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Online Games and the Contemporary Religious Landscape

Network for New Media, Religion and Digital Culture Studies

Virtually Sacred by Robert Geraci

In Virtually Sacred (2014), religious studies scholar Robert M. Geraci tackles the topic of religion in online games. While his approach and conclusions raise some questions, there is no question this book is long overdue.

Even though electronic games have been around for decades (the first truly commercially successful game was the coin-op version of Pong released in 1971), they tend to be a cultural blindspot for many – especially in the intelligentsia. But even if you don’t know the difference between Grand Theft Auto and Halo, you would really have to have your head under a rock to completely miss the significance of this form of digital entertainment. Overall revenues of the games industry rival Hollywood, public events like the League of Legends world championship draw tens of millions of fans worldwide, and (of course!) public controversies dog the makers of the especially violent bestsellers.

The overall impact of video and online games, however, is far more pervasive than the high profile stories would lead us to believe. It is no exaggeration to say that many people live much of their lives in games. If we want to deal with this reasonably as a culture, we need to look carefully at what is happening in our virtual worlds. A growing body of scholarship is doing just that, but for whatever reason, religion in games has not received the attention it deserves – until recently. This is now changing, with Rachel Wagner’s Godwired: Religion, Ritual, and Virtual Reality, the edited collection Playing With Religion in Digital Games, and now Geraci’s book.

Given the centrality of religion to practically every culture, it is not surprising that religion has found its way into the technological heartland. Virtually Sacred takes the reader on a tour of two very different kinds of online games: the five-hundred-pound gorilla of massively multiplayer online games, “World of Warcraft” (commonly known as WoW), and the former media darling “Second Life.”

Both are similar in that they are persistent online worlds; along with thousands of others, players log in and out to control their digital avatars’ travels through digital places that remain in “existence” whether anyone is present or not. Aside from this, however, they are quite different: WoW is a classic role-playing game, with built-in factions and conflicts and quests, and characters that level up with experience; Second Life is a virtual world that is open-ended, allowing residents to do whatever they want, from crafting clothes and buildings and even avatar bodies, to setting up clubs, to running shops, to creating interactive stories.

Geraci spends the first half of the book in WoW, where he finds religion present, but in a muted sort of way. He relies on David Chidester’s notion of “authentic fakes,” which is that as traditional religion has declined, non-religious ideas, communities, and artifacts have taken on the roles previously filled by established faiths. For example, he notes that the powerful social groupings of players in the game can create the kind of community that is missing in our secularized society. Player guilds are powerful social groups; these groups of players often form strong friendships and even exercise sports team or church-like discipline.

When combined with the opportunities in the game for ethical thinking and choice-making, such as the ability to complete heroic quests against the forces of evil, Geraci argues that the game can fulfill some of the functions of a traditional religion. He also notes that the elaborate narratives of WoW, along with the opportunity to play characters in these fantasy epics, can produce moments of transcendence for some. Many of the characters in the imaginary world of Azeroth are patterned after real-world mythologies: there are elves and orcs and demons. None of these things are formally religious, but they qualify, Geraci argues, as authentic fakes.

The second half of the book looks at the much more convincing manifestations of religion in Second Life. Because this world isn’t constrained by pre-established characters and stories, it is possible for religious groups to establish explicitly identified religious communities and spaces. Geraci’s surveys find that many Second Life residents have clear religious affiliations, and he reviews a number of Christian and Muslim communities in the game. Virtually Sacred rounds things out with a look at how the world seems to embody many of quasi-religious ideas of the transhumanist movement; Second Life is already partway to realizing the dream of uploading human consciousness into machines so as to become immortal.

There is much that is admirable about this book.

For one thing, Geraci draws on a wide variety of methods to make his point: surveys, interviews, and extensive participant observation as a player. I could wish for a more nuanced use of his surveys, but in general, it is clear that he really knows the virtual worlds he studies. The writing is lucid and generally clear, and alternates effectively between theoretical reflections and concrete, comprehensible examples. Far more significantly, the very act of identifying the importance of religion in game culture is an important thing. Many video game academics are apparently uninterested in religion, and many leaders of traditional religions are either ignorant or suspicious of games. Yet religious work and practice and shaping happens in game culture. Pretending it doesn’t is pointless.

I even agree with the main contention of the book, which is that because our artifacts and contexts shape our religion, the character of virtual worlds will shape the religions that the games mediate. It is not radical to point out that many of the thoughts, beliefs, and actions of an illiterate peasant Christian facing the axe of the pagan Norseman in the 800s would be substantially different from those of a middle-class evangelical of the early twenty-first century. Both would profess to follow the same religion, but their setting, their rituals, and the material they use to practice their faith would alter the way they think about God and humanity. Thus, it is in our best interest to examine how virtual worlds might alter the way we understand religion.

Geraci claims in the conclusion that this is all he has attempted to do. But of course, it is impossible for any of us to shed our biases, and the story he tells of WoW and Second Life have a kind of moral progression to them. The analysis of Virtually Sacred is full of careful scholarly caveats, but it is clear enough that the best religions are those that aspire to the postmodern democratic consumerist ideals: the search for religious meaning is deeply personal and individual, apparent conflicts between belief systems are not necessarily signs of incompatibility, and thus dispute is a sign of disrespect.

This is not a position that the book ever states clearly in one place, but it becomes apparent in bits and pieces. The bad guys in this story are the rude interlopers who harass open religious communities, or the rigid ministry of Lifechurch.tv, which rather insensitively tries to simply replicate its physical churches and ministries in Second Life. The good guys are religious communities that accept members of all creeds, and the Christian who builds a virtual mosque for her Muslim friend.

While I laud the goal of interfaith peace, I do question the realism of such a trajectory. Geraci regularly notes that plenty of virtual world inhabitants ignore the opportunities games provide for religious transcendence and harmony, but then he moves on to enlightened souls that do take advantage of progress. The supposedly unenlightened, however, do not disappear simply because they don’t fit the narrative. If we are talking about how virtual worlds impact religion, it might be worth considering the features of these less convenient religious perspectives.

Might there be room to talk about healthy tension in interfaith relationships, instead of a generic sameness? Can we find a cultural condition where incompatible perspectives do not have to admit the essential rightness of other perspectives in order to live together? I would agree with Geraci that lobbing verbal incendiaries at each other is not helpful, but I don’t know that that means we have to move to an “I’m okay, you’re okay” position.

A further question the book raises is probably not entirely fair, but still worth mentioning. This is an account of religious change. And given the narrative progression from vague religious functionality in WoW, to established religions moving into Second Life, to the realization of the natural affinity of Second Life to transhumanism, we might easily get the sense that all religion is always in motion, and that there is, in fact a forward progression. But what is missing from the account is stability – what is missing is living tradition.

There is no question that any given religion we can think of has changed over the millennia, and sometimes in dramatic ways. To take an easy example, Protestants think of themselves as Christians, but they no longer take the same Mass that a European Christian would have a thousand years ago. Even the Abrahamic faiths that tie themselves to a mostly unchanging scripture have very different understandings of the same writings at different points in history.

But not everything changes. There are core tenets that last throughout the ages, and it is this aspect of religion that a book like Virtually Sacred, with its understandable emphasis on new cultural conditions, will miss. In Geraci’s account, what is interesting about Islam in Second Life is how it must adapt to different settings. But it is also worth stressing what stays the same. Without living tradition, we have no continuity with the past, and without that continuity, we lose the ability to communicate and make meaning. We always live with the utterances and ideas and poisons and gifts of those who have come before us. If we wish to address religion in this new world, we should not only talk about the shifts and adaptations, but also about the continuities and the connections to the past.

As I say, though, this is probably not fair: a book cannot say all things. Virtually Sacred chooses to focus on the change. In the end, regardless of how you feel about transhumanism or the relatively open bent of the religions Geraci observes, this is a book worth reading, if for no other reason than that it introduces us to a key under-examined corner of our culture.  

This review was originally published by the Network for New Media, Religion and Digital Culture on August 22, 2014.