Virtually Sacred, a new book from Oxford Press by Robert M. Geraci, a Manhattan College professor who often writes about virtual words, explores the spiritual dimensions of Second Life and World of Warcraft. Here's a long excerpt reprinted with permission by Robert (SL avatar name: Soren Ferlinghetti). Read more about and order the book here (it officially publishes on July 14) and click here for a chance to win a free advance copy.
The allure of the World of Warcraft mythos means the game competes against traditional stories and religions. As we shall see over the coming chapters, World of Warcraft gives its players very appealing commodities—communities, opportunities for reflection, a sense of personal meaning, even transcendent experiences. In an age where thin wafers of bread do not always seem to carry a divine personality and where the historical authenticity of almost every religious text has been called into question, the communities and experiences enabled by virtual worlds offer something completely novel to the spiritual marketplace.
Even where the worlds lack epic narratives, they provide opportunities for their residents to create one. In Second Life, a world where everything is the responsibility of those who log in, religious stories have exploded into being. On occasion these are created ex nihilo, as new religions that may not even be possible to think through in conventional reality. More often, though, they are formed by reframing and reconstructing the old religious ways and ideas. Many people come to Second Life to live out their religious lives in a new world: they build churches, temples, mosques, and even forest glades in virtual reality. Then they gather and celebrate together, often with neither permission from, nor relationship to, their communities’ conventional counterparts. Instead of letting the old hierarchies dictate who they are, what they must believe and do, and where they must go, these virtual world residents are happily rearranging and reassembling religious life and telling entirely new stories about gods, providence, and themselves.
To a considerable extent, the story of Second Life is, itself, a story of religious redemption:
For founders and residents alike, Second Life could offer a new, better world. This operates on two levels: first, the practice of traditional religions can provide new opportunities to the faithful; and second, life there can, itself, be a religious opportunity. Inspired by science fiction and popular science books about artificial intelligence and virtual reality, many Second Life residents believe that the world is a template for the eventual upload of immortal human minds into a virtual reality paradise. As such, to think through it as a place where some residents wish to escape the limitations of their bodies is to think about a modern religious institution.
Both World of Warcraft and Second Life offer redemptive new stories for the modern world. Whether by fighting against the evil spawned by demonic forces or by creating one’s own world and life, virtual world residents participate in a new kind of religious storytelling. At times, such participation is explicit, as when Second Life residents unite in the formation of a Christian, Buddhist, or Muslim group. At other times, it is implicit, as when players derive meaning from their victories over Sargeras’s minions or contemplate how they might take up permanent residence in the Second Life grid. Fascinatingly, these kinds of stories, as well as the practices and beliefs they carry with them, can replace the old stories. As many virtual world residents have already taken up the banner of these new tales, they add to our religious landscape.
The religious possibilities of virtual worlds are twofold. First, they provide new places to practice old religions; this is important because their very newness gives users hope that in them old religions can overcome the age-old handicaps of prejudice and ignorance. Whether or not this is true, it stands as an important element in virtual worlds. Second, they provide new locations for the creation of meaningful lives without recourse to traditional religious communities. As a consequence, whereas virtual worlds enable the extension of traditional religions into new locations, those locations can, by their very nature, compete with traditional religions.
Thanks to virtual worlds, many religious practitioners now reimagine their traditions and creatively work to restore them to “authentic” sanctity or replace religious institutions with virtual world communities that provide meaning and purpose to human life. World of Warcraft and Second Life are thus “virtually sacred.” They do religious work, and hence they are sacred. Yet they often do it without regard for—and frequently in conflict with—traditional religious institutions and practices; as a consequence, they are “not quite” religious. Their virtuality is not so just by virtue of their place on computer screens but rather also by virtue of that persistent “not quite”; World of Warcraft and Second Life are virtually sacred because they participate in our sacred landscape as outsiders, competitors, and collaborators.
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