Strange things happen at the periphery of religious and secular culture, and most of them can be found in Christian bookstores.
As a kid, I spent hours rifling through spiritually-tinged CDs while my parents browsed devotionals, but it was probably not as much time as they would have liked. Despite going to church every weekend and tumbling through years of Christian education, I eventually learned the horrible truth: most religious content aimed at moody preteens exists just as a godly distraction from mainstream culture. The shock of learning P.O.D. is Papa Roach for the preacher’s son was so great I eventually abandoned my faith and the church. I now pay my rent by swearing online.
It’s been years since I last stepped into a Christian bookstore, but one box on those shelves still haunts me. Catechumen was a first-person-shooter set in ancient Rome, which tasked players with charging through the eponymous catacombs in an attempt to defeat Satan himself. I’d had enough sleepovers with non-religious mates to pick Catechumen as Quake rip-off, and I was thrown by the paradox of repackaging an openly violent game model as a chaste and holy adventure. Health packs were replaced with pages from scripture. Enemies were vanquished by converting them to Christianity. The box art also looked like ass.
I wouldn’t blame you for asking what the fuck this has to do with SimCity, the game which revolutionised the entire industry when it was released almost exactly 30 years ago. Here’s the answer: Catechumen was a spiritual game which tried tricking players into feeling worldly, but SimCity was the first secular game to actually make me feel like God.
The conditions for victory in SimCity, which debuted in February 1989, were always ill-defined. Players were charged with creating a latticework of infrastructure and filling it with the raw material needed to kickstart a city – nothing more, nothing less. All you had to do was plan. As long as you could keep your metropolis humming along, the game was in play, and gamers became benevolent caretakers of distant subjects to reach that level of stasis. It was difficult not to feel like an omnipotent creator from that top-down view as you fostered civilisation as you saw fit.
SimCity 2000, released in 1993, improved on the formula. I suppose my parents decided SimCity 2000 was free of the prohibiting factors which kept me from playing Mortal Kombat or the original Grand Theft Auto, so I spent an inordinate amount of time plotting cities on the family PC. Entire days were spent responding to city advisors, who would urge more infrastructure spending or the construction of a new marina. It was not hard to see those requests as prayers, and my reactions as the response of a caring deity. The effect was heightened by the other-worldly soundtrack of plaintive MIDI wails, a mix of placeless jazz designed to make players feel like they’re simply operating on a different plane to those below.
But SimCity creator Will Wright must have known something about us that we may have been too afraid to admit: players come for the omnipotence, but might stay for the chance to tear it all down.
My favourite Biblical tale, and one I carry with me despite my resolute ungodliness, is the story of Jonah. Many people are familiar with the first half. Jonah, tasked with preaching God’s word to the wicked people of Nineveh, instead ditched his assignment and set sail for Tarshish. God responded with a storm which only subsided when Jonah’s shipmates chucked him overboard. The bloke was swallowed by a huge fish, spent three days twiddling his thumbs and asking for God’s forgiveness inside the beast’s guts, and was eventually puked on the beach. Gasping but thankful for a second chance, Jonah popped along to Nineveh and got the job done.
That’s cool, but to me, this is the key point: Jonah was pissed the Ninevites changed their ways, and he was furious God chose to spare the city from His divine destruction. The bloke thought he had at least earned the right to watch God wipe Nineveh from the face of the Earth as payback for his fishy side-quest., and he camped out on a mountain above Nineveh to argue with God about His mercy. Here’s how Jonah chapter 4 plays out in the New International Version:
But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. 3 Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
4 But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
Up there on the hill, God gave a very angsty Jonah the shade from a nice little plant. Old mate felt pretty comfortable up there, waiting for God to change his mind about sparing Nineveh, until God killed the plant as quickly as it had grown.
8 When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”
9 But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”
“It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”
That’s when God laid the smackdown. He told Jonah he was being a little bitch for mourning the plant’s death while braying for the blood of 120,000 people below.
SimCity gives players the capability to obliterate their creations. There are numerous ways to do so, and all of them are suitably Old Testament: floods, fires, earthquakes, and even meteor strikes are all fair game. It’s fun to do so, sure, but each apocalypse comes with some small sense of guilt. SimCity 2000 also added an endgame scenario: given enough technological progress in your city, residents can launch into space in ‘exodus’ event. Putting aside the clear reference to the second book of the Bible, the event feels literally rapturous.
Even though players are above the fray, the onus is always on them to protect their underlings and to ensure their livelihoods – no matter how singularly insignificant they may seem. That’s why playing SimCity sometimes felt like a miniature exercise in divinity. At the very least, that mainstream gaming title felt more religious than listening to Boom on repeat.