Here is the background: National Review came across a Ms. Victoria Cooper, who wrote a paper called Playing Politics: Exploring Nationalism and Conservatism in Fantasy Video Games. It is… well, like many papers of this type, it reads like the conclusion (white people play games to reinforce their white privilege, when they’re not just outright racists) was decided upon first, and only then was the data supporting that conclusion assembled. This is both expected, and not really relevant in the long term (the vast majority of scholarship these days typically ends up gasping out its life in a narrow, dusty room); what was unexpected was that apparently a large part of Ms. Cooper’s work revolves around her interpretation of Bethesda Softworks’ Elder Scrolls series. Specifically, Skyrim. The relevant bits:
Video Games and Medieval History: The Elder Scrolls – Skyrim
Skyrim is a massively popular medieval-themed video game. Part of the greater Elder Scrolls video game series, Skyrim was released in 2011 by Bethesda Game Studios and was a critical success. Cooper’s thesis focused on this game and the way players transpose their heritage and national identity onto the fictitious races of its gaming world. Skyrim is home to the Nords (Stormcloaks), a pseudo-Viking race. Tall, fair-haired, and pale, they are a sea-faring warrior society that values honour, family and glory.
…Cooper suggests that, ‘medievally-themed video games are a space where whiteness can be anchored, in a “happy history” where a world is free of multiculturalism and white guilt’.
Full disclosure: I am not a PhD candidate. What I am, though, is somebody who has logged over 2,500 hours in Skyrim, so I think that I can safely make observations about the basic game. And it would be my suggestion to Ms. Cooper that she find a different example for white people using a game for a safe space from “multiculturalism and white guilt” than Skyrim. Anybody who plays the game past, say, the introduction knows that one major theme of the game is the Skyrim Civil War. In fact, the game cannot be finished without first resolving the Skyrim Civil War. And the Skyrim Civil War is explicitly couched as being the cosmopolitan, inclusive Empire of Tamriel against the racist, xenophobic Nordic Stormcloaks. Literally the first thing the player sees when he or she enters Windhelm (the Stormcloak’s capital city) for the first time is a mob harassing a Dark Elf over her skin color and refugee status. In short: if you’re looking for a game world “free of multiculturalism and white guilt,” don’t play Skyrim.
Why? Because Bethesda Softworks isn’t made up of dumb people: they knew that putting a big Viking hero on all the ads would result in people wanting to play Vikings. They also knew that the people who did that would also tend to pick the Vikings’ side in the in-game’s civil war. All of which is fine, but Bethesda prides itself on making good games, so they deliberately made the “default” side rather more immediately distasteful to modern sensibilities with regard to race and tolerance. They did not go to extremes on this — you can play as, say, an Argonian (amphibian lizard men) who has inexplicably decided to join the Stormcloak Rebellion (despite the fact that the Stormcloaks make Argonians live outside the city walls, and in abject poverty), and it won’t actually affect gameplay — but it really is impossible to ignore that “Skyrim belongs to the Nords!” is a common sentiment. It is, in fact, the default NPC companion’s favorite war cry.
Again, Ms. Cooper might have noticed this flaw in her thesis if she had played the game for very long. She might have also also noticed that the game does not blindly reinforce a particular “cultural heritage” so much as it goes out of its way to challenge it. Which is not to say that people who play Stormcloaks in Skyrim are horrible people, or even wrong to pick one flawed faction over another, equally flawed faction*. Skyrim is, after all, a fairly gritty game that can trigger a good deal of self-reflection. Which is more than one can say about some of the criticism of it.
*Siding with the Imperials in Skyrim means, among other things, dealing with the Empire’s “allies” known as the Thalmor. The Thalmor are, essentially, Nazi Elves who go around and slaughter anybody who worships a particular god. And the Imperial-supporting player is not in fact allowed to stop that.