Skip to main content

Why Aristotle Would Like Skyrim (Sort Of)

Seth Tomko is a writer, college-level educator, and adventurer.

The leveling mechanic in Skyrim creates a situation where the player develops particular skills by using them over and over. This system bears a striking similarity to virtue ethics as presented by Aristotle in Nichomachean Ethics.

For Aristotle a key component of virtue ethics is that people develop virtues (or vices) by habitually performing actions. He says, “we become just by doing what is just, temperate by doing what is temperate, and brave by doing brave deeds” (B, 1103b, lls 1-2). The same is true for all of the skills in Skyrim. A Dragonborn becomes a good archer by shooting arrows from a bow or becomes an illusionist by using spells from the school of illusion.

Because the player chooses what skills to develop, he or she indirectly determines the sort of character he or she plays. Instead of simply picking a class like rogue or soldier as is the case in many other contemporary role-playing games like Dragon Age: Origins or Diablo 3, the player must decide to play that sort of character and develop it accordingly. There is no accident in this situation but a reasoned choice on the part of the player to become one sort of character or another.

Aristotle says, “by behaving in one way or in the contrary way in corresponding situations, some men become temperate or intemperate, good-tempered or irascible. In short, it is by similar activities that habits are developed” (B, 1103b, 18-21). For instance, though he would not consider it an ethical activity, Aristotle would agree that the Dragonborn could only become a successful pickpocket by engaging in the practice of picking pockets, leveling the skill. When the player ceases pick pocketing other characters, he looses the habit of it and the skill no longer grows. It is only by constant activity—by habit—that the Dragonborn increases his or her skills. While it is unlikely Aristotle would agree to the sort of trouble and mayhem many of the Skyrim skills can cause, he would understand the ways in which they develop.

Plato (left) and Aristotle (right), a detail of The School of Athens, a fresco by Raphael.

Plato (left) and Aristotle (right), a detail of The School of Athens, a fresco by Raphael.


Unlike other role-playing games, the player cannot slay a bunch of monsters with an axe and then develop his or her character to be sneaky, or well spoken, or a legendary blacksmith. Those attributes can only be increased by successfully using them time and time again. As Aristotle says, “In the case of virtues[...] we acquire them as a result of prior activities” (B, 1103a, 33). Therefore, the Dragonborn that charges into a cave and kills trolls with his or her steel war hammer will find those talents count for little when trying to bargain and gain better prices from merchants. To have the virtue of keen business acumen, the player must increase the proper skills in the proper ways.

Scroll to Continue

Also notice that the skills must be used the right way in order to grow. The player cannot simply stand alone in a room and swing an iron long sword for a dozen hours and be ready for battle. The skill only increases when used against valid targets, meaning the Dragonborn only gains the virtue of swordsmanship after having made a habit of using the right sort of weapon against the right targets.

Why it may not be a perfect match, essentially Skyrim reinforces an understanding of Aristotelian virtue ethics by hinging game play on a leveling system that rewards habitual action.


Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. Apostle, Hippocrates. Grinnell, Iowa: Peripatetic Press, 1984.

  • Is There a Right Way to Play Skyrim?
    In spite of the games enormous popularity, there is a veritable tempest in a teapot over at the Bethesda forums about how to play Skyrim. Is it a 'true' role-playing game? Is it 'broken' or 'completely unbalanced'? Here's my take on the subject. Set
  • growth of minigames and immersion
    minigames and button-sequences are replacing over-simplified and passive actions and turning them into more dynamic activities for the player, making the experience more engrossing.
  • Ten Rules to Better Role-Playing in Skyrim
    Are you looking for a deeper role-playing experience? Skyrim was made for role-players, and gives you plenty of ways to lose yourself in another time and place. These 10 tips can help make your role-playing experience even richer!
  • 5 Reasons Why Skyrim is One of Best RPGs Ever
    After about 40 hours into the game, I don’t think it’d be crazy, at all, to declare/claim that The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is one of the greatest RPGs of all time. Although I will probably be putting upwards of 150-200 hours conquering this epic, I d
  • Save Anything: investigating save mechanics
    Saving a game is no long the equivalent of a bookmark. With how games have grown and diversified, the way progress saving has been implemented can undermine the core concepts of the game. While this is true for many modern games, some games and devel

© 2013 Seth Tomko

Related Articles