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 V.17 No.50 | December 11 - 17, 2008 

Pop Culture

Be a God

Local board game invokes the sacred to be profaned

An army of Buddhas, part of the Playing Gods Limited Edition, waits to be sent off to gamers across the country. The figurines are made in Albuquerque at Firewheel Casting.
Courtesey of Ben Radford
An army of Buddhas, part of the Playing Gods Limited Edition, waits to be sent off to gamers across the country. The figurines are made in Albuquerque at Firewheel Casting.

There could be hate mail. There could be death threats.

Ben Radford knew that going in. What else could he expect after joshing the world's most popular religions?

Radford's board game Playing Gods, released this month, asks players to use icons representing major religions to gain followers at all costs. Deities usually depicted in a peaceful, respectful manner are warlike figurines wearing artillery belts or firing automatic weapons. Only a couple weeks after its release, and the Alibi received a letter decrying an ad for the game that pictures a big-bellied Buddha dressed as Santa gleefully firing a machine gun.

And the controversy's just warming up for Radford, a Corrales-dweller, Alibi columnist and managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine. The game's been featured in USA Today, on the Playboy blog and in Harper's Magazine.

The concept solidified for Radford as religion-based violence took center stage during the last decade. Many of the most large-scale conflicts in the world today are rooted in religion, Radford says. "Not all of it, certainly, but a lot of it has basis in different people believing they're God's chosen people." He feels disgust, he says, when considering all of the people who die as a result of these rigid beliefs. So he opted for satire as a way to say, "Hold on, here. Why do you care that someone else doesn't believe what you believe?"

It's not an unthought-of concept: What if all of humanity's gods were real and battling one another for followers? Radford says he has read the Bible, the Koran and the Torah. As a youngster, he fed an active gaming and fantasy life with Dungeons & Dragons. Though Radford also offers his degree in psychology and interest in history as credentials, a religious studies professor in the USA Today story about Playing Gods says the game has no basis in historical reality. Instead, says Professor Carl Raschke, the game appeals to hip atheists, people who hate religion.

Your landslide buries a shantytown; survivors thank you for saving them. Gain one sect.

A card in Playing Gods

But the focus of Playing Gods is not only satirizing religion; the game also spoofs the most vehement followers. As an example, Radford points to one card that instructs, "Your landslide buries a shantytown; survivors thank you for saving them. Gain one sect."

The game comes with "conversion" and "wrath" cards dictating play, and none of them are aimed at a specific religion. Cards that deal with distinct religions are part of an optional expansion pack. "I wanted to design the game so it has as much or as little religion as the player would want," says Radford, who identifies his own beliefs as agnostic.

Figurines include (in violent stances) Moses, Kali, Jesus, Buddha and a vaguely Muslim character that Radford is quick to point out is neither Allah nor Muhammad, as images of either are often prohibited in Islam. "People have gotten threats, and there have been riots over depictions of Muslim figures," Radford says. Still, it wouldn't have been fair to leave out Islam altogether, given that it's one of the major religions of the world. Playing Gods, he says, is an "equal-opportunity offender."

The game offers a blank deity piece players can put a sticker on. Among the available stickers: Oprah, Zeus, The Almighty Dollar, Tom Cruise (Scientology) or Technology. The sticker options extend the game's ability to make fun of anything encased in dogma. The game is playable, Radford says, using household items—a G.I. Joe action figure, a cat toy, a can of beer.

Development of the game was quite an ordeal, and it's been gestating for a couple of years. Evenings were spent in local restaurants eating sandwiches and test-playing the game with friends and family and taking notes. The real trick was to make a game complex enough that gamers would enjoy it, but that didn't require a phone book-sized instruction manual. Radford himself loses most rounds, he says. He self-released 5,000 copies of the game under a company he formed called Balls Out Entertainment.

The target audience is comprised of people who want something edgier in their entertainment, he says. "I grew up with Pac-Man. Now people are playing Grand Theft Auto IV. As the culture's tastes develop, people start expecting different things."

Radford says devout Christians have approached him with favorable reviews of Playing Gods. "It's not anti-religion," he insists. "It's anti-zealots, anti-people who kill for their beliefs." He's a little worried about unfavorable reactions but says he hopes people who would be offended by it would realize threats just prove his point. "I mean, come on, if your faith is so fragile that some criticism or some satire is going to harm it, then you've got bigger problems than my board game."

 
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