In the last month or so, I’ve probably spend a full work week playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. For those of you who don’t play games, Skyrim is a fantasy genre based RPG (role-playing game). I’m not much of a gamer, but last year I got addicted to Fallout 3 and Fallout New Vegas and once I made the connection that Bethesda Studios was the developer of both games, I made sure I got a copy of the game.
Another thing that I’ve been occupied with during this last month is thinking deeply about what kind of person I would like to be, what kind of habits and disciplines I want to cultivate, those kind of questions that frequently preoccupy people in my stage of life. In the last few months I decided to confront head on some ongoing problems that I’ve been having with clinical depression and underlying emotional issues.
Where these two things come together is in the strange way that RPGs both allow us some escape from the limitations of our real lives, as well as express some immutable aspects of our own personalities.
One great project that looks at this aspect of games and virtual identity is photographer Robbie Cooper’s Alter Egos. The aspirational aspect of avatars is less pronounced in many of his portraits than those above and below, and you can really see a spectrum from those that model their virtual representations closely after themselves to those that model their avatars on what they most want to be.
And so I thought I’d take a look at my Skyrim character and consider what it might reveal about myself. My character (minus armor and other accouterments) looks more or less like the figure on the left:
The most notable characteristic about my character is that he’s an Argonian (or, as I describe him to other people, “one of the weird lizard guys”). In the world of Skyrim, Argonians are one of the “othered” groups that is furthest away from the Nords. I think the reason that I tend to pick characters that are far outside the normative image of the blond, male hero (my Fallout: New Vegas character was a mixed-race elderly woman) has a root both in my discomfort with that image (and the insecurities that I have about being compared to that standard) as well as some kind of desire to reduce the ambiguity of the privileges that I carry around with me. Both as a sexual minority and as a mixed race person, I will never be able to inhabit that norm, but I feel like I have to take responsibility for the fact that many of the signs that signal to others that I am apart from them–language and vocabulary, skin color, name–are hidden. On some level–and I appreciate how solipsistic this–I envy the lizard man, who will never be able to pass for anything but himself; anyone that accepts him accepting him on his own terms.
My character is a heavily magic reliant character, and I know this is an expression of both the pride that I take in my own intelligence and education, and the desire that raw intelligence would translate into an easier way of life. Magic, as intelligence, is an alternate measure of power independent of physical strength. I’ve relied–to different degrees at different times–all my life on that coping mechanism, that even though other people might be stronger, or scrappier, or faster, or better looking, I’m more intelligent. It’s a thought that has the potential to become poisonous, and it always comes with a corresponding doubt, or insecurity. James Agee expresses this thought well in his novel, A Death in the Family. Six year-old Rufus has stopped with his father at a bar after a movie, and his father is bragging to all of the patrons about how well his boy can read:
Rufus felt a sudden hollowness in his voice, and all along the bar, and in his own heart. But how does he fight, he thought. You don’t brag about smartness if your son is brave. He felt the anguish of shame, but his father did not seem to notice…
Intelligence, of course, does bring about great power and an easier life. But that’s intelligence paired with luck and hard work, and the power and leisure are indirect. By playing a magical character, I’m able to envision a world in which raw intelligence and talent can directly translate into power and wealth. It lets me defeat my enemies without defeating my own demons.
There are countless other things that I read into my character as expressions of myself, again either as myself or as my opposite. My character tends to just rush into situations, taking on dungeons far above my level just for the challenge, instead of the timidness and fearfulness that I see in myself. Like my character, I’m a sentimentalist, and tend to keep random junk well past my sell-by date. But I like to think that by letting my ego run wild in the game, I can open doors to myself that I couldn’t in life. Or at least that’s how I’m justifying the 40+ hours I’ve sunk into the game: therapy.