from dust

Gods & Parasites 21

Of late I’ve been play­ing quite a bit of From Dust, a quirky lit­tle indie puz­zler which pits the player against the forces of nature itself. The player assumes the role of the Breath, god-protector of a prim­i­tive tribe known only as the Men, called into being by the songs of the tribe to stand as guardian between its frag­ile charges and the man­i­fold dan­gers of the nat­u­ral world. The Breath can only inter­act with the world in a few ways, by lift­ing or drop­ping water, lava or sand to avert such cat­a­stro­phes as tsunamis and vol­canic erup­tions, though cer­tain lev­els will allow the brief usage of more spec­tac­u­lar abil­i­ties, like a brief impres­sion of Moses part­ing the waves. As physics-based puz­zlers go, it’s rather good, requir­ing quick think­ing and mea­sured cal­cu­la­tion in equal mea­sure. If a river is dammed, the water must go some­where, but the con­stant fluc­tu­a­tions of the nat­u­ral world (vol­ca­noes do not nec­es­sar­ily erupt into the same chan­nels twice, sands shift and set­tle and erode) mean the player is never quite sure when or where they may be required. The game is fun, if a lit­tle imper­sonal – as the Breath, there is almost zero inter­ac­tion with the lesser beings, though this makes tough deci­sions eas­ier. Perhaps a few of the Men will die when a lava flow is re-routed, but if the vil­lage is saved then the net result is ben­e­fi­cial. This degree of dis­con­nec­tion is of par­tic­u­lar inter­est amidst a genre packed with games which empha­size the impor­tance of a sym­bi­otic rela­tion­ship between god and man – it’s rare to find a ‘god game’ in which the needs and desires of human­ity are ignored beyond the most basic level, that of sur­vival.

Being raised in a part of the world which has been his­tor­i­cally (and in many ways still is) dom­i­nated by the var­i­ous flavours of Christianity, the deity with whom I am most famil­iar is the rather con­fused love-and-peace/blood-and-thunder fel­low of the Bible, and what strikes me about god games is just how greatly the pre­sen­ta­tion of the super­nat­u­ral dif­fers from the pre­sen­ta­tion my cul­ture attempts to instill in me. The God of Christianity is sup­pos­edly pos­sessed of lim­it­less power and bound­less knowl­edge, capa­ble of doing lit­er­ally any­thing he/she/it might feel like, and yet (depend­ing on who you talk to and whether or not you credit Him with the mur­der­ous rage many of His fol­low­ers like to attrib­ute to Him) he/she/it prefers to remain inac­tive and invis­i­ble. The gods in these video games are com­par­a­tively much more pow­er­ful than their human under­lings, yet this power is often sim­ply an exten­sion of ordi­nary human abil­ity; the lift­ing of heav­ier things, the abil­ity to per­ceive a wider area, the power to kill on a whim. While they may appear all-powerful to the beings they hold them­selves above, the real­ity is that they oper­ate under strict lim­i­ta­tions. Probably the most famous (or infa­mous, depend­ing on how betrayed you per­son­ally felt by Peter Molyneux’s exag­ger­a­tions) exam­ple of the god game is Lionhead Studios’ Black & White, a grand adven­ture of sig­nif­i­cantly greater depth than From Dust, which grants the player a much wider range of options than sim­ple manip­u­la­tion of ele­ments yet still falls far short of what some­one of my cul­ture might assoc­iate with God. Despite more in-depth sys­tems, moral choices, and a far greater deal of med­dling in the lives of wor­ship­pers, the god of Black & White is still heav­ily restricted.

These games put the gods into a box. The var­i­ous deities who act as bod­i­less avatars for play­ers are capa­ble of feats which would be impos­si­ble for an ordi­nary human, but rarely does this extend beyond sim­ple inter­ac­tions with the phys­i­cal world. Objects can be manip­u­lated, picked up and thrown or car­ried from one place to another. Miracles (or spells, or pow­ers) are cer­tainly super­nat­u­ral in origin but entirely nat­u­ral in effect, whether they involve to sum­mon­ing rain for the faith­ful or hurling fire at the unbe­liever. Worshippers and fol­low­ers can be told what to do, but they can­not be com­pelled with­out resort­ing to the threat or real­ity of phys­i­cal harm. God games retain the tra­di­tional con­cept of a god as being “above” human­ity but strip it of all meta­phys­i­cal mean­ing, leav­ing the deity as lit­tle more than a big­ger ver­sion of the hum­ble fol­lower. Players can­not give com­mand­ments to wor­ship­pers (even when such would be emi­nently use­ful, as in From Dust where a sim­ple ‘thou shalt not build thy vil­lage at the base of an active vol­cano, thou bloody fools would save a lot of has­sle.) Nor can they damn them to an after­life of pointy things and cease­less cru­elty. While a human’s soul is within the body it is under the domin­ion of the deity, but once that human dies the soul leaves that juris­dic­tion and goes who-knows-where, giv­ing the impres­sion that the deity assumed by its wor­ship­pers to be all-powerful is lit­tle more than a care­taker. Despite being able to impress with showy phys­i­cal feats, on a spir­i­tual level the player-gods are as inca­pable of deci­sive action as the humans are.

As an athe­ist, I find all of this intrigu­ing. I won­der, did any­one sit down to con­sider their own under­stand­ing of God before mak­ing these games? After all, these two exam­ples can be viewed as com­men­taries on the nature and neces­sity of reli­gion: in From Dust the Breath is cre­ated by the Men to aid them in their quest for sur­vival amidst an incred­i­bly hos­tile world, and Black & White’s open­ing sequence shows the god of that game being called into being by the fer­vent prayers of humans in need. In nei­ther case is the god pre-existing, never claimed to be a cre­ator – they are invented by soci­eties which feel the need for them. The obvi­ous insin­u­a­tion is that is that peo­ple cre­ate gods, rather than the other way around, to ben­e­fit them­selves. From these par­al­lel begin­nings the two games part ways and the nature of the human/deity rela­tion­ship branches.

From Dust’s Breath func­tions as ser­vant and stew­ard to its tribe, an omni­scient pres­ence ready to respond to dis­as­ter and alter nature in what­ever fash­ion will help the Men. It does not seem to require nor desire wor­ship, instead being appar­ently con­tent to ful­fill the func­tion it was cre­ated for and ease the lives of the Men. In Black & White, the oppo­site occurs: from the very moment the player enters the tuto­rial island, the god begins the process of warp­ing the lives of the tribe around itself. The player-as-god learns a vari­ety of ways to help the tribes­peo­ple, intro­duc­ing a moral choice sys­tem whereby kind­ness and cru­elty are both offered as accept­able meth­ods of prob­lem solv­ing. What’s key is that the choices are made by the god rather than the humans. It is the god’s agenda which is served by every action, even if said action pro­vides ben­e­fit to the humans. Contrast this with From Dust where it is the tribe who desire to re-populate lands before mov­ing to the next, and the pur­pose of the god is to facil­i­tate their desires. Conversely, Black & White grad­u­ally builds to the point where the god is dom­i­nant over every aspect of the tribe’s phys­i­cal life; the god decides what struc­tures will be built and where, the god decides when the faith­ful will be called to pray at the tem­ple, the god even selects breed­ing pairs and orders them to hump like bunny rab­bits.

The hum­ble Breath is required for the sur­vival of the Men, dili­gently fend­ing off dis­as­ters they would oth­er­wise be inca­pable of cop­ing with. The god of Black & White exerts con­trol over the lives of its fol­low­ers and deter­mi­nes the pro­gres­sion of their soci­ety, but the most obvi­ous bene­fac­tor of these actions is the god, not the peo­ple. The god says ‘Build a house here!’ and uproots the trees required for the wood, select­ing humans and assign­ing them the pro­fes­sion of car­pen­ter. Yet when the god became man­i­fest, there was already a vil­lage of houses. The god says ‘You shall pro­duce chil­dren!’ and orders a man and a woman (whose will in this mat­ter is seem­ingly unim­por­tant) to start shag­ging regard­less of whether or not they are already par­ents or spouses to oth­ers. Think back to the very event that called the god into being, how­ever; two par­ents fear­fully beg­ging the uni­verse to save their child. Clearly human­ity has already worked out the process of mak­ing babies, and doesn’t need a super­nat­u­ral match­maker to push them into it.

Nothing the god of Black & White does is any­thing the humans could not do for them­selves. Even those mirac­u­lous pow­ers, so use­ful for impress­ing the cit­i­zenry of nearby vil­lages, tend merely to has­ten nat­u­ral func­tions. The player can per­form a rain mir­a­cle to grow crops faster, but if ignored those crops will still grow in the full­ness of time. What the god of Black & White does is present the image of neces­sity to the vil­lagers while actu­ally being extra­ne­ous to their day-to-day sur­vival. The rea­son for the dif­fer­ence in atti­tude between the deities is neatly explained by their require­ments – the Breath is self-sufficient, whereas the Black & White god derives power and influ­ence from the num­ber of wor­ship­pers it lays claim to. In the lat­ter, even a benev­o­lent god is pri­mar­ily serv­ing their own ends, grow­ing in stature with every help­ful deed.

What does this say when com­pared to our real-world notions of reli­gion? The self-centred god which needs us to sur­vive, who feeds and grows on wor­ship, is the one which will attempt to dom­i­nate our lives under a pre­tense of car­ing for us. The god which is a force of nature does not require our love or wor­ship, but is con­tent to help us out of some moral duty. If we view these two games as com­men­tary on the nature of real-world faith, they appear as a harsh cri­tique of much mod­ern reli­gion, of those faiths which fol­low gods who impose them­selves into the lives of fol­low­ers and place great empha­sis on the belief that piety is our duty. From Dust sug­gests that a truly great god, one who cared for us and used its incred­i­ble pow­ers to aid us, would not be so petty as to desire wor­ship. Protection of those weaker than the self is the true reward. The god which desires adu­la­tion and unswerv­ing obe­di­ence is one which is only attempt­ing to draw power to itself, with any ben­e­fit to its fol­low­ers being either coin­ci­den­tal or as a cyn­i­cal method of manip­u­lat­ing human­ity into fur­ther servi­tude. We have a word for that kind of rela­tion­ship, and that word is ‘par­a­sitic’.

The OED states that a par­a­site “lives at the expense of another, or of soci­ety in gen­eral”. Black & White holds true for both. The indi­vid­ual human must sur­ren­der his/her will unto the god, and every­thing he/she does is accord­ing to the desires of same. The soci­ety revolves entirely around the desires of the god, with all aspects being rigidly con­trolled. As we’ve already dis­cussed, there is noth­ing given in return which could not be achieved in the absence of god. Of the two games, Black & White is also the one which shares most sim­i­lar­i­ties with the pre­dom­i­nant reli­gious insti­tu­tions of the world, those which excuse any action or inac­tion on the part of their deity by reaf­firm­ing that deity’s inher­ent supe­ri­or­ity and our own lowly inabil­ity to under­stand that being’s motives. Knowing noth­ing about the the­is­tic ten­den­cies (or lack thereof) of the games’ cre­ators it would be folly to assume that the mes­sage is as mil­i­tantly athe­ist as ‘God is a par­a­site on human­ity’, but a crit­i­cal read­ing cer­tainly indi­cates a neg­a­tive atti­tude towards tra­di­tional belief struc­tures.

So what of From Dust? The dri­ving moti­va­tion of the Breath is altru­is­tic rather than self­ish, with the Men never being called upon to wor­ship or accept their right­ful place as ser­vants to a “supe­rior” being. Indeed, the oppo­site is closer to the truth – the Breath chooses, and choice it is, to serve and pro­tect. Unlike the god of Black & White the con­tin­u­ing exis­tence of the Breath is not depen­dent on keep­ing fol­low­ers alive, mean­ing that there is no ves­tige of self-preservation in its actions. The Breath is entirely capa­ble of destroy­ing the Men, by dump­ing red-hot lava on a vil­lage or by sim­ple indif­fer­ence to impend­ing dis­as­ter, but chooses not to. Absent the frame­work of reli­gion to provide adu­la­tion, the Breath makes the deci­sion to help the Men with no reward other than grat­i­tude, and yet that grat­i­tude is seem­ingly enough. The Breath is not the parasite-god of Black & White. The rela­tion­ship between Men and their god is not even a sym­bi­otic one, as the ben­e­fits of the rela­tion­ship are entirely the province of the tribe. The Breath is some­thing else, some kind of par­al­lel to a par­a­site which will only give but never take. Is the game say­ing that this is what God is, or that this is what God should be?


Tom Dawson

About Tom Dawson

Tom Dawson is, in no particular order; a two-time Olympic bronze medallist (synchronised swimming), ancestrally Atlantean, a compulsive liar, the Green Lantern of space sector 2814 and the inventor of the cordless drill. His fondest wish is that someday he’ll get paid for writing stuff like this.

  • I think the usual under­stand­ing of wor­ship in tra­di­tional Christianity is not that God needs or even desires our wor­ship, for its own sake, but that we wor­ship God because it’s good for us. God desires us to wor­ship Him because God desires our good, and wor­ship of the Creator is good for us. Maybe I’m wrong.
    The “god” in Black and White, as you depict him, seems to me not to resem­ble the Christian God who sac­ri­ficed His Son (or Himself, depend­ing on one’s con­cep­tion of the Trinity), but seems more like a demon, pow­er­ful, in a small way, but self-glorifying, self-serving, and offer­ing no true ben­e­fits to his fol­low­ers.

    • Right, let’s take a sec­ond go at this, since WordPress decided to eat my first attempt at a response. Mutter, grum­ble etc.

      The issue I have with rea­son­ing such as you men­tion is that it serves less as an expla­na­tion and more of a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for cer­tain aspects of reli­gion. To say that wor­ship­ping God makes human­ity good gives rise to the nat­u­ral twin follow-up ques­tions of ‘why?’ (see­ing how much evil is done in the name of God, not to men­tion — if you accept the Bible is a his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ment — all the evil God him­self is respon­si­ble for, it’s hard to see the argu­ment in favour of wor­ship) and more impor­tantly ‘why did he set the uni­verse up this way?’. If God is cre­ator of both the uni­verse and human­ity, what com­pelled him to build-in flaws whereby we can only truly be moral by giv­ing thanks and praise to him? That speaks of either arro­gance or a des­per­ate need for love and atten­tion. As referred to in the piece above, surely a truly car­ing god would not inten­tion­ally build such a flaw into his cre­ation in order to stroke his own ego? The prob­lem is a fre­quent one when peo­ple attempt to explain dogma — it’s all but impos­si­ble to ratio­nally explain the irra­tional, mean­ing so many of the argu­ments come back to “just because”. Why did God do things a cer­tain way? Because he did. Man Was Not Meant To Know, etc.

      If I may wan­der off on a tan­gent for a moment, I’d like to talk about what really inspired this arti­cle. I’m a alco­holic, have been for a long, long time. Recently I’ve begun attempts to clean myself up (I recently passed one month sober) and have even been attend­ing Alcoholics Anonymous. Now I don’t know if you’re aware, but a large part of the AA doc­trine (the twelve-step pro­gram) involves accept­ing that the alco­holic is a weak, dis­eased per­son who is inca­pable of help­ing them­selves. They require the exis­tence of a pow­er­ful exter­nal force, referred to as God — “used in the man­ner in which you do or do not under­stand the term” as the pam­phlets waf­fle, but (due per­haps to heavy cul­tural bias) many of those I’ve encoun­tered use God in a way that is clearly rooted in Christianity — to get them off the booze. It’s a very, very depress­ing thing to have to watch. A room full of brave peo­ple who are mak­ing tough deci­sions for them­selves and hav­ing the willpower to fol­low through on those deci­sions, yet they defer respon­si­bil­ity for what they are achiev­ing to God. THEY are the ones who have cho­sen to accept their prob­lems, THEY are the ones who strug­gle with crav­ings and carry on, yet they sur­ren­der their sense of agency. It strongly reminded me of the deity to be found in Black & White, forever tak­ing credit for things its fol­low­ers can achieve for them­selves. This is why From Dust is such a refresh­ing change; the Breath cer­tainly has power, and clearly it cares for the wel­fare of the Men, but it never seeks to instill a sense of infe­ri­or­ity. It does what it does because it cares, not because it desires wor­ship and praise. Comparing this to real-world Christianity there seems to be an enor­mous gulf. The God we’re pre­sented with “helps those who helps them­selves”, yet expects thanks. Having grown up with these reli­gions as such a cen­tral part of our soci­eties it’s often hard to ques­tion them with­out some­thing like From Dust or Black & White to provide a mir­ror of our soci­ety — we don’t see just how lit­tle sense our gen­er­ally accepted belief sys­tems make until they are pointed out to us in a dif­fer­ent con­text.

      • This is prob­a­bly the time for me to remain silent rather than “remove all doubt.” But that’s not my style. I will apol­o­gize for one thing, right up front, and that is I’m not really dis­cussing games, or art, or any­thing else that fits into the sub­ject mat­ter of this blog.

        If God is cre­ator of both the uni­verse and human­ity, what com­pelled him to build-in flaws whereby we can only truly be moral by giv­ing thanks and praise to him?”

        What makes you think it’s a flaw to acknowl­edge the Creator? That’s a very inter­est­ing assump­tion. Consider a beau­ti­ful but­ter­fly. Why would it be a flaw to give thanks and praise to the One who made it beau­ti­ful? Wouldn’t it be more like a case of jus­tice, as defined by Aristotle, ren­der­ing to some­one what is due? (Saying you don’t believe God cre­ated the but­ter­fly is one thing, but if He did, in fact, cre­ate it, wouldn’t He deserve your thanks for it?)

        With respect to AA and its Higher Power, I’m not really qual­i­fied to dis­cuss this, as my own weak­nesses lie in other areas. But apart from some ulti­mate Truth of the mat­ter, it seems that AA has pro­vided a use­ful toolkit for many peo­ple in cop­ing with a seri­ous disease/behavior. Acknowledging one’s own weak­ness before a given temp­ta­tion and ask­ing for help, both from peers and from a higher power, seems to work, in prac­tice. Surely not for every­one, but for enough peo­ple to accept it as help­ful in many cases.

        Having grown up with these reli­gions as such a cen­tral part of our soci­eties it’s often hard to ques­tion them with­out some­thing like From Dust or Black & White to provide a mir­ror of our soci­ety – we don’t see just how lit­tle sense our gen­er­ally accepted belief sys­tems make until they are pointed out to us in a dif­fer­ent con­text.”

        My expe­ri­ence is exactly the oppo­site. Belief sys­tems — at least ortho­dox Christian ones — are rou­tinely ques­tioned, mocked, and den­i­grated in soci­ety as a whole. In many cir­cles, it’s okay to be “spir­i­tual,” but to be, say, Baptist or Catholic — and remotely seri­ous about it — is to ask for trou­ble.

        • Firstly, if we accept that the pur­pose of art is to make us see the world in news ways and to ques­tion what we think we know, then by hav­ing this con­ver­sa­tion we are ful­fill­ing that pur­pose at least in part by dis­cussing reac­tions to and inter­pre­ta­tions of said art. I’m glad my inter­pre­ta­tions are at least inter­est­ing enough to spawn a tan­gen­tial dis­cus­sion of the sub­ject mat­ter!

          Now, regard­ing your first point, you’ve pro­vided for me here a great exam­ple of the irra­tional think­ing I was speak­ing about ear­lier. Why is is there an auto­matic assump­tion that acknowl­edge­ment must be fol­lowed by wor­ship? To give thanks is one thing, to praise and revere quite another. The beau­ti­ful but­ter­fly exam­ple is inter­est­ing — cer­tainly if we knew God had cre­ated some­thing it would only be polite to thank him for it (though logic dic­tates we must also thank him for cre­at­ing the harsh, ugly and dan­ger­ous — ven­omous spi­ders and tsunamis for instance) but there is an enor­mous gap between giv­ing credit where credit is due and allow­ing the terms of ones life to be dic­tated. Think of it this way; if you have chil­dren (I’m guess­ing from your name and the fact you’re on this blog that you do :-P) you can make an argu­ment that you are their cre­ator. Do you expect grat­i­tude for that? Or do you expect them to build tem­ples in your name, to con­sider them­selves your ser­vants, and to live by your rules even when they are grown adults? The log­i­cal dis­con­nect between the argu­ment for God as cre­ator and God being deserv­ing of answer­ing rev­er­ence is huge.

          Regarding AA, my con­tention is not that the pro­gram doesn’t work. For many it does, and I’m glad of that. The prob­lem I have with it is that by exter­nal­is­ing their own willpower and achieve­ments, attribut­ing them to God rather than them­selves, they rein­force the cycle of their own pow­er­less­ness even whilst demon­strat­ing their own power. This sense of vic­tim blam­ing is also a com­mon theme of reli­gion (good things hap­pen? That’s God act­ing in your life. Bad things hap­pen? It’s because you and your species are dirty sin­ners) and it can’t really help in the long run. Many recov­er­ing alco­holics go through relapse peri­ods, for which they blame their own weak­ness and when they recover from their relapse, credit God. This is pre­cisely the same as we saw in Black & White, where credit goes to God for that which could have been accom­plished any­way. This is pri­mar­ily why I see these pieces of art as reli­gious com­men­tary — they are point­ing out what we see every day, but by show­ing it from the point of view of a deity we see just how unnec­es­sary that deity is and how much of our own power we sur­ren­der to them.

          With regards to your wor­ries about reli­gion being den­i­grated and mocked in soci­ety, all I can do is point out that this is a tiny lit­tle drop in a very big bucket when com­pared to the power and influ­ence reli­gion itself has over our soci­ety. Were an old man to retire as CEO of a major inter­na­tional cor­po­ra­tion, we might read it in a news­pa­per byline. When the Pope steps down it’s front-page news around the globe com­plete with analy­sis, dis­cussing and spec­u­la­tion as to the ongo­ing effects of the changeover. We live in a soci­ety where it is per­fectly accept­able to con­verse with and even take life advice from beings only we can see, so long as those beings have the cor­rect names: a friend of mine went into nurs­ing because she believes Jesus came to her in a vision and encour­aged her towards it. Even here in the UK, a much less reli­gious coun­try than the US, she can tell that story and have peo­ple respect it. Now what would the reac­tion be if she claimed to have been influ­enced by the ghost of Heinrich Himmler or a talk­ing dog? One is no less unlikely than any of the oth­ers, but only one is socially accept­able and even lauded in many cir­cles. This is the prob­lem I was allud­ing to in my piece — our soci­ety and cul­ture are so wrapped up in the illog­i­cal or non­sen­si­cal struc­ture of our reli­gions that we tend to accept even the insane parts as log­i­cal or even unques­tion­able. We rarely stop to ask ‘why’, as the answer is all too often no more com­plex or nuanced than ‘because’. To com­plain of Christianity being “mocked” in mod­ern day cul­ture is akin to com­plain­ing that the ocean is ruined because some­one took a pee in it — it focuses on one minus­cule instance while ignor­ing the enor­mous power and influ­ence of the whole, to the point where that influ­ence is only acknowl­edged when it is chal­lenged in even a minor way.

          • I’m not sure there’s enough com­mon ground here for con­tin­ued dis­cus­sion, but if I’m not offend­ing you too much, I’ll make a few clos­ing points:

            1) Being thank­ful to God for cre­at­ing the harsh and “ugly” (spi­ders, for instance) is, in fact, a part of Christianity, as I under­stand it, but it’s advanced work, prob­a­bly best avoided in elementary-level dis­cus­sions.

            2) You seem to be tak­ing “wor­ship” a bit far­ther than I would. In my book, obe­di­ence to God and wor­ship of Him are related, but dif­fer­ent. I wouldn’t argue that we should nec­es­sar­ily obey God because He cre­ated but­ter­flies, but praise and wor­ship seems to me to be in order. (If I were try­ing to argue for obe­di­ence to the Creator, it would be more along the lines of “He ought to know how things work, since He designed and made them.”)

            3) As far as the news value of the Pope’s res­ig­na­tion, http://​en​.wikipedia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​C​a​t​h​o​l​i​c​_​C​h​u​r​c​h​_​b​y​_​c​o​u​n​try says there are 1.196 bil­lion Roman Catholics in the world. In my long-ago news­pa­per days, that would have made a change in their spir­i­tual lead­er­ship news. But I think Steve Jobs’ death (as an exam­ple) received more rev­er­en­tial media treat­ment than Benedict’s res­ig­na­tion. In this coun­try, at least, anti-Catholic big­otry is one of the last “safe” hate crimes.

            4) People have been pee­ing in the ocean for a long time, but we’re try­ing to learn to do bet­ter, col­lect­ing and treat­ing our wastes rather than ignor­ing their poten­tially harm­ful effects.

            5) I can under­stand not believ­ing in God. (“Who is this God per­son, any­way?”) I can also under­stand hav­ing a grudge against God. (Why did my father have to die when I was just get­ting to know him?) What I find harder to under­stand is when peo­ple hold both opin­ions at the same time. If God belongs to the same class of being as the Tooth Fairy, how can one get excited about Him? A lot of harm has been done in the name of God, and much good, too. I try to remain aware of both sides of the scale.

        • Tom Dawson

          (I’m aware I’m post­ing this reponse to the wrong mes­sage, but the ‘reply’ but­ton isn’t show­ing up on your most recent. No idea why)

          I’m not sure there’s enough com­mon ground here for con­tin­ued dis­cus­sion, but if I’m not offend­ing you too much, I’ll make a few clos­ing points:”

          For the record, I’m not offended in the slight­est. I was under the impres­sion we were sim­ply hav­ing a dis­cus­sion! The only part I really have time to address is the fol­low­ing, though I hope to get back onto a com­puter later in the week and touch on to the rest;

          5) I can under­stand not believ­ing in God. (“Who is this God per­son, any­way?”) I can also under­stand hav­ing a grudge against God. (Why did my father have to die when I was just get­ting to know him?) What I find harder to under­stand is when peo­ple hold both opin­ions at the same time. If God belongs to the same class of being as the Tooth Fairy, how can one get excited about Him? A lot of harm has been done in the name of God, and much good, too. I try to remain aware of both sides of the scale.”

          I think the issue here is that too many peo­ple con­flate God with reli­gion, par­tic­u­larly in the Western world where Christianity dom­i­nates, often being so ubiq­ui­tous that we don’t even think about it. Many peo­ple deeply resent hav­ing their lives con­trolled accord­ing to an ancient and largely illog­i­cal book, and so they attack the source of the beliefs they dis­agree with.

          It’s pos­si­ble to be angered by the actions of God as a fic­tional char­ac­ter — you’ll find dis­cus­sion groups or forums where peo­ple are sim­i­larly angry at com­puter game or movie vil­lains, because char­ac­ters are designed to elicit responses — with­out believ­ing in Him. The dri­ving moti­va­tion behind that is, I think, that so many peo­ple insist not only that God is a real char­ac­ter and that the sto­ries pre­sented in the Bible are true, but that he has right­ful domin­ion to tell human­ity what to do. Ergo the grudge peo­ple have is not so much against God-as-character, but against God-as-method-of-social-control. They may not believe in the deity in ques­tion, but they still resent it hav­ing so much influ­ence on their lives.

        • SE

          I find but­ter­flies hor­rid.

          • Then you prob­a­bly won’t want to thank God for cre­at­ing them. Personally, I’m not ter­ri­bly fond of trolls, but I try to rec­og­nize their place in the ecosys­tem.

        • There’s a cou­ple flaws in your think­ing. First, it is your human per­spec­tive that a but­ter­fly is beau­ti­ful. They could be a hor­ri­ble par­a­site or visu­ally dis­gust­ing to many crea­tures. Remember, humans are blind to some­thing like 9x% spec­trums of the uni­verse. Additionally, it goes back to Attenborough’s line about the African boy or the Lamb with a worm in it’s eye mak­ing it blind and slowly eat­ing it’s eye­ball out. Shall we thank the cre­ator for this? Why focus on the beau­ti­ful things? It’s unfair to snipe good things and thank god for them with­out includ­ing the bad things and thanking/damning god for them as well.

          Secondly, to imply that it’s unfair/unusual(from a ratio­nal per­spec­tive) to crit­i­cize a man made author­i­tive struc­ture of wor­ship. This is the part that Christians miss in gen­eral about Agnostics or Atheists. We don’t hate you. What we hate is your inter­fer­ence in our lives using state power to leg­is­late how we live. When you join a struc­ture group, you’re join­ing a cul­tur­ally impe­rial force that’s often main pur­pose is to con­trol oth­ers. When you say you’re spir­i­tual, none of that bag­gage comes with it. Most “spir­i­tual” peo­ple enjoy pray­ing to god in their own home, don’t want laws writ­ten to enforce their gods per­spec­tive, and want peo­ple to do the right thing because they want to, not because the state tells them what is right. THAT is the dif­fer­ence.

          • All of my per­spec­tives are human ones. Sorry, that’s just the odd sort of fel­low I am. It was a sim­ple illus­tra­tion, assum­ing that, at least for the sake of argu­ment, the reader would grant the beauty of the Monarch. If you hon­estly don’t find but­ter­flies to be beau­ti­ful, that’s too bad.

            My poor, bedrag­gled but­ter­fly cer­tainly isn’t up to the chal­lenges of theod­icy. He was intro­duced in response to “If God is cre­ator of both the uni­verse and human­ity, what com­pelled him to build-in flaws whereby we can only truly be moral by giv­ing thanks and praise to him?” I was tak­ing issue with the word “flaws” in that sen­tence, say­ing it only seemed rea­son­able, if you grant the exis­tence of the Creator, to thank said Creator for cre­at­ing beau­ti­ful things.

            I wasn’t really try­ing to say, “Butterflies are pretty, there­fore, we should all accept the Baltimore cat­e­chism.” But, I must say, you’ve burned that straw pretty thor­oughly.

            I’m glad you don’t hate me for being a Christian. That’s very gen­er­ous of you.

            I do not want to belong to any “struc­ture group” that is a “cul­tur­ally impe­rial force” whose “main pur­pose is to con­trol oth­ers.” Sounds pretty revolt­ing.

            I don’t believe in using state power to leg­is­late belief, obser­vance, or any­thing else that I rec­og­nize as belong­ing only to the domain of reli­gion. I do believe in using state power to pro­hibit and pun­ish var­i­ous crimes, some of which, like mur­der, are also pro­hib­ited by my reli­gion, but I don’t use specif­i­cally reli­gious argu­ments to sup­port those laws.

            Unless you live in, say, Iran, I doubt if you see much use of state power to sup­port reli­gion. In my coun­try, the pri­mary way reli­gion is sup­ported by the state is the tax exemp­tion for most reli­gious orga­ni­za­tions, which I’ve actu­ally opposed pub­licly, to the annoy­ance of some my reli­gious friends.

            As far as “spir­i­tual” peo­ple, my per­spec­tive is that some (many?) of them seek to inherit the legacy of reli­gious moral­ity with­out assum­ing the bur­dens of its defense. In other words, they’d kind of like to be Christians, but they don’t want to have to face the kind of crit­i­cisms of their beliefs that I’ve tried to respond to here.

      • dis­crider

        Hey, thought I’d throw my ratio­nal­i­sa­tions into the mix because this is a good dis­cus­sion.

        With “what would com­pel God to build-in flaws whereby we can only truly be moral by giv­ing thanks and praise to him?”, I’d say that it’s because he respects our right for agency in the first place. The com­mon ques­tion is “Why would God create/allow evil?”. I believe that with­out evil, we wouldn’t be humans in the first place. Without light and dark, there wouldn’t be con­se­quences for actions, nor capac­ity for growth and there would be no choice as every action would be good. So God allows evil so that humans can choose, and he allows humans to choose so that he can take pride in the ones that choose him.

        As for why thanks and praise are desired, I’d say it’s not that God needs them, but that he wants us to do it for our own sake. We have no power over God. Everything that is given to us is given by grace. So the only rea­son­able response to all his gifts is thanks and praise. If we do not, then it only leads us into self-destructive behav­iour where we take every­thing for granted. We start to feel that we get all these things because we deserve them or in some way earned them. And I’d say that this would pre­vent us from doing good to the oth­ers around us, and from get­ting the most from our­selves as well. As with all the Bible, I think the com­mand­ments he lays down on us are not to restrict us to his own bid­ding, but to pre­vent us from self-harm and so that he can give us and all the peo­ple we inter­act with all the good things he can provide.

        With AA, I think there is a lot of truth in rely­ing on strength from out­side sources. I can’t say I know exactly what draw­ing strength from God is like, but you’ve seen for your­self how draw­ing strength from oth­ers works. The fact that you’re describ­ing them as brave, to me, high­lights how you are draw­ing strength from their exam­ple. There are some things I can’t do on my own, and so I need a group of indi­vid­u­als around me to keep me on track. Without these peo­ple I would never be able to cope. I think that the more we learn to rely on other peo­ple, the more we’ll be able to accom­plish, and to do this we have to give up the idea that we can go it alone. I’m not sure of the rel­a­tive effec­tive­ness of the tech­nique with or with­out includ­ing God, but for a lot of things you have to realise that you can’t do it by your­self sooner or later, and the AA God talk forces this issue into the open.

        Anyway, good cri­tique and dis­cus­sion here, feel free to take or leave any of this.

    • (apolo­gies for spelling or gram­mar errors and the rushed nature of my response — my com­puter has recently shuf­fled off the mor­tal coil and so I’m post­ing this from my phone, which is a mas­sive pain in the arse)

  • Hi Tom, thanks for your exten­sive arti­cle! Let me start by say­ing I think reli­gion in games is a severely under­dis­cussed topic in games jour­nal­ism crit­i­cism, at least as far as I can see. There was Jordan Rivas’ piece on Nightmare Mode a while back, but that’s one of the few sys­tem­atic dis­cus­sions from recent months that I can remem­ber. That said, I’m not the right per­son to judge all that.

    In any case, with regards to your arti­cle, I agree that the con­trast between the con­cept of God in B&W and From Dust is very con­trast­ing. In a very brief piece I wrote when FD just came out, I also typ­i­fied The Breath as some­what of a sym­bi­otic God, cre­ated by and for the ben­e­fit of his peo­ple (http://​www​.eveningoflight​.nl/​s​u​b​s​p​e​c​i​e​/​2011​/​08​/​23​/​f​r​o​m​-​d​u​s​t​-​p​l​a​y​i​n​g​-​g​od/). You could even say that The Breath, is more a sub­jec­ti­fied kind of magic, a pro­jec­tion of the tribe’s col­lec­tive needs for sur­vival some­how given sen­tience. I haven’t played B&W, so I’m going out on a limb here, but I would say that its God (at least, the one you play) seems indeed a petty fig­ure, one obsessed with con­trol­ling the lives of his wor­shipers. It might be the case, as you say, that both are a speci­fic com­men­tary on how some reli­gions func­tion in the real world.

    If so, B&W seems the most heavy-handed and crude com­men­tary of the two. What Tom says above is cor­rect, I think: even if B&W wants to be a cri­tique of a Christian con­cept (or use) of God in par­tic­u­lar, it misses the point in some ways. I would rather say that B&W cri­tiques a nar­rower con­cept of God that I assoc­iate more with what Gnostics would call the Demiurge: a petty and igno­rant cre­ator God that cre­ated an evil world, and who thinks he is the one and only power in their lives. (This is off the top of my head, so apolo­gies if I say any­thing impre­cise about Gnosticism, I’m not an expert)

    This, plus the essen­tially athe­ist point of depar­ture that (obvi­ously) we cre­ated the Gods, not the other way around. That in itself is already a strong reli­gious state­ment to make in a game’s mythol­ogy.

    What nei­ther game gets at, how­ever, is the idea of a truly tran­scen­dent and inef­fa­ble God, as he is rep­re­sented in mys­ti­cal strains of (prob­a­bly) most reli­gions. Granted, this is a very tough con­cept to cri­tique at all, apart from flat state­ments about whether you believe in such a God or not. But still, I’d like to point this out.

    My head’s not clear enough to go into this mat­ter deeper at the moment, and I prob­a­bly would have to play B&W as well, so I’ll leave it at this.

    That said, I think it would be an awe­some idea to organ­ise a seri­ous meet­ing of minds on the topic of depic­tions of reli­gion in games. Maybe OntoGeek could round up some crit­ics who have affin­ity with reli­gious stud­ies and the­ol­ogy (*cough* Schanuel *cough*) and set up some sort of a theme or ‘spe­cial issue’. I’d love to be included/contribute/help organ­ise if some­thing like that sounds like a good idea.

    • I would def­i­nitely enjoy a themed dis­cus­sion of reli­gion in games. I think I might have a lot to add to that!

      I was also inter­ested in the Breath of From Dust; it exists in sym­bio­sis with the soci­ety that births it, one’s life feed­ing into the other’s, but I won­der if that sym­bio­sis in con­sciously acknowl­edged in the minds of the tribe. That’s prob­a­bly an echo of my real-world inter­est in the role that reli­gion plays in any soci­ety, but espe­cially in pre-scientific soci­eties.

      Peter Berger, if you’re famil­iar, writes about the Sacred Canopy; while the intri­ca­cies of his the­ory are too com­pli­cated to get into in this com­ment, the basic thrust of his argu­ment is that reli­gious knowl­edge (and reli­gious meta­physics) goes one step beyond even cul­tural com­mon sense. Cultural truth claims might say “The world is like this; this is fact.” But reli­gious knowl­edge has the poten­tial to be even more pow­er­ful, because it’s under­pin­nings are “This is the moral order of the uni­verse.” Religious knowl­edge estab­lishes an order that seem­ingly exists beyond the mate­rial and evi­dent, and because of that it is, essen­tially, more sta­ble and less resis­tant to change. (It does bear men­tion­ing that not all reli­gious thought ful­fills the role of sacred canopy — mys­tic thought in par­tic­u­lar overtly resists the sort of pinning-down that pro­vides that bedrock-level of cer­tainty about the uni­verse.)

      Such cer­tainty is of great use in uni­fy­ing dis­parate indi­vid­u­als and direct­ing the actions of a soci­ety. As Berger frames it, it seems like a trait that nat­u­ral selec­tion would favor. The Breath seems like exactly this sort of deity. Of course, god games assume an act­ing, actual, super­nat­u­ral god by def­i­n­i­tion; obvi­ously, the Breath isn’t some soci­o­log­i­cal func­tion or suc­cess­ful evo­lu­tion­ary trait.

      There are the­olo­gies that do adhere pretty closely to a “Breath” like entity, though; process the­ol­ogy is the clos­est mod­ern ana­logue, I think, assum­ing that we draw from Alfred North Whitehead’s end of the spec­trum. Whitehead’s god is all meta­phys­i­cal func­tion with no iden­tity or person-like agency; it more resem­bles a law of physics than a think­ing being. And it’s this dif­fer­ence in char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of deity between both of these games that most fas­ci­nates me.

      Black & White’s deity could be read as self­ish; or it could be read as jeal­ous. A fine dis­tinc­tion, per­haps, but one worth mak­ing. The Hebraic god, as imag­ined in sto­ries like Job, the flood myths, and the flight from Egypt, is intensely per­sonal (per­sonal in that God resem­bles a per­son). God’s mind is changed, and by the objects of God’s cre­ation. God is, for the pur­poses of those nar­ra­tives, fal­li­ble and quite “human,” and God’s jeal­ousy springs par­tially from the fact that, in early thought, YHWH was a tribal God, con­ceived as one among many. This world more closely resem­bles that of Black & White.

      But the Breath is much more alien. Though it arises from man, it is a nat­u­ral force; it is a per­son only inso­far as its actions are con­trolled by us. But it serves a pur­pose for mankind — it is less like Whitehead’s god in that it arises specif­i­cally from mankind and isn’t just a facet of the universe’s oper­a­tion, but the gist of it is the same. It’s a thing that oper­ates within nat­u­ral bounds, serv­ing a dis­tinct pur­pose in the world. And per­haps most telling, there are no other men in the world of From Dust, and no oppos­ing deities.

      Anyway, that’s where my thoughts are led. Excellent arti­cle, Tom; it has clearly sparked a lot of thought!

    • Oscar, I would be very inter­ested in read­ing this spe­cial dis­cus­sion about depic­tions of reli­gion in games. It would also be inter­est­ing, I think, to read what peo­ple think about the game designer/creator as a kind of god, with play­ers as the sub­jects, act­ing with vary­ing degrees of free will in the cre­ated uni­verse, and, some­times, “sin­ning” by play­ing the game dif­fer­ently than the designer intended.

      • Tom, my name is Jon Teng. I went to col­lege and earned my degree in Game Art and Design. I also con­sider myself a “non-denominational” (con­sid­er­ing the bible to be true and lit­eral in con­text) Christian, com­ing from a mostly post-Baptist back­ground and have stud­ied the bible since I was 7, and com­par­a­tive reli­gion since I was 16.

        I’d like to thank you for your com­ments and efforts in this thread to rep­re­sent peo­ple like myself, who both believe and love a God who needs no defense, but inspires us to defend our faith as chil­dren defend­ing the name of their father. 

        I think you’ve approached the sub­ject with a cool head and lov­ing heart. Thanks for rep­re­sent­ing your­self, and the­ists like myself in a way I can be proud of!

    • Tom Dawson

      Hi Oscar! Thanks for your response.

      I haven’t played B&W, so I’m going out on a limb here, but I would say that its God (at least, the one you play) seems indeed a petty fig­ure, one obsessed with con­trol­ling the lives of his wor­shipers.”

      In truth, the B&W god is more obsessed with defeat­ing other gods and increas­ing its own power. Controlling the lives of the wor­ship­pers is a mere means to an end — more wor­ship­pers is more power is more influ­ence, and more influ­ence allows the god to steal the faith­ful of another god by woo­ing the fickle lit­tle sods away. It cer­tainly does micro-manage the soci­ety it takes con­trol of, but only as a means to fur­ther­ing its own goal. This strikes me as rem­i­nis­cent of such con­cepts as mis­sion­ary work, the urge to spread the “good news” and con­vert hea­thens into the reli­gion. There’s no real ben­e­fit to the real-world faith­ful for recruit­ing fur­ther believ­ers (unless you count the abil­ity to argue “we have so many believ­ers, we must be right!” as some sadly try to do) but if we oper­ate under the assump­tion that gods work in a Pratchettian sense as they do in B&W, it is the god who grows in power for every infi­del con­verted.

      In Black & White, con­trol is not the end goal, it’s merely a way to achieve said goal.

      That said, I think it would be an awe­some idea to organ­ise a seri­ous meet­ing of minds on the topic of depic­tions of reli­gion in games. Maybe OntoGeek could round up some crit­ics who have affin­ity with reli­gious stud­ies and the­ol­ogy (*cough* Schanuel *cough*) and set up some sort of a theme or ‘spe­cial issue’. I’d love to be included/contribute/help organ­ise if some­thing like that sounds like a good idea.”

      That sounds very inter­est­ing, and quite in line with the ’round-up’ style of arti­cle that has recently been pon­dered. I look for­ward to read­ing it, though I may not par­tic­i­pate — read­ing the com­ments from you and Matt so far, I get the feel­ing this is above my high-school level edu­ca­tion :-P

      • Nathan Frost

        No, Tom, this is not “above [your] high-school level edu­ca­tion”. Not even when paired with a protruding-tongue emoti­con. :P

        This was a thought­ful arti­cle that pro­duced a thought­ful dis­cus­sion. Thanks!

  • Luc

    I think that the most inter­est­ing thing about games or sto­ries about gods is that they reveal the empti­ness of any “meta­phys­i­cal” aspects they might be ascribed. How would we know a god, but by how they inter­act with the phys­i­cal world? All a god could ever be to us is how they inter­act with us and our world — if a god man­aged to do things that did not have any phys­i­cal effects, we would cer­tainly never know about it, nor would it mean any­thing to us.

    But then this gives rise to a more seri­ous prob­lem for us — if we want a god to have meta­phys­i­cal aspects, then how could we ever tell whether or not a pow­er­ful being we encoun­tered was the real deal? If a being sud­denly descended from the skies to the sound of blast­ing trum­pets, and pro­ceeded to revive the dead and turn the seas to blood, how would we know that this was not a being like Q from Star Trek? There is no expe­ri­ence a human being could ever have that could prove or con­firm that such a being is a “real” god or just a super-powerful phys­i­cal entity — by their very nature, meta­phys­i­cal aspects of beings are beyond phys­i­cal expe­ri­ence, and inac­ces­si­ble to us. This is the very same prob­lem with believ­ing that human beings have souls — I can’t have expe­ri­ence of any­one else’s soul, so I can’t in any way ver­ify that other peo­ple, or ani­mals, or plants, or rocks do or do not have souls. Without any expe­ri­en­tial way to ver­ify this we are left unable to reli­ably tell the dif­fer­ence between what we would like to think is the “real deal” and what is just a con­vinc­ing “fake”.

    The only really rea­son­able thing, I think, is to dis­card and reject the hege­mony of meta­physics because it attempts to draw dis­tinc­tions between things that are unver­i­fi­able, in prin­ci­ple and by neces­sity. There is no dif­fer­ence between “Q” and the Christian or philo­soph­i­cally “real” God, other than the way you regard such a being (and that is a dif­fer­ence in your hopes and desires, not in the being itself).

  • Mark

    I just wanted to post and say that this arti­cle really hit me at my core. Thanks for the excel­lent piece! And the rare won­der­ful com­ments sec­tion, too! Tom — you are truly a role model for non­be­liev­ers. Keep up the writ­ing and good luck with the sobri­ety.

  • Clodtiller Tough

    I’d like to take this obser­va­tion that the gods in both of these games are cre­ated by their wor­ship­pers a lit­tle bit fur­ther, if I can. There seem to me to be some addi­tional com­plex­i­ties that are unavoid­able in pre­tend­ing to give the player ‘god-like’ pow­ers. There’s the prob­lem of the nec­es­sary imper­fec­tions of the player him­self, and the dis­par­ity between being divine and act­ing as the com­man­der of a power that seems divine; but ‘seems’ to who, exactly, though? To the player? To what the player imag­i­nes are humans, but who are actu­ally the dig­i­tal rep­re­sen­ta­tions of a notion of the human? These ‘humans’ are cre­ated by a dif­fer­ent cre­ator, the game devel­oper. And the human player, in inter­act­ing with them, is in fact sub­mit­ting, on one level, to the same rule­set as they are: the lim­i­ta­tions of the pro­gram itself. Both player and ‘humans’, in their in-game man­i­fes­ta­tions, are ele­ments of a much larger sys­tem that can be read as evi­dence of the pres­ence of a greater cre­ator. So all games, and espe­cially a god-game, with its empha­sis on the omnipo­tence of the player, in fact high­light the very lim­ited power of the player and the much greater power of some­thing else; there is no way to inter­act with tech­nol­ogy that does not restrain and con­fine the human. The fan­tasy that the human projects on to the empir­i­cal sensory-evidence and ratio­nal intel­lec­tion of what hap­pens when the human inter­acts with the god-game, that they are a god con­trol­ling, in some lim­ited way, their fol­low­ers and the nat­u­ral world, is under­stood to be a fan­tasy. And what the player knows that they are doing beyond this fan­tasy, hav­ing deter­mined that this is so with their ‘mind’, is recog­nis­ing and accept­ing the cre­ated nature of the game itself and then agree­ing to their sub­or­di­nate role as part of the process of the game play­ing itself, or being ‘played’ on some greater level by some sort of game cre­ator. What I have just described seems anal­o­gous, to me, to the way that reli­gious peo­ple ‘read’ or ‘inter­act’ with the nat­u­ral world: as evi­dence of a cre­ator that they then sub­mit to (if I am wrong in any or all cases about this, it is because I am not reli­gious myself, and only under­stand this process of doing reli­gion through other people’s accounts of it). I don’t want to push this idea too far, but I sup­pose I just wanted to probe the inher­ent irony of play­ing god, and point out that there are var­i­ous poten­tial cre­ators that could have more con­trol over the game than we do (and I don’t think this is a bad thing; peo­ple should recog­nise their lim­its and then enjoy them).