The experience of being Black in America has been made more difficult by the pandemic and other tragedies that have befallen our community.
Constantly being confronted by images of death, discrimination, and racial and cultural insensitivity, we’ve been collectively fighting to survive a world that is perpetually on fire.
Feeling fatigued by the traumatic events, I wanted to escape the cruel reality of anti-Blackness. To heal from the ills of the world, I rekindled my love of video games with the desire to enter spaces filled with magic, fantasy, and above all else — freedom.
Playing Skyrim checked all of those boxes.
A game with an open world, pretty solid character-customization options, and an expansive list of main and side quests, the fifth installment of the Elder Scrolls franchise gave me a chance to exist in the ways that my waking life did not allow.
I created my character as a Redguard assassin/mage type, while retaining opportunities to explore other skill sets and fighting styles. The autonomous gameplay that the sandbox RPG has long been applauded for has given me so much peace.
Although I have a personal connection to the game, I wanted to explore if there was a deeper, more profound connection between my identity as a Black person and Skyrim.
According to DEI communication specialist and host of The Unapologetically Black Gaming Podcast Cortez Washington, the parallels between the struggles of Black people and the game itself can be derived from very early on in the storyline and isn’t above critique. An example of a connection between Blackness and Skyrim “is when you are sentenced to death immediately after creating your character,” he says.
“[Black people] are often considered criminals and damned from birth, and the game starts with you as a prisoner on the way to the execution site,” he adds. “For me, this moment was reminiscent of our experiences with the current judicial system.”
Even the interactions between Nords and non-Nord characters are oppressive and racially charged. For instance, the Dunmer, a race of elves referred to as “Dark Elves” because they were created from elves “cursed with dark skin,” are perceived as criminals and are mistreated by the Stormcloaks of Windhelm due to their refugee status.
But the oppression doesn’t stop there. Ashley Gerhardt, an events and projects coordinator, points out that the Dunmer “even highlight the political drama in the game that mirrors political drama that happens in our real life.” The Altmer, or “High Elves,” are both the antithesis of and hateful towards other Elven races such as the Dunmer and the Falmer, being that they are lighter-skinned, rich, and have a goal to be the dominant race of all elves. The evident colorism that divides these races also can be related to the experience of primarily darker-skinned Black folk.
“Why do we use the term dark as a proxy for evil, while we also do the same for human beings?”
“Why do we use the term dark as a proxy for evil, while we also do the same for human beings?” they add.
Another instance of this can be seen with NPC Khajiits, or the cat race of Tamriel, whose merchants and their caravans are barred from the cities due to being coded as sellers of illicit goods.
The solace of autonomy
Despite the racism that comes with the game, Black people who play the Elder Scrolls franchise recognize that this can be attributed to a lack of representation in game development — but still have a great appreciation for the game’s sense of adventure and nearly unlimited amount of decision making.
Jacob Delley, a sociologist, recognizes that “most of the lore authors are white people,” yet they feel that the greatest takeaway from the game is having a large, open world with vast opportunities to match.
“I would be remiss if I didn’t say that one of my favorite things is that you don’t have to do stuff in a specific way,” they tell Input. “[I like that] you can take time to do activities like pick flowers and take them home to your children. It’s true Cottagecore.”
“It’s true Cottagecore.”
Players like voice teacher Jordan Bonner, appreciates that the skill development system — or Perks — allows for gamers to establish hybrid classes and tailor their gameplay to their heart’s content without being confined to singular class boxes.
“I absolutely love having the ability to come up with my own class, [which has also helped me to] space out my playthroughs so that I’ll forget certain gimmicks, '' he says. “No two playthroughs are exactly the same and diving into a world as immense as this one makes it easy to find solace and escape from real life pressures for a time.”
The solace that the game’s level of autonomy brings to Black players goes beyond the game itself — it represents the ability to escape real-life atrocities. As Lauren Delley, a program coordinator and Skyrim meme connoisseur, puts it, “things have been so turbulent that it was consoling to dive back into something consistent. It’s become a running joke of how many times they’ve re-released Skyrim, but for me it ended up being helpful to have something so constant to look forward to.”
Delley adds, “I feel like playing Skyrim gave me a sense of control while so many things were out of my control.”
One mod at a time
Despite there being so much to do, for gamers who have been playing Skyrim since its initial release 10 years ago, the game can become a bit monotonous and limited — especially when it comes to the diversity when creating characters. Luckily, Skyrim boasts a robust modding community that has created features that can enhance the game to make it even more of an individualized experience and recreate the world to be more inclusive.
Duhamel Mondesir, a substitute teacher, is a huge advocate of modding the game, admitting to spending days on Nexus downloading content. “One of my favorite mods is ‘Diverse Skyrim’ because it makes NPCs more racially inclusive while being lore-friendly,” they say to Input. “[With this mod], random events like seeing only Nord Stormcloaks that recruit in the different cities become more diverse by adding Argonians, Khajiits, elves, etc. as soldiers.”
They also mentioned that there are mods that allow you to make mixed-race characters, giving you the opportunity to make Redguard Orcs or a Breton Bosmer.
Having these things in place allows for Black gamers to reimagine a world in which they can be seen and represented while still being able to maintain the dynamic gameplay that we have all grown to love and appreciate.
Skyrim has a special place in my heart. I really enjoy being able to choose my own fate and being able to have abilities of being a Vampire, assassin and Werewolf while still maintaining my Black identity.
But above all else, the game gives me the opportunity to temporarily avoid fighting the demons and socially oppressive “dragons” in real life, by fighting actual in-game demons and dragons. All while having the tools, resources, and support to go at my own pace, start over, and surmount all obstacles.