Popular Map Temporarily Removed from Modern Warfare 2 Over Reference to Allah Offending Muslims

In what seems to have sparked a great deal of religious debate in the Call of Duty community is the sudden, unexpected removal of the Favela map from the rotation for Modern Warfare 2 by Infinity Ward and Activision. The explanation of the temporary removal of the map is to change some of the art assets that have attached a quote attributed to Muhammad.

The map in question is known as “Favella,” and depicts a run-down shantytown in Rio de Janiro—the controversy stems over some artwork hanging in one of the bathrooms that apparently contains an image of a tree but beneath it is displayed a quote from the Muslim prophet Muhammad. The quote, written in Arabic, reads: “Allah is beautiful and He loves beauty.”

The objection is not over the quote itself; but instead as to it being displayed in a bathroom, a place considered dirty by proponents of orthodox Islam.

Many religions contain customs and language that mark certain places and things (or people) as unclean and this is often used as a form of social control that denies these people/objects participation in religious rituals or honors. It is not unexpected that a bathroom would be considered an “unclean” place. As a result of it uncleanliness the presence of any reference to or quote from the Prophet Muhammad is considered disrespectful.

Gaming blog Kotaku contacted Activision for an explanation and received a message back:

We apologize to anyone who found this image offensive. Please be assured we were unaware of this issue and that there was no intent to offend. We are working as quickly as possible to remove this image and any other similar ones we may find from our various game libraries.

We are urgently working to release a Title Update to remove the texture from Modern Warfare 3. We are also working to remove the texture from Modern Warfare 2 through a separate Title Update. Until the TU is ready, we have removed the Favella multiplayer map from online rotation.

Activision and our development studios are respectful of diverse cultures and religious beliefs, and sensitive to concerns raised by its loyal game players. We thank our fans for bringing this to our attention.

As mentioned, they intend to keep the map offline until all the assets can be fixed; after that is completed the map will return with the offending content removed.

An overtly loud way to fix what could be a relatively minor issue

No doubt, this act by Activision is to show their sensitivity towards the expectations of a demographic of gamers who play their games. It seems highly likely that a notable population of their gamers happen to live in Middle Eastern countries (where Islam is dominant) and that no small number of Muslims in the UK and US also play Call of Duty games.

However, it’s also not impossible for them to contact those who complained to them and explain that it might take some time (a few weeks) to get the assets changed and then quietly publish new textures as part of a patch. The presence of this accidentally offensive picture and quote in a bathroom would have been quietly brushed away and mentioned in passing in a patch notes.

People not offended by the presence of this image (because they didn’t know) would continue to not care.

We’ve have seen this sort of thing highlighted before when City of Heroes was expanding into Germany and they had a group of villains who looked a lot like the Nazis and held the name “The 5th Column.” They were overtaken by a different villain group called “The Council” with a slightly different aesthetic (but similar powers and position in the narrative) and were eventually replaced in order to smooth over potential German sensibilities. Especially because in Germany, Nazi paraphernalia and imagery is strictly illegal.

Instead, Activision had made the very loud point of removing an extremely popular map, creating a great deal of attention to the fact that they’re fixing it, that Muslims complained, and that they’re doing something about it. By doing this the publisher is shining a bright light not just on their own loyalty to “multiculturalism” but they’re also spotlighting the complaints that have abbreviated the game experience for players.

As a result, it has generated a flare up of animosity from non-Muslims toward Muslims due in part to increasing news of violence and bad behavior by Muslim groups in reaction to perceived insults to their religion. Fortunately, none of this happened in relation to this image in the bathroom of a map in a video game.

The vanishing map itself has drawn great deal of criticism—no small amount of it directed at the Muslim complaints—and although it is temporary, this has become a sticking point in conversations arising from its removal.

Say It Proudly: I Am An Atheist

It looks like the Secular Student Alliance at the University of Central Florida has gotten into the video business—and they’ve done a very good job with this video that leverages strong tropes:

Interestingly, much of the beginning of this video outlines the plight of a multitude of nonbelievers who happen to live in highly religious communities. The visible tribal-hostility of a majority religious power structure can be a very intimidating thing to stand up against; but the first step to weakening that power (and its accompanying hostility) is to give a presence and a name to a particular marginalized group.

Link, via Friendly Atheist.

Why the Video Game SMITE Avoids the World’s Most Popular Religions

SMITE-LOGORecently, a Hindu group (in the United States) became agitated at Hi-Rez Studios’ DOTA-like online game SMITE for providing several Hindu gods as characters—the game also allows players to play gods from other mythologies such as Greek, Egyptian, and Norse. The irritation directed at SMITE for the inclusion of the Hindu gods brought people to notice that SMITE seems to have avoided other widely known mythologies—especially those from the Abrahamic religions.

Gamepolitics picked up the story, asked the question, and Hi-Rez responded; however I think it’s obvious why games don’t go with characters from popular religions.

Why? There’s two reasons. The first is that the characters from Abrahamic mythology cower under the umbra of an amount of privilege to an audience who want them sanctified and would rather have their hagiography laid out in a video game rather than see them rolling down the lane in a DOTA game. The second is that much of Abrahamic mythology is excruciatingly boring and steeped in a political culture that lacked a sense of transhuman imagination and instead turned to mysticism rather than the inspiration of animism.

Privileged mythology has a serrated edge in a given culture; the audience might perceive it as too sacrosanct to approach. See the prohibitions against drawing the prophet of Islam, Muhammad, that have been the center of a certain amount of strive involving Comedy Central and South Park—giving rise to Draw Muhammad Day in protest to some particularly stupid radical Muslim groups and drew many Muslims in counter-protest not because they felt a pressing need to do anything but ignore a total outsider drawing Muhammad, but because they felt obligated to speak up for their own cultural norms.

However, what really prevents characters like Jesus being portrayed in a video game like SMITE is because of the trivial condition of sheer dullness.

Jesus, Abraham, Noah, Moses, Muhammad, etc. they’re all just humans who were the center of the narrative mythology plots where they drove either a political or cultural revolution. Adam isn’t even a character so much as a vehicle for telling the story—he didn’t cause anything so much as things happened to him. Jesus exists as a sort of protagonist to a political story of a moral teacher who seems to be framed in a spiritual homage to the Greek poem the Odyssey (and Odysseus is still a more compelling character.) None of them exhibited special powers beyond their connection to the divinity du jour and their only claim to cultural significance is from the context of their own mythology. Worse, that mythology belongs to the popular religious culture meaning that it cannot even claim to be exotic.

Okay, so Moses murdered an Egyptian in his narrative, he’s violent; but that doesn’t make him an impressive warrior. Sure, Elisha could summon bears to tear people to shreds—people do love to flog that one. Ezekiel seems to have had an undead army of skeletons at one point in his story. The problem is that these imaginative turns are blanketed heavily by extremely boring prose regarding customs, costume, laws, and the odd genocide.

The only elements of the mythology that anyone has managed to make remotely interesting have all come from Revelations where angels are described as fantastic monsters, the four horsemen, and the various incarnations of the angel Lucifer. These, however, belong to contemporary Christian mythology arising from an era of poetry and arts and thus are actually imaginative and escape from mysticism to involve symbolism and the flourish of presentation.

No doubt the only character worth rolling up into a game is also the oldest portrayal, the war-deity YHVH. There could be fire and smoke, booming voices, the skies parting for a chariot with a rider tossing fire bolts like spears. The grand drama of the gods that was quickly lost after the influence of the Babylonians and other cultures bled out as the stories were crammed like garments into overstuffed luggage into early Christian mythology.

We are more likely to see Renaissance-era contemporary additions to Christian mythology—Revelation’s angels, four horsemen, etc.—arrive in SMITE as part of Christian cultural characters because they fall a little bit outside the mainstream symbolism. They’re also far more interesting than any of the other contenders.

666 Revealed, Revealed

The "Documentary" 666 Revealed is such an unconvincing piece of video that it hardly seems worth mentioning, but for anyone who may be inclined to accept what it says at face value, here are a few of the serious flaws in it.

When 666 Revealed begins, it gives the distinct impression of being a 1980s or earlier production based on the abysmal technical production quality, and this apparent lack of care permeates the "film" (which looks and sounds much more like an aging VHS tape than any type of film). According to its copyright however, it was produced in 2006, when high quality digital editing equipment was already ubiquitous within the industry, and easily accessible for even amateur home movie producers.

These shortcomings could be forgiven however, if its contents appeared to be anything more than extremely speculative propaganda. Sadly, that is a generous description of the fear-mongering dreck presented here.

Continue reading

Video Game Review of Journey of Jesus: The Calling

jesusOn its face, Journey of Jesus: The Calling is a Facebook Flash-based game that does exactly what it says on the tin, right down to being a Facebook game. It even suffers many of the flaws that most Facebook games do, from intrusive integration with the social networking aspect, to an aggressive “energy” system pushing players towards microtransactions. As for narrative, it follows a storyline based primarily on Christian mythology that is for the most dusted off only slowly by player activity.

The game boasts on Facebook that 15,000 people play (in their sidebar advertisement.)

In a recent GamePolitics post, it was mentioned that the game got some air time on Fox News. Christian software developer Lightside Games sent their CEO Brent Dusing to speak about the launch—which, much to the video game world’s amusement, was launched the same day as Blizzard’s Diablo III.

“Both games immerse the player, and you are what you eat,” Dusing said in a statement to Fox News. “While one game goes one direction, Journey of Jesus: The Calling players walk in the Messiah’s steps, in an authentic experience of Israel in Christ’s time.”

The game does come with the praise of at least one apparent, although largely unknown, religious scholar.

“Why would a theologian endorse a social-gaming game? Because 300 million people weekly log on to social games and because Journey of Jesus: The Calling takes players closer to the life of Christ in a fun, reflective and entertaining way,” said Darrell Bock, research professor of New Testament studies with the Dallas Theological Seminary.

As a game, it follows the free-to-play model by providing services and game enhancement via microtransactions (for $2 to $50) or spreading the word about the game to Facebook friends.

The gameplay is ubiquitous for a Flash-based Facebook game and it’s boring

Here’s where the game really falls down: it’s just not interesting and in some ways it’s frustrating.

Most Facebook games are Flash-based and must work around a simple UI system that uses only one mouse button and as a result they tend to avoid complex interface design. In JoJ:TC the player partakes of a sort of adventure-style object-find game while moving a character around the map. With each object-find it allows the player to unlock further regions of the map and more dialogue.

The object-find functionality is at least extremely simple and easy to figure out. There’s very little puzzle to it and it’s generally fitting to the setting. The player might be asked to weed a region, chop up logs, or clear a path of brambles. All of these open up further paths and sometimes new maps along the narrative-line.

Useful items can be received by beating foliage (trees, grass, etc.) as well as a little bit of energy, points also come from speaking with characters to help reveal more of the story.

Here the “energy” mechanic comes strongly into play. The player is capable of only a certain number of actions per day, these actions are governed by a type of stamina. This stamina drains as the player finds objects and completes tasks. When the stamina runs out, the player can wait for it to be refreshed over time; or purchase more from the game via a microtransaction currency (gold bricks.) Of course, you can also ask your friends to help give you more energy—the social aspect of this game is extremely strong.

After almost every task completion the game thrusts a “share this with your friends!” window that tries very hard to tie the social networking Facebook experience into the game. This isn’t uncommon for Facebook games, but the degree to which the intrusion went seemed somewhat more excessive than usual.

By the time I made it to the second chapter I even ran into an instance where I couldn’t unlock an element of the game without calling in my friends to help me. Other games generally only settle this for accolades, or special items that don’t affect game play; and this one isn’t all that different in this respect. Of course, it’s possible to avoid having to ask friends for help by spending gold bricks instead.

The narrative is obfuscated and plays through contemporary Christian mythology about Jesus

…but the player character never speaks to him directly. At least not in the beginning.

Most of the game is all about following Jesus through various stories from the New Testament and listening to what other people have to say is going on. Some of the characters are also characters from the New Testament stories (such as disciples of Jesus) and there’s even a strange glowing man who stands out in some maps but says very little.

The characters refer to Jesus as “Yeshua of Nazereth,” the first part of the name is a Hebrew derivative of “to rescue” or “to deliver,” and is sometimes used as alternative name for Jesus.

It’s hard to tell what sect of Christianity that this game is attempting to audience for itself. Different sects modify their contemporary mythology about Jesus based on emphasizing or reflecting dissimilar portions of the story. The makers of the game address this a little on their website speaking about why they might be involved in Christian theology, but that’s something internal to the religion that would have to be addressed between their myriad sects.

The locales chosen look like they’re time-period appropriate for the setting of New Testament stories. The maps of the game take the player around Galilee in the first century C.E. although some of the technology is a bit off. There are Roman soldiers around the countryside (and in one case you get to gang up on one with another native.)

The beginning few stories involve attempting to see Yeshua who is being baptized in a river by John the Baptist—a preacher contemporary to the storytelling, who is also characterized in the New Testament—and helping out some fishermen at the shore of the Sea of Galilee (aka Lake Tiberias.) Most of the game entails collecting objects from the environment and then using them on other objects; for example getting fishbones to make needles, and nets to fix the sails on the boat.

Due to the aggressive energy system the story is also very difficult to access. As a result, it’s hard to critique the storytelling or even appraise the contemporary mythology.

This game is marketed to sell to a Christian audience and is unabashed in money requirements

The developers of JoJ:TC know their audience and they’re trying very hard to sell to them. The microtransaction system and the extremely aggressive social media tie-ins speak to a publisher who knows how to leverage the Facebook culture and is looking to make money from it.

This might explain why the storytelling is deliberately bland and the gameplay is tedious; it also shows why the energy mechanic is so aggressive as it hollows out the narrative development forcing the player to keep coming back (pay money, or announce the existence of the game to friends.) As a free-to-play game it’s brilliant when it comes to working its audience to make money.

The cash shop in the game also includes items that can be bought for money that enable players to perform certain tasks without spending any energy (allowing them to follow the game further each day) some of these items cost upwards of 20¢ a pop (that’s 20¢-per-tree to receive logs without spending energy.)

With a significant portion of the United States population adherent to the Christian religion and a background of cultural Christianity, a game like JoJ:TC will probably manage to sell well.

The Facebook game exists in the all-enveloping shadow of Blizzard anyway

The Fox News article reflected on the launch of this game by riding it onto the coattails of Diablo III. Chances are that was done because a Flash-based social media game isn’t going to attain as much attention without hitching a ride with the most-popular-thing in the video game industry. As a result, the comparison is hilarious.

Diablo III is not free-to-play and doesn’t hook into Facebook; although it has its social aspects, it’s not at all aggressive at making players tell their friends about it, and it doesn’t charge them any more than the $59.99 price tag on the box. It’s also less a casual game than one like JoJ:TC which will float or fail based entirely on people noticing that it exists.

For those people looking for an energy-based Facebook game with a storyline, interesting gameplay, and some social media aspects I would suggest playing Dungeons & Dragons: Heroes of Neverwinter instead. It has all the hallmarks of an excellent fiction game, leveling, branching storylines, tactical puzzles, and even the ability to bring your friend’s characters along. It’s no Diablo III, but it’s a smarter game with better mechanics, and even includes the ability to make adventures of your own, a true Renaissance game for the social media era.

Happy gaming everyone.

Mack Wolford – Needlessly Dead at 44

The crueler part of me wants to make a joke and be done with this, but I think that there is an important message to get out in the wake of Mack Wolford’s death by snake bite.

Mack Wolford, like his father who also died from a venomous snake bite, was a Pentecostal Pastor who handled snakes to show is faith. He had been bitten before, trusted in God and prayer and had come through. This time however, the Yellow Timber Rattlesnake injected more venom than his body could handle, and after 10 and 1/2 hours of agony, he died a needless death, one day after his 44th birthday. He made it 5 years longer than his father, who he saw die the same way.

It is always somewhat inspiring to see someone carry their beliefs through to the bitter end, but he was not dying by the oppressive hand of a government that he sought to overthrow. He was not even a religious martyr in any real sense. He simply let himself die for misplaced faith; just like members of Heaven’s Gate, or the followers of Jim Jones, who had the ultimate faith in false beliefs.

If you’re reading this then you probably already know my views on faith in general, but that is not what this is about. This man, and perhaps even his father, should be alive today. With timely medical care, they probably would have survived their envenomations.

No matter what you think of prayer, the evidence is clear; in most (and I believe all) cases, medical professionals will do more than God to intervene and help a person who is sick or injured. If seeking medical help shows a lack of faith, then it is a lack of faith that is well warranted, but I believe that it shows only a concern for a person’s wellbeing and has no bearing on faith.

The most important thing to let Pentecostals know about though is the fact that Mark 16:9–20, the verses that the peculiarities of their religion hinge upon, are almost certainly not original to that book. Not one of the oldest manuscripts in existence contains these verses, and there are multiple different endings that were added on later, including the one that we see in modern English copies.

As Wolford’s mother said in the With Signs Following documentary trailer above, "the word is still the word"; except when it’s not.

If these verses are later additions, which seems almost certain to be the case, then it leaves even faithful Christians with no reason to believe that handling venomous snakes or drinking poison is a good idea. So please, don’t do it, and if you are envenomated, seek medical attention at least as quickly and fervently as prayers.

One Year Ago Today, The End Didn’t Happen

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This is a spectacular mainstay of  paranoid religious thinking and it crops up time and time again.

Now we’re looking at the 2012 Mayan end of the world, another manifestation of this sort of behavior. Of course, we should know better because the calendar everyone thinks that will end the world isn’t the only Mayan calendar we know about.

There’s a reason why one of the end of the world predictions was called the Great Disappointment; and when these come out there’s numerous humorous betting pools about “how many days until backpedaling.”

The best defense against this sort of cult thinking is an actual background in critical thinking and following the evidence. People devastated their livelihoods and lives for last year’s May 21st prediction—all on the premise that the world wouldn’t be here for them to worry about.

They let themselves be suckered in the worst possible way and Harold Camping’s organization swelled as a result. Sincere or not—the injury so some was profound and terrible.

The next time someone doomsays without evidence: chances are very good the world again won’t end.

via Friendly Atheist.

Bristol Palin (and Many “Save Marriage” Advocates) Need a Lesson in Cultural History

Not long after President Obama made a somewhat tepid acknowledgement that gay citizens should be able to get married, Bristol Palin decided to throw her own two cents into the arena.

She did so with a patronizing lecture on parenting,

“While it’s great to listen to your kids’ ideas, there’s also a time when dads simply need to be dads. In this case, it would’ve been helpful for him to explain to Malia and Sasha that while her friends parents are no doubt lovely people, that’s not a reason to change thousands of years of thinking about marriage. Or that – as great as her friends may be – we know that in general kids do better growing up in a mother/father home. Ideally, fathers help shape their kids’ worldview.”

Perhaps it’s just me, a student of contemporary and ancient cultural anthropology, but the ritual and social recognition of human marriage are a complex trend and not at all as static or simple as “thousands of years of thinking about marriage” might implicate.

In fact, across those thousands of years of thinking about marriage monogamy is only one solvent for tribal and clan affiliation; it sits side-by-side with polygamy, polygyny, polyandry, and numerous other rites and contracts for matrimonial relationships. Perhaps Palin should be aware that arranged marriages still persist today in some cultures where children can be assigned to a potential mate even before the day they’re born. Maybe she’s thinking of the ancient Israelites and other cultures where a male could be married to multiple female slaves—or that marriages in other cultures also included not just a male and a female, but sometimes both partners also maintained harems of concubines, none of this was considered extramarital.

That’s only the scrim of the history of the subject.

Perhaps in those thousands of years of thinking about marriage we can look to the way that North Carolina used to think about marriage in racist terms, in 1875 they altered their state charter to include a law that prohibited blacks from marrying whites. North Carolina is in the news because of an ideologically driven amendment to their constitution that leaves strange wreckage of domestic partnership laws in order to deprive gays of any chance of being married in the state—an amendment that rings very similar to the miscegenation amendment of 1875.

After all, Palin, you know that you’re speaking to a dad—a dad of color—he might as well let his daughters know that states like North Carolina have a long, ghastly history of bigotry and prejudice against people of color. Just like they’ve voted to make certain gays are constitutionally deprived of their 14th amendment rights, NC previously deprived blacks of those same rights—that to marry whom they wished.

To the “thousands of years of thinking about marriage” there’s a lot of history for this sort of behavior, after all bringing an outsider into the intimate bounds of the tribe or clan is unacceptable. If we looked at this obviously racist view of marriage in North Carolina in the same way that Palin does the world of today we would still have to live with that black mark.

Advice from Palin on this matter has been ignorant, patronizing, and overprivileged—and it resounds with the enduring reek of insensitive chauvinism.

Those thousands of years of thinking about marriage are still ongoing and hopefully with a greater modicum of wisdom than the 61% of North Carolina who voted on Amendment One and people like Bristol Palin. People who cannot bring themselves to be compassionate about why people marry and why depriving them of that right makes them second class citizens.

Religion As Portrayed in Video Games

So, Danny O’Dwyer decided to do a video about a favorite subject of mine: video games. In it he expounds about the way that video games have focused on the niche of religions—after all, they’re a fundamental part of our society and their portrayal fits into how games access audiences. Although he sees it as that video games don’t tend to reflect on them much at all.

Not entirely the case, but for the most part, to communicate well with mainstream culture most media meant for a broad audience does try to keep religion as a cultural backdrop and not a main theme.

In the video game Mass Effect, Commander Shepherd must mediate a dispute over religious freedom on the Presidium Commons of a space station known as the Citadel when a hanar (basically a floating man’o’war jellyfish alien) wanted to preach about the Enkindlers. In Mass Effect, the Enkindlers are essentially a dead race known as the protheans who the hanar believe seeded their homeworld and lead to their eventual evolution into the sentient race they are today. The Enkindler religious belief is important to them amid other cultural artifacts. The hanar on the Citadel is “preaching without a license,” an act a little confusing to someone in the United States where preaching wouldn’t require a license.

Later, in Mass Effect 2, a batarian can be found on the asteroid space station Omega preaching on a box about how humans (like Shepherd) are a pox on the universe. “A blight. You, sir, are a blight.” And how their gods may yet return and raise them into glory over the other lower races. (Sadly, by Mass Effect 3, the batarian race will become all-but extinct with the annihilation of their homeworld.)

That’s science fiction.

The game Eternal Darkness views religion as a sort of poorly lit scrim against the real gods, a sort of gauzy backdrop of shadowplay as they move in the dark. Charlemagne is mentioned in passing but really it’s the old gods that hold sway along with their magic and other dead and gone civilizations. Of course, that’s because the game takes some very strong influence from Lovecraft’s Mythos writings and does an excellent job of it.

Then there’s the Diablo series—and the upcoming Diablo III—that borrows liberally from ancient Jewish and modern Christian mythology. With the major boss of the series, the eponymous Diablo, is a name for the Christian character of “the Devil,” there’s also reference to ancient gods like Baal—the name of any number of ancient local deities in the Middle East—and others taken from contemporary Western, especially German sources. In the game, there are several religious orders of vague cultures such as the Horadrim, there are chapels, there’s demons, and even angels. All central vestments of modern Christian mythology repainted into the Diablo universe.

Then there’s games where players get to play as gods, such as Black & White and From Dust—all extensions of the ever popular progenitor of the style Populous.

Of course, lest we forget, there’s things like Left Behind: Eternal Forces; but I’m not about to go into how badly that one went over when Kazz already did.