chapter  1
15 Pages

Walkthrough

Avid players of video games will recognize the title here, which refers to a user-created set of instructions for making it through a video game. A walkthrough tells you where you can go, what it’s possible to do in a game, what the goals are, and how to survive. It also often tells you a few cheatcodes, or points you to the best parts of the game’s optional experiences. This introduction is, then, a sort of walkthrough, showing you how and why this book is worth your time as an introduction to the complex relationship between religion and virtual reality. Why should we care about this relationship, you ask? In 2007, the Anglican Church threatened to sue Sony over a video game that

depicted a violent shoot-out staged in a digital replica of Manchester Cathedral, claiming that the game enacted a form of “virtual desecration.” In 2009 in India, a group of clerics ruled that it would be a sin for Muslims to take a cell phone into the bathroom if it rang near the toilet with Quranic chanting. Also in 2009, a New York Church “tweeted” the Passion play, complete with “tweets” from Mary, the disciples and Jesus, who “tweeted” his last words from the cross. Increasingly around the world, Hindus conduct puja online using digital images of the gods; Muslims and others can conduct a virtual hajj in the online world of Second Life; and the Dalai Lama has approved the spinning of virtual prayer wheels on a computer’s hard drive. Lubavitcher Rabbi Yosef Y. Kazen recently claimed that a minyan (required quorum of Jews for a prayer service) cannot be accomplished online because real physical bodies are required, but at the same time, there are synagogues functioning in Second Life populated by virtual worshippers who clearly feel otherwise. As I demonstrate in Godwired, rapid and incredible changes are taking place in religious practice today due to interfacing with virtual reality, and these experiences are raising profound questions about the nature of sacred space, about technology as a vehicle for sacred texts, about who we are when we go online, about how religious ritual works, and about whether or not it is possible to gather for worship in online space. Godwired addresses this rich relationship between religion and “virtual reality”

(which I define as any form of digital technology that involves user engagement with software via a screen interface). I argue throughout the book that our

cultural fascination with virtual reality reflects a deeper and more basically human fascination with world-building, or what we might also call cosmos construction: that is, the imagining of a world in which we are in control, in which things make sense, in which what we do has profound meaning, and in which we can enact our ideal selves: activities that have long been viewed as forms of the religious imagination. A consideration of how such scripted, ordered spaces work in a world that many increasingly view as chaotic is a conversation worth having, as it may illuminate for us what some of the attraction is. As I argue in the following chapters, this fascination has some religious roots to it. As Egenfeldt-Nielsen, Smith and Tosca (2008) put it, games create ordered

spaces too, and I suggest this is part of what identifies them as being at least in some respects “religious.” To play a game means “setting oneself apart from the outside world, and surrendering to a system that has no effect on anything which lies beyond the circle” (24). Both religion and virtual reality can be said to be deeply concerned with some sense of the “other.” That is, both are concerned with a mode of being that lies beyond our ordinary day-to-day experience. This mode or realm of being is typified by imagination of the ideal, that hope for a mode of existence enables us to bypass normal physical limitations, and that presents itself, at least in some respects, as eternal. Are both forms of engagement with the other equally valuable? That remains to be seen, but I raise a number of questions about this proposition throughout the book. More than half a century ago, Johan Huizinga noted the deep kinship

between ritual and play – and thus implicitly also between religion and games – when he noted that “the indissoluble connection between sacred earnest and ‘make-believe’ or ‘fun,’ [is] best understood in the concept of play itself” (1955, 24). The ritual act, he says, “has all the formal and essential characteristics of play … in so far as it transports the participants to another world” (18). This means, says Huizinga, that “archaic ritual is thus sacred play, indispensable for the well-being of the community, fecund of cosmic insight and social development but always play in the sense Plato gave to it – an action accomplishing itself outside and above the necessities and seriousness of everyday life” (25). Ritual and play, then, both set apart a time and space in which special happenings occur, shaped by rules and in some ways different from our daily life, somehow nurturing in their predictability and in their “otherworldliness.” When we play a game, we enter into what Bernard Suits has called the

“lusory attitude” or “the state of mind whereby game players consciously take on the challenges and obstacles of a game in order to experience the play of the game itself” through “accepting the artificial authority of the magic circle, submitting behavior to the constraints of rules in order to experience the free movement of play.” In other words, “playing a game means submitting to the authority of the magic circle, which includes the cultural conventions expressed through implicit rules” (1990, 574). If such games are appealing because they

provide us with intentional challenges and predictable rules, then one could see an intriguing parallel between the “lusory attitutude” and the “faith attitude.” Both assume a purpose to challenges, a discoverable set of rules, and both involve the voluntary submission to these mindsets. Play is like ritual in that it is “not ‘ordinary’ or ‘real’ life.” Instead, play is

“a stepping out of ‘real’ life into a temporary sphere of activity with a disposition all of its own” (Huizinga 1955, 8). Play, like ritual, is a form of order-making. Play “creates order, is order. Into an imperfect world and into the confusion of life it brings a temporary, a limited perfection” (10). Through the institution of rules and the engagement with an idealized, structured mode of being, play, like ritual, offers us a temporary escape from the disorder in our daily lives. Indeed, the rules themselves seem to offer a degree of this comfort: we know what we are supposed to do, and for the duration of play time, these simple rules adhere. Ritual, too, offers us an ordered mode of escape. Huizinga describes the world-making potential of sacred rituals:

The sacred performance is more than an actualization in appearance only, a sham reality; it is also more than a symbolical actualization – it is a mystical one. In it, something invisible and inactual takes beautiful, actual, holy form. The participants in the rite are convinced that the action actualizes and effects a definite beatification, brings about an order of things higher than that in which they customarily live.