2016-06-30
In the upcoming film "Bruce Almighty," Jim Carrey plays Bruce Nolan, a whiny, self-pitying television reporter who, after a particularly dreadful day, vents his frustrations against God. In response, God appears-in a form suspiciously resembling Morgan Freeman-and gives Bruce divine power. If Bruce thinks he can do a better job micromanaging the universe, God says, go ahead and try.

Oh, for such an opportunity. The problem is, exercising omnipotence--like acting, ice curling or painting like Jackson Pollock--turns out to be much harder than it looks. You can find this out for yourself, thanks to a whole genre of video games that gives you a chance to play god. Appropriately nicknamed "god games," they are among the best-selling entertainment software on the market.

There are many different takes on the concept, all of the god games allow the player to act as Head Honcho of some village, city or world. In "Civilization: Call to Power" from Activision, players methodically guide a society from a budding Romanesque regional power to a futuristic, globe-dominating hyperpower, far beyond the wildest dreams of Pentagon denizens Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, complete with undersea cities and an asteroid-mining industry.

Among the most popular god games is the SimCity series. The most recent incarnation, SimCity 4, which came out in January, is like other SimCity games, as it allows you to create your very own metropolis from the ground up. SimCity 4 begins on Day Three of Creation, more or less: you're presented with a generic chunk of geography--just undeveloped real estate and water--that you can modify with gently rolling hills or mountains to rival the soaring Olympus Mons on Mars. Alternately, you can sprinkle the sea with islands by sinking portions of land and letting the sea rush in. Having created the basic terrain, it's time to add forests populated with animals, ranging from basic farmyard fauna to those more suited to an African game reserve.

From there, the nature of your divinity changes, shifting from Brahma the Creator, say, to Vishnu the preserver of cosmic balance. As the übermayor of your cityverse, you're responsible for everything from zoning to tax rates. Every decision has widespread implications, causing your city to morph in a different way. Adding schools brings families flocking to your neighborhoods. But fail to add appropriate sanitary services or police and fire protection, and your blocks of tidy single-family homes turn into burnt-out, crime-infested slums. Spend too much on basic services, and your budget (and poll numbers) will implode. It's a juggling act to keep your city in balance and thriving.

Good thing you can switch god modes to become Shiva the Destroyer and unleash some cathartic ultraviolence on your SimCity. Scorch your neighborhoods with a fireball or blow them to bits with a tornado. If your town has been particularly naughty-if your citizenry stubbornly refuses to use your new billion-dollar airport--unleash more devastating punishments: asteroid strike, volcano, or giant space robot. Compared to this, Sodom and Gommorah got off easy with fire and brimstone. And as a last resort, you can level the whole deal and start all over, retaining not so much as a Noah.

SimCity 4 is a wonderfully addictive time-waster to be sure, but its notion of the godhead makes for a rather remote experience. You're stuck with a god's-eye-view of your city, on which you look down from on high. Kevin Hogan, a member of the SimCity creative team, admits the inability of players to visit their SimCities is a drawback. As he said in a recent chat, "I would love to have the ability walk down the streets of the city and have a first-person perspective on life there."

As any classics major knows, Hogan's is a common temptation among the god set. Zeus, who had quite an eye for Aegean lovelies, was always mucking around in human affairs, and he was hardly alone. God-becoming-flesh, you may recall, also becomes a theme of the Gospels. Both of these examples might serve as a warning to gamers to keep your divine origins hush-hush.

If you do want to get up close and personal with your world's inhabitants, try "Black&White" from Lionhead Studios and Electronic Arts. In "B&W," players assume the role of local deity of a pre-industrial civilization. It's literally a hands-on game--your godly presence is graphically represented by a hand, which you use to manipulate objects in your virtual village and perform miracles for your virtual villagers. Unlike SimCity, you may descend to eye-level, mix with your people and become a part of their daily lives. If they pray for more children, you can produce a heavenly ordained hookup simply by picking up a male villager and placing him next to a female villager.

Answering individual prayers, of course, can be a time-consuming way to create new believers. You can inspire awe more quickly by flinging a few of your people into the sea, or dropping massive boulders on their log houses. In this way, "B&W" neatly echoes the sort of ethical choices that occur in our non-gaming life: Do we get ahead by playing fair or playing rough and stepping on a few toes along the way?

If a player chooses the Dark Path, the B&W gamemakers try to assuage any guilt. The charm about being a god is that "no one sits in judgement of you," the B&W manual assures. "You can do whatever you like. When you enter the world, the ideas of good and evil have not formed ... It doesn't matter if you play evil or play good as long as you play well." If a player chooses to toss a few boulders into a village to get its attention rather than provide rainfall for its crops, so be it.

The utilitarian efficiency of this moral system may be repugnant to some. But the implication--that a Creator provides the universal standard by which some things are called "good" and others "evil" could have come right of out of a C.S. Lewis lecture at Cambridge. It also opens the possibility of creating a a New Morality of a player's own devise.

Interestingly, and despite what the manual says, players aren't really starting with a moral blank slate. The game, in fact, does judge their actions by real world moral standards - and with vivid results. If you act dastardly - pillaging and plundering and so forth - your god hand will become red and gnarled, while your village will suffer endless night.

In addition, expedient moral choices made early in the game may come back to haunt you. One of your first tasks as god is to decide whether to help a group of singing sailors build a ship by bringing them some lumber--or put a stop to their annoying sea chanties by smashing the lot of them. Your choice. But, it turns out, those horrible harmonizers prove to be critical allies later in the game. Even gods, to borrow the words of Sheryl Crow, are subject to "huge karmic retribution."

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of "Black & White" is the personal creature (a tiger, ape or cow) you train to take care of your village while you're away on other godly business. Treat your creature well, and he will help your villagers. Treat it cruelly and he will help himself to your villagers when he gets hungry. At times, the creature seems to act on his own. "B&W" creator Peter Molyneux tells of a creature who, when losing a rock throwing contest, snuck a heated rock into his opponent's rock pile.

It's such moments of creativity that show the real potential brilliance of god games--and provide an important lesson for aspiring divinities: Playing Virtual God gets really fun only when the inhabitants of your universe stop being merely pre-programmed robots who are following simple rules to become spontaneous and creative free-agents, more like us.

As technology guru Kevin Kelly writes in his 1994 book, "Out of Control": "To be a god, at least to be a creative one, one must relinquish control and embrace uncertainty. Absolute control is absolutely boring." Given the quite non-boring history of mankind, it seems God is the Supreme Programmer.

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