Dragonrend: The Power Of Language is the Expression of Ideas

Language is a difficult and important thing. It is the bridge between two minds. Skyrim subtly poses a question about what happens when those two minds are phenomenological incompatible (experience reality in different ways).

     I recently finished the main storyline in Skyrim (I’m usually not very fast at finishing videogames). I was quite pleased with the story’s depth and writing quality. My favorite part, by far, was the idea of the Dragonrend shout. For those who haven’t played Skyrim, “Shouts” are a sort of magical spell the player can employ in the game. The story holds that the famous fire-breath associated with mythical dragons is actually the ability of the dragon to speak (or shout) in a way that its voice commands  and becomes a force in itself. This interpretation of the dragon allows for great writing opportunities, as the very concept of “words” and “speech” have a rich history in human (especially Western) civilization and history.

     In gameplay, the Dragonrend shout has the effect of temporarily weakening a dragon, forcing it to rest on the ground (rather than fly overhead), thereby making it easier to attack with a sword (or even an easier target for arrows). It is extremely helpful in defeating dragons (especially if you have specialized in melee weapons).

     The Dragonrend shout is enormously philosophically interesting for a few reasons. Some of these reasons have to do with what the shout is, what it refers to, what it represents for humanity, and what it implies about language and experience. Language is sometimes discussed as technology, and this makes Dragonrend interesting because it was invented by humans, not passed on from dragons. While it is spoken in the Dragon language, it is not entirely comprehensible to dragons. As far as I can tell, it exposes the dragon to the concept of morality, temporality, and the finite. The implications of this are delightful.  Is this shout an interpretation of Nietzsche’s famous “Abyss” or the “Despair” spoken of by so many nihilists and existentialists? Does the shout summarize Being and Nothingness, thereby weakening the dragon’s will to go on? Is the struggle of a Dragon to comprehend the finite analagous to the struggle of a human to comprehend the infinite? If so, is the effect of Dragonrend similar to Kant’s account of the mathematical sublime, in which we experience an aesthetic awe when presented with sheer vastness (such as the stars in the sky or tremendous landscapes)? Is Dragonrend a blend of aesthetic pleasure and agonizing despair?

     More interesting than “what” the shout is, is the question of “why” it works. Can language bring us to perceive what we cannot phenomenologically experience? What is the relationship between the phenomena we experience (or may possibly experience) and the language that describes it? The effect of the Dragonrend shout seems connected to the question of how our experience relates to the language we employ to describe our experience. How can words expose our minds to what we cannot comprehend or experience? (For that matter, what is the connection between comprehension and experience?) This is what I loved about the concept of Dragonrend in the game Skyrim. This device synthesized gameplay and story in a way that opened up speculation both in the gameworld and in the real world.

     More generally,  this is an example of where I think most good videogames are right now: Games don’t often directly educate, but I think they often provide a great deal of material that is ripe for teaching. Skyrim doesn’t quite posit philosophical questions of language as explicitly as Deus Ex poses questions of humanism, cyborg theory, or post-humanism. But for those who are curious, interactive simulations of stories are tremendous resources for exploring any issue the game designers choose to present.

The Todd Howard Thesis

I’m getting rather busy with some law school projects at this point. For my E-commerce and Law course, I’m doing a final project on Privacy Policies that requires me to read around 50 policies and evaluate them (after I develop a system for evaluating privacy policies). I’m also undertaking a really fun but unnecessarily ambitious final project for my professional ethics course, in which I will posit some new ways to approach legal ethics (something similar to virtue ethics). There are three other law courses in addition to these more exciting projects.
I have a few blog entries I’m working on, but they’re so much like the schoolwork I’m doing now that I would rather take a break from that. I’ll post some entries about privacy, data management, legal ethics, and trademarks in the coming weeks. For now, I want to post a little about videogames.
Here is one of my favorite discussions of videogames, by the project leader of two of the best videogames I have ever played (Fallout 3 and Skyrim):
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7awkYKbKHik

I like a lot of what he talks about, especially his concluding remarks about the need for game developers to step up and show the world what games can be and do. I like his use of the clip from “Good Will Hunting” as a reenactment of online competitive gaming. I really like his approach to a game as a loop of learning, playing, challenging, and surprising. One of the most interesting points I think he makes is the distinction between a game and a toy.

One of my ongoing projects is a look at what it is to play, what the appeal is in playing, how people play in a variety of contexts, and so on. One of my starting points was Kant’s description of aesthetics, which is the idea that our perception of beauty is the result of a sort of “play” between imagination and understanding. I liked the idea that something of our approach to playing might be linked to an internal “playing” between two mental faculties. The game/toy distinction fits into this because it raises the question of whether a game can be played by oneself (without dividing the self into two), and whether a toy can be played with by more than one person without necessarily creating a game. My initial reaction is that a game cannot be played by one entity alone, even if the second entity is the environment, and any toy that is played with by two people becomes a game unless their play is merely incidentally side-by-side. Of course, I am not convinced that my initial reaction is accurate or that it captures even a reasonable part of the full picture of games, toys, and play. Thinking about this would be a toy with which I could happily play for many hours.

There is a worthwhile point to be made about discussing the philosophy of games, toys, and play: Philosophers ask questions like these most to explore the meaning and understanding of the concepts that comprise our lives. It would be nice if a discussion about the game/toy distinction resulted in impeccably clear and universally-acceptable understandings of those concepts, but the more likely payoff from such a discussion is a better understanding of what it is to play, why we play, and how we can play better or resolve conflicts that come up as a result of playing.