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My husband and daughter have been playing the video game “Elder Scrolls” for a few years now (yes, they take breaks to eat, go to school, go to work, etc.). This virtual world is stunning in its detail and sprawl. When the weather is bleak outdoors, the digital forests with sun filtering through trees, birds singing, and wildflowers blooming give me a lift. Sometimes–although I would never publicize this on an online forum–when weather doesn’t permit walking, I jog in place in front of the screen, pretending to “run with” my daughter’s screen character. It is cheering, if there are no nightmarish beings attacking, to imagine I’m taking some air on cobbled paths winding through woods, or on a beach, or over a boardwalk. As my daughter works her way through the game, with its stiff storylines and stilted dialogue, we are building our own family lore around it, which to me is more amusing than what the Tolkien-wannabe scriptwriters offer. Here are some absurdities you can only get from the blending of real and programmed worlds:
Virtual Clutter: In Elder Scrolls, players constantly acquire objects and carry them around in their packs or whatever their digital conveyance is. If I understand it right, these items come in handy later, or give the player an edge in fighting, or extra food for recipes, or clothes. At times, it gets to be too much, so you can sell off items to people in the game, or you can dump them somewhere. Apparently, my husband has taken to dumping. My daughter discovered this after she spent some time buying herself a house and furnishing it how she liked. It was tidy and cozy, a calm retreat from battling mutants. One day, unsuspecting, she selected that area on the map to visit her home. My husband had been there before her. He had been busy cleaning out his gear, leaving items strewn around the medieval dwelling. And in the middle of the floor was a sacrificial heart.
Virtuous Character: This game allows a player to take on any role. One can be an honest worker, making a living from skilled craftsmanship. Players can also steal–and worse, kill the robbed victims for no clear reason. You can join an assassin group and carry out dark missions. (I admit that this doesn’t sit well with me. I’m not sure what it does to one’s conscience to play at being evil, and regularly walk up and stab a person, with a showy fountain of blood, who had just been minding his own business up until then.) Anyway, my younger daughter set up a character for her older sister, @Dill. And when she plays as Dill’s character, Elder Scrolls becomes a wholesome game. Dill’s character would never dream of violence that wasn’t in self-defense or to kill bad guys. In fact, she doesn’t seem to do much fighting. She never steals, never has a bounty on her head. Instead, she wanders benignly through the worlds, busying herself with productive handicrafts. She might cook, make purchases, try on different outfits. No wonder these girls–when not at home due to canceled classes–successfully share a tiny apartment near their real-world college campus.
Fellow Travelers: Elder Scrolls can be played online, where other players are jogging by, dog or exotic pet close on their heels, or riding on a majestic predator. When ugly brutes have spawned for a massive fighting encounter, players team up and help each other fight. They can use their healing powers on one another or join other players for a multi-pronged attack. All this sounds noble, but when you visit a populous town square, especially if you’re wearing headphones, the dignity melts away, and one suspects that teenage boys are behind the earful of coarse language irrelevant to the game. We witness a range of puzzling behavior: odd poses, dancing, noisy gatherings. Today, a tall, lanky woman in sketchy underclothes was standing on a pedestal–and then suddenly acquired pants. Next, a whole outfit appeared. She was getting dressed in public. Also today, there was howling. You might have heard of the social media movement encouraging people to go outside and howl at eight every evening while in isolation. Well, it wasn’t nearly eight, but several players were circled up on the backs of their assorted wolves, tigers, and mythical creatures. Their animals were all howling over and over. My daughter laughed, steered her ride over, and joined the circle.Published in