It’s rare that my (mostly useless but endlessly fascinating) academic field of study overlaps with my actual job, but last week’s SMITE fiasco did just that by mashing Indian mythology and comparative religion with video games.
So. Hi-Rez Studios is working on a MOBA game called SMITE, in which participants play as figures from various real-world religions as they run around the game and beat each other silly. These characters include representatives from Greek, Egyptian, Chinese, Nordic, and Hindu pantheons.
Enter a Hindu religious group, the Universal Society for Hinduism, which called the implementation of Hindu deities such as Kali “denigration” and demanded their removal.
For the record, I don’t have a dog in this fight; I’m an atheist who follows religion as anthropology. I consider each of these religions equally fascinating and silly. So when any religious group asks for special protection, my gut reaction is NO FRICKIN’ WAY. The same rules should apply to everyone, regardless of the flavor of belief or lack thereof, and no one ought to be forcibly restrained from mocking someone else’s ideas or beliefs. Ever.
At the same time, I was disturbed at the catalogue of playable deities and wondered whether the Hindus don’t have a point. Hinduism, one of the largest belief systems in the world, is very much alive, so it’s jarring to see it categorized alongside four faiths that are not dead but weatherbeaten by comparison. Each is an ancient religion that has survived into the modern era as neopaganism or a folk religion. The principal commonality between these philosophies is a plurality of deities and demigods; the implication is that Hinduism deserves minimization specifically because it’s polytheistic (because ha-ha they believe in more than one god just like all those dead religions and isn’t it cute and exotic and let’s turn it into a toy and a plaything). The undercurrent of ethnocentrism and othering is unsettling.
Of course, because Hinduism is such a large religion practiced by so many people all over the world, many Hindus would not be offended by the inclusion of Kali, Agni, and Vamana in SMITE, and this group cannot speak for every Hindu. India has a long tradition of transforming iconic religious figures into all-singing, all-dancing atrocities for the purposes of entertainment. (In fact, I’d argue that India is far more strict about portrayals of political figures like Gandhi than Kali, whose depiction and deistic status varies dramatically from region to region, similar to the way the Virgin Mary eclipses Jesus in more polytheistic Christian sects but is almost invisible in others.)
SMITE also wouldn’t mark the first instance of gods ported irreverently into video games. Consider an older MOBA called, appropriately, Demigod, which features the Inuit sea goddess Sedna as a playable character. Or how about Aion, a Korean-made MMO fond of pressing Hindu mythological figures, like Hanuman, into service as raid bosses. There’s also Zentia, which transforms the entirety of Shenism/Daoism into a cutesy PvP grinder. Shiva becomes a female spirit in the Final Fantasy series. How many games tap the Hellenic pantheons or implement druids, priests, shamans, monks, cathedrals, and holy-themed spells? This isn’t new.
In any case, this Hindu group isn’t agitating on behalf of all mythologies co-opted by the video game industry. The group’s reps aren’t arguing from fairness; they just want special treatment for their religion, and to their credit, they’re not using threats to get the job done. No one’s planting car bombs or abusing governments to force religious compliance. This group simply said, “We don’t like this; please stop.”
And Hi-Rez responded with this gem:
“SMITE includes deities inspired from a diverse and ever expanding set of pantheons including Greek, Chinese, Egyptian, and Norse. Hinduism, being one of the world’s oldest, largest and most diverse traditions, also provides inspiration toward deities in our game. In fact, given Hinduism’s concept of a single truth with multiple physical manifestations one could validly interpret ALL the gods within SMITE to be Hindu. And all gods outside of SMITE as well. Ponder that for a minute. Anyway, going forward SMITE will include even more deities, not fewer.”
That kind of condescension takes balls. But hey, it’s not like these guys have any bias or anything, right? I mean, if they’re going to include Hindu gods, that must mean they’re taking a principled stand here and plan to script in characters from all religions, including the other big ones. You know, really treat them all equally, starting with iconic characters from the Abrahamic faiths. Right?
Well, no. Jesus has already been proposed as a character and deemed “too risque” by the studio. Hi-Rez’s Todd Harris actually handwaved the omission by claiming the Abrahamic icons are too boring for a MOBA:
“From [the] perspective of a video game, the key Abrahamic figures–Adam, Noah, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, are not that interesting in character design or gameplay. They are all human. They never overlapped or interacted with one another. They certainly never fought each other in dramatic fashion with unique abilities. They are all peaceful–at best they would be support characters.”
I can’t be the only one who doesn’t buy this for a single second. A single second is about how long it took Paul and me to come up with some characters in the Bible worth including. They needn’t be gods, after all, and they needn’t be “key figures”; there are several characters already lining the SMITE roster who are neither deities nor particularly “key,” such as the Monkey King (Sun Wukong), Arachne (initially a human mortal), Ymir (a primeval being rather than a god), and General Guan Yu (also a human). Samson? Elijah? Lucifer? What about supernatural spirits like Islam’s djinn or Hebrew mythological beasts like Leviathan and Behemoth or even Ziz? They fit right in with monkey kings, giant spiders, and dragon gods.
If the developers took half the imagination spent on Kali’s physics-defying boobs and applied it to an Abrahamic role-call, surely Jesus and Moses could be hammered into suitability. Moses, after all, was a warlord imbued with magical powers. Mohammed, too, was a famed conqueror and warrior-poet worthy of a place alongside the Chinese General Guan Yu, but I think we all know the real reason Islam’s prophet won’t be making an appearance in SMITE anytime soon.
Alas, we’re only wasting our time debating how Christianity, Judaism, and Islam could be incorporated into SMITE because Harris shattered any illusion that he’s arguing from religious ignorance at the very moment when he tried to justify hijacking Hinduism (using Hindu philosophy!) to a Hindu group. He knows very well that and how Abrahamic figures could be implemented. The game is called SMITE! Variations on the word smite are used almost 600 times in the Bible!
Moreover, I concede that Hi-Rez has every right to pick and choose, to use characters from our collective mythologies — or not — as it sees fit. No one should be able to force Hi-Rez to do otherwise.
But pretending that “thematic fitness” is the reason for these inclusions and exclusions is pure cowardice. If you’re going to be a brazen hypocrite — if you want your beliefs safeguarded against abuse but you don’t give a crap about the beliefs of people on the other side of the world — just admit it. If you’re worried that putting Christ in your video game will hurt your bottom line with conservative gamers, just say so. If you’re terrified that portraying Allah’s prophet will provoke domestic terrorism, own up to it. Just don’t pretend this is anything but what it is: a paper-thin pretense to mask religious bias and ethnocentrism (and a lost opportunity to make an egalitarian statement).
SMITE’s developers beg special consideration for their religion just as these particular Hindus demand exceptional regard for theirs. And they both deserve a good smiting.
March 2013: Hi-Rez has just unveiled Aphrodite, a support character whose “hugs give mana to a soul mate” and whose “kisses do double duty as buffs and stuns.” She can also “use her Back Off! skill to knock enemies back” and “call down doves for both healing and damage.” Not only does this give the lie to the devs’ claim that they wish to avoid “peaceful support characters,” it’s outrageously sexist too. Well done, Hi-Rez.