Commercializing deities

So this story’s been gnawing at me over the past couple days, so I wanted to put down a few words about it.

Basically, Hi-Rez is coming out with its deity-themed League of Legends clone which it’s calling SMITE.  I didn’t give it two thoughts, because I’m not that interested in that style of gameplay, and because it looked like your standard mining-mythology-for-colorful-characters setup.

Except that out of the lineup, Hi-Rez is throwing deities that are being actively worshiped by modern people (versus way back when folks).  Hindus caught wind of their gods being treated as video game characters in a degrading way, and had a word with the company about it.  Hi-Rez’s response was basically, “We’re doing nothing wrong, and instead of stopping this, we’re going to include even MORE gods!”

Fast-forward though a whole bunch of insensitive comments and internet angry faith hour stuff, and we’re left with an interesting conundrum.  Is Hi-Rez bordering on extreme insensitivity here, or is this complaint groundless?

I’m going to actually post the full quote, because I have several issues with what the CEO says here:

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.”

Issue one: There’s a difference between portraying deities that haven’t been actively worshiped in a long, long time and those at the centerpoint of a faith today.  He lumps all of them together like it ain’t no thing, but obviously it is a thing to a group of people.

Issue two: His response not only fails to convey any sympathy toward those who would rather not see their gods being treated like Super Mario Bros, but he also tries to preach at them using their own faith.  It comes across as extremely condescending, to say the least.

Issue three: The last sentence is a big screw-you to not only the Hindus, but anyone who has a problem with this.

Hey Mr. Harris?  I’ve got a problem with this.  I’ve got a problem with your attitude.  I’m not bristling because I’m a Christian and I feel I have to rush to the defense of those religiously inclined, but because you’re missing the point here.  These people have a real concern over you profiting from throwing their gods into a game.  Maybe you should listen to them.  Maybe there are plenty of ancient, long-gone cults and religions you could tap for “inspiration” instead.  And maybe your attitude worries people of other faiths who do have issues with seeing those who don’t hold their objects of worship as sacred effectively making them into toys that kill and are killed.  Or if you’re truly blase about it, why not throw Mohammed, Jesus, Buddha, or any other contemporary religious figure into the mix and see if those faiths are cool with it too?

But no.  As my fellow Massively co-worker Bree notes, it’s “too risque” to consider.  Chew on that for a minute.

Again, it’s a hard issue to know exactly what offense level it should draw (one?  Six?).  For all I know, the offended group represented an extreme minority and most Hindus would be okay with this.  But it just doesn’t seem that hard to avoid potentially offending people by thinking these issues through, and I really don’t get why Harris is being antagonistic in his reply instead of showing a modicum of sympathy.  You know, PR and all.

I think it’s important to note that this group doesn’t have a problem with Hinduism being in video games, but how it’s portrayed (a statement which would be shared by any creed, religion, race, gender, etc.).  They’re saying, “How you’re doing this is wrong, it makes our god into a sex symbol and the front of a greedy cash-grab, and that offends us.”  Personally, I think it’s legitimate.

It just reminds me of that wacky Bible MMO that got headlines a year or so ago.  People just aren’t keen on studios using their faith as an IP to be mined for a game, particularly when the studio shows ignorance about that religion in particular.  Very rarely is religion handled with any sensitivity in games when it does appear, so if you’re going to do it, do it right and not like a clumsy giant stepping on people’s beliefs.

21 thoughts on “Commercializing deities

  1. Werit July 2, 2012 / 8:09 am

    Will be interesting to see if they have the guts to include Muslim or Christian figures.

  2. kiantremayne July 2, 2012 / 8:15 am

    Of course, you realise that even those “ancient, long-gone cults and religions” probably DO have adherents today – the pagan community so diverse and eclectic that no matter how obscure a deity you pick, someone has instituted a modern form of worship for them. They may not be as numerous as Hindus, but there’s a fair old few of them, they’re out there and as modern paganism is Western-based, plenty of them are internet savvy. Fortunately, they also seem fairly tolerant of media (mis-)portrayals of their gods – I don’t recall seeing placard-waving asatru/norse pagans outside cinemas showing “Thor”, for example 🙂

    That aside, though, you’re on the money – it looks to me that Hi-Rez have a mediocre clone game that they’re trying to sex up with just the right amount of controversy by offending a religion that’s big enough to be noticed but not too big or too prone to react, ah, over-enthusiastically.

  3. thade July 2, 2012 / 9:30 am

    @Werit: Jesus of Nazereth would be broken; solo-mid all the way. I think the Budda could take him though. (J Naz was a carpenter, but Budda had a lot of mass….)

    Seriously, though, I think it’s fine. Nobody’s hurt by it. If you believe in said-deities, don’t buy the game, don’t support the game. Actively decrying it is a waste of time though…all they’re doing is raising interest on it, which effectively increases their sales.

  4. Shadow July 2, 2012 / 9:31 am

    I hope they DO include other modern religious figures. Including the entire Christian trinity, and Budha and a Gishnoo (sp?). More power to them for not collapsing to the demands of some vocal minority group. If they don’t like it, don’t buy/play it and let the market work.

    I say this as a Christian myself.

  5. Azou July 2, 2012 / 11:02 am

    I have two feelings about this.

    1. Nobody is ever required to respect any kind of deity of religious belief. People should respect one’s right to worship, but not the target of worship itself. If Hi-Rez wants a bunch of public domain characters fighting each other, then more power to them. If Hi-Rez feels that contemporary deities would hurt their userbase, then that’s also a prudent decision.

    2. What doesn’t sit right with me is saying that one culture’s contemporary beliefs are okay to harvest, and yet another culture’s isn’t. This strikes me as insensitive to THE PEOPLE of that culture, as if they don’t matter. It’s a bit more understandable in the case of Islam where there has been violent reprisal against this sort of thing (although I don’t think violence should silence artists), but are Christians somehow more deserving of respect than Hindi?

    The game’s still in beta, so I think it might be fair to wait and see what the final roster is before launch. Lastly, mythological figures are tapped all the time in art. Milton, Dante, Chaucer, and many other artists create work largely on the backs of old mythology. Shoot, Blizzard’s Wrath of the Lich King borrowed HEAVILY from Norse mythology and just erased the original names and put their own in.

  6. Brock (Kupapo) July 2, 2012 / 11:18 am

    I agree with the above poster in that we need to respect other’s right to worship, but are not required to respect their object of worship. I also don’t necessarily feel that this is disrespectful, particularly if the deities are poorly represented as claimed.

    I also feel like there are perfectly reasonable reasons for choosing these specific deities and passing over others. They lend themselves to the medium, but Christian and Muslim Deities/Prophets are pretty boring by comparison.

    The comment from Hi-rez about the Hindi world view may seem insensitive, but companies are allowed bad PR, if in fact that’s what it is. I read it as an illustration of how frivolous this whole issue tends to be.

  7. Doone July 2, 2012 / 11:23 am

    I’m not sure what some of you have against being sympathetic and sensitive to a group of people. Kindness really doesn’t cost you a thing.

    If I worship a god and I see someone sexualizing it or otherwise disgracing it, I can tap them on the shoulder and say “could you please not do that?” It’s just a simple act of respect towards me, not my god, if you oblige. Of course, one can choose to be an asshole like this Hi-Rez dude, or they can be reasonable and reconsider their design. I don’t think it’s asking too much. There’s no shortage of gods to invent for a video game. Offending even a minute section of your potential playerbase hardly seems worthwhile. What principle are you standing on again by doing this?

    And no, their creative license doesn’t exceed anyone’s right to respect and dignity. It’s not about respecting “the god” so much as the people you’re hurting. I haven’t the slightest why any of you are offended by acts of kindness and respect — especially those of you posting as self-proclaimed christians.

  8. Chris July 2, 2012 / 11:52 am

    As a Christian, I find it incredibly presumptuous that they would include any modern deity in the game. And frankly, their CEO has shown himself to be a tactless, self-centered jerk. I don’t generally get behind anti-whatever movements but if there was one for this game, I’d gladly sign my name to it just to encourage the guy to have a little more humility going forward.

  9. Buhallin July 2, 2012 / 12:25 pm

    As kiantremayne says above, most “dead” religions are not truly dead. They may be sorely marginalized, but there are at least small groups that still believe and worship for most, if not all, of the pantheons we Americans generally consider “mythology”.

    You don’t see things like this relating to Christianity or Islam for a simple reason: They’re loud, numerous, and reactive. That’s really what it’s all about. The vast majority of religions don’t have a problem with disrespect to other religions, they only get defensive when its their own that’s targeted. There aren’t enough Zeus worshipers left to make noise every time a God of War game comes out, but try something similar relating to Christianity and it’ll be a firestorm.

    The only line Hi-Rez crossed here was doing it to a religion with enough followers to make some serious noise. As with most everything offensive or crass, they broke the golden rule: Only do it to people nobody cares about.

  10. Roger Edwards (@ModeratePeril) July 2, 2012 / 12:26 pm

    This is not a black and white issue and the whole debate can be approached from multiple points of views.

    You have the legal position of which groups rights trumps the other. This is a determined by law, logic and precedence and will vary from country to country, depending on culture and constitutions etc.

    Then there is the moral and ethical aspect about respect, deference and sensitivity.

    Then there is the practical consideration of which group is mostly likely to mobilise their opposition is a damaging way, be it legal or physical.

    It has been noted that Hi-Rez are not going to upset certain faiths and include them within the game and we all know why.

    @Doone. I do appreciate your stance but it hinges on some very subjective terms and semantics. For example what constitutes “disgracing” a deity is not universally defined. An overt sexual depiction would perhaps meet that criteria. Others however may label any sort of cogent criticism of dogma as similarly “disgracing” and use the term as a way to shut down any sort of legitimate debate.

    This is why respect and sensitivity cannot always be afforded without due thought before hand.

    However, what I think we have here is nothing more than a cheap and crass marketing campaign for a company that perhaps doesn’t have as much confidence in their product as they should. It will be interesting to see how this game performs financially.

    This is yet another example of “just because you can do something, doesn’t mean that you should”. This is what bothers people the most, regardless of what side of the debate you are on. Our freedoms in western culture afford us a great deal of opportunities to do and say things within the confines of the law. It’s a pretty awesome blank cheque to have. However common sense needs to be used to temper our actions. This is the oil that greases the wheels of society.

    Hi-Rez have elected to do the opposite and go down a particular route just because they can, like a smug adolescent who’s pushing the boundaries.

    It will be go ill for them in the long run.

  11. Danania July 2, 2012 / 12:41 pm

    Ditto to Chris above.

    The first question it raises to mind is “what is the marketing intent?” Just guessing, the intent is to capitalize on common god names, with 2ndary intent to stir controversy, thereby getting more exposure. Heck, I wouldn’t have had any idea of who this company was or what their “product” was had it not raised eyebrows.

    And yes, the CEO quoted does seem to be a real twit and not very good at marketing/PR. Geez, it is one thing to stir intrigue and another to start drawing lines in the sand and becoming beligerantly controversial. Intrigue adds to the suspense and curiosity; controversy is a means of alienating people. When people are your potential customers, what then was your intent again?

  12. Bree July 2, 2012 / 1:47 pm

    Oooh, just to be clear: “Too risque” wasn’t my turn of phrase. That was from the SMITE forums. (A poster proposed Jesus as a character, another poster said it was too risque, and a Hi-Rez rep agreed with the second poster.) I don’t think it’s too risque at all. 😀 -Bree

  13. seanxxp July 2, 2012 / 2:38 pm

    I don’t believe anyone has a right to not be offended. Not in a secular society anyway. If you think this is in poor taste, then I’d say don’t support the game. But no on here has a right to dictate what should or shouldn’t be in the game.

  14. kiantremayne July 2, 2012 / 4:29 pm

    Seanxxp – maybe nobody has a right not to be offended. But I’d argue that everybody has a duty not to be a needlessly offensive dick, and I’d argue that Hi-Rez are falling down on that duty.

  15. seanxxp July 2, 2012 / 4:31 pm

    @Kiantremayne I’d be inclined to agree, except there is no universal notion of what is and isn’t offensive. It’s a really difficult issue.

  16. Ald July 2, 2012 / 8:18 pm

    I say this with all due respect:

    I have more of a problem with the actual religions themselves profiting than i do with some game company.

  17. Mbp July 3, 2012 / 2:48 am

    Great post on a thought provoking topic. Normally on issues of religious zealotry versus artistic freedom I come down on the side of the artist every time yet this time I agree with the religious objectors and I am not sure why.

    Why is this less acceptable to me than “The Life of Brian” or Danish cartoons of Mohammad?

    I don’t entirely know but I think it has something to do with the motivation behind it. Any time you use religious figures in a creative work you are probably going to upset someone but I believe that might still be justified on artistic grounds if it challenges people and makes them think.

    It is very telling that the developers left out Jesus and Mohammed. If they had challenged these most militant of faiths they would surely face boycotts and death threats but at least they could claim to have creative integrity. Instead they picked a few easy targets that are unlikely to threaten their lives or lose them too many sales. It is just opportunistic commercial exploitation.

  18. Tom July 4, 2012 / 2:47 pm

    There’s also another aspect to take into consideration here : the very nature of Hinduism.
    The Hi-Rez CEO may look insensitive, but when he’s talking about “Hinduism’s concept of a single truth with multiple physical manifestations”, he’s actually spot on.
    In Hinduism, a deity can descend to earth in the form of various human or animal appearances,
    the interesting thing being that these appearances are usually called … avatars.

    As a consequence, it’s not so hard to understand why Hinduism principles can easily be adapted in the gaming world.

    Why not Jesus, Mohammed or Buddha portrayed as Smite characters, you ask ?
    For a very simple reason : Hinduism, “Greek, Chinese, Egyptian, and Norse pantheons” are pagan beliefs and ideologies.
    A lot of pagans gods are essentially warriors, with supernatural powers that allow them to … “SMITE” other gods and humans.
    Some games such as “Age of Mythology” or “God of war” have perfectly understood how logical it is to link pagan mythologies and warfare.

    With monotheistic religions or buddhism, we face an entirely different ideology.
    Jesus was non-violent and chose to be killed in order to avoid a bloodshed in his name. His miracles had nothing to do with violence or warfare.
    Mohammed was a warlord in the second half of his life (after being a merchant) but is never said to have used any supernatural powers.
    The historical Buddha was a Hindu prince which choose a life of poverty and withdrawal in order to reach the Nirvana, another plane of existence.

    How can you concretely use the Christian, Muslim or Buddhist figures as MOBA characters with deadly supernatural powers ?
    The answer : You can’t, not by any stretch of the imagination.

    I am fully aware that we live in an era of religious relativism where all religions are considered to be interchangeable.
    But when you know the basic founding principles of each religion, you realise that there are massive divergences in the way religions view the world and the way believers are expected to behave.

    “Throwing Mohammed, Jesus, Buddha, or any other contemporary religious figure into the mix” is not “too risque” : the point is that it basically makes no sense, from a religious as well as from a MOBA-gaming perspective.

  19. Jay July 10, 2012 / 1:43 am

    Issue one: There’s a difference between portraying deities that haven’t been actively worshiped in a long, long time and those at the centerpoint of a faith today. He lumps all of them together like it ain’t no thing, but obviously it is a thing to a group of people.

    – What’s the difference? What’s the difference to an atheist?

    Issue two: His response not only fails to convey any sympathy toward those who would rather not see their gods being treated like Super Mario Bros, but he also tries to preach at them using their own faith. It comes across as extremely condescending, to say the least.

    – as opposed to telling someone your religion is a superior concept and can’t be used by someone else in anyway other than the way you’ve decided it should be

    Issue three: The last sentence is a big screw-you to not only the Hindus, but anyone who has a problem with this.

    – That’s a singular interpretation.

    Hey Mr. Harris? I’ve got a problem with this. I’ve got a problem with your attitude. I’m not bristling because I’m a Christian and I feel I have to rush to the defense of those religiously inclined, but because you’re missing the point here. These people have a real concern over you profiting from throwing their gods into a game.

    – You’re saying no one but the church should be able to profit from their dieties? Is this different then someone selling a hand carved cross or someone selling a painting of a diety? Games are art right?

    They’re saying, “How you’re doing this is wrong, it makes our god into a sex symbol and the front of a greedy cash-grab, and that offends us.”

    -Kali is traditionally portrayed topless with a skull necklace, who enjoys sex and is responsible for tantric yoga.

    So I’m looking for an argument here that isn’t just complaining.

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