In Virtually Sacred: Myth and Meaning in World of Warcraft and Second Life (Oxford University Press 2014), Robert M Geraci engages the way virtual worlds mediate religion in fostering space for community, ethical reflection, human meaning, and ideas of transcendence.
Immersive virtual worlds such as World of Warcraft and Second Life have become treasured relief from conventional reality for millions of users who take up new identities and form communities online. Based upon ethnographic fieldwork, interviews, surveys, and textual analysis of virtual worlds, Geraci argues that these worlds are “virtually sacred” in that they “participate in our sacred landscape as outsiders, competitors, and collaborators.”
When traditional religious institutions migrate into virtual worlds, this provides new opportunities for old communities. From a recreation of the Islamic hajj (pilgrimage) to a Narnian-themed Christian community, Second Life offers a multitude of ways in which religious groups can share their visions online and construct new ways of creating religious communities. Online participants have a wide variety of reasons for joining virtual worlds, but the powerful religious opportunities in those worlds are among their chief attractions and keep users returning again and again.
Virtual worlds “allow us new ways of expressing old religious practices and beliefs,” Geraci writes, “but they also offer new ways of circumventing those traditions.” Both Second Life and World of Warcraft operate as what Religious Studies Scholar David Chidester calls “authentic fakes”—secular practices that do the work of traditional religions.
For some users, the transcendent appeal of World of Warcraft is so strong that they would like to copy or transfer their minds into the game, becoming immortal software angels. This desire to upload consciousness into a virtual reality has become increasingly common in tech culture, with influential advocates such as Google’s Ray Kurzweil and M.I.T.’s Marvin Minsky arguing that human minds are information patterns that can be replicated outside of the body. This belief pervades Second Life’s culture, and Geraci documents its influence in the design of the virtual world and in the enthusiastic participation of transhumanist communities there.
“They wander across amazing landscapes in amazing bodies and gain powers beyond mortal ken,” writes Geraci. “Now, however, virtual worlds approach the powers of religion by offering transcendent places and experiences, and have, in fact, been explicitly compared to religious places and practices.”
Bonnie Nardi, Professor of Informatics at UC-Irvine and author of My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft, states that Geraci’s “astute argument that video gamers discover enchantment, redemption, and transcendence in gaming deserves widespread attention. Virtually Sacred is one of the most original treatments of gaming and participation in virtual worlds I have ever read. The elegant, understated prose provides the perfect foil for Geraci’s unexpected, provocative foray into grasping the contours of religiosity in gaming and virtual worlds.”
Virtually Sacred: Myth and Meaning in World of Warcraft and Second Life was published by Oxford University Press in June 2014. More information can be found at: http://global.oup.com/academic/product/virtually-sacred-9780199344697
This summary of research is provided by the Network for New Media, Religion and Digital Culture Studies (http://digitalreligion.tamu.edu), which seeks to show how digital religion shapes our everyday lives and world.
Robert M Geraci, PhD Professor of Religious Studies Manhattan College