Kali Defanged

Hello! After an unreasonably long hiatus, the Tree is once again a going concern. Henceforth, I can promise you a new and improved blog with twice the bloggage and quadruple the snark.

Today, I’d like to talk about Smite, a game by Hi-Rez Studios in which players control deities from various pantheons and use them to beat each other up.  There’s a lot to talk about. For one thing, the flippant response from the game’s developers when their depiction of Hindu gods drew ire. For another, whether the world needs another lanepusher (I will not repeat the ludicrous manufactured acronym which everyone seems to have adopted for these games), whether it’s any good, and whether it poses a competitive threat to the likes of LOL and DOTA (if you don’t understand, you don’t need to).

For what it’s worth: on the first issue, I’m in no position to judge whether the inevitable appropriation and denaturing of all religious images, past, present and future, by the relentless churn of capitalism is especially bad when it involves a living religion; I suggest you ask some Hindus. As someone at the Border House has noted, however, religion per se isn’t the only consideration. On the second issue: no, yes, and no, because DOTA/LOL are about the personal pursuit of machine-like perfection, a kind of internalised version of Weber’s ‘instrumental rationality’, which makes the chaotic ‘fog of war’ that comes with Smite‘s more restricted camera view anathema to the obsessives who form DOTA‘s hard core. I chalk Smite‘s relative lack of trolls up to the same cause. Which is another way of saying: the game is actually fun, and more open to tactical innovation than it’s competitors.

I’m not here to talk about fun, though: I’m here to castigate people. So. Let’s look at some scantily clad goddesses. Here are a couple of random statues of Aphrodite via Wikipedia:

275px-NAMA_262_Aphrodite_Epidaure_5 300px-Leaning_Aphrodite_MAN_Napoli_Inv6396

Here’s how she appears in Smite:


You’ll notice that there are some minor differences. For one thing, the bottom image has the face of a child, the cleavage of a stripper, and a rake-thin body; while the top images are rather more generously proportioned in every area but the eyes and two other assets. Now, it’s important to note when talking about Greek art from the Classical period that it was already a little stylised, an ideal rather than a naturalistic depiction. Aphrodite was also the literal embodiment of beauty. In other words: the top images represent an unrealistic ideal of feminine beauty which looks normal by comparison with Hi-Rez’s grotesque invention.

It’s not just Aphrodite: Hi-Rez have created an entire pantheon from contorted idols of fanservice, while the male characters show much more variation and are typically not defined by their sex. In this, Smite is really no worse than its competitors, though the introduction of jiggle physics can be regarded as a competitive innovation in the pneumatic arms race.

OK, so a videogame is sexist. I can hear a collective gasp from both my readers. Let’s take a look at Kali, though.


V0045118 Kali trampling Shiva. Chromolithograph by R. Varma. Yuga_Purusha_Kali



Note that the above image is the reworked one created after the initial ruckus over Kali’s appearance. The original looked like this:


The same issues occur here as with Aphrodite. The Border House piece I linked before covers these in detail.

There are some things worth noting about these images, though. Firstly, the top two Kalis have dark skin. Kali’s name is literally ‘dark one’, and, while she is variously represented as white, black and various shades of blue, her proper colour is black. In Smite, a game in which every other goddess has white skin — except Bastet the cat goddess, who is also blue — Kali has been given an especially pale tone of blue.

Quibbling about the skin tone of a blue deity might seem a bit petty, but it is indicative of a larger problem. Consider again the two top images of Kali. Not only is she larger than in the pictures from Smite, she is larger than the male figure on top of whom she stands. Kali is an imposing, destructive entity. Her red tongue sticks out; she is wreathed in skulls. In some depictions, she actually has monstrous fangs which curve out from the sides of her mouth.

While Kali’s current portrait in Smite is an improvement over the old one, issues remain. In the game, Kali is dwarfed by most other deities. In fact, she is petite. From a distance, in the heat of battle, she is a sort of indistinct stick-figure. The blue of her skin is not quite dark enough to contrast with the gold of her jewelery.

Like Aphrodite’s curves, Kali’s dark skin and fearsome aspect have been erased in favour of a pale, shrinking surrender. This is not just a missed opportunity. The need to present Kali in a way that is not threatening to the prejudices of the game’s creators and perceived audience is actually interfering with the game. Ideology trumps design.