Monday 20 October 2008

Are Religions Virtual Worlds?

The following post comes from Terra Nova lands. Terra Nova is a weblog about virtual worlds. The post put to discussion the ‘’ ticklish subject’’ of religion and of course provoked a variety of reactions.

''Right now I’m reading about player behavior in MMOs. I keep thinking how similar those player behaviors and game worlds are to the fantastical real-world-overlays we know as religions. Both imbue players with feeling of elevated direction.

Religions and MMOs give believers/players a lot in exchange for their subscription. Believers get a realm to achieve in that doesn’t necessarily affect what most people hold to be the real world. Recurrent personalities exist at the same time as the believers, but persist regardless of the life span of any one believer. Your grandmother's Jesus is your Jesus. The NPC you met last week during a quest will be there two months from now when you sign up a secondary character. And lastly, religions and virtual worlds both contain objectives that can be broken down into steps for the believer. Religions almost always require believers to do at least one thing, even if it's only to take an NPC into their heart. That action is not much different, and frankly, takes much less time, than solving riddles, collecting items, or grinding XP.

On a daily basis, religions exist mostly as information overlays on the everyday lives of people that subscribe to them. Believers translate the information they receive from the 3D graphical world into strategic information which determines their action in that world. This action-to-strategic-decision chain can be as ephemeral a believer getting a feeling after prayer that a problem has been resolved by that prayer. The believer may continue in the world without needing to confront the problem through any other action, secure in the knowledge that ‘something has been done.’ What other human activity offers this kind of achievement?

Players communicate, often on a daily basis, with other human beings that are participating in their personal instantiation of the experience. But religions can be pretty different from each other, or at least they contain varying teachings and characters. So are religions just shards of the same virtualspiritual world that humans have concocted? If you’ve ever seen the “all religions have a Golden Rule" posters (“Do unto others as you would have others do unto you,” et cetera) then you’ve seen that the underlying values of nearly all religions are the same.

Players also communicate with the personalities directly tied into the fiction of the world. Saints, gods, buddhas - or NPCs? Though a very High Level of NPC is ususally barred from communicating with the believer, until a certain “level” has been reach, at some point the believer will go to heaven, reach nirvana, or ascend. Or does the believer just level up?

Religions even have their power gamers. I think of John Donne as a religious power gamer. He left the Catholic church for the Anglican church. It might be more that he left one guild for another, seemingly more powerful, guild. His poetry, in which he pleads, demands, and then cajoles with an unmoving non-player character seems as efficient a strategy as any in a world in which your turns are very limited... And he wasn’t even a self-fashioned god or prophet. Aren’t self-fashioned prophets and saints just demanding more agency in the game world? It is called god mode, after all.

Here I am not positing that virtual worlds are religions, but rather that religions are virtual worlds.''

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