Representation & Coding: Professor Harrell’s Talk

Professor Harrell’s talk was very, very important to me. The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind was one of my first proper roleplaying games that I ever tried, a game with the option to customize your main character and pick from several different options of race, gender, class, appearance and so on. It was exciting for me to play as someone who’d only previously played games like Super Mario 64 or Donkey Kong 64, where the protagonists were preset and the adventures were simple and uncomplicated.


Then I ran into the whole issue of the Redguard. For those that haven’t played any elder scrolls games, they separate characters by “race” which can be the difference between Humans and Elves (Called Men and Mer) or between those same groups and others, like the lizard-like Argonians or the cat-like Khajiit. These are the races which are very distinct and different, but men are also classified into several different races, and the phenotypically black race are called the Redguards.


In the Elder Scrolls universe, the Redguards are described as a warrior-like people from the country of Hammerfell, who immigrated from another far off land a long time in the setting’s past. They’re naturally athletic and skilled with combat, and even my younger self could keenly feel that there was some kind of stereotype going on here.


Now, stereotype is inevitable in the roleplaying game genre, which shares its roots with the pen and paper RPGs which are the origin of statistics rolls and racial aptitudes, the kind which lend themselves to the occasionally offensive stereotypes of videogames like the Elder Scrolls series, but it was Professor Harrell’s talk which shed light on the issue for me on how deep these kinds of representation issues run.


Redguards aren’t just stereotyped by text or concept or narrative. It’s mechanically built into the game and binding. The code of the game itself demands that Redguards show demonstrably less skill in magic or enchanting than they do in athletics or swords. The examples that the Professor showed were mostly related to the Attributes present in the last two games, which only affected skills, but had strongly characteristic names like “Intelligence” and “Willpower.”

While Skyrim did away with these Attribute values in favor of a further simplified system, it still presents these characters with different base starting skills according to race, stereotyping them to perform one function or another. Defeating stereotypes doesn’t just require conceptual innovation, it needs mechanical innovation as well. Will the next Elder Scrolls game be up to the challenge of breaking away from this? I certainly hope so, and maybe with talks like the one Professor Harrell gave, they’ll be more willing to try, too.

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