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Why Aristotle Would Like Skyrim (Sort of)
The leveling mechanic in Skyrim creates a situation where the player develops particular skills by using them over and over. This system bears a striking similarity to virtue ethics as presented by Aristotle in Nichomachean Ethics.
For Aristotle a key component of virtue ethics is that people develop virtue (or vice) by habitually performing actions. He says, “we become just by doing what is just, temperate by doing what is temperate, and brave by doing brave deeds” (B, 1103b, lls 1-2). The same is true for all of the skills in Skyrim. A Dragonborn becomes a good archer by shooting arrows from a bow or becomes an illusionist by using spells from the school of illusion.
Because the player chooses what skills to develop, he or she indirectly determines the sort of character he or she plays. Instead of simply picking a class like rogue or soldier as is the case in many other contemporary roleplaying games like Dragon Age: Origins or Diablo 3, the player must decide to play that sort of character and develop it accordingly. There is no accident but a reasoned choice on the part of the player to become one sort of character or another.
Aristotle says, “by behaving in one way or in the contrary way in corresponding situations, some men become temperate or intemperate, good-tempered or irascible. In short, it is by similar activities that habits are developed” (B, 1103b, 18-21). For instance, though he would not consider it an ethical activity, Aristotle would agree that the Dragonborn could only become a successful pickpocket by engaging in the practice of picking pockets, leveling the skill. When the player ceases pick pocketing other characters, he looses the habit of it and the skill no longer grows. It is only by constant activity—by habit—that the Dragonborn increases his or her skills. While it is unlikely Aristotle would agree to the sort of trouble and mayhem many of the Skyrim skills can cause, he would understand the ways in which they develop.
Unlike other role-playing games, the player cannot slay a bunch of monsters with an axe and then develop his or her character to be sneaky, or well spoken, or a legendary blacksmith. Those attributes can only be increased by successfully using them time and time again. As Aristotle says, “In the case of virtues[...] we acquire them as a result of prior activities” (B, 1103a, 33). Therefore, the Dragonborn that charges into a cave and kills trolls with his or her steel war hammer will find those talents count for little when trying to bargain and gain better prices from merchants. To have the virtue of keen business acumen, the player must increase the proper skills in the proper ways.
Also notice that the skills must be used the right way in order to grow. The player cannot simply stand alone in a room and swing an iron long sword for a dozen hours and be ready for battle. The skill only increases when used against valid targets, meaning the Dragonborn only gains the virtue of swordsmanship after having made a habit of using the right sort of weapon against the right targets.
Why it may not be a perfect match, essentially Skyrim reinforces an understanding of Aristotelian virtue ethics by hinging game play on a leveling system that rewards habitual action.
Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. Apostle, Hippocrates. Grinnell, Iowa: Peripatetic Press, 1984.
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© 2013 Seth Tomko