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World of Warcraft as religious experience

Matthew Rossi
How much of what we do in World of Warcraft matters, and how much does it matter? Can one be said to be engaging in a spiritual or religious experience when we play the game? Robert Geraci would seem to think we can at least start talking about that. Dr. Geraci is a professor of religious studies at Manhattan College, and his new book is about the interaction between the virtual worlds we inhabit (his current book discusses World of Warcraft and Second Life) and our inner lives. Dr. Geraci seems to be using WoW as a means to explore how we approach life itself, and how we can interact with it fundamentally in the same way we do our day to day, walking about lives.

it's just about virtual reality - in particular, virtual reality experiences that millions of people are seeking out. From a religious perspective, people are making their lives rich and meaningful and interesting in these virtual worlds. The grant project was to expand on that and say, 'Ok, in what other ways are virtual worlds meaningful for their participants?

The idea that what we do in game has an impact on our lives seems pretty irrefutable -- Dr. Geraci mentions how we make friendships in game that are as real to us as any we make outside of it (indeed, many in-game friendships quickly transcend the game they started in) and he discusses how the game presents concepts of morality, good vs. evil, environmentalism and so on. One could go further with his argument -- the nature of in-game interaction presents a kind of meta-contextual exploration of good social behavior, ultimately. The idea that 'it's just a game' vs. those that argue game or not, you're playing with real people for stakes that matter to them and how you behave in that situation has an impact. In other words, the evolution of in-game morality isn't limited merely to the game's storylines, but the players themselves develop a code of conduct, mores that govern and shape their behavior. Concepts like ninja-looting, PuG etiquette and how to navigate guild social structures are all part and parcel of the game, but they're not narrative focused -- the community evolves these standards itself.

To my mind, any discussion of MMO spaces as religious experiences has to take these kinds of issues to heart. It's not the game, ultimately, that provides much (if any) real spiritual value. It's the evolving consensus between players - the discussion of what is and isn't of value, the behaviors chosen, the direction of the internal zeitgeist of the experience. If we're discussing the investment of meaning into these experiences, it is almost always the players who make that investment. All the game itself can do is give them a framework on which to hang these connections.

Another statement from Dr. Geraci struck me as particularly interesting when discussing the evolution of religious thought as applied to the MMO player experience.

For example, in World of Warcraft, you get people who can build communities and reflect on questions of ethics. These communities matter to the players; the online friends are really important to them even if they never meet them in a physical, conventional reality. The questions of right and wrong appear throughout the game, engaging good and evil, of course, but also environmentalism, consumerism and other moral concerns. There are these little ways that World of Warcraft provides a kind of religious experience but also this really big question of how one becomes more than oneself, which ties into a wider religious phenomenon of transhumanism. Within transhumanism, science and technology are used to fulfill fundamentally religious goals such as eternal happiness, becoming smarter, wiser, and more powerful, even acquiring immortality, which is a key religious goal.

There are certainly narratives about ethics to be found in WoW -- one could argue the entirety of Mists of Pandaria was a reflection on the use of force, when it is justified and when it is not, to give just one example. There have been quests that explored the permissibility of torture, that discussed the spiritual damage that choosing the ends justify the means perspective can have on the psyche, that have displayed the desperation of people who felt forced to the edge. But to my eyes all of these experiences pale in comparison to the first part -- the player built communities Dr. Geraci mention reflect less on the ethical questions presented by the game's narrative, and more often on the ethical questions presented by the game's experiences - to my perspective it's less important what we think about the story of Arthas than what we do in that raid when the item we want drops. Do we collude with other players to deny someone we don't like that piece of gear? Do we steal it and hearth out? Do we obey the strictures set down at the raid's beginning? These questions are individually answered, of course, but their impact is more immediate than ruminating over whether Garrosh Hellscream went too far in the Pandaria campaign.

Loot is only one example of something that players come into conflict with the community's moral and ethical standards. We have these kinds of debates about the formation of groups, the recruiting of players to our guilds, even how to behave in matchmaking groups like LFR. In a way, the virtuality of World of Warcraft is far less important than its reality -- you are engaging in real social activity with real people. Your choices and decisions have consequences, and what you do and think matters, it shapes and defines you. The moral concerns of your gameplay have impact, because they have weight -- they are not simply you shooting pixels. The person you are rude to in a PuG is still a person you have been rude to, it was a moral choice you made.

In the end, it's an idea without a real end point as yet. Virtual reality (if you consider MMO's to be that) is in its infancy, and the moral and ethical questions are really just starting to be debated. Certainly there are questions of becoming more than one is inherent in any game where character growth and power is the carrot and the stick of the gameplay. But to my mind, the real and true issue here is in how we treat our fellows, because that (again, to me) is the ultimate reality of any religious experience -- not how we transcend our humanity, but how we affirm it. And that affirmation comes in how we do unto others. World of Warcraft is a religious experience because it allows us to display exactly that.

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