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.

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.

If TV News Existed in 1200BC

No doubt the populations at odds in the Jewish myth of the exodous felt a certain amount of umbrage for the actions of one another. However, in the story, how could have the Jews or the Egyptians known that the god YHVH was purposefully changing the Pharaoh’s mind each time that Moses demanded that his people be released from their servitude.

I, for one, really loved the Eye of Ra transition effect between the different segments of the video.

Well produced and in some ways it pokes satire at modern foreign affairs—although sometimes these occurrences are little laughing matter.

This satirical faux news show is worthy of the Onion News Network.

Link, via YouTube.