Making Meaning in Virtual Worlds
The University Bookman is pleased to present this interview with Robert Geraci, a professor of religious studies at Manhattan College and author of Virtually Sacred: Myth and Meaning in World of Warcraft and Second Life (Oxford University Press, 2014). The book explores the concept and development of religious meaning and sacred activity in the online world.
Very briefly, what are World of Warcraft and Second Life?
World of Warcraft and Second Life are virtual worlds: online environments where thousands of players simultaneously create “avatars” (graphically rendered bodies) and explore the landscape. WoW is a fantasy gaming environment where players join in a battle of good versus evil while following a storyline constructed by the game’s designers. Second Life is completely open and not even really a game (though there are games in it). In SL, residents explore, meet one another, shop, attend cultural events such as art shows or live music, and so on. All of these activities are, however, user-produced.
What is the thesis of the book, and how did you come to write it?
The fundamental argument is that virtual worlds are places where people create meaning—enchant the world, even—and that they have thus become important locations in the contemporary practice of religion.
I became interested in virtual worlds while writing my first book, which was initially about robotics and artificial intelligence. While researching that project, I found communities of people in SL who desired to upload their minds into cyberspace and live forever, or who thought that their online avatars were distinct people from the conventional personalities of their biological bodies. So a chapter about SL went into that first book. While I was writing, however, I also joined WoW because the eminent sociologist William Bainbridge hosted an academic conference there. Once I was in WoW, it seemed that there was probably an opportunity to explore it and try to appreciate what might be going on among players. So my early interests in SL combined with a fortuitous entry into WoW, and as I traveled both worlds I came to see how the environments could offer strongly religious or quasi-religious experiences.
You write that with these games, “[p]eople can now fulfill religious longings through gaming and virtual world residency.” What is the appeal of doing this online as opposed to in the physical world?
Well, if you’re going online, you get the convenience of going when and where you want, and that’s certainly a valuable commodity. But I think it’s much more a question of the shifting modes of being in our contemporary world. On the one hand, church decline is an absolute reality. Perhaps the trends will reverse, but for now there’s no doubt that just about every brick-and-mortar church, temple, mosque, and synagogue in the Western world is losing attendees. But that doesn’t mean that people don’t still want and need religious experiences; if they aren’t participating in a traditionally religious community, they need to find those experiences somewhere else.
Another absolute reality of our current world is the increasing role of technologically mediated communication. People are constantly online now, whether at their laptops or on their smartphones. And if they’re going to live in a digital culture, they’re going to want meaningful experiences in that digital culture. For some, this will mean importing their conventional religions into cyberspace. For others, this will mean looking for new kinds of religious practices (even if they don’t call them religious and don’t immediately recognize the religious elements of what they are doing).
You describe two different ways religious meaning interacts with these online communities: traditional religions introducing themselves into these virtual worlds and new religions coming into play. Do the gaming communities favor one type over the other?
From what I’ve seen, it is more common for new kinds of religious experiences to arise than for conventional religions to shift online. There’s no doubt that the Internet has, since its early days, been a place for religious community building; but too many online residents are disaffected from traditional religions. Most gamers aren’t interested in finding those institutional religions online. As I said earlier, however, they still need what we might call the “commodities” of religious affiliation and devotion, which include communities, a purpose in the world, and experiences of meaning and transcendence. And so they inadvertently or intentionally collaborate with the game designers (who keep getting better and recognizing that players will keep coming back in order to get these things) in making virtual worlds places that can satisfy our religious longings.
How would you describe the emerging religious worldviews in these virtual gaming communities?
It’s important to remain aware of the fact that most gamers don’t label their own participation in virtual worlds as religious. But while I don’t generally approve (in an academic sense) of assigning context to people’s thoughts and actions that they don’t themselves, it’s also important to be able to recognize the principles that connect various domains of human life. So that said, I see virtual world residents actively (perhaps innately) moving to make the world meaningful. I think the desire to enchant the world, to make life magical, is at the core of religion in general, and certainly it essential to the “virtually sacred” experience of participation in online worlds.
You write that World of Warcraft’s design “permits players to have truly powerful experiences. It is these experiences that cohere into the quasi-religious aspects of the game.” Can you give us some examples?
This happens across the domains of affiliation and devotion that I mentioned before; but as an example, consider what it feels like to struggle every single day to accomplish something. Imagine joining twenty of your closest colleagues and friends and trying to make that something work. And after two or three weeks of attempts and failure, you finally, in a moment of pure bliss, succeed. That can be the experience of players who go on difficult raids in WoW. While there are extrinsic motivations for players to keep at it (e.g. better equipment if they succeed), it is that sense of victory—especially victory with a community—that really establishes the value of the game. When you consider how often our daily activities produce real and powerful satisfaction—which is to say hardly ever—it becomes more obvious why players enjoy a place like WoW. They get to overcome immense obstacles as part of an epic journey of friendship and heroism. It’s like being Gilgamesh, only immortal.
It seems to some that such virtual experiences might lack the fullness of real-world religions. For example, there seems to be little opportunity for pure contemplation or (because you can always come back to life) meaningful notions of sacrifice. Is there a tendency for certain types of religious or other meaningful experiences to be privileged in the virtual world over others?
I think there are analogues to those experiences but I don’t want to claim that virtual world participation is a precise or even adequate—I prefer not to judge the comparative efficacy of religious preferences—replacement for traditional religion. For example, players spend a considerable amount of time out of the game contemplating the storyline, reflecting on their experiences in the game or in their communities, and so on; and so there might be something akin to contemplation going on. But I don’t know that it’s quite the same or at the same level of meaningfulness as meditation or prayer or simply silent contemplation. Similarly, you do see people make certain kinds of sacrifices in virtual worlds (funds, time, and other resources) but not with the richness of conventional life.
I think the tendency of virtual worlds is to incline players toward experiences of personal transcendence—of being more than they are in conventional reality. Whether those experiences (and whatever other experiences they have) suffice for people to feel whole is an open question, and not one I’d feel competent to judge. It’s worth considering, though, that improved technology could make other experiences more efficacious. Watching a waterfall on your laptop screen might not induce any particular spiritual vision, but doing so in an immersive virtual reality headset like the Oculus Rift might. Contemplating the ethics of a quest line in WoW might not be a tremendously rich opportunity at present; but perhaps it could be as the suffering of—admittedly virtual—non-player characters or woodland creatures is felt more viscerally through high-tech computer interfaces like the Rift.
You spend some time describing the interplay between the virtual and real-world lives of gamers and how real communities have grown over time. Has there been any evidence of people inspired by their religious experiences in virtual reality to conduct real-world activities as inspired by these experiences?
I’m pretty sure that I have heard a few examples, but I can’t think of them right now. In the book, though, I do briefly describe in the main text and in the endnotes how a group of students participated in “khemetic” rituals in SL as part of a sociology class and ended up interested in pagan religious practices.
You describe the online gaming communities as strongly influenced by science fiction and fantasy literature, not as a means of escape but as an entry to “rework and add to reality.” What you find that meant to gamers during your research?
Conceptually, that concept of reworking reality has more to do with my interpretation of the human condition than to the explicit intentions of many gamers. That is, I see fantasy and science fiction as opportunities to imagine the world differently, and it is unquestionably the case that many people act upon their reading of these genres to do things like create new games and invent new technologies. Building upon this pre-existing framework, the gamers get the opportunity to take up those technologies and to play in those games, and these give them opportunities to inhabit worlds that they can (partially) construct themselves. They form social networks, they create personal identities, they structure their own participatory universes. As a result, they engage in world-creation, using the tools of other people in the business of world-creation (game designers, authors, sound engineers). And there are groups such as some of the transhumanists I describe who are very explicit about this, and see virtual worlds as a chance to produce a new and better world for human, or perhaps we should call them posthuman, beings.
This idea that we could leverage virtual worlds to rework reality emerges out of a recognition that being in those worlds means not just making more interesting virtual worlds but making conventional life better. I would think one prerequisite of good game design emergent out of this would be that games/virtual worlds ought to give people transformative emotional experiences: Can you think about people in new ways as a result of playing? Do you have a better sense for what is and what is not appropriate military or economic policy? How do we provide for the needs of others? How can we advance learning (both cultural and scientific)? How can we engage dialogue in a global and pluralistic world?
These kinds of questions might be implicit in all virtual world design, though I expect they will always be dwarfed by the entertainment concerns of games and virtual worlds. However, in some unfinished research that I’ve conducted with a student, we found that players of a game similar to WoW felt that they better appreciated the importance of just war theory in military action and the moral imperative to avoid harming civilians or using torture as an investigative technique. Those are pretty substantive moral gains, though we haven’t measured the empirical results of such considerations, like whether they change voting patterns or citizen advocacy, for example.
You describe the growth of “fake” religious practices developed for example by the Triskele community in Second Life that expanded through contributions of other players. How is this an example of online religiosity?
The key here is that the participants in many such communities have experiences that they label “real” and “powerful” and “meaningful.” If someone tells me that he or she invented a god, role-played rituals dedicated to that god, and subsequently felt that—in physical reality—he or she became closer to whatever transcendent beings might have created or guided our universe, then that’s a pretty religious thing!
What is the next step in the development of these virtual communities, and of religious experiences within them?
I remain skeptical as to whether we will build virtual realities with the sensorial richness of conventional reality; but there’s no question that the technology continues to improve. And as that happens, we will find new and additional ways of interacting within them. This will expand our capacity to immerse ourselves in virtual realities, adding weight to the meaning of our experiences there and perhaps even promoting richer experiences of the kinds you mentioned above (such as contemplation and sacrifice).
I don’t think we’ll ever see the end of conventional religious practices, not least because they cannot be imported to online environments but also because they are culturally and personally functional for many people. As for the religious practices that constitute some of our virtual activity, I expect we will see more of the same in terms of growing outreach for conventional religious groups and innovative ways of people expressing their religious interests—new kinds of imagery, new kinds of practices, new ways of thinking that don’t even make sense under the limits of conventional, physical reality.
And finally, it seems to me that virtual world participation is a kind of lever that encourages people’s desire to have technology improve their lives in profound ways, and that means that virtual worlds are inherently a kind of transhumanist outreach. The more time we spend flying, crafting virtual objects and landscapes, and reinventing ourselves, the closer we come to the cherished dreams of many transhumanists. I hope that as we continue on this path, we will do so with some humility, a strong dose of compassion, and a shared sense of responsibility for one another and our worlds, both conventional and virtual.
Posted: September 15, 2014 in Interviews.