QuakeCon 2012 is coming up in just a few days. It's a huge LAN party, featuring well-known speakers and panelists, and sprawling over Dallas. The roster of games, of course, features Quake tournaments but other games make a showing as well. This year, the online battle arena game Smite is one of a handful of competitive titles slated to be playable.
Rajan Zed, of the Universal Society of Hinduism, has put out a statement asking the organisers of QuakeCon to consider withdrawing Smite from the competition line-up. The statement asserts, in part:
Reimagining Hindu scriptures and deities for commercial or other agenda was not OK as it hurt the devotees. Controlling and manipulating goddess Kali and other Hindu deities with a joystick/ button/keyboard/mouse was denigration. Goddess Kali and other Hindu deities were meant to be worshipped in temples and home shrines and not meant to be reduced to just a "character" in a video game to be used in combat in the virtual battleground.
This isn't the first time Zed and the Universal Society of Hinduism have expressed dismay over the way Hindu deities, particularly the goddess Kali, are portrayed in Smite. A handful of other religious leaders have backed Zed's statements, and there are essays out there explaining how the use of existing deities in Smite is an uncomfortable kind of cultural appropriation.
Hi-Rez Studios have no plans to remove Hindu deities from the game. They have also explained in the past why they deliberately avoided featuring any figures from the Abrahamic faiths (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam). The reasoning? "The key Abrahamic figures — Adam, Noah, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, are not that interesting in character design or gameplay."
One might argue that the ability to part the Red Sea is, in fact, the sort of thing that would make interesting gameplay. One might further do the maths and realise that while there are approximately three million practicing Hindus in the United States, there are something on the order of 200 million Christians — it's an audience segment most developers will want to avoid making angry.
QuakeCon may not be the biggest convention in gaming, but it's far from tiny. Past years have seen over 8500 attendees show up for the free weekend, competing for prizes as high as $US16,000. This year's con starts on Thursday, August 2. Id and Bethesda are both sponsors of the event, as is Hi-Rez, the studio behind Smite and Tribes: Ascend (also playable at the con). Major hardware companies, including Intel, also sponsor the event.
The Universal Society of Hinduism, meanwhile, appears to be sadly non-universal. While the goals of the organisation are laudable, their website appears to be mostly under construction and has not been updated in some time. However, Zed and the Society are not alone in their criticism.
The Hindu American Foundation has also been in discussion with Hi-Rez Studios about the inclusion and portrayal of Kali and other Hindu figures. Kotaku asked the Foundation for comment. Sheetal Shah, speaking on behalf of the Foundation, indicated that they have played the beta test of the game, and continue to "strongly oppose" the way Smite features Hindu figures. "Hinduism is the only living and active tradition" of the five featured in the game, Shah added, and, "testing the game did not change our position that the Hindi deities should be removed."
However, Shah confirmed, Hi-Rez is working with the HAF to ensure that the information about Hinduism as spread by Smite is, at least, accurate:
In particular, we felt Kali's imagery, victory dance, and death scene were disrespectful. Despite our request, Hi-Rez choose to keep them in. But we do credit Todd's [Harris, COO of Hi-Rez] genuine effort to work with us and to incorporate our suggestions to ensure the representation of the three deities (and Bakasura) are accurate. We also provided a number of online Hinduism resources that Hi-Rez has agreed to post on their user forum to help disseminate accurate information about Hinduism. As per my last conversation with Todd, I believe Kali's current victory and death scenes will be altered to be more respectful of a Goddess that is worshiped by millions of Hindus.
In summary, we are still distressed that the Hindu deities are included - while noting, that no deities of any other major faith are included - but we do acknowledge that Hi-Rez has actively worked with us to disseminate accurate information on Hinduism.
Shah also indicated that the Hindu American Foundation plans to issue a press release detailing the organization's position on Smite later this week.
Previous criticisms of Smite have in the past kicked up mild controversies over the concept of free expression in gaming. While Hi-Rez is of course free to make any game they wish, and to encourage as many players as possible to make purchases (the base game is free-to-play), it is worth taking the time to look at the way that mainstream American culture treats unfamiliar faiths. Ancient Greek, Roman, and Norse pantheons have become playgrounds for storytellers, in large part because there are no second-century pagan Romans around to lodge strong objections. But as Zed and Shah both point out, there are roughly a billion practicing Hindus in the world today. Surely it is worth Hi-Rez's time at least to hear them out.
But meanwhile, QuakeCon starts Thursday, and Smite, in its current form, will almost certainly still be on deck for participants to play during the festivities.