The gaming world recently welcomed the latest instalment of the God of War franchise with Ascension on Playstation 3, which functions as a prequel to the popular game series.
The franchise has received criticism on a number of fronts. Apart from critiques of its repetitive gameplay and gratuitous violence, the game has also been slammed for the seeming one-dimensionality of the protagonist, Kratos. Such criticisms say that Kratos is portrayed simultaneously as an angry god with a complex and tragic human past, with the complexity of that past only stoking nothing more than Kratos’ anger, which he takes out on a whole pantheon of gods, titans and their minions. Both of these elements are hinted at in Ascension’s
Yet, it is this very concentration on Kratos’ rage that is acting as the drawcard of players the world over. One reason is indicated in a telling comment by a player on a webforum, who stated quite matter-of-factly that Kratos’ meting out of his rage on the gods acts as an affirmation of human dignity over and against the gods. Playing the game, therefore, becomes not only the player’s participation in Kratos’ rage. In participating in Kratos’ practical demonstration that man is not made in the god’s image, the player is also analogically affirming his or her own dignity as a human being.
This comment is telling, for it is symptomatic of a diagnosis of civic bodies in modernity, made by Michel Foucault in his essays on “governmentality”, or the techniques of rendering a populace governable by the sovereign. As the civic bodies mature, Foucault suggests, governmental functions can actually seep out of their institutional centres and into the fibres of society via a series of very small, almost unnoticeable micropolitical acts on the individual’s body. Far from weakening the power of the administrative centre, this democratisation of governmental functions actually serves to strengthen it, since such a process of consolidation is coupled with a peddling of the illusion of individual self-determination, freedom and dignity.
The God of War series can be said to play into this foucauldian process of governmentality because one function of statecraft that has become distributed amongst the populace is, as the sociologist Max Weber once wrote, the state’s former monopoly on the unleashing of violence. One may object that a distinction may be drawn from the virtual nature of the violence of Kratos and the real embodied violence of statecraft. This distinction, however, becomes blurred in postmodernity because, as Gilles Deleuze suggested to his readers, what underpins both real and virtual forms of violence is desire, more specifically the desire for justice or revenge, which expresses itself in a vengeful or righteous anger. In other words, the God of War series plays into systems of governmentality because Kratos is the avatar through which the desires that in turn underpin governmental functions are channeled, harnessed and mapped out onto the individual. In foucauldian terms, the game platform is the micropolitical counter over which state control of rage is passed from the institution to the individual.
While many might be quick to use this post to affirm suspicions of the ill-effects of videogames on impressionable minds, it is important to note also that gaming is only one symptom of a much larger governmental problem, that affects every sphere of human action and every person within those spheres, including those who might view themselves as too mature be subject to manipulation by institutional forces. The politician, administrator, shopper, office worker, parent, teacher and student are all similarly subject to the democratisation of government functions in their embodied lives, which will encompass the desire for revenge. And as the functions of governance finds more and more outlets within the social sphere, so too does rage snake around that same sphere, multiplying the sites by which it can unleash itself and solidifying its hold in every nuance of sociopolitical life.
The good news for the Christian is that there exists a channel to break the seeming stranglehold of the economy of rage. The gate that leads to this channel is none other than the crucified Christ, the second person of the One that says in response to His creations desire for revenge, however righetous it may be, “vengeance is Mine, I will repay” (Deut 32:35; Rom 12:19). Indeed, it is significant that the release of God of War Ascension
roughly coincides with the final stages of Lent, which lead to the commemoration of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
As Daniel M. Bell puts it in his Liberation Theology After the End of History, the crucified Christ interrupts the economy of rage at two levels. At a visceral level, Christ becomes the recipient of not both the desire for revenge, in terms of the unjust rage of the world as well as the righteous anger of God. Christ takes both onto His person and bears its consequences by being executed and sacrificed on the Cross. At the same time, in remaining on that Cross, Christ breaks the circuit of vengeance by refusing to take vengeance Himself.
But the most significant answer to Good Friday’s refusal to avenge is the empty tomb of Easter. Easter is a reminder that, as awful as the refusal to avenge and the refusal to end suffering might appear, its effects are not to have the last say. Christ does not just break the foucauldian economy of rage but transforms it from within. To paraphrase St. John Chrysostom’s Easter Homily
, Christ destroyed rage when he endured it, and “destroyed hell when He descended into it”.