Gods in the Machine

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 editor@ontologicalgeek.com!

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.

Jim Ralph

About Jim Ralph

Jim Ralph currently resides in sunny Winchester, England. He'd love to hear from you, personally, with any thoughts on his writing or lucrative job offers.