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.. 🙂 ) 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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