Exploring Gender Roles in the Virtual Dollhouse of Skyrim
Dollhouses have been historically used as interpretive play spaces where the user can explore social constructs. The goal of this essay is to merge the analysis of dollhouses, originating from the 16th century concept of miniatures and deconstruct gendered social norms in virtual spaces. Specifically I will be investigating the play mechanic of buying a home in the popular role-playing game The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim (abbreviated to Skyrim) and the extension Hearthfire. The first goal of this essay is to contextualize of historical gender dynamics of the home and dollhouse and draw insights about perpetuated gender representations. This involves investigating secondary resources commenting on the historical dollhouse, as well as comparing and contrasting the structure of Skyrim’s virtual dollhouse to these conclusions. Secondly, I will take the narrative space developed in Skyrim and critically analyze the representations of family, domesticity and interpersonal relationships in game to draw conclusions about the cultural context being insinuated by this virtual world. This requires a closer look at the economic system implemented in Skyrim as well as the definition of interactions that can occur between the player and the economy, the player and their spouse, and the player and their children. Finally, I will comment on the consequences of these stereotypes in modern day society and touch upon the repercussions for women in gaming culture. In particular it is important to discuss the gendered nature of harassment in gaming spaces, as well as deconstruct the language of exclusion in these cases. In summary, this paper intends to show insights into the cultural significance of dollhouses and expand that historical context to investigate the representations in the virtual dollhouses in Skyrim and the modern day assumptions they make.
Many scholars have researched dollhouses, however few have analysed the issue in a virtual space. Scholar Frances Armstrong (1996) provides many insights into the historical dollhouse as a ludic space, and provides a basis for the analysis of dollhouses from a modern perspective. Moving on to a more modern interpretation, in her book, Critical Play, Mary Flanagan (2009) breaks play into a structure of redressing, reskinning and rewriting to discuss dollhouse narratives. Finally, scholars have also explored the gendering of video games. Kathy Sanford and Leanna Madill (2006) argue that video games are typically explored through a male lens and the medium is intrinsically gendered. All of these secondary sources, and others, will act as foundational research when combining the dollhouse and role-playing video games.
In this deconstruction the primary example will be Skyrim, a role-playing game released by Bethesda Game Studios in 2011. Skyrim allows players to explore a massive open world with a medieval fantasy theme.
The player progresses through the game choosing unique skills and indulging in a highly customizable experience. Most players comment on the freedom the game offers, allowing the player to explore various areas with thousands of side quests. A very small percentage of players finish the main storyline with only 32.6% acquiring the “Dragon Slayer” final achievement on Steam (2014), and only 15.1% acquiring the achievement within a year after release (Totilo, 2011).
This shows that most players engage in emergent gameplay and ludic activities instead of focusing on the game as a linear progression. This format of play is similar to the unrestricted format of the dollhouse and appeals to a variety of players. As such, the game enjoyed massive success, selling 7 million copies worldwide and winning numerous awards from IGN, Game Spot, X-Play, Joystiq and others (Molina, 2011). For the purpose of this paper we will be deconstructing the virtual dollhouse, a mechanic in Skyrim where you are able to buy, build, customize, and play within your own virtual home. According to current Steam achievement statistics, 59.3% of players have acquired the “Citizen” achievement and purchased a home (2014). In 2012 Bethesda released Hearthfire a DLC packages that allows you to purchase land, design and build a homestead, and adopt children. The DLC was an extension of an already existing virtual dollhouse in Skyrim but adds a few key features.
Analysing these modern sources requires some historical context, thus it is important to look closely at the origins of the dollhouse. The dollhouse was conceptualized in the 16th century Netherlands, where a small group of Dutch women began handcrafting elaborate miniatures. Dollhouses have also been described as “didactic tools for young girls of elite families,” where historically they were used as a subversive tool teach social conform and domesticity while allowing the child to engage in play (Broomhall, 2007). This historical contexts adds two layers to this analysis. Firstly, dollhouses are gendered spaces, originally designed by women for women and girls. Secondly, they were used with purpose, as an acceptable play space where young women could imitate traditional gender roles, this acts to reinforce conservative social ideals in the minds of these youth. Therefore virtual dollhouses require additional critical thought when observing them in the context of the historical conception.
Beyond the social constructs of the dollhouse it is important to acknowledge other attempts to define gender roles within the home. Mary Beth Haralovich (1989) examines the reinforcement of women in domestic roles via the resurgence of family sitcoms in the 1950, highlighting the “reluctant and forced exit of women from positions in skilled labor after World War II” as rationale to show women in media as a homemaker, consumer, and static entity within the home. Thus contributing to the resurgence in media defining women in domestic roles and men as the antithesis, where they are active outside the home and enter and leave the space at will. This rigid definition of the family and the associated gender roles has become an iconic symbols of colonization in North America, or the “American dream.” This is also relevant to Skyrim, because unlike a digital dollhouse with a purpose of social play, such as The Sims, or Second Life, the dollhouse in Skyrim exists as an extra feature in an expansive role-playing game that allows the player to engage with the space at will. So by including a dollhouse mechanic with similar goals of the colonial Americas Skyrim subversively teaches sexist ideals to which are continuously regenerated in North American popular culture, including video games.
This snapshot of the historical dollhouse and the gender roles within does have many similarities to the virtual space provided in Skyrim: Hearthfire. On Skyrim: Hearthfire’s steam page the promotional material boasts of the player’s ability to choose where their land is located, customize their home, engage in new objectives and interactions such as guarding their home or recruiting guards and finally, there is the ability to adopt children. Of these promotional statements the most similar concepts to the historical dollhouse are customizing the home, engaging in domestic tasks, and having and maintaining a family. In Skyrim one can purchase base decorations from an assistant of the Jarl of each area. These decorations appear in your home, removing the dust and cobwebs that come by default. However more interesting customizations include the things that player fill their homes with. For example one user collected hundreds of gems to store them in a trough in their home, citing the decoration as “satisfying” (2013). One can also engage in domestic tasks in the home such as tidying up. When you leave items in your home they will stay in their position until you move them again, this allows users to engage in tedious domestic tasks such as setting the table, or placing books in the correct order on a bookshelf. As well there exists a “Well Rested” bonus for sleeping in your own home, so it is beneficial to stay there to regain health (2014). The final similarity is having a family and populating the home. The player can recruit followers, marry and in the Hearthfire DLC adopt children. These NPCs stay in your home and act as your family, providing conversation and home-cooked meals upon your return. Marrying provides several bonus including reaping the monetary profits your spouse, as well as “if you sleep in the house with your spouse, you will get a temporary bonus called, ‘Lover’s Comfort’ that boosts your rate of skill-learning by 15% for eight hours” (Skyrim wiki 2011). Due to these similarities it is clear that Skyrim: Hearthfire qualifies as a virtual dollhouse and can be deconstructed with that framework in mind.
However there are a couple of key differences between traditional dollhouse play and the play that is conducted in the world of Skyrim: Hearthfire, these differences include the technical affordances Skyrim is bound to, the fact that the dollhouse is an addition to an already robust world and the agency that the player is granted thereby. In discussing the affordances of the technology of Skyrim it is important that to acknowledge that Hearthfire did not have a great reception, some reviewers commented on the limitations of the DLC by stating, “even though it’s been crafted piece-by-piece, Hearthfire’s land never feels like it’s truly yours, and the rigidity of the process robs it of any potential satisfaction” (Gaston 2012). Compared to a traditional dollhouse where all imaginable forms of ludic play are possible, the dollhouse play in Skyrim is bound to the strict architecture of the programming it is powered by. Secondly, when comparing the virtual dollhouse in Skyrim to the historical dollhouse a key difference is that Skyrim’s virtual dollhouse is an addition to an already existing play space where the player/doll is given the option whether to engage with the dollhouse or not. In contrast the traditional dollhouse is an isolated play space that is approached with the goal and purpose of engaging in play within the dollhouse. When compared to the traditional dollhouse the Skyrim player is not trapped to the confines of the home. This gives the player more agency and introduces the masculine role of the protector and breadwinner as seen in 1950s media. This additional freedom also disconnects the player from some traditionally feminine rituals such as cooking or child rearing, and gives them the choice of whether to participate or not. Altogether these differences are crucial to drawing insights into the cultural connotations of the player’s role in the home and the gender roles that are being perpetuated by the game.
In order to confront some of these differences in experience it is important to understand that dollhouses are unpredictable spaces that allow for many variations of deviant play and this deviance also occurs within the rigid structure of the virtual dollhouse. In Mary Flanagan’s (2009) analysis of the dollhouse as a ludic space she addresses subversive behaviours as reskinning, rewriting, and unplaying. Reskinning is the act of preparing your character for subversive acts by changing their appearance. For example the Skyrim Wiki lists several “role-playing challenges” where players can play the game as different characters such as “The College Student” or “Rogue Cop” (2014) that have specified outfits where a character must be prepared via “reskinning.” Rewriting also occurs with the characters of Skyrim, many players contribute stories to the Skyrim wiki in first person, including sad stories of how they became a widower via tragic dragon encounter. As well several users YouTube include first person renditions of their character’s activities in Skyrim. This builds on the play culture and fandom of Skyrim. The final method of dollhouse play that that Flanagan identifies is “unplaying” which also occurs in Skyrim. For example Escapist Magazine wrote a piece about a player who collected the heads of women and kept them as trophies in their home (2011). This play-through deviates from the expected behaviour of the game and uses the play space to commit a crime that is grotesque, misogynistic, and not socially acceptable. All of these types of critical play are found in both the historical dollhouse and the virtual dollhouse, highlight the similarities in the ludic play that occurs in both the structures.
Having explored the historical significance of the dollhouse from various primary and secondary sources it is clear that the space and ritual within such is a gendered space. Thus it is important to further examine the differences between Skyrim and the traditional dollhouse, primarily the introduction of property ownership and the status of the player within the home. This can be broken down into several points: the historically gendered nature of owning property, what kind of economy is implemented in Skyrim, and the economic relationship between you and your spouse, and the player’s role as a parent. These subtleties grant the player more power and subvert many of the original intentions of the historical dollhouse. For example, instead of teaching young women and girls to imitate domestic roles, the player is taught to expect domesticity from their spouse and the role of a parent is rigidly described to be authoritative and disconnected.
Ownership and participation in the virtual economy can both be argued to be gendered tasks, and the perception of such mechanics may be skewed through a gendered lens. For example, until the early 1900s women were not allowed to own property independently, and the right was first granted to married women exclusively (Chused 1982). So when examining the introduction of property ownership to a dollhouse mechanic the user is given more agency then the women and girls who have historically engaged with dollhouses. The type of economy that is implemented in Skyrim is also important. The game uses a market economy where one must purchase land with gold earned from questing. The prices of the homes and land are arbitrarily decided by the Jarl of the hold, or from an outside perspective the pre-determined value as dictated by the program. This imitation capitalist system still reminds us of key aspects of capitalist systems seen in real life. First, there exists a class structure, this class structure mirrors a renaissance structure with both bloodline hierarchy and wealth interacting with your status in society. A good example of these ideologies can be seen in Elisif the Fair, Nord Jarl of Solitude. She is the widow of High King Torygg and thus has a claim to the throne of Skyrim. She is also considered popular even though some citizens “have concerns about her age and inexperience” (UESP 2011). This depicts acquiring the position of Nord Jarl not because of her skills, but marriage. Also, it is relevant to point out the gender disparity in politics in the world of Skyrim. Of the nine starting Jarls of Skyrim only two are female and neither Elisif the Fair, who is defined by her beauty, and Laila Law-Giver, known for her ignorance surrounding the thieves guild, are representing women being competent at holding power. There are also two women who can become replacement Jarls, Sorli the Builder can replace Idgrod Ravencrone, and Maven Black-Briar can replace Laila Law-Giver, but both are only seen in power if their side quest is completed. This implies through descriptions of the characters, their actions in game, and simple lack of representation that women are not good leaders, and ties into the conservative patriarchal beliefs of the economic system. Thus the writers of Skyrim have created a patriarchal capitalist society that favours men as public figures. This builds on the dollhouse mechanic because it forces the player to play in the home from the perspective of the patriarch.
When discussing spousal relationships in Skyrim we must be conscious of the implied social norms present in other parts of the game. The player is able to initiate a marriage with an NPC where they are the active participant who owns property and dictates where your spouse lives. In some cases if you marry an NPC who has property, you gain access to that property and can tell your spouse to live there. According to the Skyrim wiki “If your spouse lives at their own property, they will live normally like before, visiting different places and doing different things. If your spouse moves into your house, they will never leave home” (2014). Thus they can be found in the assigned home and offer daily perks to the player such as a second income, and daily meals. It is also important to note that the player receives financial support from the spouse, but never enough to rival their own income. Skyrim’s Unofficial Wiki cites the daily income received from a spouse at 100 gold per day (2011). This creates a relationship that abides by traditional gender roles, so regardless of the player’s chosen sex the player will always be in the traditionally masculine role in the relationship. Therefore the player is granted the agency of leaving the house and is able to exist in both the private and public spheres as well as power and authority over their spouse.
The final aspect of this virtual dollhouse is to look into the activities the player can engage in or opt-out of, such as cooking and child rearing. These hold insights into the cultural norms the developers are propagating as expected behaviors for people in specific roles. For example a player can adopt up to two children, who live in the player’s house and who the player determines when and how to interact with. When speaking to a child the player is able to give them a gift, play with them, tell them to do their chores, or tell them to go play outside.
This establishes an authoritative relationship with your children and describes to players what it is to be a parent with a strict set of interactions, also building the same social conditioning framework to teach familial roles similar to that a historical dollhouse creates. These stereotypical roles perpetuate the idea that the player owns the home and the people inside, having authority over the activities that take place. So with the introduction of ownership, a developed capitalist and classist society, and traditionally gendered relationship structure with you as the patriarch it is interesting to compare the increased amount of agency granted to the player in the virtual dollhouse as opposed to the historical dollhouse.
These observations show that although Skyrim allows you to play as any gender that the writing and development of the game is still rooted in a heteronormative and sexist ideal of the home, family and property. Especially when compared to other societal structures such as North American indigenous knowledge paradigms where the community cumulatively owns land. This highlights the Eurocentric themes of the games and exposes the subtle bias towards patriarchal and colonialist beliefs.
By propagating these patriarchal ideals Skyrim reinforces harmful sexist assumptions about women’s roles in society and the home, and this is reflected in gamer culture and society. For instance a very cliché insult to women in gaming is, “go make me a sandwich.” This insult is so pervasive in gaming culture that it is the name of a popular gaming blog, Go Make Me a Sandwich: How Not to Sell Games to Women, as well as a category of harassment on the gaming harassment archive, Fat, Ugly or Slutty (2012).
Deconstructing the implications in this insult it is making three assumptions, women should not be participating in gaming due to their gender, they should be servants to men, and the domain of this servitude is the home. The idea that an active participant in society has as domesticate spouse to specifically prepare food is a feature of the aforementioned marriage mechanic in Skyrim. These gendered insults have also been used in attacks on women who have attempted to comment on the sexist nature of the video game industry and this harassment is only now being discussed as a larger systemic issue in gaming culture. It is also important to acknowledge that housework is undervalued and housewives are often perceived as free labour. By rewarding players with free stat bonuses, gold, and food for marrying Skyrim is also concluding that these things are deserved rewards teaching the player that in marriage one’s spouse is supposed to serve them and offer them free labour. Conclusively, women experience a disproportionate amount of harassment online and offline that link discrimination to the public and private spheres, by perpetuating traditional gender roles in media these social constructs are also being replicated and reinforced in the minds of players.
This paper may draw some criticism on the fact that is blames the representation of women in domestic space in games for the sexism culture of gaming. However gamers consume a variety of media and these harmful social prejudices could be taught in the home, by media, by religion, or in schools. The video game industry is not the only institution that contributes to enforcing a patriarchal culture in North American society. The documentary Miss Representation critiques sexism in the media and have linked underrepresentation and poor representations with women’s underrepresentation in politics and leadership positions (2011). However Skyrim still manages to be somewhat inclusive to female players, by allowing the player to choose from a variety of races and pick to play as a woman. As well the customizable content and nonlinear game play of Skyrim has not only captured the attention of traditional Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game fans, but has also appealed to gamers who enjoy a variety of passive pursuits. As well the world is fleshed out with many strong female characters and a variety of NPCs representing many races. Same sex marriage is also allowed as part of the game mechanic. Several conclusions can be drawn from these insights, however none would be supported by formal proof. It would be interesting to examine if perpetuating unegalitarian relationships regardless of the player’s gender still sending a harmful message to players. Hypothetically it could be encouraging an outlook of privilege and entitlement, but it could be argued that creating this space for fantastical narrative is merely providing a forum for escapism and fun. Either way it is unfounded to make an assumption one way or another.
In summary, Skyrim offers players a dollhouse space that coincides with many expected attribute of a historical dollhouse inside a much larger virtual world. There are undoubted gendered links to dollhouse space and expected gender roles within the home. In clarifying these links it is obvious that Bethesda emulated many of these stereotypes in crafting its own virtual dollhouse in Skyrim. After analyzing the discrepancies between the historical dollhouse and Skyrim it is clear that the virtual dollhouse in the expansion pack Heathfire offers players more narrative options and grants them agency inside and outside the home. The introduction of economy, simple spousal relationships, and children are also aspects that distinguish the virtual dollhouse. By building a patriarchal market economy in Skyrim, defining spousal interactions as those similar to servitude, and dictating authoritative actions over the player’s children, the designers of Skyrim have crafted a mirror of North American societal norms and the sexist gender roles that are prevalent. This can be problematic as much of gendered harassment in gaming directly references traditional gender roles in excluding women from gaming culture. Finally, although video gaming is just one part of a larger media influence it still impacts gamers by perpetuating cultural ideals. This is why it is crucial to consider the virtual dollhouse under this framework and dissect the player NPC relationships, economy, player agency, and other subtle cultural cues in this virtual world.
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