Religion in Virtual Worlds. A Historical Overview on a New Research Topic
by Nadine Gremmers
Our second “Summer School” day started with the lecture “Religion in Virtual Worlds. A Historical Overview on a New Research Topic.” by Kerstin Radde-Antweiler and Simone Heidbrink. The referents discussed the following points:
1. “Reality” versus “Virtuality”? How would the participants of the “Summer School” define these two terms and their relation to each other?
2. Virtual World: Conceptions and Definitions.
3. The history of various Virtual Worlds: An Overview of so called “Life Sims” and “MMORPGs”.
4. Case Studies and methods.
At the beginning of the lecture, participants should define “Reality” and “Virtuality”, which led to the following assumptions:
– “Reality” = “real life” – “Virtuality” pretends to be “real life” (was designated as main discourse).
– In “Reality” you have a limited mass of possibilities. In “Virtuality” you have an unlimited mass of possibilities.
– “Reality”: Perception with all senses possible – “Virtuality”: Perception only with some senses possible.
– “Reality” = experience of what is out here − “Virtuality” = representation of what is out here
– “Reality”: “Ownership” of a physical body − “Virtuality”: “Ownership” of an Avatar
The summary shows on the one hand the assumption of an interrelation between “Reality”
and “Virtuality” but on the other hand the tendency to dichotomize these two terms. Besides
almost all the points listed here where questioned and discussed. The different opinions of the
participants highlight a well known axiomatic problem: The egocentric perspective of
definitions. (e.g. “Religion”, “Diaspora” and so on). Further considerations and conclusions
concerning our brainstorming were deferred to the end of the lecture and I will come back to
Before the referents gave us an historical overview of different kinds of “Virtual Worlds” they dwelt on the conception and the definition of the term “Virtual World”.
The term “Virtual World” derived from genres like literature. But in contemporary use it is associated with Persistence, Online-Worlds, real-time interaction by avatars (like in MMO(RP)Gs. People like William Gibson (Neuromancer 1984-“Cyberspace”) and Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash 1992- “Avatar”) contributed to this contemporary conception of “Virtual Worlds”. But also Mangas/Anime Series (Ghost in the Shell) and movies (Matrix). According to Jakobsson “Virtual World” can be defined as “a synchronous, multi-user system that offers a persistent spatial environment for iconically represented participants.” (Virtual Worlds and Social Interaction Design, 2006)
Subsequently the referents surveyed various “Virtual Worlds” in their particular historical context:
1. “The Palace” (1995):
A 2D chat space with mainly written chat (“Palace Chat Rooms”). It is possible to create an own Avatar.
2. “Active Worlds” (1995):
“3D Chat, Virtual Worlds Building Platform” [Source: Link: http://www.activeworlds.com/%5D. User can create the virtual environment. Communication is possible via Chat. You have to pay a monthly fee.
3. “There” (1998, shut down on March 9th, 2010):
3D Virtual World. It is possible to create an individual Avatar and to develop items. Communication through the Avatar (gestures, written chat in speech bubbles, voice). “Therebucks” = virtual money (you have to pay real money for this currency).
4. “Second Life” (2003)
A 3D environment developed by Linden Lab. Access via free client software. Communication is possible via group chat, global world chat, local chat and voice chat. Own currency: Linden Dollars. You can buy land, clothes and other items with Linden Dollars. There are 10.000.000 registered Users but only 10.000-100.000 are coeval online (2008). Teen second Life is especially for people aged 13-17. Various Spaces in SL: e.g. Educational Space, Shopping Space, Religious Space, Ritual Space. Residents = User→ communicate through an Avatar.
5. “Church of Fools” (May 2004 – shut down September 2004)
A 3D Cyberspace Church with Avatars. Communication is possible via written Chat.
“Church of Fools” is a joint project of Ship of Fools“(Website / Online Magazine) + Anglican Church + Methodist Church (UK).
They offer Services which are limited to 30 “people” (and 200-300 “Ghosts”-can only be seen by the User, cannot be seen by other Residents), where they hold morning- and evening prayers (UK Time) and one evening prayer (US Time).
„Church of Fools“ on YouTube.
6. “St.Pixel” (2004)
St. Pixel is a 2D Java environment and a new meeting place for the “Church of Fools” community. They provide Blogs, Chat Rooms and a worship area.
7. “World of Warcraft” (2004)
“World of Warcraft” is a so called MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) by the US game developer Blizzard Entertainment. (Warcraft Series, Diablo Series, Starcraft Series). The Player can choose between two fractions (The Horde and the Alliance), ten races and nine classes and also between different kind of realms (PvP, PvE, RP). With the Avatar the player has to earn experience to level up his character. Experience can be earned by attending Quests and killing mobs (for an explanation klick here :[link: http://www.wowwiki.com/Mob%5D). Another important point in the game is to achieve various items which make the Avatar more powerful. A very interesting aspect related to Rituals in “Virtual Worlds” is the embedding of “Real-World” religious content. (e.g. the „Feast of the Winter Veil“ which takes place around the Christmas season).
For more information visit wow-europe.
In this context the question has been asked whether “Life Sims” (“Life simulation games” like “Second Life”) are equal to “games” (like “World of Warcraft”) and if not, what is the difference between them? In the opinion of the referents the technical requirements of Life Sims and Games (MMOGs) can be compared to each other. But however there are differences in:
1. Their purpose: In Life Sims the User is not forced to achieve goals or to fulfill certain tasks. In Games or MMO(RP)Gs the achievement of in-game goals is a crucial element.
2. The perception of the user
In the last section before the group exercise the referents showed us two Case Studies, to point out possible research fields in Virtual Worlds and what kind of methods can be used for research. Beyond these examples led us back to our initial question what we mean by “Reality” and “Virtuality”.
The first case study dealt with Wedding Rituals in Second Life, particularly with the differences between Offline and Online-weddings. Besides participant observation of Second Life weddings, also expert interviews with wedding designers and wedding couples in written chat-form and analysis of wedding prescripts, wedding announcements and advertisement were used as methods. Besides this, Langer offers useful categories (“Contextual Aspect”, “’Internal’ Dimension” “Participants” (Langer, R. et al. (2006): Ritual Transfer. In: Journal of Ritual Studies 20, 23-34.)), which can be adapted to both Offline-Rituals and Online-Rituals. Related to Online-Rituals various changes can be examined:
• Contextual aspect: Media
• ‚Internal‘ dimension: Performance, Action, Communication, Aesthetics
• Participants: restricted number of participants, questions of gender, change of authority, efficacy
It seems very useful to process these points regarding the question about differences of Offline- and Online-Rituals or to notice changes in Ritual Transfer Processes.
Alongside wedding designer and wedding couples, Kerstin Radde-Antweiler also observed and interviewed so called “Wedding Crashers” in her Case Study. The results of these interviews are very interesting concerning terms like “Virtuality”-“Reality” or “Game”-“Reality”. While some Users regard Second Life not as a game and the wedding ceremonies in it as real (Ritual Efficacy), the interview with the Wedding Crasher shows another position. For him/her Second Life is a Video Game and a wedding in it is not real. (No Ritual Efficacy)
The second Case Study dealt with Mourning Rituals in “World of Warcraft”. Some “World of Warcraft” Players organized an in-game funeral for a fellow-player that died in “real life”. Similar to the “Wedding Crashers” in Second Life there were “Funeral Crashers” which killed participants of the ceremony. This led to a great discussion in different forums. Some distinguish for themselves “Reality” and the “Game”, for others the boundaries are floating. While some mourned in both “real life” and “in-game”, others cannot understand how you can mourn somebody you do not know in “real-life”.
After that the participants of the Summer School had to build three exercise groups. Every group watched a short video from the “Church of Fools” (“Night Prayer”, “Chat in the Crypt”, “Our Father…”. We should describe afterwards what we have seen and the different processes of transfer. Besides we should think about possible research questions and methods.
The video “Night Prayer” shows the beginning of a night prayer in the church of the “Church of Fools”. The group identified the place as a Christian church because of the arches. A religious leader stands in front of the service participants. They have the possibility to worship via different gestures and to communicate via written chat. Besides a crucifix, a pulpit and a glass painting that seems to show Jesus Christ, the peal of bells could be mentioned concerning the question of transfer processes. The video “Chat in the Crypt” shows two different situations. First we see a group of Avatars having a conversation in the crypt of the church while one woman is doing a worship gesture. In the crypt there are also pillars, between which panels with different symbols are positioned. Moreover there are various automats in the crypt. In the second part we see three automates being worshiped by Avatars. A warden guides this kind of performance. The written chat informs us that the action has been prepared specifically for the camera. The crypt as a part of offline churches and the possibility to worship via gestures, even if the means of expression are bounded by technical limits, are transferred from offline-into online environment. The video “Our Father…” shows Avatars praying the Lord’s Prayer. Some of the Avatars sit on pews while others are kneeling down. One example for a ritual transfer here could be the adoption of the Lord’s Prayer which plays a crucial role in the liturgical context. In an offline church the prayer is spoken aloud while because of technical requirements the prayer in the “Church of Fool” has to be written down in the chat.
One research question which could be asked in general and comprehensive is in which way changes a ritual when it is transferred from an offline- into an online-environment? The question of efficacy of online rituals could also be an interesting starting point to mention another example. The three working groups agreed mostly on the research methods. First of all it could be useful to interview the users, as well as the developers/organizer or the religious specialists. Moreover participant observation plays a significant role. Watching the clips pointed out how important it is to record everything during your observation. Even after watching the video a few times we didn’t get anything what has been said or done. A good program for recording online content (e.g. MMORPGs like WoW or Life Sims like SL and so on) is called FRAPS.
For a demo version you can click here.
The full version requires a fee.
And a link to a tutorial which shows how to use Fraps.
Finally we returned to the initial question: How could we define “Reality” and “Virtuality” and their relation to each other? The research results of the Case Studies (Weddings in SL and Mourning in WoW) presented by the referents pointed out what I would call the essence of the whole lecture: The answer of this question depends on the actors’ definition or perspective, what according to him/her means “Reality”, “Virtuality”, “Game” or “Online Culture”. How someone defines the relation between “Reality” and “Virtuality” depends accordingly on the actors’ definition of these terms. So according to the actors perspective “Reality” and “Virtuality” could be dichotomic, interdependent or something else. Important for further research projects is to keep in mind to reflect about your own definition of these terms and state it. Besides it is inevitable to reveal the particular perspective of the participants you are observing or interviewing and to evaluate your results according to it.