Visiting St.Pixels. Church of the Internet
Within the post I will try to give a brief overview of our excursion to St Pixels, some history on the formation of the ‘virtual church’ and some insights into the type of feeling and questioning this experience instigated in me, and the group at large.
There was an air of excitement on the day of our excursion to St Pixels. We had all made our simple cartoon-style avatars earlier that day and were keen to test them out. After having spend a great deal of time the previous week within Second Life, which is very closely modeled on the physical world, it was kind of a breath of fresh air to see the very simple mainly text-based web environment and the lack of emphasis on creating a ‘beautiful’ avatar form.
On the home page of St Pixels it is stated:
one of the most important functions of this site is to provide opportunities and resources for worship (http://www.stpixels.com/headline-news)
But what is worship when it happens from behind a screen? That was one of the questions we hoped to uncover, as we all filed into the dimly lit computer lab and took our relevant places behind the rows of screens, ready to enter St Pixels! As we entered the conversation started almost immediately – or as soon as everyone had made their way to the porch – and there was a flurry of tapping keys as we all tried to figure out which avatar contained which person… Then Mark, who was leading ‘The Sermon’ arrived and we were led into ‘The Sanctuary’ for conversation and worship.
St Pixels: A short History
St Pixels was originally created from a magazine called ‘The Ship of Fools.’ It was launched on April fools day as an online magazine. It wasn’t long however before ‘The Ship of Fools’ moved from a simple online magazine, to a virtual community. Shortly after this came “The Ark” ” (2003) where as quoted from their website was presented as “Big Brother meets the Bible” (Jenkins, 2008) . As with the popular TV show Big Brother, the various Biblical Character’s spent time living together on an ark with a fully viewing audience voting off the least popular character every week.
Have you ever found yourself wondering what it would be like if you got some of the best known characters of the Bible together in a bar for a drink or two? How would they get on, these saints and sinners, these heroes and villains of the Bible? Would Moses compare beard lengths with John the Baptist? Would Eve offend Paul with her figleaf costume? It’s inevitable that some of the great saints would find it hard to spend even a few minutes in each other’s company. (Jenkins, 2008)
This was the motto behind the Arc’s creation. However the shift from a simple (vaguely educational) game came gradually:
Each Sunday during the game… The Ark’s [was turned] into a chapel, and… three of the Arkmates [had] the task of preparing Divine Service for everyone else to join in. (Jenkins, 2008)
As the organizers observed this practice “with preaching, Bible readings, prayers and discussion, … [they considered] that this might be a way to realise the idea of online church.” However they questioned “How would it be if [they] detached the chapel from The Ark and ran it week by week as a virtual church?” And so the Ark’s chapel eventually grew into the “Church of Fools.” (Jenkins, 2008)
When they originally built the
Church of Fools, it was different in many ways … [they] were building a dedicated church environment (in Shockwave), rather than adding something to an existing online world. Church of Fools was self-contained as an environment and a project. (Jenkins, 2008)
What is the relevance of the Church of Fools existing outside any existing virtual framework or established community? Perhaps this space is not so much about missionary (as it is not so easy to just wonder in) as it is about trying to come to grips with the essence of ‘church.’ As reflected in our conversation at St Pixels: is it the bricks and mortar that makes a church a church?
The Church of Fools was a three-month experiment and when that site came down everything was put into question. However “what had happened during the time [they] were open was that a small community of people had grown around the 3D church. That community has continued via a bulletin board website, despite the loss of 3D, and is now called St Pixels.”
From childhood experience we learn to trust those who touch us tenderly, says Dreyfus referenced by John Weckert (2005:107); trust is based on feelings of security that babies get in their caretakers’ arms. But this experience, according to Dreyfus, is missing in the online world. (Barbovschi, Diaconescu, 2008)
These senses however, I would propose, are replaced by imagination and fantasy. Perhaps a more text-based environment allows for more of this imaginative projection to occur? “At the moment that touching loses its sensory, sensual value for us… it is possible that it might once more become the schema of a universe of communication” (Baudirillard 1993). I am considering this because most of the group found the St Pixels experience to be more engaging than the Second Life version. Now this could be partly because of the Second Life neighborhood, the fact that it is linked to a world. Perhaps it is not so easy to forget the vampires, sexually explicit (im)material and shops just around the corner?
As stated by Evan Thompson in his paper on Empathy and Cognition
the individual human mind is not confined within the head, but extends throughout the living body and includes the world beyond the biological membrane of the organism, especially the interpersonal, social world of self and other. (Thompson, 2001).
So perhaps immersion is simply an expression of us in the world and this undoubtedly includes the digital world, but what level of immersion do we hope to achieve when we sit down in front of a screen?
So, perhaps I am wrong in my statements regarding Second Life, perhaps it is more simply I am wrong for it, as I cannot effectively immerse myself? As stated by Robinson (2007) of the UU Church of Second Life:
there is a spirituality of good conversation and real connection with people, and that spirituality is not in the least dependent on whether the connection happens in person, by letter, or by playing with avatars in virtual reality.
This shows that despite the complexity of the system we are acting within, even as avatars we still act human. In the virtual space, our “connection” is still person to person.
Some people consider these immersive religious environments to be games, for others they are a call to worship, for others still a curiosity (or a space to explore.) But I feel like part of the great success of the St Pixels environment is that it is playful and self-reflective. It is stated within Jenkins paper RITUALS AND PIXELS: EXPERIMENTS IN ONLINE CHURCH:
we wanted to debate, satirise and create laughter about that, from a committed faith position. We believed that self- criticism is an important part of faith. (Jenkins, 2008)
I would say that St Pixels knows (or at least the members) KNOW that it is at the end of the day St Pixels is a chat room with a collection of bits attached to it, however I don not think this diminishes its impact or power. In fact I think it is this honesty that allows people within this virtual church the opportunity to feel the ease to ‘play’ a bit with the concepts, conversation and narratives within their religon.
We saw an example of this when one of our members accidentally discovered a hack, which allowed his avatar to become invisible ‘and all were amazed and asked unto him, however did you do this?” I think secretly everyone wanted a go at going ‘poof’ and disappearing. So perhaps at heart we are all Homo Ludens (Man at Play) and it is this playfulness and adaptability perhaps that allows us to take the abstract concepts we have created and move them creatively into any new ‘space,’ including the digital.
This excursion within the digital has built on my personal conception of technology and thus my understanding of the ‚way‘ we are engaging, being mediated and ‚working‘ (through) it. This is emphasized by Stiegler’s statement “the interior milieu is social memory, the shared past [is] that which is called “culture.” (Stiegler, 1998) So perhaps the ‘virtual’ could be viewed as a culture developing over time as it develops us and perhaps it can be theorized that „in a world despoiled by overdevelopment, overpopulation and time-release environmental poisons, it is comforting to think that physical forms can recover their pristine purity by being reconstructed as informational patterns in a multidimensional computer space“ (Hayles, 1984)
I think that throughout the interview the group kept coming back to the base question: how does spirituality translate from a physical to virtual space? Perhaps this can be explored through Turkle’s statement:
Once virtuality is taken seriously as a way of life, we need a new language for talking about the simplest things. Each individual must ask: What is the nature of my relationships? What are the limits of my responsibility? And even more basic: Who and what am I? What is the connection between my physical and virtual bodies and is it different in different cyberspaces? (Turkle, 1995)