Thursday, August 24, 2006

Long Live the New Gods

A little late to the party perhaps, but this caught my attention yesterday. The summarised version is this: MTV are holding some sort of interviews with some high profile game developers ("Gods", apparently). It also reminded me of this piece on that asked why was it that we were still talking about the same people at the head of the industry (Carmack, Miyamoto, etc). And it made me realise something. The old Gods are actually dead, but the media haven't clocked this yet. The New Gods are coming.

Are you ready?

Anatomy of a God
Going all Greek for a moment, what is a God?

In many ways, Gods back then were the equivalent of brands today. Aside from the idea that someone might be abasing themselves before a poster of John Romero, or seeking out Warren Spector's old shoes as relics, what this means is that a God, like a brand, came to mean a symbol of something. The nature of a God was larger than life, the physical embodiment of an idea, and the faith in that idea. This is what brands are at their best, and those who disagree may be referred to the cults of Nintendo and Apple respectively. Gods inspire faith.

Theologically speaking, there are traditionally two kinds of God. One is the insubstantial force, the monolith representing a concept. Companies occupy this particular sort of position in modern times, with people ascribing traits to Coca Cola, McDonalds, Microsoft and Sega, for example, which stand above and beyond the sum total of the people who actually work in those companies. The Mystery cults of Roman times are alive and well in this new form.

The other kind of God is the avatar God. These are the Gods that have faces and bodies, as it were, and who embody a philosophy and a creative aspect. Avatar Gods represent the unchanging truths in our grander nature (Jung's archetypes, in many ways) in that they are not full and rounded people in our understanding of it. To be mortal is to change, to be immortal is to be encapsulated in time.

Our society is awash with these kinds of Gods. The faces of the famous and the worshipped, the stalked and the saluted are literally all around us. The pantheon is literally heaving with all sorts.

So to gaming. While we gamers and game developers might fancy ourselves as aloof and rational beings, rejecting the theology of the masses, the truth is of course that we are just as prone to deification as anyone else. We have out inanimate deities with ever changing personnel like Nintendo and Sony, and we have our individuals who have become Gods. Will Wright is a figure of awe to many people, for example. Will Wright is a God. (There's a quote you won't get from me very often)

Gods are upheld by faith more than anything else. A company which has lost the faith of its consumers goes bankrupt either sharply or in slow decline. A musician whose albums turn to drek finds himself outcast from the body politic. When the Greeks ceased to be a major force in the Mediterranean, their Gods were adapted by the Romans and died after a fashion, eventually supplanted entirely by Christ.

So for gaming, the question that has to be asked is whether the existing Gods are really all that relevant, or whether many or all of them are living in yesteryear? I suspect that the answers to these questions are both "Only in so far as industry journalists keep them alive".

The Meeja
And this is where things get really interesting.

Every God needs its priests. The Mystery Cult needed its cultists to propagate the myths, just as the Catholic Church has a huge hard-on for evangelists and missionaries going to spread The Word. Like it or not, many of the games industry's publications both on the web and in print serve to carry The Word. They are the ones that bring the knowledge of the deity to us and, since all writers create false narratives no matter how hard they may try to be factual, this means that it is writers who craft the myth. All writers are essentially priests or magicians. They bring the Word or they create the Word.

So surely the question for the industry's writers is whether the Word that they bring is actually the truth, or whether they are propagating the myths long past their sell by date. While it is nice to remember the days of yore and the achievements of old, it does seem that a lot of the Gods of gaming are cooling their heels these past five years. Who really spearheaded the great games of the last few years. Are they Gods? If so, why are we not reading about them all the time instead of the usual suspects?

Who among the independent circuit is coming forward with the startling or the truly innovative, and why are we not reading about them all the time instead of yet another FPS engine refinement from Carmack or yet another negative rant about the industry from Spector? What does continued faith in the old Gods get us?

It seems to me that the answer is "Not Much" and industry journalists are being far too complacent. In Hollywood they have an expression that "you're only as good as your last picture" but in games we hold on to the old pantheon even when it seems clear that they've gone off the boil. A lack of attention for the new generation results in starvation among them, because the industry money follows the hype more than the hype following the money. Publishers will only invest in someone already familiar or someone "hot".

The New Gods are out there folks. Do you really want to write another quirky unfunny article about how Miyamoto got the ideas for Zelda from playing in caves as a child, or do you think that maybe there are new stories to tell? I know it's difficult and I know that the inanimate forces who hold onto the purse-strings are both pushing out their old God brands and less than keen for new faces to appear, but really. Is that any excuse?

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