The Joy of Playing God
When I am asked by someone who doesn't play video games what the appeal is, I can list answers at the drop of a hat, but one of my favourite responses to this question is "Have you ever wanted to play God? Well in video games, you can!" The role of an all powerful, all seeing, supernatural entity would surely entice even the most staunch anti gamer into throwing in the towel and joining in on the fun, playing God just has a certain appeal, and everyone knows that deities get all the girls.
Playing 'God' can come in many different forms, but the most satisfying is in the simulation and strategy genres. This vestige of might isn't just limited to games where you are implicitly a God, oh no. Sure, you are a God in Lionhead's 'Black and White' series and a God like entity in 'From Dust', but even playing something like Tropico, Sim City or Age of Empires still bestows upon the player some equivalent of Godly ability.
In the Black and White series, you were literally a God. One that could choose to be wrathful or forgiving, punishing of merciful. These powers were implied in a literal sense as well, your cursor was a giant hand with which you could pick up and toss villagers over nearby mountains, or throw rocks at their homes. In 'From Dust' you are given the power to control matter itself, gathering and dispensing water and land with your powers. These games and others like them show you the literal powers and feeling of being a God, how much more powerful could you get?
Then there are the simulation games; Sim City, Tropico, the Anno series to name a few. Here, being a deity is a slightly different matter, you are less a literal God and more an ever present force, guiding the inhabitants of your world with an unseen hand. In Sim City you act as an eternal Mayor type figure, who can also terraform the earth and summon tornadoes and earthquakes, as well as demolish entire city blocks. There is an acute thrill to be had; destroying a city you have toiled to build from the ground up. Whether it is directly quantified, the moral moments of godhood, in whatever form, are still present.
I suppose you may not think of yourself in a God like role when playing an RTS, but all the signs are there. Your civilization or nation is loyal to the absolute; you direct building placement, troop recruitment and the economy. You can even kill off your own units, even if there is no need to. In Black and White 2 there are bonuses to killing your villagers, but in an RTS it is an action which will hamper you. Despite this I still occasionally flex my God like muscles, the delete key is quite tempting to use on your own units for some reason. Maybe I just like to remind them who their boss is, other times I just like to kill off the eleventh unit just to make a perfect ten, but that's probably just me.
And so we come back to an earlier point, destroying that which you build up. It is oddly satisfying to say the least, maybe that is because God games, and other such titles, are the only ones in which you are given such flexibility. After all, a God surely should not be constrained. This makes a nice change to your standard shooter, where in 2011 deviating from the path is practically a sin to developers. I can't even kill my allies anymore; such fun was had running over the marines in the original Halo for PC.
So I have come to a theory, when you play shooters, action games or RPGs, you are bombarded with characters, events and unseen forces and compelled to carry out their bidding. Even if you think collecting fifty warthog legs for some farmer is a silly idea, you'll do it anyway in an RPG. Even if you think being ordered into an obvious trap is a bad idea in a shooter, you'll do it anyway. With this in mind it's no wonder then, when the roles are reversed and the player is given the power, they are the first to take vengeance on their own. All throughout your gaming life you take orders, follow those instructions and proceed down that corridor, but in God games, you have no one there to tell you what to do. There is a rage inside which needs letting out, God games provide that avenue.
That's just a theory anyway, God games often have no end. In Sim City you could spend hours building the perfect metropolis, your happiness rates could be soaring and your treasury filled to bursting point, but to what end? This is where the destruction comes in. Plonking a volcano down in the middle of your city is an end, unlike playing forever with a full treasury and happy citizens. The player is the one who has to provide the narration, not the cut scenes of other genres. There is a certain degree of imagination required here, why let the perfect city thrive when you could wipe it all out with menacing glee. Either that or us gamers are sadistic bastards.