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.

  • Tom Coberly

    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.

    • Tom Dawson

      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.

      • Tom Coberly

        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.

        • Tom Dawson

          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.

          • Tom Coberly

            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, 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.

          • Tom Coberly

            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.

        • Randy Treibel

          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.

          • Tom Coberly

            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.

    • Tom Dawson

      (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)

  • Oscar Strik (@qwallath)

    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 ( 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.

    • Matt Schanuel (@MattSchanuel)

      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!

    • Tom Coberly

      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.

      • bangbangteng

        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).