This month, the Ontological Geek has a theme: religion and/or theology in games. We have a great bunch of articles lined up, from the very personal to the deeply theoretical, from both regular OntoGeek contributors and several guest writers. We’d love to hear from you with your thoughts on specific articles and the month as a whole – comment freely and e‑mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org!
This is a letter from God to man.
Hey there, how’s it going?
Long time no see.
Dan le Sac vs. Scroobius Pip’s Letter from God to Man is a fine example of the British pair’s music, a tightly formed amalgamation of electronic hip hop beats and savvy, poetic lyricism. The song is just what it claims to be, a short message giving voice to the Christian figure of God, who outlines a few thoughts on humanity. It’s fair to say the tone isn’t all that positive. Pip’s lyrics increasingly become an indictment of mankind’s failure to use the idealized surroundings we’ve been given to do anything much but war with one another, disenfranchise those who differ, scar our planet, assault nature and pervert justice. Worse, all too often we excuse these actions, these atrocities, by invoking the name of God: His Will be done.
The song resonates. I wasn’t born into any particularly strong belief system, but in later childhood, after a change in family circumstances I found myself a certified Catholic. Church on a Sunday, body and blood of Christ, Christian secondary school, that type of business. It wouldn’t be fair to call this some kind of indoctrination; it was simply an attempt to include me in the Right Way. I’m sure if I’d kicked up a fuss of any kind I’d have been listened to and things reconsidered. As it is, I’m pretty passive and simply rolled with the boring mass on a Sunday tradition until I quietly let it drop in my teens.
What I’m left with, I guess, is something that resembles belief, but isn’t it. Maybe if I’d been brought up in an atheist household that’s what I’d be. As it is, something nags at me. I don’t think there’s a God, but I want there to be one. I’ll tell you what I tell anyone who asks me whether I believe in an afterlife and all the associated stuff: I’m not sure, but I really, really hope so. Thinking on all the wonderful, good people who die too young, and all the awful, awful bastards who get away without facing Earthly justice… God, I hope there’s something. Are you there God? I hope there’s something.
And I guess that kind of sentiment is cannon fodder for argumentative atheists. At its root, they’ll say, all organized religion serves the psychological purpose of numbing the pain of human vulnerability- our fear of death, of unfair persecution, of purposelessness. They’re probably right, you know. But fuck me, man, of course I’m scared of death! How would I not be? Do you know what death is? I mean… Jesus. And I’ll tell you something else, an atheist who tells you they’re perfectly unfazed by the prospect of dying is telling you lies. Maybe they think they’re ok with it, maybe they’ve internalized that thought so deep it’s become their truth, but it’s bullshit. It’s bravado created to do exactly the same thing as the comforting thought of pearly white gates- protect that vulnerable inner core from a great, black, infinite void that only mad eyes can look upon with any clarity. It’s precisely the self-deception they accuse religion of being.
So I’m writing to apologize for all the horrors committed in my name,
Although that was never what I intended,
I feel I should take my share of the blame.
All the good I tried to do was corrupted
when organised religion got into full swing,
What I thought were quite clear messages were taken to unusual extremes.
I ought to be getting back to the song. What resonates, for me, is a mistrust of organized religion but an unwillingness, to coin a wonderful phrase, to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Scroobius Pip’s lyrics suggest the presence of an actual God, a real figure with a real voice who disdains the warped version of himself as presented by religion, and therefore stands separate from it. We ought to remember, and it seems we often don’t, that religion is a human matter. Religions are created by, curated by, and live or die by the will of humans. The link between them and the actual figure (if there is one) that they seek to represent is, at its very best, tenuous. They situate themselves in laws written in books by human hands, subject to misunderstandings and mistranslations and downright misappropriations. But I don’t need to go on and on about the fallibility of the concept of religion, their own variety is the most damning evidence. That every religion preaches a different message whilst extolling itself as the only Truth points directly to the ludicrousness of the situation. I’m reminded of the fabulous SouthPark scene where, post-Armageddon, everyone mills around waiting to find out who got it right. Given the correct answer of, the crowd nods and says “Ah,” as though answering a pub quiz question, before being thrown into Hell.
I was a simple being that happened to be the first to wield such powers
I just laid the ground, it was you that built the towers.
You’re wondering when all this comes around to videogames, right? Me too, a little. But there is a point to all this. It’s not really a theory as such, I don’t deal in them much. I like little thought experiments, stretching the boundaries of plausibility just to see whether they snap or bend, or explode.
Let’s try something. There are two relatively common ways to apply the role of God to a game. Sometimes we see the player as the god, able to manipulate various aspects of this internally defined world. Of course, this is most commonly seen in what have come to be called God Games, where the player is given possession of what is quite literally meant to be the (sometimes rather flawed) god figure of that world. Separate from this, though, is the egregious disparity between the power of the player and that of the average non-player character which is something of a god fantasy. Frequently the player is a godlike force of nature compared to the enemies she is pitted against. Run-of-the-mill humans are rendered ant-like beneath the crushing boot of the externally empowered player. This is God as Force.
The second obvious association is to situate the developer as God. The developer creates the game world, fundamentally asserts the very possibilities therein, dictates the outcome of the story or merely provides the sand, and the box, for the sandbox. Viewing these artificially manufactured little worlds we instinctively draw parallels between them. Indeed, many games actively perpetuate this effect through their attempt to build the most immersive experience possible. If I draw a straight line signifying a relationship between player and player character, real world and game world, what’s connected to the other side of the game developer’s line? Where’s the equivalence? This is God as Creator.
So, let’s try something else. What you don’t see so much of is the characters of games regarded as godlike. Your Nathan Drakes, Kratos’, Marios, and so on. These ambiguous, ethereal, semi-fictitious creatures exist in both the individual and collective imaginations of their given set of followers. I say ‘semi-fictitious’ because while usually, of course, entirely made up, each is invented not only by their creators but also invested with the psychology of the player. Simple things, such as the way I use my knowledge of the tropes of videogames to check behind staircases or just outside of the camera shot for collectibles, endow my characters with an element of my external, real self. Unlike a character in a film or novel, for instance, the videogame character is possessed of my behavioural patterns. My Nathan Drake is not your Nathan Drake, even if the only difference is the alternative cover we decide to take or where on a path we run. Divergences, however small, are significant. Likewise, our perceptions of these characters define them. My Nathan Drake is a sardonically witty adventurer while Ben ‘Yahtzee’ Croshaw’s Drake is an obnoxious pain junkie. Importantly, these reactions are based on exactly the same dialogue, storylines and cutscenes. The difference is the alternative interpretations that Croshaw and I bring to the party.
Take Lara Croft. When the trailer for Lara’s recent reboot first emerged much of the gaming press reacted with reasonably legitimate concerns surrounding the sexualized violence the game looked to be portraying. What is overwhelmingly clear about all the complaints (and, indeed, the defensive reactions to them) is that they were premature. The preoccupations, ideas and biases brought to the game’s short trailer by its viewers affected their perception of it. Since the game was released, many of the assumptions made about it have been revised, as Becky Chambers put it, “It’s nonsense, all of it, the remnants of some truly misguided remarks about a character who is, without a doubt, one of the best action heroes I’ve ever seen. Not female action heroes — action heroes, period, full stop.” Others felt that the game remained problematic, which is fine. The point really is this- as a work of descriptive fiction, Tomb Raider is necessarily ambiguous and unquantifiable, there is no right or wrong answer to any given question about it. Because of this, reactions to it are necessarily interpretations, focused through the lens of the individual making that interpretation. Of course, in the case of the gaming press, frequently that person will be attempting to make their interpretation seem the most legitimate because, if history teaches us nothing else it teaches us this, people like to have other people agree with them. What are essentially opinions will be dressed up in language that represents it as some kind of objective truth-with-a-capital‑T because, for some reason, convincing other people that you’re right is the ultimate human turn on.
Religion became a tool, for the weak to control the strong
With all these new morals and ethics, survival of the fittest was gone
No longer could the biggest man simply take whatever he needed
’cause damnation was the price if certain rules were not heeded
Let’s try to draw all this together a bit, shall we? What I hope came out of all that monologuing on religion at the start of the article is the sense that I’m very aware that I don’t know the answers to the god question. My reaction is a conflation of what I think, what I hope and what I believe, among other things. And all those factors are in turn built up from different influences: my education, my ethics, my background, and hell, my sexuality is probably a strong factor. Though the scale of the implications may differ, this is very reminiscent of the way we interpret the player character of a videogame- our hopes, our sensitivities, our biases, our history, all come into play. My sense of religions is that they tie into that impulse we have to create a harmonious homogeneity of thought around us, to seek out those who agree with us and seek to convert those who don’t. But the fact is that your mileage will vary. Whether or not a god exists externally is debateable, but that we all have internal and separate relationships with that prospect is not. Even total denial of a deity is an interpretation of it.
For all that He might move stars and formulate ecosystems, the god of Scroobius Pip’s lyrics is powerless to the point of tragedy. He is entirely dissociated from his attempted work and at the mercy of perception. Videogame characters are a microcosmic parallel of this, caught between the realms of fiction and non-fiction and existing in a unique form within the thoughts and behaviours of every individual who encounters them. This is God as Narrative.