Let’s Play Skyrim

I had an epic day of being awesome on Thursday, so I was exhausted on Friday. I spent what part of the day I wasn’t sleeping practicing Zentangles and hanging out with friends. Saturday was similarly low-key. After drawing my Zentangle for the day, I was itching to play a video game: something beautiful and epic and new…

So I started a game of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim on PC. Next thing I knew, the sun was rising. I took a nap and basically spent all of Sunday playing thoroughly immersed in that fictional world. I’m enjoying the game and want to experience the story, but to be honest there are aspects of it I find rather stressful. Melee combat, for one – especially since the default difficulty was too high for me and I kept dying. I’ve been doing much better since I dialed it down a notch, but I still prefer to avoid melee combat when possible.

The other thing I find stressful is that, whether a character is attacking me physically or not, they’re talking at me. The physical attackers hurl insults that can hurt more than their blades (except that they’re obviously wrong, because I end up killing them.) Other characters I pass might say something mean, ask me for something, or randomly tell me their life story.

Some of the other characters in Skyrim say very mean things to the player character, especially if you’re playing one of the less popular races. The same is true of Oblivion; I haven’t played the other Elder Scrolls games yet, but I imagine they are probably similar. It’s quite unpleasant, and worse I’m concerned that it could have similar psychological effects to being bullied. I know it’s a game and gamers are well aware that it’s fiction and they can turn it off and walk away from it. Most people have a strong healthy boundary between themselves and the character they’ve created. The bullies can’t actually keep them from achieving their real-life goals – or the ones in the game, for that matter. (In other words, it’s quite different from being bullied in real life.) But I’m still concerned that hearing negative talk consistently for hours at a time can be harmful… at least for me.

On the positive side, I just figured out that I can mute the voices and only have subtitles during dialogue (audio and display settings, respectively). It makes the game a bit less immersive, but perhaps that’s also better for my mental health. I guess I’ll see how it goes next time I play.

Now if only we could do that to real-life politicians…

Anyways, as much as I want to just play the game and have fun with it – learning things as I come across them and making decisions spontaneously – my mind wants to plan out a Let’s Play. The most basic definition of a Let’s Play is a video that combines actual gameplay footage with simultaneous audio commentary by the player; it can be a walkthrough, a challenge run, friends goofing off (whether playing competitively or collaboratively), even a talk about a topic that has nothing to do with video games. Fox’s favorite Let’s Player (LPer) is HCBailley.

I love the idea of Let’s Plays and have wanted to do one for a few years now. I had a couple false starts, but on some level I’m convinced it’s only a matter of time before I get one going that I can be consistent with (and get all the YouTube followers!). It’s an opportunity to do some video editing – which I enjoy for the process at least as much as the product – and share my thoughts about the game. I want to share the story, be witty and entertaining, and give a feminist critique.

I’m trying to convince my mind to put the Let’s Play idea on the back burner for now. Let me learn to be consistent with things that are important to my real life before I start a project that requires me to play a long and involved video game on a regular schedule (and in manageable doses). I need to play through the game at least once before I’ll know it well enough to do it justice. I’m still trying to figure out my priorities for my character; something I haven’t encountered yet could inspire me to change my entire focus. So there’s no need to determine exactly how I’m going to introduce myself, what I want to include in the first episode, or how to include the feminist critique without ranting too much. Those things can develop over the weeks, months, or even years I’ll need to prepare for such a monstrous undertaking… and to be honest, I doubt anyone will particularly care about Skyrim anymore by then. It already has a successor.

The thing is, if I think about the game when I’m not actively playing it, there isn’t much to say. I have my character. I’d like to improve my smithing and melee combat abilities. I’m really glad I can mute the voices and determine when subtitles appear. I’m not entirely sure it was wise to drop all of my gold on a house this early in the game, but it’s a place to keep the dragon bones and scales I’ve been collecting. It also enabled me to adopt a child; interacting with her causes me to feel warm and fuzzy inside. I could think about which quest to start next, but they’re all in a nice convenient log for me so I can just decide next time I play.

The above don’t give my mind much to grab onto, and it doesn’t like that. Moving forward with my real-life career goals, dealing with real-life people (especially strangers in positions of authority), and even just being fully present in the moment are all things that provoke my anxiety. My mind needs something to grab onto, something to think about so incessantly there isn’t room for thoughts about the real world in general and my own life in particular.

It was hoping the Let’s Play would provide such a security blanket; it wants to lure me into thinking about my ideal character build instead of actually developing skills I need in real life. It wants me to direct my creative energy into witty commentary about the game instead of into composing original music, creating original art, or writing anything worth reading. It wants me to feel good about earning virtual money to make a virtual home pleasant and cozy… instead of finding a real job, earning real money, decluttering my real home, and raising a real family.

Oh, Mara, I thought I’d gotten past this. I should have known! How could reading a few chapters of a book once truly change the way I think about and perceive myself? How could it counteract a lifetime of internalized messages reinforced by my perception of my experiences?

My mind is trying to annihilate me. Suicidal thoughts don’t work if nothing else because I don’t want to cause my loved ones pain. So it tricks me into thinking I don’t need therapy and clings to whatever fiction I have some interest in, becoming so wrapped up in that universe I can hardly even feel it when Fox expresses his very real love for me.

I thought I was doing better but then… I don’t know! Did I push myself too hard and need some downtime to recover? Did I relapse? Am I making any progress, or am I just walking in circles completely lost? I hate being unable to trust my own perception of reality.

Permission To Be

The knots in my muscles
Were my cage armor
But you smoothed them out
Taught sore muscles to relax
And set the demons free

My massage on Thursday was bittersweet. The therapist did a really excellent job of massaging the areas that really needed it. She succeeded in getting muscles to relax that had been clenched for so long, I’d forgotten what it felt like not to be tense.

Physically, and to some extent emotionally, it felt wonderful. But those muscles held thoughts and memories that were too difficult for me to deal with at the time. As they came flooding back, the primary emotion I felt was guilt. I felt guilty for everything.

As I realized this, I tried to figure out who it was I needed to apologize to. Deep, very deep, inside, I found the little girl who is hurting so much. I apologized – for not protecting her, for not listening to her, for siding with the people who questioned and ridiculed her.

And she forgave me.

It’s not your fault. You were hurt just as much as me. My pain is your pain, my anger your anger. We’ve both been wronged.

I find it easier to feel guilty than to accept that reality. If I’ve done something wrong, at least there’s something I can do about it: I can punish myself. Take that away and all I have is sadness and anger. Unquenchable anger I cannot direct at anyone.

To a child, the adults in hir life are gods. Any anger they provoke is best turned inward; better to suffer one’s own wrath than theirs. I learned that one the hard way and spent most of my life thinking I’d deserved to be physically and emotionally abused. I’ve been emotionally, and at times physically, abusing myself.

Fox and I visited with a couple of friends only hours after the massage. We played two board games. Through a combination of luck and (dare I say it?) excellent strategy I won the first game twice. The second game is very complex and challenging and I was struggling with severe depression symptoms, so I (felt like I) wasn’t able to use as good a strategy. I was winning for most of the game and came in second out of four players – despite being on the verge of tears, having trouble making decisions, and thinking I was doing poorly because I hadn’t advanced in certain areas as much as the other players had.

I think, deep down, I was proud of myself for doing as well as I did. I’m proud now, as I write this. But at the time I didn’t – couldn’t – feel it. Instead I felt guilty for winning the first game because my success required that my friends didn’t do as well, and therefore were disappointed.

I started the second game with a strong strategy, but backed off in response to innocuous comments about how it was affecting the dynamics of the game; without that strategy I felt lost, like I was constantly trying to catch up. I couldn’t see how well I’d done or that it was a good thing; when I realized I’d managed to come in second I felt worse.

I noticed a disconnect between my thoughts and emotions / emotion-related bodily sensations that I found very disconcerting. I mentioned it to Wakana during our session on Friday and told her about feeling guilty when I won the games.

She tied it into my experiences growing up (and my relationship with my mother). From what I remember, at least, I really lacked adult advocates. The staff at the after school program punished me when the other kids knocked down the zoo I’d been building (Breaking and Entering). The teachers and principal at my elementary and middle school didn’t know what to do with a gifted female student who consistently got much higher grades than her predominantly male classmates. They tended to penalize me – by not calling on me, taking away the book I was reading because I was bored in class, and raising the other kids’ grades to be comparable to mine without giving me any praise or benefit for doing as well as I did. They didn’t stand up for me when I was bullied by the male students, but punished me when I retaliated.

When I entered high school I wanted to remain as anonymous as possible to avoid the wrath of my peers. I had some friends whom I unfortunately didn’t have many classes with; I didn’t make friends with the other students in my honors and AP classes. That was a mistake; I felt ostracized most of the time and resented by my “friends” for consistently earning first honors.

My experiences in college taught me that I’d focused on academics to the detriment of my social and emotional development; though I still did well enough in school to graduate magna cum laude I feel like I’m wrong for “boasting” about it. I know it’s an accomplishment, but it doesn’t seem like something most people in most settings would appreciate.

The graduate classes I’ve taken so far have been wonderful because I’ve felt about average to perhaps above average among my classmates – definitely not the smartest, most capable, or most talented person in the room. I’ve felt like my contributions have been appreciated AND I’ve learned a lot from my classmates.

The undergraduate classes I took while in graduate school expanded and enriched my understanding of the world a great deal; I feel very fortunate to have taken them. I learned a great deal in them, from the other students as well as the course materials. But I did notice a difference in the level of critical thinking I’ve become accustomed to, compared with what is expected at the undergraduate level. I often felt very different from the other students because of this.

Maybe masquerading as an undergraduate student wasn’t the best idea. It taught me to once again hide a very significant portion of who I am, to deny one of my greatest strengths. I’m smart. I love to be challenged intellectually. I’m very good at learning – not only ingesting knowledge, but thinking critically about it and applying it to situations. I’m also very good at doing research, organizing the information, and drawing conclusions from / making an argument based on it. I have at least 8 years of experience. References available upon request.

So I’ve focused on my academic development to the detriment of my social and emotional development, lacked support in developing healthy, honest relationships with the majority of my peers, and learned to hide the very thing that has been my primary strength in some weird misguided effort to “fit in.” I like to think that I would have done very well in school anyway, because I’m naturally good at learning and take pleasure in producing well-written (and edited!) papers.

But I did most of it – especially in my younger years – because it’s what my parents needed. They needed their daughter to get straight As, so I did. An A was never an accomplishment (until I reached college). It was making ends meet. Getting by. Survival.

Wakana beckoned me to the piano to sing and express how I felt about all of this. She started playing chords and asked if they sounded appropriate to how I was feeling; I just kind of went along with it because I felt like I didn’t have an opinion, and if I did it didn’t matter.

I apologized for not being the perfect daughter. Wakana sang that there is no such thing as perfect, and started repeating “I’m enough” in the defiant, insistent voice that comes out when we’re practicing setting boundaries. She tried to get me to join her, but I couldn’t say it with conviction. I asked it once or twice before breaking down into tears.

The whole world says I’m not enough, and I’m afraid to show them the truth because it goes against the dominant values in society. I don’t want to be further ostracized. I don’t want to be hurt any more than I’m already hurting myself.