What’s behind the dead children and beheaded women in Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim?

One Skyrim player beheaded several of his “wives” and placed their heads in a trophy case, then offered this video.

The new Elder Scrolls game, Skyrim, has been out less than a month, but a number of controversies have already earned it some headlines. With some 7 million people playing Bethseda’s Skyrim, some of them are bound to be minors — and that’s got to be making parents worried about what they’re hearing.

Before we get into those controversies, it makes sense to talk about the game itself. Skyrim is an “open world” game that allows players to do just about anything imaginable. They can follow a storyline or strike out on their own, exploring the game’s richly designed landscapes. If you play the game according to the story, you’re supposed to defeat a god named Alduin, who (according to one of those prophesies that seem to crop up in so many fantasy games) is going to destroy the world. But you can put that off indefinitely, if you like.

Jorge Albor, a writer for PopMatters, offers some insight into the reason so many gamers are flocking to the world of Skryim:

For the most part, everything seems to make sense in Skyrim. Visit the alchemist’s shop and you will find books about herbalism of course, the texts of her trade. Plumb the depths of a dungeon full of demon worshiping mages and you will find books about necromancy, detailing the practices of their dark art. Adding book shelves, stoves, and beds to a bandit hideaway adds a nice touch to the environment. …

There is no better example of the game’s logic than a burned down house just off the side-road somewhere in Skyrim. Inside the home, a charred corpse—presumably the now deceased tenant—clings to a spell book that when used summons an otherworldly flame demon. We can paint a small history: a farmer, looking to become an adventurer—or maybe just protect his crops—dabbles in magic beyond his power and loses his life and home in the process. You, a legendary hero, stumble upon the poor man’s lodgings and take the book for yourself, using the fiery conjuration to save the world. You could walk past this house and never encounter this piece of Skyrim.

Perhaps the biggest Skyrim controversy so far is two player-created modifications. One allows players to undress female characters. The other allows them to kill children non-player characters in the game. As Gamebandits writes:

It cannot be denied that the children of Skyrim are among the most annoying NPCs ever created in the history of gaming, but does that mean that a player has the right to dispatch them? Censorship laws in some countries forbid games from allowing the player to harm children, but there have been some games that have allowed this. Bethesda title Fallout (the original Fallout) is in fact one such game.

Now, just to be clear: the game, as written, does not allow players to kill children. They have to go out of their way to install the mod in order to do this. But it sounds like many people can see the appeal in such an option.

Interestingly, many of the folks who commented on the story agree that on the one hand, it’s a little disturbing to be able to kill the children. But on the other hand, most realize it’s fantasy and fiction — nothing more. One even pointed out that it’s not realistic for the children not to die when whole villages are torched. Another (a parent) said, “For the 99% of us, who know this is a game and these are not children, just lots of 1s and 0s and just want to stop hearing an annoying line being said again it’s fine.”

In line with the mod that allows players to render the female characters naked, one player went even further, beheading his “wives” and placing their heads in a trophy case — and then making a video tour of his home available (see above). This, understandably, unsettled some people, who said they didn’t want to encounter the player, Symixable, in real life.

Here’s the thing: humans — maybe not all humans, but some — are curious. Some would try just about anything if it weren’t illegal, if there weren’t consequences. Or maybe they still wouldn’t, but that doesn’t keep them from wondering what it would be like. That’s one major appeal of open-world video games: they allow you to experiment in fiction with what you would never, in a million years, do in real life.

In real life, children do die. Some are even murdered. And, unfortunately, sometimes women are murdered and their bodies used as “trophies” by very sick, violent people. Such acts make us afraid: afraid for our safety, or the safety of our kids, sisters, mothers, wives, girlfriends, and friends. But fear takes us away from our power. Exploring these ideas from the perspective of the perpetrator — in a totally fictional way — can take some of the sting out of that fear. It can give us some of our power back.

A serial killer murdered and skinned women in The Silence of the Lambs, written by novelist Thomas Harris and directed by Jonathan Demme. A dead baby crawls across the ceiling in Trainspotting, directed by Danny Boyle and based on the book by Irvine Welsh. I don’t think many people questioned the sanity of these creators, who nevertheless put very unsettling ideas into films that were ultimately watched by millions of people, grossing $273 million and $72 million, respectively.

Not all of us get to be Dany Boyle, Irving Welsh, Thomas Harris or Jonathan Demme. Sure, we can write in private — but our ideas might never reach an audience. And, not all of us are writers to begin with. So video games provide other ways to spin a world, and explore ideas — however taboo — that might frighten or intrigue us.

And, given the choice between a gamer who uses women’s heads as trophies in a video game and a killer who does it in real life, I’ll take the gamer every time.


One response to “What’s behind the dead children and beheaded women in Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim?

  1. You can’t kill kids in any Bethesda game without mods… IF you can kill them in the original Fallout then that was developed by Interplay, not Bethesda. There is however one quest where you can knock out a young man (probably eighteen) and put him in a dumpster (In Fallout: New Vegas), and he is later eaten by cannibals. There may be similar quests in the other games as well. I honestly think the weirdest thing about the video in question was that he actually recorded it and posted it online. I guarantee you that everyone who plays these games has interacted with the bodies in some way or another, moving them around, etc. The thing is, most people don’t feel like it’s something worth recording and having a sick sense of pride about. It’s not really done out of that sick warped mentality, it’s usually just a boredom thing or random rampage type deal. I also don’t target just women and fill up my house with their bodies and heads. That’s a little extreme. The video was definitely odd, at the very least, and gives people a totally wrong idea of what Skyrim is all about.

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