. The richness and potential of video games can only come to the fore if an analysis treats them as both a game and a cultural artifact that says as much about its contexts as novels and films do. As my brief exemplary analysis has shown, especially the trope of the road narrative opens up a vast research potential in this regard, and it will find ample material in video games as it will find ample methodological tools in the theoretical repertoire of American Studies.


28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 Works Cited

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 Baumgartner, Robert. “Ankunftsmomente: Die Vermittlung von Atmosphäre in Rollenspielen am Beispiel der Elder Scrolls Reihe.” Huberts and Standke, pp. 71-113.

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 Brigham, Ann. American Road Narratives: Reimagining Mobility in Literature and Film. U of Virginia P, 2015.

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 Calleja, Gordon. In-Game: From Immersion to Incorporation. MIT Press, 2011.

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 Cresswell, Tim. In Place/Out of Place: Geography, Ideology, and Transgression. U of Minnesota P, 1996.

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 ———. On the Move: Mobility in the Modern Western World. Routledge, 2006.

34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 Dragon Age: Origins. Electronic Arts, 2009.

35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 Engelns, Markus. “Vom Helden zum Mörder? Zur Herstellung einer ‘Atmosphäre des Mordens’ in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.” Huberts and Standke, pp. 117-152.

36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 Fallout 3. Bethesda Softworks, 2008.

37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 Gee, James Paul. Unified Discourse Analysis: Language, Reality, Virtual Worlds, and Video Games. Routledge, 2015.

38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 Huberts, Christian, and Sebastian Standke, editors. Zwischen/Welten: Atmosphären im Computerspiel. Verlag Werner Hülsbusch, 2014.

39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 Juul, Jesper. Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. MIT Press, 2005.

40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 Mass Effect. Microsoft Game Studios and Electronic Arts, 2007.

41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 0 Mass Effect 2. Electronic Arts, 2010.

42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 0 Mass Effect 3. Electronic Arts, 2012.

43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 Nitsche, Michael. Video Game Spaces: Image, Play, and Structure in 3D Game Worlds. MIT Press, 2008.

44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 0 Penix-Tadsen, Phillip. Cultural Code: Video Games and Latin America. MIT Press, 2016.

45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 0 Sicart, Miguel. Beyond Choices: The Design of Ethical Gameplay. MIT Press, 2013.

46 Leave a comment on paragraph 46 0 The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Bethesda Softworks, 2011.

47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 0 The Walking Dead. Telltale Games, 2013.


48 Leave a comment on paragraph 48 0 [1] Called Skyrim from here on. As the game is set in a place of the same name, Skyrim will denote the game, Skyrim the place.

49 Leave a comment on paragraph 49 0 [2] While Brigham focuses specifically on road trips, mostly by car, her ideas about mobility across physical space and conceptual spaces also apply to video game spaces and the traversal of their fictional worlds even though the player is on foot most of the time. As the player can keep running without a pause in most games, the relatively quick traversal of space similar to real-life driving or biking is a given in games.

50 Leave a comment on paragraph 50 0 [3] In Skyrim, the player can look up a list of their deeds that only includes the killing of friendly NPCs such as city inhabitants or guards as murder. Enemies are furthermore tagged as such by attacking either on sight or as soon as the player moves too close to their stronghold, thereby offering self-defense as a potential excuse for the killings.

51 Leave a comment on paragraph 51 0 [4] See Sicart’s Beyond Choices for his own description of how he made decisions in The Walking Dead according to characters’ usefulness (cf. 22-23).

Source: https://opr.degruyter.com/playing-the-field-video-games-and-american-studies/patricia-maier-mobility-and-choices-in-role-playing-games/