Skyrim, Stealing & Sadism

If you have been a therapist for at least, oh, say three months, you’ve probably had a conversation with a patient who steals. Sometimes it is mandated counseling as a result of a criminal charge or EAP referral; sometimes it is the confession of shoplifting. But if you haven’t talked about stealing yet, chances are you haven’t asked.

Stealing is always a metaphor and enactment. It may be other things as well, a means of survival, an indication of impulse control: But for the patient it always means something consciously, preconsciously or unconsciously. (If you don’t believe in the existence of the unconscious, why are you reading my blog?? No good can come of it.. πŸ™‚ ) Sometimes the stealing is a symbolic expression of the desire to possess something that one feels was stolen from one: for example, a survivor of sexual abuse who steals toys to express the experience that her childhood was stolen. Sometimes it is to express the fear of being deprived; for example someone who steals and hoards food or clothing. I’m sure you could come up with plenty of examples, but let’s move on and discuss it in terms of narcissistic rage.

The difference between anger and narcissistic rage, according to some psychoanalytic thinkers like Kohut, is time and revenge. If a situation makes one angry, it usually has a short time span, and little to no accompanying desire for revenge. If a narcissistic injury occurs, the accompanying rage can last for a lifetime, as can the accompanying desire to have vengeance upon the person responsible. We experience both forms of feeling in our lives, and I’d say they’re different rather than better or worse for someone. And both are very useful sources of information about a patient’s inner world.

Skyrim is the latest video game in the Elder Scrolls series. This much-anticipated game has shipped 7 million copies worldwide its first week garnering $450M. Within the first 24 hours 280,000 PC players were downloading it, and within 48 hours Bethesda reported 3.5 million copies sold. It is looking to be one of the most popular video games this holiday season, if not Game of the Year.

Skyrim is a single-player game, not an MMO, but one of the things that makes it impressive is its scope, which is closer to MMO games than traditional single-player games. It has an immense game world, the province of Skyrim, and has an open-ended quality to it, in that you can play the game to your heart’s content without ever completing the main quest line. There is a main story, but you can choose to ignore it, and focus on doing other things. There are side-quests to train at Mage or Bard College, there are achievements to unlock and crafts like mining and smithing to learn.

And then there is stealing.

In Skyrim, there are lots of things lying around for you to take. If they are in a cavern or the world at large they are usually loot. But go inside someone’s shop or inn and you’ll see in red the option to steal them. If you do steal something, you may get caught or not. You may get caught and persuade the guard to let you go. You may get thrown in jail and forced to pay bail. Or you may get killed. The same applies to any lockpicking you do to break and enter someone’s real estate.

The more you steal, the higher the bounty on your head in each city gets. And each city has its own record of your crimes, meaning you can have a different reputation in each city. In fact, if your do enough criminal activity, the Thieves Guild, an invite-only thieves guild, may recruit you.

Not every video game allows for stealing, and by now some of you may be asking, “Why would anyone want to play a video game where they steal things?” Good question, let’s not dismiss this phenomenon: This game is 5th in a popular series which has consistently allowed theft in the game world, and developers don’t create and keep dynamics that nobody wants or plays. But to return to my earlier assertion that stealing is always a metaphor and enactment, we can begin to see the importance of asking our gamer patients about it in the particular, i.e., “What makes you steal in Skyrim?”

One of the advantages to taking a gamer-affirmative approach with patients who play video games is that you look at the video game as meaningful, rather than as merely a symptom or pathology. Once you do that the questioning loses it’s dismissive tone, and can become a useful part of the treatment. Why does the patient or gamer steal in Skyrim? Are they acting out a loss? Are they trying on a new way of being in the world? Or are they allowing some part of themselves to be expressed in the game that they try to hide from themselves in real life?

For example, did one of Skyrim’s NPCs with their Schwarzenegger accent say something insulting to you when you went in their shop? Maybe the fact that they sound like Schwarzenneger means something to you, and you like the idea of taking some tough bodybuilder down a peg. If you feel slighted, and steal from the innkeeper to “teach them a lesson,” this is an example of narcissistic rage. Having seen this in the game, can you begin to see any connections with people in your world outside the game whom you’ve felt insulted by, whom you wish you could teach a lesson?

It is often easier to look at our sadism and our narcissistic rage in the symbolism and displacement of a dream or art. Video games, which are social media and art forms with elements of dreams, are rife with opportunities to do this. The gamer-affirmative therapist can ask if your stealing to become noticed and recruited by the Dark Brotherhood might have any connection to the rage you feel that the girls/women/boys/men in your life only seem attracted to “jerks,” not “nice guys” like you. Or do other interesting (to a therapist) patterns emerge? Do you only steal from male NPCs? Do you ever regret stealing? Does whether you steal during gameplay depend on your mood that day? Do you think it is wrong to steal from the NPC? Why or why not?

Therapists: Don’t take the excuse, “it is only a game,” because any gamer knows, in fact we all know on some level, that play is not meaningless. You don’t accidentally steal, ok wait, scratch that–you can inadvertently click on something and steal it in Skyrim, and then all hell breaks loose. But if it was an accident, did you feel anything after it happened? Do you do it again? What does this say about your learning style, or repetition compulsion?

And sometimes, people steal in Skyrim to experience a conscious, guiltless pleasure and awareness of their own sadism. In video games, like in all fantasy, we get to do things we’d never do in real life, and enjoy them. If you’re recoiling at the idea of taking a loaf of bread from a little girl in a video game, stop and reflect: Might you have an overactive superego? Might you be splitting off and disowning some sadism here? Or was Oscar Wilde wrong when he said, “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.”

There is a reason why the Germans have the word Schadenfreude in their vocabulary: There is something archetypal about taking joy in the suffering of others. In real life it can be more problematic than satisfying for us, or it can be an ethical dilemma. But in fantasy and in psychotherapy, exploration of sadism is often meaningful and important.

Gamers might worry that talking about the joy they experience stealing from or even killing characters in Skyrim will have adverse effects on them. In one direction, you may worry that exploring these fantasies and the satisfaction you feel might demystify and ruin the game for you. I doubt that will happen, understanding the meaning of an unconscious fantasy doesn’t have to spoil the fantasy, in fact it might enrich it. Or you may worry that talking about these fantasies will be trivialized or pathologized by your psychotherapist. To that I say, if they do, perhaps it is time for you to get a new one.

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  1. I hope you don’t mind me commenting, but I wanted to say that I found this really interesting. I’ve never analyzed in-game behavior that deeply, but this makes sense.

    • Mike Langlois, LICSW says

      Hi Rebecca, not at all, chime in all you like! Glad you found the post useful, you may want to check out my book. πŸ™‚

  2. Awesome Mike. By reading your blog I have come to introspect my own gaming behavior. This helps me justify it and actually enjoy it more! πŸ™‚

    I have yet to really work with a gamer client on their experiences with gaming and the symbolism that it holds. But I am eager to try. As games get more and more life like and incorporate moral ambiguity (no longer are the goals as clear-cut as Mario!) the more this symbolism will become important, I think.

    Anyway, Skyrim looks good. Have you seen the “100 Ways to Die in Skyrim”? Worth a look for the laugh.

    Take care!


    • Mike Langlois, LICSW says

      Hi Sean, I’ll have to check out the “100 Ways,” I’m sure I’ve only hit upon a few so far. I always find it gratifying when a gamer reads this and finds it helpful, so thanks for that!

  3. I found this article incredibly thought-provoking and insightful. As a gaming therapist married to a fellow gamer, it started a discussion between the two of us in patterns in our own styles of play. As we look forward to purchasing Skyrim, perhaps we will be more aware of these patterns and analyze them from an entirely new standpoint than gaining achievements or enhancing character skill sets. I’m also incredibly interested in this “gamer affirmative therapy.” Any recommended readings?

    • Mike Langlois, LICSW says

      Hi Kourtney, thanks for the positive feedback. I appreciate these comments as they offset the ones people post on LinkedIn saying they can’t understand why anyone would want to play video games, let alone work with people who play them. As for the term gamer-affirmative, I coined it, and of course I have recommended reading: My book! ^-^ you can navigate to it from the blog, and download it to your Kindle, iPad, Nook or whathaveyou for a mere $2.99

      Thanks for stopping by and reading!

  4. Excellent post, Mike. I have been spending more time playing Skyrim than is probably good for me, but it’s so much better than Oblivion, which was fantastic. I love the idea of analyzing gaming behavior and relating it to more personal psychological functions. In my practice with children and adolescents I’ve spent many hours working on impulse control and planning behavior using PC games (primarily RTS like Tiberian Sun) and found much therapeutic fruit and even some real-life benefits. In the Elder Scrolls games, I find myself typically avoiding stealing unless I see almost no chance of being caught because I hate to have to go through the hassle of losing everything I already stole successfully as well as dealing with the impact on my progress on the other missions. As I finish more of the main missions, though, I tend to become more cavalier because it’s easier to come back from the consequences of being caught. Maybe I should go to work for Lehman Brothers. It is very clear that all of us in the mental health field will see increasingly the need to understand and incorporate the permutations of psychological and interpersonal forces involved in our expanding virtual world. Keep up the good work.

    E. Coyle,

  5. Roy Lofquist says

    Mike, I have been playing computer games since the 1960s (yes, they existed but you had to have access to a multi-million dollar machine). I like to figure out the game mechanics. I usually restart games a number of times and look for the most efficient way to go forward. If the game mechanics allow it, it’s fair play. No psychology involved at all – I don’t get involved with the characters.

  6. Mike, I wonder where your understanding of gamer psychology stems from. Is it from the cases you handle (ie people who need help and happen to be gamers) or is it from extensive personal experience within game environments (ie for MMOs – WoW, LOTRO, GW, AOC, SWTOR, Aion etc) and if so, how long did you play, were you in a guild, were you PvP or PvE focussed or is your gaming experience console based (ie MW series, GoW etc).

    Depending upon your personal experience you’ll meet very different kinds of people who are motivated by many different things.

    But very few of them think they can do in real life what they can do in a game. The ones that do, well, they probably need your help.

    • Mike Langlois, LICSW says

      What a great question Andy!

      Although I never blog specifically about patients, many of the thoughts and ideas initially arise from my clinical work with them. This keeps me honest, in that if I only were talking from my own experience it would be limited in usefulness. An n=1 is not very statistically significant, now is it?

      That said a lot of my understanding does come from in-world experiences. I did play WoW for several years in three guilds over two servers. And I have tried several of the other games you’ve listed pretty extensively. I have usually gravitated to PvE, but have experienced the joy of ganking in PvP as well.

      Another source of my thinking comes from the amazing interns and colleagues I supervise. Often in discussion with them I find the seeds of a post.

      Last but not least my understanding comes from my psychodynamic theoretical perspective, which values metaphors and the unconscious. Dreams are not the only royal road to the unconscious. Video games, the recollecting of them and the choices people make in them, are also revelations of the psyche.

  7. Interesting Post. I myself have been watching how I feel when I steal in SKyrim. Everything is so based on moral decisions that the whole game depends on the players personality. For example, In Oblivion, the prequel, the Thieves Guild is an organization that acts like a sort of Robin Hood, protecting the poor and maintaining a sort of balance of powers between the classes. It feels perfectly fine to join them and become the Gray Fox, guild master as you see yourself as a good person protecting the hopeless. In Skyrim, Riftens Thieves guild, looks more like a real thieves guild, and the mentality is around “bringing coin”. They ask you do horrible things that made me question if I really wanted to be part of it. The same feeling arises when I steal from someone I like or feel pity about (But I steal nontheless) and then feel a sense of guilt. Its amazing.

    • Mike Langlois, LICSW says

      Thanks for the comment Simon. I think that we can learn a lot about ourselves if we are mindful while we are playing. It is not dissimilar to reflecting on our dreams in some ways. I hope that there are some ethics teachers out there who are using games to explore these areas of critical thinking and morality.

  8. PersephoneB says

    I steal because I don’t make very much money not stealing and there’s something wonderful about stealing from people like Grelod the Kind. I took her for everything she had! Other people I can’t bear to steal from because they’re so nice. @_@ Even though they’re freaking NPCs! I steal someone’s necklace and I think, “Man, I would be so sad if I was just out shopping for groceries and someone stole one of the only valuable things I own.” It’s kind of annoying having your conscience bother you in dealings with NPCs.

    Also when I joined the Thieves Guild and everyone was very impressed with my skills and lots of them liked me, it was the greatest feeling. Like the whole Ragged Flagon was filled with my comrades. πŸ˜€ . . .stupid NPCs.

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