In the beginning, I played video games. And, often, I played the role of God.
Make that: slightly after the beginning. I was born in 1976, went to Catholic school and was an altar boy, had an Odyssey 2 in the early 80s and eventually a Super Nintendo plus a library of game cartridges that included ActRaiser, a 1990 game that let me play as a god who could float above the people, sending clouds to water their crops, or venture down to earth to smite evil.
As a child I read about God, talked about God and prayed to God. But it was only video games that allowed me to pretend to be God. And through the years, I would discover, through video games, the various types of God I might be.
This is one of the things people who don't play games wouldn't understand or that they would understand incorrectly. Society knows that games let us pretend to be killers, It knows that really well. I don't think it knows that, in this medium that so often eschews reference to actual religions — or strikes such things out — we who play games role-play as god all the time.
We so often see the worlds which we control from above, as if seated in the clouds. We influence the people below, send plagues upon those we don't directly control. We permit their life. We can sweep them to death. We do not engage directly; we do not drop down to say hi.
Dare we publicize the results of all this godly role-playing? We who play as killers in so many other games often, in games that grant us the potency of the divine, play as killer gods.
I believe that I first role-played as God when I played ActRaiser. I remember being a benevolent god. I let rain fall to the land and engineered a climate ideal for a happy people. At the start, I was loving and slow to smite, more of a New Testament kind of divine being.
Most of the video games I played were not from ActRaiser's from-the-heavens god view. I viewed the adventures of Super Mario from the side and I controlled the little guy directly. That gave me the feeling that I was Mario, that his death by piranha plant or bottomless chasm was mine. I was Link in the Zelda games and Samus in the Metroids.
But when I got SimCity, I was God again. In theory I was a mere mayor, a man or woman saying where roads should paved, where homes could be built and where police stations could protect the most people. But I saw the cities I built in that game from high above, where the angels might sing. When I wasn't collecting tax revenue from the people I was visiting tornadoes upon my populace.
I subjected the subjects in my video game cities to despair not because they didn't believe in me or love me but because I wanted to watch them rebuild. I wanted to destroy their nuclear reactor, irradiate acres of their land and let their houses blaze so that I, with them, could sprout a new city from the decay of the old.
By the 90s, "god game" was a genre. I missed many of the entries, missing Peter Molyneux's Populous until a decade later, barely dabbled in the Sim spin-offs that could have put me in control of ants or life (those would be SimAnt and SimLife, naturally).
I played games that purportedly let me be a wartime general or a pro athlete, and no one called those games god games. But I commanded the battlefield of Command and Conquer from the all-seeing airborne position of a god of war. I controlled the football players from an overhead view that may as well been seen from a skybox in heaven.
As I gamer, I became used to seeing all things and knowing all things that were happening in the worlds with which I interacted.
I also became used to resurrection, a new life following death, not reborn due to sacrifice or goodly work, not reincarnated to shed karma but to do things again, this time for the better.
When I played games from that vantage point above, I cared less about the death of the men on the screen. I could make more of them. Life would produce successors. But I did not try, after Sim City, to make the people die. I was never that bored nor that devilishly amused.
The Sims became popular when the millennium turned and I learned that the most delighted players of this living dollhouse simulator used their powers over the lives of the digital people they indirectly controlled to test them, to just about torture them in a magnifying-glass-meets-ant kind of way. They would raise their Sim to happiness, then not let them go to the bathroom and force them to wet themselves. They would keep them from showering or lock them in a room with no doors and see what happens.
Sims players used their godly power to steer human life, to enrich it but also to torment it. All playfully, of course. All in the same way that girls or their brothers unscrewed the heads from Barbies. I lost interest in The Sims before
I was busy trying to get my Nintendo GameCube to run an imported Japanese game called Doshin The Giant that made me a bigger and bigger yellow giant the more people loved me, or a winged bad giant if I did things they hated. I tried both.
The 2001 god game Black & White let me be a god, as did its 2005 successor. The people in the game had faith. A giant beast was an amalgamation of my tendencies and my example, a representative of me on land, molded by my actions. This game may have given me my best chance to play god, but I abandoned it for the many games that would instead let me be one of the people.
I had found that, for me, playing as god was not an attraction. Being removed was chilling and, of course, distancing. Just a few years ago, then, I found the right role-play for me-as-god. It was in a game called Okami where I controlled a wolf that represented the Shinto goddess Amaterasu. I was among the people, if not, from all fours, one of them. My every step made flowers bloom. I performed miracles, restoring the flow of water to rivers and fruit to the branches of trees. I fought many-headed dragons. And while I was a god in this fiction, I played pretty much as I would any gaming hero. Among the people, I did great things, but my actions felt less divine, more like another superpower or magic trick.
And then I created life — virtual life — in the image not of me but of a tadpole in the game Spore. To the tadpole I added claws and legs and had no urge to destroy it because almost right away it was me and I was it. I controlled a species, molded by me and, for most of the game, controlled by me. And when my species walked on land, built cities and rocketed to the center of the universe, I was at the helm and in the thick of things, not removed and above.
People enjoy an iPhone game called Pocket God, these days. They can flick little islanders around, maybe toss them toward a volcano. I'm back to controlling Marios and Links and space-ships. I play the hero far more often than I play the god, but I'd like to think I now know just a little more of what I would do were I to wear His Shoes.
I'd send a T-Rex to your cities, to see if you could re-build. I'd add rain to your fields and fruit to your trees. I'd let you come back to life. I'd expect it. And I'd never leave you lost to the fate of a room with no doors. But I do know there may be a few million who would. Watch out for them. They play The Sims.