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.

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.

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.