Tiny Gods

Cinder Blocks

One appealing aspect of religion is that it lets us presume our world is crafted with the same care and intent that we put into our art. The difference here isn’t a matter of intelligent design vs unintelligent design – to the contrary, the ingenuity of happenstance tempered by selective force frequently outdoes our cleverest solutions – it’s a matter of design which we understand as intentional versus design which exceeds what we can comprehend as intent.

Games are made by people. It’s reassuring. Games are made to be engaged with, explored, and usually completed – also reassuring. When the game designer closes a door, we know she opened a window for us somewhere else, or that the door is otherwise unimportant. Everything happens for a reason, it’s all part of some design plan. The designer can make a rock so big even she can’t lift it, and then she can make it liftable.

My point is not that we want from our games what we want from our religion, nor that we want from our gods what we want from our designers, though to varying degrees those may be true. My point is that we find it much easier to understand human intent than natural probabilistic occurrence. The anthropomorphized roles we make for our gods are a way of reassuring ourselves that this understanding of the world is useful and accurate even when it is clearly neither. The god that is envisioned in this manner is just a person made large, someone with small concerns and small ideas relative to their stature, more mundane than divine.

If there is a divine creator, its desires and designs must surely be so far out of our reckoning as to be indistinguishable from the whims of natural selection. It isn’t a person, and to address it as such, to assign it sex and gender and class and culture derived from our society, I can’t imagine as being anything but grossly insulting.

So we keep playing, and finding for ourselves tiny and manageable gods whose motivations, whether or not we agree with them, we can understand. We find in games places that were created for us. Sometimes those places are safe, sometimes dangerous, sometimes simple and elegant, sometimes byzantine and weird, but always created by someone like us and for someone like us, a human being with human concerns.

At the same time, we want more, and we want realer. We want to see the reflections and the pores and to see the pulse bump on the wrist. We want bigger and more complex, and as the designer harnesses systems that get bigger and harder to understand these spaces may begin to grow away from our intent again, and become another world like our own – infinite, incomprehensible, devoid of human intent, and tinged with the divine.

And then, too, we will make art there, a world cut down to size, where everything is in its place and has its role.

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2 comments
  1. Jeremy said:

    The closest game in that analogy is probably Dwarf Fortress I think. Haven’t played it, but a bunch of parameters setup then activated and set to run until the dwarfs reach the end (if there is a success condition) or dig a tunnel into a volcano and doom themselves? Then again I haven’t played it and it could be a game about watching a bunch of dwarfs drink and sing. lol

    • Yeah, it’s certainly focused on simulating a certain kind of reality, but it’s a very heightened sort of reality, the sort where things that are interesting to human observers/controllers are very likely to occur. There’s intent there, but it is definitely abstracted away a layer or two.

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