Sunday 2 September 2012

Social Status and Skyrim

A chief aim of mine in this blog is to use unconventional sources to comment on modern society. To that effect, I would like to draw attention to an article in the national press on the topic of so-called "posh bashing" in Britain. Brendan O'Neill places his stance largely in defence of the actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who has apparently recently become upset about people calling him names, and against the famously juvenile campaigning tactics used by Labour party in Crewe & Nantwich in 2008. He then goes on to draw an interesting comparison with the populist technique of stirring up anger against European immigrants and the spread of Polish culture in the UK (that is, leaving alone the important factor of the influence of immigration on the jobs market, to be dealt with in a future, more serious, post). This is a deceptively important point, which is summarised neatly when he notes that this is all rather indicative of a hidden obsession with the value of heritage. This becomes even more interesting when examined in parallel with popular forms of entertainment, such as video games.

Now, common sense tells us that circumstance of birth should not automatically confer any additional rights or advantages and that all men are created equal. Elements such as wealth and a sound family upbringing continue have a major impact on people's lives, although it is a major aim of all serious political parties to bring the advantages conferred by these to all people and to grant equality of opportunity (with some political positions taking this view even further). Beyond this, everything else must come from hard work and from the sort of natural talent that is encountered more by chance than it is inherited.

Gaming grants a different perspective however - one that resonates with the implications of Brendan O'Neill's article. Fantasy RPGs in particular, such as the recent Skyrim and, perhaps more famously, the ancient Baldur's Gate series (currently undergoing a remake) show a special fascination with the advantages of birth. The former grants the player the soul of a dragon trapped in a mortal body, while the latter makes him the heir of a deceased god, each permitting the use of different unique abilities by the player. This interest is by no means relegated to the one genre however, with other titles such as FEAR, Bioshock, Devil May Cry, Final Fantasy X and Silent Hill 3, to name the first few I can think of, also sharing this characteristic.

I would like to believe, rather than suggesting anything especially insidious, that this merely reflects the tendency of video games to bestow upon the players a "special purpose" or "destiny" to grant additional meaning to their activities and make the game a more special and appealing experience. A predetermined end-point to an adventure, after all, is much easier to motivate if the main character also has a predetermined start-point that points towards it, and birth is indeed the ultimate starting-point to any story.

A more likely halfway house between these views is to see the use of heritage in these games as an aspect of the kind of unquestionable self-worth that is loaned to the player by the lead character. Games are fun; they allow us to feel powerful, to act in a world without consequences, to roam around without any real chance of lasting failure and to explore our fantasies. Players have a chance to be the centre of the universe for once, and to have a glorious birth as an aspect of this seems very natural - after all, heritage did not always carry the taboo it bears today.

What this does tell us however is that the issue of birthright continues to influence people's minds and affect their aspirations. Regardless of policies put in place today, these insecurities will continue to affect the way people behave and the way they view themselves, as I noted in a recent post. Video games can therefore, in the same way as television, be a valuable social indicator, and one particularly useful when looking at trends among young people. Concerns about birth and innate status seem, for the time being, to be here to stay, in one form or another. Let's ensure they remain well within the realm of fantasy.

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