Last month saw the release of Elder Scrolls Online on the PC and Mac platforms. Release on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 is set for later this year. Set in an era several centuries before Skyrim, Elder Scrolls Online is the franchise’s first foray into the MMO arena. If you and/or your kids enjoyed adventures in Tamriel before, you might want to try Elder Scrolls Online to experience the game world together as a team. The game’s mechanics and character building have been streamlined to better fit into the multiplayer mode, but the gameplay is largely the same as Skyrim.
What To Watch Out for in the Story
The game is refreshingly progressive in its content. Women wear practical armor identical to men. Female characters have depth and don’t seem to be steered by sexist tropes. Unfortunately, some of the races in Elder Scrolls Online are recognizable as American racial categories. This presents a few issues. The Red Guard people, for example, are of African descent in appearance. It’s problematic, to say the least, that the Red Guard focus on stamina and physical combat—while the European-looking Bretons focus on magic, a more intellectual skill.
Despite the creepy eugenics idea that each group of people are born with an affinity for certain skills (a game mechanic that’s not uncommon in MMOs), the different peoples of Tamriel are portrayed with diversity and dignity. For me at least, there isn’t that feeling playing in Elder Scrolls Online that one is entering into a straight white male space where non-whites or women are only allowed in as a courtesy and only as one-dimensional stereotypes. Characters of any given gender or race appear to be fleshed out as their own individual characters.
Bethesda should be commended for its inclusion of gay relationships as an accepted part of Tamriel. Marriage equality has existed in the Elder Scrolls games since Skyrim. In Skyrim players were free to romance and marry regardless of gender. Elder Scrolls Online progresses a step further and includes a few non-player-characters that are in same-gender marriages. Even an everyday peasant woman can have a wife she loves.
The stories within Elder Scrolls Online can be violent, but they are toned down compared to earlier games in the series. The “M for Mature” rating from the ESRB is maybe a little overzealous, and Bethesda states it disagrees with the rating. Bethesda was likely going for a “T for Teen” rating during development. There is a gritty realism to the art in the game, but I can’t say that I’ve personally encountered anything more disturbing than violence found in “The Hobbit” or “Hunger Games” movies—both rated PG-13.
The game is worth checking out with teenage kids or younger, but reading or exploring in advance might give you more peace of mind. If your kids were fine with Skyrim, they should be perfectly okay with the Elder Scrolls Online.
What To Watch Out for in the Online Community
The most troubling aspect of Elder Scrolls Online is actually not within the control of the game’s developers. Despite the progressive content coming from game designers, Elder Scrolls Online currently suffers from a very toxic in-game community. Granted, the game is very new, and it’s hard to say for sure what the community will end up looking like.
Nevertheless, each time I log in I am currently logging anywhere between one and 10 players reported for racist and sexist comments made in public chat. This follows a pattern I’ve noticed in other MMOs after their initial launch. There is always a large influx of players when a game like ESO first launches. It only takes one or two people to harass a community in public chat to sour an evening, and the odds go up the more players you have online. After a while the instances of having to report and ignore toxic players go down, maybe because the number of players goes down or because people are more focused on max-level content.
Racist and sexist locker-room comments in particular could be a desperate attempt by some people to claim a new game as space that is white, male, and straight. As the gaming community has diversified and spoken up more, there’s been a backlash from the players who oppose diversity. It’s possible the white, male, straight players feel a sense of ownership of the game space. They may be trying to reassert ownership by making it so poisonous that others will leave.
Rather than let them ruin the game experience, however, wise parents may choose to let toxic players online be a chance to talk about the issue of net anonymity and etiquette. The anonymity of Internet communication is a powerful thing, and some see it as license to speak without consequence.
Parents should talk with teenagers about how words have impact even if the people writing or talking are not visible or held responsible. Even if someone isn’t being rude to your kids specifically or is going after some group that doesn’t include them, it’s up to community members (like your kids) to stand up for the community they want to be in.
All MMOs have rules within their Terms of Service regarding player harassment and some kind of mechanism for reporting players who violate those terms. Encourage your kids to report issues discreetly, and set the violator on “/ignore.” If one of the toxic players touches a nerve, I think it is perfectly valid to encourage your kids to call a person out in chat—so long as the callout is brief and doesn’t lead to a spectacle.
Dealing with these kinds of interactions in a game is good training for addressing similar situations in real life. There are times in all our lives when we have to address others—even friends—about sensitive subjects or ethical concerns. There will be times when we have to examine our own words and actions, too. Confronting issues in-game provides young gamers a framework to understand and approach them again out in the real world, making interactions a way to teach kids to stand up for a better world both in-game and outside.