Summer School with Oblivion

It’s not surprising when you hear that someone spent most of their summer vacation playing Oblivion. Especially not on this blog. But what about playing Oblivion and receiving college credit? That’s exactly what happened this summer at the The University of Wisconsin – Whitewater.

Below is an interview conducted this past month with Cindy Lee Anderton & Elizabeth King, colleagues in UWW’s College of Education and Professional Studies. This summer they used Oblivion for their course “Cultural Studies/Gaming” using Oblivion.

Learn more below…

When did you come up with the idea for this class?

Cindy:  This idea started hatching itself when Beth and I discovered we were both women in our 40’s and loved role playing games. I had started playing Oblivion in July of 2011 and as I kept playing it I started to realize how often I would link what was occurring in the game to our society today in terms of cultural differences, inequalities, and social justice issues. I realized that my own play reflected aspects of my identity development, my belief system, and values and attitudes that I had. I also realized the game itself presented experiential opportunities for understanding discrimination, oppression, power, privilege, etc.

I started having these conversations with Beth about all these exciting aspects of the game and I was talking about how it would be really neat to be able to use this game as a learning tool in a cultural studies course. We at first talked about possibly doing a research study on the game and whether or not it would have an influence on increased self-awareness of one’s own biases, prejudices, belief system, attitudes, identity development and empathy for people who are different from themselves.

As we continued talking we realized what we really wanted to do was design a class around the game. That is have a cultural studies class where the experiential component and literally one of the texts was the game itself. We put together a curriculum proposal and it was accepted and then we put together a research proposal and went through the Internal Review Board and the study on the class was then accepted.

Beth:  I’ve been studying video games and learning for the better part of the past six years. My interest in gaming started during my doctoral studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where I was involved with the Games, Learning, and Society organization. During my studies, I managed two enrichment programs for teenagers, one using The Sims2 as an environment for helping girls develop IT skills, and the other centering on World of Warcraft as a space for incubating the literacy skills of at-risk teenage boys. These experiences provided me with first hand evidence of the power game-based engagement to pro mote deep learning.  When I started at UW-Whitewater I was looking for an opportunity to introduce similar game-enhanced curriculum with adult learners. The collaboration with Cindy provided an exciting pilot!

Can you explain the objective of the class?

Although the class was open to undergraduate students and graduate students from any college or department we ended up with four graduate students in my department – counselor education. Always the main objectives were: 1.) to see if playing the game would increase a person’s empathy and understanding of someone different from themselves and 2.) to see if it would help students increase their own self-awareness of their attitudes, biases, beliefs, and prejudices by reflecting on the choices they made in the game and their reactions to events in the game.

What made you choose Oblivion over other titles?

Cindy:  The selection of the game came from my playing of Oblivion and knowing from my own game play that it would be a good fit. We had some discussion about using Skyrim, but because we knew that many of our students might not be gamers we opted for Oblivion because we assumed our average students might have a computer with specs that would allow them to play Oblivion. We also knew this was an experimental class so we wanted to keep student cost down. I knew the game of Oblivion inside and out and also knew I would not be able to get to know Skyrim as well as I would need to in order to have it be the game used for the class.

Neither of us still has not yet played Skyrim; however, in consulting with other gamers I was informed that Oblivion was the better choice because the racial slurs or discrimination in Oblivion was more subtle than in Skyrim, and we wanted to have students make their own connections rather than having those connections be so obvious.

Beth:  Like Cindy, playing Oblivion myself made me highly aware of the potential areas for coursework. We were having conversations about developing the course while Skyrim was newly launched. It was a difficult decision not to go with the new title, but as Cindy explained, there were good reasons to stay with Oblivion. In addition, a colleague was conducting a similar study with his students at Rochester Institute of Technology using Skyrim, so we divided our efforts and will be collaborating during the analysis phase.

Were most students in the class gamers? Fans of Oblivion?

Out of all of the four students only one classified themselves as a gamer and this person had not played any video games for a few years. Two students gaming experiences had consisted of solitaire or Bejeweled and the fourth really didn’t like video games. None of them knew anything about Oblivion and they were all nervous about learning how to play a video game. They were all worried that they might not be good at it and couldn’t figure it out.

How varied were the findings based on the player race selected by the students? Any particularly interesting trends?

Early analysis shows that players selected races in the games of Oblivion that bore similarity to the race, ethnicity, or cultural heritage of themselves in real life. Early analysis suggests that students made character selections of race, sign, and class that were similar to themselves IRL. Although there was a bit of strategizing in the selection of sign and class, overall there were many classes, signs, races that were immediately excluded because they were too weird or they were uncomfortable with a skill the sign, race, class had such as: stealing, sneaking, lock picking.

Upon self-reflection students noted that they made many choices that were consistent with their belief system IRL. Two interesting trends – students felt they could empathize with individuals who come to a country and don’t know the culture or lanauge because they felt they didn’t know what to do when they started playing the game. They would interact with characters and make choices that IRL would be fine, but found that in the game it wasn’t okay and they talked about relating this experience to the concept of “culture shock.” Another interesting trend was that students became really open to talking about their own biases and how their biases influenced the choices they made.

Do you think you’ll do this again? If so, would you consider other games? Skyrim? Fallout 3? Games from other companies?

Cindy:  I would definitely like to do this again. I do not know in what form. I would like the game to either be part of a regular semester course (16 weeks), rather than the summer format it was taught in which was four weeks. I felt like we just started getting into really good stuff when the class came to an end. I will consider Skyrim, but I want to play it first and see if Skyrim could do much the same thing and/or better or if it is not as good of a fit. Currently we are not considering other games from other companies. We want to do the research analysis first and see what we come up with and then we will make determinations about whether we will make a more concerted effort to look at other games.

Beth:  I too am excited about considering the possibilities for using Oblivion in a revised version of this course as well as potential integration into one of my undergraduate classes on diversity. Another course I’m currently developing will focus directly on video games for learning. It’ll be a survey course that will provide students the opportunity to observe and play a wide spectrum of games across genres. Fallout3 and Skyrim will be included to some degree. In addition, I likely will be running an outreach program for youth next summer that will essentially provide an incubator for teachers to explore using commercially available off the shelf games for classroom and afterschool application. Oblivion will certainly be a central feature of that program.

I do have to add though, we’re really looking forward to the upcoming MMO release! It’s going to be fantastic! The increased flexibility that’s going to offer us over single player RPG for working with our students at a distance, and of course, parallel play… the possibilities there are endless!  Please keep us informed of your progress… we’ll gladly volunteer for beta! 🙂

Thanks for the interview

Reader Comments

  1. To be able to take such a class would be incredible. Not only would it be incorporating something I love, but it would hold some real world application. To have such an opportunity would be incredible and I am very envious of the four students who were able to take part.

  2. I’ve been working on a syllabus to slowly introduce video games into the classroom. I did think about using Oblivion because of the modding tools, but this article showed me that the game is deeper than just making things. I applaud you and your work for thinking outside the box.

  3. How can you study race relations through an Elder Scrolls game and not pick Morrowind? Colonialism, slavery, social stratification, religious heterodoxy, all wrapped up in messianic prophecy! Sociologically, the most you can glean from Oblivion is the countess of Leyawiin hates khajiit.

    • I think as they said with Skyrim, the racism is so obvious in the dialogue and locations. It’s very subtle in Oblivion compared to both Morrowind and Skyrim.

    • And the Argonians hate the Khajiit. The Emperials hate the Nords. (It was there before Skyrim) The Orcs would be considered social outcasts. Very few liked the Dunmer, and the Altmer hate everyone that’s not an Altmer. There is so much more than that, but I’ve made my point. To see evidence of this go hang around the river in Bravil, follow the Dark Brotherhood questline, and travel around Cyrodiil and talk to people. To see the proof in the game mechanics go look up Oblivion Character creation guides on the oblivion wiki. (

      However, I agree that Morrowind probably would have been a better choice. But this article makes me think the teachers of this class had not played it.

    • For what I can understand on the article, it’s exactly because in Oblivion this issues are more subtle that it is a better game for the purposes of the study. When they explain why they didn’t chose Skyrim instead of Oblivion this was one of the reasons.

  4. That’s interesting that the students made characters that were most like themselves in real life. I never do that when I play Elder Scrolls games. Unless deep down inside I really want to be a stealthy theif/archer, because that’s what my characters always turn out to be.

    • Lol. I know how that feels! My characters turn out the same too, I start out with a fighter or a “mage-knight” type character in mind and end up using an assassin! The Thieves Guild and Dark Brotherhood quests in Oblivion were a lot better than Skyrim too. I loved the no kill policy of the Thives Guild and the Dark Brotherhood’s bonus objective of don’t get spotted and kill only the specified target…

      Ahhh… Good times…

  5. A guy did his Bachelor’s dissertation on Morrowind. It got on the radio in Sweden.

    Like you guys say, Morrowind could have been better for this since it should be more of a culture shock than Medieval Europe or Viking Scandinavia, but I think Oblivion worked well enough. Being familiar with those cultures might even encourage MORE behavior out of line with what’s OK IRL.

    Also, a second playthrough might be an interesting follow-up. The first time through, I play as who I am, with no knowledge of the world or events. After that, I play a more ‘ideal’ and ‘inner’ me, as I can change the world as I see fit.

  6. It’s true Rachel, most people who play games, especially RPG’s where your character grows, would not choose based on their own biases but on their perceived advantage in the game. Gamers tend to also do a lot that they wouldn’t do in real life due to previous knowledge that those quests often then give higher rewards. For someone who has not played many (or any) games this course would work fine, however I believe that unless gamers were told “do what you would do in real life” (which would taint results anyway) the lure of being an necromancing sneak thief would be too great!

    I also agree that Morrowind would have been a good game to use were it not for the fact it is not quite as user friendly for new gamers.

  7. Morrowind has a deeper society, there are so many factions some made up of different races, some aren’t. Also this feeling of being a foreigner and alienation they’re studying is heightened in Morrowind. In Oblivion the only disagreements etc are between different races. Also a cooler game 😛

  8. Morrowind was not known the pair, and it has a less open cultural mixing, one more like Skyrim.
    the other thing with Morrowind is that it has a larger learning curve for gameplay than oblivion.
    Oblivion more open metropolitan setting of Cyrodil is more akin to modern society than the settings of Morrowind and Skyrim as nations.
    the other issue I have with morrowind as a choice is as Flish123 said, Morrowind has you as the outsider, even when you choose a Dark Elf, you’re still the outlander.
    Oblivion is more suited with the lower than Skyrim system specs as well. and runs on a 32/64 bit OS without issues,
    personally for setting I would have picked Daggerfall. but that game does not run well on modern PC with out some serious knowledge of PC Virtualisation.

  9. I was half expecting everyone to join the dark brotherhood and become evil pycho killers. DB in oblivion makes you feel baaaaaaaaaad. a surer test of empathy i know not.

    • True, and the Thieves Guild were sort of like the “Robin Hood” Types back then. I remember I discovered the DB in oblivion when I accidentally killed some people in a camp in a preemptive strike thinking they were bandits and that an ambush would mean easy money.

  10. I believe they chose the imperial capital, believing that diversity of culture within an empire would be a key element. The problem is that every imperial society believes is the best solution for other people, often abusing their idea of ​​”superior civilization”.

    An Empire have more laws to control its citizens, ranking each type and searching a way to treat him as an equal, but without ignoring its origin and culture, to searching healthy ways to provide more freedom and less space at same time (you have the right to say whatever you desire, but 22:00PM is the limit). In the end, it’s a more controlled environment, less diversified in the political sense, since all cultures follow a standard.

    Morrowind would be more interesting, have a colonial environment in many ways.

  11. Skyrim…you got a government in your country that was co-existing till one day, telling your people that they cant worship there religion the same anymore and you cant go by the same laws your country has lived by for centuries. Put that with the imperials being cornered and needing help from the nords and the difference in politics formed mainly by what side the town is closest to…plus normal khajit and argonian hatred.

    I guess if it was a class to base on your own ideas and not whats there, you cant beat morrwind with its slave trading in the east.imperials taking over the west(dunmer werent found of this) I think skyrim would be better but morrowind has way more room for though…Now do you kill the old mean hag from the orphanage for the evil assassin guild or not.