When Games Matter: Skyrim's Personal Deities

When Games Matter is a weekly exploration by Drew Dixon of meaningful moments in games. Operating under the assumption that games do in fact matter, Drew seeks to highlight those moments that have much to say to say about who we are and the world we live in.

When games take on religion, it is usually from a cultural standpoint. Games like Fallout, Dragon Age or Red Dead Redemption illustrate how religion influences and shapes culture but they don’t actually tell us much about any particular god or goddess. Game worlds rarely give us interaction with the gods or goddesses of their worlds, save for games like God of War where the goal is to kill them. Of course, as Christians, we know that none of the gods and goddesses of such games actually exist–these are purely fictional worlds so we approach them in a detached manner, as cultural artifacts rather than characters or beings.

The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim is brimming with lore, most of which is tied to a complex pantheon on goddesses and gods. The country is currently in the midst of a civil war because of religion. Thus I looked upon these gods and goddesses as examples of how religion can and often does misguide people and even results in deep seated conflict.

As I was exploring Skyrim, I was attacked by a band of cultists dedicated to the god “Boethiah.” Upon defeating them, I learned of the location of their cult and out of curiousity, decided to go investigate it. When I found the priestess of Boethiah, I learned that the cultists had been luring innocent people to their shrine and killing them in worship of their god.

There was no option to report the cult to the governing authorities, so I decided it was time to bring some vigilante justice to these murderers. I carefully planned out each of my attacks and took out each of the 6 cultists who were stationed near the shrine. Just as I took down the last one and was beginning to feel as though I had done something good to protect the innocent citizens of Skyrim, my screen blurred and I heard a voice from the heavens shouting,  “WHY HAVE YOU KILLED MY SERVANTS!”

It was disturbing to say the least. In a moment, a god, who in my mind only existed as a cultural artifact, came to life. I couldn’t have a detached relationship to Boethia because in the world of Skyrim, he actually exists and I found myself face to face with him.

Boethia threatened to kill me if I did not perform a horrible and murderous deed in worship of him. Because I was so taken aback by this transcendent experience of communing with a pagan deity, there was no way of knowing whether he was bluffing. I accepted his offer while thinking in the back of my mind that I would simply run away and never come back.

Of course I know Skyrim is just a game and there is no reason for me to take this experience personally. However, in this moment, Skyrim was working to encourage me to take this personally, to deal with the existence of a personal deity and determine how I would interact with it. While this was certainly a disturbing moment, I applaud Bethesda for including it. By doing so, the game is forcing players not only to recognize its spiritual realities but to respond to them. Detachment is not an option.

About Drew Dixon

Drew is an editor at Christ and Pop Culture and editor-in-chief of Gamechurch.com. He is also a pastor, soccer coach, and writer. Drew also regularly writes for Think Christian, Bit Creature, and Paste Magazine. He has also written for Relevant Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @drewdixon82

  • Steven Sukkau

    Now that I think about it, it is pretty rare for games to do this, to force a direct and personal confrontation with “god”. I can think of lots of games with spiritual beings in the background, or as part of the world, but never as a true character, someone to talk with and interact with.
    I had a similarly frightening experience with Molag Bal, and the name alone suggests a similarity to Baal, bringing up images of the pagan god and the people who worshipped it, and who caused no end of troubles for the ancient Israelites.
    It was crazy, all the on-screen prompt said was “activate shrine” and I suddenly found my character bowing down to the demon prince. It was freaky. The voice wanted me to kill some people or something in return for this gnarled black mace. No thanks.
    But you’re right, the experience left zero room for detachment.

  • http://www.alienman.blogspot.com Brad Williams

    If you do a little thought experiment, it gets even more spooky. In ancient times, far more of the world was utterly pagan, and they believed in gods very similar to Molag Bal. Can you imagine living in a world where you believed that there were many gods who competed ruthlessly for your attention, and that each gods particular sphere of morality varied greatly from the next? Add in with that the idea that you were not necessarily safe simply because you followed one deity piously, you could easily anger another and your god probably would be unable to spare you from their wrath.

    We take so much for granted that we have inherited from the Bible and the freedom that has come from being freed from the tyranny of paganism.

  • Steven Sukkau

    Amen brother, we have the privilege of serving the one true, Living God. And He wins every time.

  • DragonBorn

    “Can you imagine living in a world where you believed that there were many gods who competed ruthlessly for your attention”
    You mean like that of Jehovah and Allah and how both killed without mercy?

  • http://goodokbad.com Seth T. Hahne

    I don’t think that’s what they meant.

  • Kyle Atrus

    I’d like to mention that I find the level of sanity here refreshing. I knew people that would be likely to gasp in abject horror and throw their computer out a window if they were spoken to by a video game diety.

  • http://www.christandpopculture.com/ Richard Clark

    That reminds me, I need to buy a new xbox.

  • ChristianResurgence

    Beware, the Devil is trying to get to you via videogames!!!! Skyrim is trying to recruit people to heathen ways!!!!

  • Steven Sukkau

    @dragonborn, I’ve read stories if Hindu s becoming Christians and they comment on how deceived they felt, having been told to try and please all these “gods” that care nothing for them. What a contrast to Jesus. Their false gods demand sacrifice, but here is a loving God that sacrifices for us! And we get to tell the rest of the world this good news!

  • Gavin

    Why didn’t you say “No.”

    Why don’t your Christian ethics, and allegiance to Jesus the one true God, dictate how you play Skyrim?

    “Because I would have died.” – Who cares if Boethia killed you in the game. You would have remained faithful to Jesus and possibly had an even better story about coming face to face with persecution (even if it had of been in a game).

    If games matter, well you could make them matter even more by being a faithful Christian in them, especially in a world like Skyrim where there is no ultimate hope.

  • http://goodokbad.com/ Seth T. Hahne

    Gavin, one might suggest that the Christian ethic need not necessarily apply because in Skyrim, there is no Jesus. The game posits a world in which there *are* real deities (though Boethiah is not one, being merely daedra), but is not built on a foundation of Christianity. Therefore, it makes little sense to approach in-game interactions from a strictly Christian perspective.

    This is how fantasy worlds work. They don’t operate on the same terms as our world. Take for instance, Mario Bros. In our world, it would be irresponsible stewardship for a Christian to curb-stop turtles and sentient brown creatures, yet in the Mario Bros world, there is no issue with this at all. The Christian doesn’t need to feel remorse over his plainly violent and uncharitable actions toward other living creatures because in the Mario world, doing so it what he is supposed to do.

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    @Gavin,

    Yeah what Seth said.

    Also I don’t think it gave me the option to say no. He just said do this or else I will kill you. I didn’t do what he asked so it was basically like I said no. FWIW.

    But yeah again, I would restate my previous point for emphasis: what Seth said.

  • Steven Sukkau

    @Gavin
    Man, I know exactly where you are coming from. I am still struggling how to deal with morality and creating a character to inhabit in a virtual world.
    On one hand, being righteous in videogames can actually be harmful, teaching us that doing the right thing is easy, and well rewarded http://bitmob.com/articles/whats-in-it-for-me-moral-lessons-in-gaming
    But on the other hand, games also teach us evil rarely has lasting consequences http://bitmob.com/articles/five-games-making-you-evil
    So, I think we have to conclude that videogames and their morality systems are too flimsy, too black and white to benefit from adhering to either righteous playthroughs or evil fantasy.
    But at the end of the day, I both adhere to Seth’s logical explanation, and understand and sympathize with your objections.
    But what does God think? Part of me wishes He would just reply in the following comment and clear this all up!

  • Steven Sukkau

    I did a google search for the gods of skyrim and found a site devoted to doing exactly what CaPC does, except from a pagan point of view. It’s creepy and I don’t recommend hanging around for long, but interestingly enough, they have a similar article on Skyrim, extoling the pagan world views of skyrim. The pantheism of Skyrim definitely holds similarities to the pagan norse religion ie sovngard and valhalla.
    So, while Skyrim encourages players to recognize spiritual realities, there is a danger in recognizing the wrong spiritual realities, and then misinterpreting them as holding the truth. If anything, it shows how spiritually aware Christians should be, playing video games with our spiritual eyes wide open, able to discern truth from half-truths.

  • http://goodokbad.com/ Seth T. Hahne

    Yeah, but who on earth plays Skyrim and thinks, “Wow, I bet these awful excuses for gods are real. I should look into figuring out how to dedicate myself to the Eight no, Nine Eight in real life!”

    I would actually disagree that Skyrim encourages players to recognize spiritual realities in the sense you mean. I would argue it doesn’t do anything of the sort. It argues for the real-world existence of a pantheon as much as it argues for the real-world existence of lizard-people, elves, dragons, or cat-people with barbed genitalia. Which is not at all.

    Skyrim is pure fantasy and sells itself as pure fantasy.

  • Steven Sukkau

    I agree with you, fantasy is just that, fantasy. It’s made it up! But as thoughtful Christian gamers, navigating these waters is hard. I guess my fundamental question is, do we treat game fiction as a neutral force?
    If it is, then we can create meaningful moments to strengthen our belief, which I love. But if it’s not necessarily a neutral force, ie taking liberties with real world paganism, shouldn’t Christians try and discern this un-godly baggage, call it what it is, and move from there to find Christian meaning?

  • Steven Sukkau

    I guess I fear ignoring this un-godly baggage. It is very harmless, extremely subtle. But that’s what makes it so scary. I’m not saying we should only play games that are overtly Christian, but just become more aware of the broken ways these fictions operate, as in, a world without a loving God and saviour. We are in the world, but we aren’t of the world, kind of idea.

  • http://goodokbad.com/ Seth T. Hahne

    But what’s subtle about the Nine Divines? They kind of seem the exact opposite of subtle. They’re right there and you can confront them in a world that is non-analogous to our own.

    The non-analogous part is key. You touch their relics and you are not only healed of All Diseases (save for lycanthropy, a “blessing” from a demigod) but you also get some kind of blessing (like a quantifiable boost to your ability to use a shield). You go on a quest and you can actually talk to some of them. In Morrowind, you could actually hang out with or kill Vivec. There is nothing here analogous to anything in our world. Even contemporary pagans who believe in a pantheon have nothing similar to this.

    The theology of Skyrim is overt. It’s the opposite of subtle. It’s so obvious that if it were intending to be believed by players, we would call it clumsy.
    ___________________
    As for the moral value of gamespaces. They are not neutral. They are not good or bad. They are not valued at all. The only value is in your interaction with the gamespace. If your interaction with the world of Skyrim causes you to entertain the idea that its Divines might be a good thing to seek out in the real world, then your ability to interact with gamespaces is dangerously off-kilter. In such a case, interaction with gamespaces should be curtailed. Still, it’s not the game that is the problem but simply the individual’s inability to approach the game world in a mature or sensible manner. Different people have different talents, different strengths, different weaknesses. Ideally, all weaknesses will be overcome, but if weakness in the realm of gamespace interaction exists within a person, then that individual should protect oneself by abstaining until that weakness is overcome.

  • Stevensukkau

    I agree, the game world isn’t directly parallel to our own, and that makes sense. But I would add, in some respects it is analogous to our own world. Yes there are talking cats and lizard people, but they are vehicles for the authors to talk about racism. This fiction, like all fantasy, is a way for creators to talk about real world issues head on, problems and anxieties we face in our real world like religion and the relationship between fate and humans, but have a hard time discussing or thinking about unless it’s in a world of talking lizards.

    So in that sense, I think there is tremendous potential for videogames to strengthen my spiritual life, just as fantasy and fiction in general have the potential to help us wrap our minds around issues we don’t know how to deal with. Often these are very useful, and Videogames are full of powerful metaphors on themes like justice, destiny and helping others.

    But I want to seek the good and reject the bad. I want to know when Skyrim holds a nugget of truth or reveals a fresh look at grace and redemption. But also I want to know when Skyrim’s theology is flawed.

  • http://goodokbad.com Seth T. Hahne

    “But also I want to know when Skyrim’s theology is flawed.”

    I think that’s fair. But I also think it’s pretty obvious, right?

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    To be clear this article wasn’t mean to extol Skyrim for it’s personal deities and thank you to Seth for pointing out that Boethia is a Deadra and not a god–honestly, WHAT was I thinking? I really need to brush up on my Elder Scrolls lore!

    Anyway, I would agree with Seth–its pretty obvious that Skyrim’s theology is WAY off. That said, I find it incredibly interesting and refreshing even that Skyrim doesn’t just present us with the idea of religion but real in-game deities that the player can interact with. These “deities” are so far from reality that they do not spiritually bother me but they make for an interesting game space for sure, one in which some truly interesting and difficult decisions have to be made.

  • Steven Sukkau

    But why are these deities so far from reality? They bear striking resemblance to many real world pantheons including the greek and norse. As a Christian we can dismiss them as false gods, but certainly that doesn’t make them far from reality. They are based on real world demons that real world people worship. I think it’s important to acknowledge this, and move from there to find the good. But i think i would rather know about the negative connotations that sweep them under the rug. Of course, by giving them too much concern we give them more power than they deserve.
    However, it’s interesting to note Christians aren’t the only faith finding meaning in the game. When researching the gods of Skyrim i came across a site that explained the gods from a pagan point of view, “Pagans who interact with Norse spirits should find a deep resonance in the world of Skyrim. For instance, there is a very direct analogue to Valhalla called “Sovngarde” which your character can visit in the dragon quest line. In fact, the way to Sovngarde is guarded by a very Heimdall-like warrior named Tsun. The bridge to Sovngarde is made of dragon-bones rather than rainbows, though. Nevertheless, the world of Skyrim is as about as Pagan as one could hope for or imagine.”
    I know as Christians we have to engage pop culture differently, rather than try and isolate ourselves from it, but it may be just as dangerous to dismiss things like the deities of skyrim as “otherwordly” and having no bearing on real life. That’s all. I don’t want to be alarmist, just informed and aware.

  • Steven Sukkau

    I guess the question becomes, do you feel there’s any value for Christians in stating the admittedly obvious flaws in a game world’s theology?
    Maybe to efficiently find meaning in a piece of culture, we have to assume readers come with those basic presuppositions?

  • http://www.alienman.blogspot.com Brad Williams

    I dunno, Steven. Really, if you play Skyrim and pay attention to the gods, demi-gods, and etc., I can’t imagine walking away from that experience thinking, “Dude, paganism rocks!” Rather, a serious look at it would make me think, “Dude, this would suck!”

    Cannibals get affirmation from their god in this game. And thieves. And murderers. And the god of murder can just show up and kill you, and apparently no matter how pious you have been your god may not be able to help.

    In the Molag Bal quest, not one but two pious priests get murdered by that evil god. Where was their god? Why didn’t their god protect them while they were doing their duty? Who would want to live in a world like that? Who plays a game like that and thinks, “Man, I wish reality was like this!”

  • Steven Sukkau

    Yeah, I guess when you put it like that there seems to be more reasons showing how awful paganism is, rather than praising it. Thanks for insight Brad, and thanks to everyone for taking the time to follow this rabbit trail with me guys!

  • James

    I stumbled across this blog post searching for information on a specific Skyrim deity. I’ll be forthright here, I am an atheist and not really given to having the same experiences that those who feel they have a connection to god have. However Skyrim has provided me with an interesting experience nonetheless.

    In role-playing games, I am most often drawn towards character archetypes and playstyles that emphasize moral action derived from empathy and my own sense of justice (which often leads to my character having devotion to a gameworld “god” of mercy or righteous battle or somesuch). Skyrim presents a special problem for me, in that there many, many choices available that would go against my values. You cannot make magic weapons without entrapping the souls of living beings. Many quests require you to do questionable, if not downright heinous things. You can drink to excess, you can do drugs, you can even become an evil assassin or a vampire that feeds on the living.

    What this kind of world presents to me is a chance to exercise my will and make moral choices that affect my experience. Yes, the game would give me different (perhaps even better) options if I partook in some of these quests, or if I made magical weapons from the trapped souls of things I killed. Heck, my character would be rich if he lowered himself to stealing items from shelves and chests. But I do not. I don’t disturb the burial urns in the many catacombs that dot the landscape out of respect for the dead, I don’t complete quests given to me if I do not agree with the outcome, I don’t create zombies from my fallen foes… there are hundreds and hundreds of choices available, and I get a thrill out of only choosing those that would represent a moral and ethical view from within the gameworld. This kind of investment in the gameworld is valuable, in that it informs our understanding of ourselves, and I’ve found few games that allow that freedom of choice as much as this one.

    From a religious perspective, it is probably easy to look at a game such as this and see worship of false gods, murder and sorcery, and dismiss it as vile. However I think there is much to be gained as a moral being in playing through a game such as this, merely as a piece of fiction, and challenging oneself to decline choices that are against your personal beliefs. I have even seen people who play this game as pacifists, declining to even harm other living beings.

    I like Gavin’s thought that there is value to saying “no” to the evil “god” within the game, even though the alternative is death. There are stories programmed into the game, many of which are dark and unseemly, but those stories needn’t be the story that you make with your gameplay. And that sort of thing is what makes a game like this great.

    In response to the commenter that had discomfort with the parts of this fictional world inspired by real-life pagan mythology… how would you feel if the game world were monotheistic, where the god in the game gave his only son to save mankind? And you could interact with the “father” and “son”? Speaking as an outsider, I would find no more inspiration to become a Christian playing that game than I do to become a pagan worshipping the Norse pantheon playing this game. I would imagine you would be more comfortable with it, but I don’t think you would begin worshipping the deity in the game over God, right? Skyrim is a fiction, and it draws some inspiration is drawn from an interesting fictional mythology.

    I was searching for information on a particular “Daedric” deity whose priest claimed I was destined to perform some action on behalf of that deity. I wanted to make sure that the deity wasn’t going to ask me to do anything awful before pledging my help (I try to make my character a man of his word) when the search brought me to this blog. I find it very interesting and enlightening to read these viewpoints.

  • Stewart

    I don’t really have anything to add to the debate here, but feel I should just mention how interesting I’ve found it. I have no real religious view other than optimistic agnosticism and often see self-styled Christian websites condemning video games for their supposedly negative impact on society. This however has been an absolute breath of fresh air – a recognition of the fact that a game is a game. I particularly liked Seth’s point that

    “This is how fantasy worlds work. They don’t operate on the same terms as our world. Take for instance, Mario Bros. In our world, it would be irresponsible stewardship for a Christian to curb-stop turtles and sentient brown creatures, yet in the Mario Bros world, there is no issue with this at all. The Christian doesn’t need to feel remorse over his plainly violent and uncharitable actions toward other living creatures because in the Mario world, doing so it what he is supposed to do.”

    All I’d ask here is that yes, Mario is doing what he is supposed to do – in fact, he’s doing what he has to do – but if the game were to offer other less violent and uncharitable means of progression, would Mario (and the player) be morally culpable if he didn’t take them? If not, then the Christian should feel no remorse for whatever acts he or she commits in this fantasy world because, well, it’s a fantasy world. If, however, Mario would be sinning every time he hits a turtle then that seems a little absurd. To put it another way, is it the Mario-player’s lack of choice that absolves him or is it merely the fact that his actions have no real-world repercussions?

    Anyway, please, keep doing what you’re doing – I’ve read many articles and comment-strings on Skyrim and this has been by far the most interesting, balanced and thought-provoking. Thanks.

  • http://goodokbad.com/ Seth T. Hahne

    Stewart, you make a valuable point regarding volition in Super Mario Bros, asking perhaps whether the circumstances of a character’s play in a gameworld directs their ethical interaction with that gameworld. You’re right to point out that SMB is a pretty facile example since it doesn’t present any choice between kill or die (even if one is able to successfully and pacifistically move through every level without ever touching another being, completing and of the –4 worlds means dropping Bowser into a pit of fire). So what of games in which the player is given ethical volition and when the player does wrong (wrong within the moral system of the gameworld), even the gameworld’s characters recognize that the player has broken their moral code?

    At that point, I think much of the real-world ethical dilemma occurs within the mind of the player rather than necessarily within either the world of the game or in the actions the player engages to move an avatar to act badly within the gameworld. This is why we, as a society, put so high a premium on distinguishing between fantasy and reality. We recognize that action accomplished in a fantasy world, no matter how egregious in the real world, necessarily equates to real-world negativity. That is why a Good Person who is an author can write a torture scene into her novel without ever ceasing to be a Good Person. That author conceived of the torture she would inflict on her victim (a character) and carried it out to whatever degree she, in her sovereignty over her her story, desired. This torture was well-meditated and even refined. In her head, she may have carried out the torture hundreds of times, trying one thing and then another. Yet none of this necessarily points to her as being a terrible person, a sadist, or anything else. The world in which she did these things was imaginary. She didn’t have to torture her victim (it was her story after all), but she did—and because the world in which this torture occured doesn’t really exist, the fact that she did this thing says nothing necessary about her in reality.

    So when you do bad in games in which you’ve got a choice, that may say something about your personal character or it may not. That is a determination to be left to you and your conscience.

    Personally, I generally play games that allow such ambiguity of ethical choice twice. Once as a character closer to my own moral direction (since that thakes less thought) and then once as a person I am not. I do this not to see what it feels like to be bad (since I also already know what the feels like from real life), but because I like to explore stories from different vantage points. But then, that’s just my personal approach to games and their worlds.

  • Michelle

    My son is playing and shouting dragon shouts at the Xbox that pretty much creep me out. Does anyone know where these shouts come from? Are they pagan spells or praises to pagan gods? I just had a really bad feeling hearing him say these things and would like to know their real meaning and origin. Any help would be appreciated. Thanks

  • James

    The language is made up. It was created by one of the game’s designers. Here is an article on how it was created: http://www.gameinformer.com/b/features/archive/2011/01/20/skyrim-s-dragon-shouts.aspx?PostPageIndex=2

  • Michelle

    Thank you, James.

  • Fae

    Skyrim sounds fun but scary and misleading when it comes to gods and goddesses. Paganism is on the rise again and the gods and goddesses would never compete for subjects. Gods and goddesses are viewed as deitsy just like the christian god and his sun. Most people who are pagan would never kill in fact one rule of at least Wicca a modern form of paganism says, “And ye shall harm noun.” The’s games are maid by what is the most common view right now. Christians who have been misled to believe such things that are not true such as, “all Wiccan’s and witches worship the devil”. It’s not true not in that seance. There was a deity that the devil was based off of and modified from. There are many misunderstandings that are replayed in games, movies and story’s.

  • Krissie

    Personally I think that if you are going to take these games so seriously then you should just avoid them. I think Skyrim is brilliant and you can avoid all of the gods if you want, its an RPG game meaning you can take on any role you like so you an role play as someone who doesnt talk or believe in the gods.

  • Raven

    Why do you guys say paganism is so bad?

  • http://ycsmarketing.com/ Robert Smith

    I agree with you, but some types of games are so difficult to play. Good discussion here.


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