I read in a very reputable periodical (still searching for that very reputable periodical) that when a player is presented with a decision in a video game, they will rarely stray from their own moral and decision-making compasses. In essence, who you are in the real world is who you’ll be in the virtual world. In that way, your video game choices are that more predictable. I don’t know if this is true and until I find the research, I cannot confirm it. I’ve seen plenty of nice guys become giant dill weeds in games. Especially in co-op games where you are playing against other real world opponents. But, when it comes to single-player, sandbox RPGs, for me, this claim can be confirmed.
What’s a sandbox, single-player RPG? Sandbox refers to the environment and its inhabitants. The game is not linear. It allows you to travel anywhere and interact with anyone you’re little nerd heart desires. The opposite of that, for the gaming illiterate, would be the original Super Mario Brothers. As Mario, you must go from left to right and your choices of who you interact with and any future locations is entirely predetermined. While in Skyrim, for example, there is a main quest and a main goal but you can skip it and focus on side quests. You can just roam around kicking chickens if you want. Maybe you’ll never become the hero of Skyrim but the infamous chicken kicker. Be the scourage of the chicken community… you get my drift.
Single-player refers to the fact that you are not playing against other real world players. It’s you versus the game. RPG (role playing game) refers to the fact that you are allowed to create, develop, and manage your character how you choose. You decide how he/she will look, what race they are, how they fight, what their weapons of choice are and if they are evil or good. If you want to cuddle and protect the chickens, you can. If you want to slay them for their tender breasts, you can do that too. Do you want to slay them with a magic fireball or a iron short sword? Completely your choice.
The fact is, when I play RPGs, no matter how much I try, I end up just being myself and making decisions as I would in the real world. Even down to the most minute, inane details. Here’s a small list of behaviors that are reinforced in my current RPG fascination, Skyrim. In no particular order.
1) Nostalgic Pack Ratting
I’ve got stuff. Lot and lots of stuff. When I was a kid, I was definitely into collecting stuff. I’m not a hoarder, but much of the the “stuff” I hold on to is because I place some kind of needless emotional attachment to it. Oh, that’s the plastic 1 inch trophy a teacher gave to me when I finished my screenplay in his comedy class. Hey, that’s the notebook I wrote 2 poems in when I was a borderline emo kid in high school . . . the list goes on. I am no where near where I used to be in terms of holding on to the nostalgia of objects… But in Skyrim, placing imaginary emotional value on things has become a bad habit once again.
All the characters in Skyrim end up giving you objects (weapons, books, clothing, kisses) for helping them with a problem. Usually those objects come with a story. For instance, the Jarl of Winterhold (Jarl meaning King and Winterhold meaning city) asked me to help out some of his citizens with their various moanings and complaints. Easy. Need me to find your lost coin purse? Done. It was in your coin purse drawer. Need me to clear out an area of bandits? Done. They were actually homeless chickens, but I can see the confusion. Need me to kill a high blood dragon? Don’t you have a lost coin purse I could find? Fine. Done. I need medical attention… No medical attention? Fine, I’ll take your Blade of Winterhold.
Yep. The Jarl gave me the Blade of Winterhold as a token of his thanks. Cool. Great sword. Causes magika damage when it strikes an enemy. This will come in handy. Many gaming hours later, this sword is anything but handy. It has a 17 attack damage while my current sword has a 32. You don’t have to be a gaming nerd to know that a higher number is better. But I just can’t get rid of the sword. Even though it takes up room in my inventory (you can only hold so much gear) I keep thinking, “This sword meant a lot to this Jarl. I can’t just sell it or chuck it into the fields. What a jerk I’d be.” So I just hold on to it like an idiot. Good thing I bought a home so I could store all my swords.
Another example. This little boy’s mother died. He was sent to an orphanage where the head mistress beat him and the other orphans. He ran away and I found him in his old house. He was praying over his mother’s body, hoping that someone from The Dark Brotherhood would come and kill the head mistress. He thought I was one of those brotherhood characters. I felt bad for him so I agreed to check it out.
This kid was right. She was mean. Really mean. So I punched her… Jesus, she was old. One punch did it. But all this kids were happy, and, face it, I did this for the kids. When I informed the little boy he gave me a family heirloom – a plate. Worth about a 100 gold coins. I can’t sell that shit. And it’s ugly. I’d rather give it back to this orphaned boy. I can’t. So I just hold onto it even though it has no practical place in my life. I’m an adventurer, not a party host. I don’t need a plate. However, like many of my other objects, I have placed unneeded emotional attachment on it. It’s still in my inventory as if the kid’s going to find me one day and ask how the plate is doing. “The plate is doing just fine. We have three beautiful kids and a summer home in Cyrodiil.”
2) Just Can’t Say No
As an artists in many fields, I find jobs (both paying and non-paying) all over. I love helping friends and professionals with anything they might need. Even if it does not pertain to my career. Hell, I dog walk just to help my buddy Jeremy out. Dog walking? Yea, I know. My problem is that I don’t know how to say no. I just don’t. I agree to anything and everything and then regret it in the end. My time is pretty limited as it is, but my ego gets in the way. I’m flattered and honored that someone would think of asking for my help. So, my candle burns at both ends and I just get exhausted and/or bitter.
As you can tell from number 1 on this list, everyone in Skyrim wants help. It’s like a land occupied by the helpless. It’s like a country occupied by hopeless four-olds. I need this ghost killed. I need my special cup that an ogre stole. I need someone to kill my chickens. I need chickens. Someone keeps killing/protecting my chickens. Everyone wants something, and I always agree. A part of me that is in Forrest Whittaker (the name of my character) feels honored that Lady Evelyn needs me to find her worthless husband because he ran away with her life savings. “Me? Forrest Whittaker? The Wood Elf? Help you? Golly gee willakers. Okay, m’am. I’d love to help. Let me add it to my LONG LIST OF THINGS TO DO.” My list is like 3 pages long because every Tom, Dick, Aloysius, Harry, Craig and Bridge Ogre needs something done. Hell, I just agreed to help the city guard of Windhelm solve a serial killer mystery while I was on my way to find a cup a mage left in a bar.
3) Avoiding Confrontation
When I was a kid, I played traditional role playing games. Not Dungeons and Dragons specifically, but in the same vein. The theroy presented above also works with personalities – the choices you make for your character and how you play out those choices are a good indicator of your own personality. For instance, my friend Andy would always play very large, masculine characters who had great firepower. Bill would play borderline miscreant characters who did what had to be done. I was always playing good characters who had a lot of power but never, ever used that power to its full ability. I preferred diplomacy over bloodshed. That was proven when Bill had to play my character when I coudn’t make the game. The next week, everyone said that my character was suddenly a bad ass.
I am not a confrontational person. I am a little more passive agressive than I’d like to be. I really try to avoid confrontations as much as I can. I find the same to happen in-game. If I’m given a choice between a fight and talking things out, I almost always choose diplomacy. For example, a character was sure that his brother had been captured in a battle and was still alive, but athorities were telling him different – saying he was dead. I was able to track the brother down and found that he was, indeed, being held captive. The man wanted to go the fort himself, where his brother was, and kill everyone. I was presented with three choices: 1) Come with me and let let us paint the walls with the blood of our foes. 2) Stay here. I can kill them all myself. I paint walls better on my own. 3) There has to be a way to free your brother without hurting anyone. I chose number three.
And, so, off I went, alone, to the slave camp and was denied even speaking to anyone. At that point, you’d think, because its a game, I’d just have said, “Fine. I know magic and magic hates you. Boom!” Nope. I set off to the imperial camp to get permission for his release. It all stems from the fact that when I do confront people, I always feel bad about it – like I did something wrong. So, in-game, if I’m given a choice, I choose to have some tea, sit down, and talk about the weather.
I’m a wimp. I never attack first. Meaning (and contrary to public opinion) it takes me awhile to actually get comfortable in a new environment. I usually lay low, observe and let my extrovert slowly crawl out from the gutter. I feel nervous around new people and have to lurk in the proverbal shadows before I get too comfortable with them. I mean, once I am comfortable, I untuck the shirt tails and let all the fat hang out (figuratively speaking). It’s my, how should I say, attack style.
In Skyrim, you spend a lot of time scouting through caverns and old crypts. In the real world, the only thing you may find is either a grieving family or abunch of North Face wearing adventurers. You’d never kill them. In Skyrim, they give you no choice. They hate you. They always do. And they show that hate through ruthless attacks. So, you have to defend yourself, right? Not me. I make sure they only thing they see is an arrow flying for their face.
You see, my attack style in Skyrim is closely related to my real life social style. In Skyrim, you can choose to wield a broad sword and saunter into a cave with reckless abandon, slashing at everyone in sight. Or, you can attack like me – with sneak. I’d say 80% of the time, I’m wielding a nice, quiet bow and lurking in the shadows, ready to attack without being seen. If I’m found, my heart rate goes up, I get tense and usually run away. That’s pretty much my M.O. for all public situations. I have to SNEAK into a social circle.
Another example; When Bill played my RPG character when we were kids. he unleashed all hell on our enemies. He found my character’s full potential and went into battle like a whirling dervish. I, on the other hand, always chose the same battle skill. I would skip a round of attacks and, instead, hide in the shadows, observing an enemy for a round and finding its weakness. That way, in the next round, I would have an advantage over it. Again, my social M.O. I like to get the hang of how people are, find the one I can relate to most, and then make my move… slowly. Because, when you think about it, attacking a dragon and talking to strangers are really just the same thing . . .