Video Games and the Psychology of Divinity

Tuesday, February 7, 2012 at 3:00 pm
Video games: gateway into the mind... of GOD??
Where cheat codes and theology intersect, God Mode exists. God Mode is the king of all cheat codes. It is to Infinite Ammo or Big Head Mode cheats what Zeus is to dumb gods nobody knows about, like Aeolus or Nike. That's right, "Nike" was a god. A goddess, to be exact. Her dad was a titan and her mom was a river. Ringing a bell? No? That's because the shoe company named after her has completely eclipsed her in fame to the point that if you walk up to a classics professor and start talking about Nike, he will assume you want to talk about arch support. Case in point. Zeus reigns supreme. And God Mode, his cheat code equivalent, puts you, mortal, in his place.

But even without engaging any cheat codes, video games are largely about simulating godlike agency. One of the most appealing things about gaming is that, usually, one assumes the role of a character with amazing abilities or resources at his or her command, or at least a character in extraordinary circumstances. It gives one a sense of transcending the constraints of daily life. A sense, perhaps, of becoming a kind of god.

But being a supreme being isn't just being invulnerable to bullets and being able to slap bosses to death.  Divinity comes with a host of privileges, surprises and even responsibilities that those of us who are used to regular human life might not be able to handle gracefully.

And it's this part that I'm interested in. What happens to a human elevated to god status on an emotional level? What's it like to have more power than you ever imagined? What do we learn about godhood by reigning over even a small, fictional universe like a video game world?


The Benefits of Assuming Other Forms

Sometimes God comes to earth in a form like this, which pretty much looks like his regular, white-bearded dude form, except with elf ears and a dance club outfit.

One of the coolest parts of being a god is coming to the terrestrial realm in any shape you want. When you, as a gamer playing an RPG, choose exactly how your dwarf warrior looks, you are creating an avatar just as gods often do when they enter our world. This brings to mind the important New Testament passage where God spends seven whole days in a character creator trying to decide which facial scar Jesus should have.

Inhabiting another form is useful in many ways. The Greek gods found out that it is a good way to get animals to sleep with you. You may also test the character of your followers by appearing to them in lame beggar form and seeing if they are dicks to you. If they are, you have the option of morphing back into a god (or, better, a T-Rex) and shaming / smiting them.

The real upside of a god assuming the body of a mortal being, though, is that it brings them into the drama of earthly life. Video games provide a good analogy for this. Imagine playing nothing but impersonal strategy games for a billion years, and then suddenly playing a deeply engaging first-person game. Not that one is better than another, but it is certainly a worthwhile experience to become someone else, to learn to care about their struggles, to champion their causes. It is an exercise that breeds empathy.

Learning From Any Mistake

Respawning is a feat only available to gamers and gods.

Part of being a god is usually being either mostly or totally invulnerable. In some polytheistic religions, celestial beings can kill one another, and sometimes guys in monotheistic cultures say stuff like "God is dead" to seem goth (BAM, NIETZSCHE BURN). But let's be honest: part of this whole "higher power" deal is that you can take a few hits, am I right?

Video games emulate this experience. Even if your character can die in a game, there are very few games where that death is permanent. In most games, you have the option of either coming back from the dead and continuing or travelling back in time to a point before you died, retaining the knowledge of what is to come and how to better plan for it.

There are many stories of gods coming to earth and doing awesome stuff. But maybe they had to reload to an earlier save point a bunch of times to get things right. We'll never know.

Also, this brings up another point -- let's assume there is a benevolent, all-powerful god. If there is, and He has the ability to "reload" the world from any point in history (or "save point"), that means that our history, with all the plagues and floods and oil spills, is God's best play-through. Crazy, right? Though, to be fair, we can also probably assume that God is playing on Expert Mode.

Quests / Prayers

God has to open up His prayers tab to remember what exactly he was asked to do in Peoria again.

Any god worth his or her salt receives thousands of prayers every minute. These are earnest pleas from mortals who need cool god-powers to get something done. One big question of skeptics is, "If there is a benevolent higher power, why does it so infrequently deign to answer prayers?"

You may have noticed from the gist of my recent columns that I have been playing Skyrim a lot. I have been playing it to the exclusion of all other games, and sometimes to the exclusion of vital bodily functions. And if there's one thing about Skyrim and other games like it, it's that you get quests. Everybody wants you to get something or kill someone or go somewhere. Just as you're going to slay a dragon, a courier comes up to tell you about an important cavern, and then in the cavern you meet a dying guy who hires you to find his magical girdle, and on the way to get the girdle... you get the idea.

A god must feel this way, but times a billion. Just when he's going to go answer Timmy's prayer that Severus Snape the ferret survives the operation at the vet, he receives eight hundred other prayers. He can't answer them all. It might be technically within his power, but it's just not practical. God isn't going for 100% completion. He's trying to make things run as smoothly as possible.

So next time you ask whatever god you pray to for something and he doesn't come through, just remember that he's got a lot on his plate. Especially if it was a prayer that he retrieve something for you. I'm sure God hates fetch quests just as much as you and I do.


Now, for any religious readers, I apologize if all this seems insensitive. I know that playing The Sims for eight days straight doesn't make you Yahweh. And I acknowledge the fact that the gods of the monotheistic religions are supposed to be pretty infallible, and we, as primates pushing buttons so a screen lights up, are on a somewhat lower level of comprehension.

But maybe, just maybe, by merely playing at godhood we can understand the idea of it more completely? And through that knowledge, dare I say that we can take one step closer to beholding the very face of God?


I'm going to hell for this article, aren't I.

Aaron Matteson writes a weekly column for Joystick Division. It is, as of this moment, called Dangerous Physical Appliances 2000, after a quote attributed to Jack Thompson: "[Video games are] dangerous physical appliances that teach a kid how to kill efficiently and love it." The "2000" at the end is just there to spice things up.

You can follow Aaron on Twitter @AaronMatteson if you want.

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