essay, playing, video games

Print Culture in Skyrim

Just by using that title, I invoke a certain amount of study in how people read, write, and create a print culture in a society. Yet, in trying to apply that to a video game there are a number of problems with any analysis of those ideas. Notably, that because the entire game is a creation in and of itself (i.e. a text too), no complete culture actually exists in a pure form. Since it is designed, everything within it is the result of a series of selected choices not toward a greater emphasis on the culture itself, but on other factors such as player enjoyment. Still, there are enough elements of a print culture in Skyrim to look at how it might have arisen given what can be found in the game by the player.

Even given the issues in looking at the game, something become very obvious in playing Skyrim: books are important. They can be found on shelves in many homes, in ancient crypts, and on the floors in dungeons. They hold clues for how to live, what happened in the past, and where certain items can still be found many years they had been forgotten by the greater society. The recovery theme that is imbued in the game comes from reading and then applying that understanding in a variety of ways to show truth, open doors, and point the way to where to go next in a quest. For as much as any one item in the game is important, books serve that purpose. They are the frozen knowledge that fuels the adventures of the player.

However, for as vital as the actual pages that record the words are, there exists no factories in the world that make books. Several characters write messages to one another. Quills show up on many desks and a writing culture obviously is in place so that information can be shared through the exchanging of notes. Yet, no one is seen making the books. It is this observation that presents a profound issue for the game. Books are in the world. The same titles hold the same words. No single organization though spends the time to make these copies. They just happen.

Now, it could be said that the books are made through magic. It is certainly a viable candidate for the exact duplication of the same information in the same books throughout the world without a single error in the process. The copying of data could be accomplished through the application of mystical forces and all it would take is a small number of people acquiring the books, after they have been written, and then preforming the necessary actions. These same people could contact merchants and arrange sellers for the books, both original and the manufactured copies. This too, however, is complicated by the economy.

Books, like most other items, can be sold. Their value is fixed throughout the world and the same title is equal to the same buying or selling price at any merchant. Few seem surprised by a new book showing up, or the player trying to sell an account of some ancient historian from the long past. They will just exchange the text for money. Other than a handful of characters who are interested in certain books, there is little interaction with the texts or even the words themselves within them. They remain artifacts of a culture, yet without a past or present.

The shift must turn then from the character to the player. All books teach in some way, yet some are destroyed in the process. The tomes that hold spells disappear as soon as they are used and are removed from the inventory. The very action of reading is the process of taking in the information, understanding it, and then having the book lose its value except from its selling value. The books are not for other characters to read, but are for the player to find, consider, and investigate. Other characters, it seems, cannot learn from the books that are found in the world, only the player can. The dietetic presence of books might very well be nothing but a ruse.

I would like to think that the books serve some other purpose in the world of Skyrim other than as props that help set the stage of the game. It would be nice to see characters gaining something from reading, and even see some writing in books too. The construction or even binding of the collections of information would be a fascinating look into the societies and how they save data for future generations. Even the archiving of some books over others would serve to give an insight into what legends survive from the past into the present and how they serve to teach others about what traditions are worth saving.

Examining the print culture of a society can often show profound insights into what they find important enough to save. It  can point to how teaching works, what information is treasured, and even if they promote individualism over community sharing. Skyrim doesn’t have any of that though. The books teach, yes, yet hold very little beyond their immediate value in granting some skill increase or directions to the next part of a quest. Even those that hold information about the past of the world are short selections. Some poetry exists in the world, yet points more to knowledge for the player’s benefit than any entertainment for characters.

Some type of print culture is present in Skyrim. Books exist. That much is clear. Their placement is directed and they are there for the player to find. However, instead of contributing to the cities of this world and allowing spells to spread, it is stopped by the very process that enables it: reading books unleashes their power and destroys them at the same time. Books are tools, items, and regents for the player to reach another position. They are not the end goal for either characters or the player; they are merely used up as the player moves along in her quests.