Religion in Video Game Virtual Worlds: Representation and Player Engagement

This article explores scholarship on the representation of religion in video game virtual worlds. The specific video game used for this case study is World of Warcraft, an online multiplayer role-playing game (MMORPG) created by Blizzard Entertainment that first launched in 2004 and remains very popular today. 

We will briefly note very relevant background information to World of Warcraft to aid readers to comprehend several insights in this article. World of Warcraft is an online game requiring players to have an adequately strong internet connection. It is a multiplayer game because it hosts millions of online gamers who can play together on one of many servers. It is a role-playing game (RPG) because baked into its design is a system rewarding character progression. Simplistically, World of Warcraft is a “video game with a virtual world where large amount players are able to play at the same time together over the Internet connection” (1). 

When beginning to play World of Warcraft, the player must select one of two rival factions (Alliance or Horde), an in-game avatar (which is a playable character), and the avatar’s race (i.e. human, dwarf, night elf, gnome, etc.) and class (i.e. priest, mage, rogue, shaman, etc.). The avatar enables the player to navigate the virtual world and engage in various activities like quests, raids, dungeons, player versus player (PvP), and so on. We will notice how these avatars and the player’s choice have relevance to the study of virtual religion. 

Why Study Religion in Virtual Game Worlds?

Religion in video games has been a relatively recent yet lively domain of investigation by game theorists and religion scholars. In particular, this topic has enjoyed serious academic attention in the sociology of religion over the last decade (2). The study of religion in video games is motivated by them being a pervasive cultural form. Video games are “digital games now depict[ing] the religious within the twenty-first century” (3). According to the game theorist Mark J. P. Wolf, 

“[R]eligious and theological ideas can be made manifest in video games, including the appearance of religion and religious iconography within video games and through the playing of video games as a potentially religious activity, especially contemplative ones that vicariously place the player in a different environment” (4).

One way to refer to religion in video games is as a “hyper-real religion”, a term coined by sociologist Adam Possamai and defined as “a simulacrum of a religion created out of, or in symbiosis with, commodified popular culture which provides inspiration at a metaphorical level and/or is a source of beliefs for everyday life” (5).

Scholars realize that media is a common source from which consumers in the real world create “subjective myths” (6) and/or construct personal “systems of ultimate significance” (7). This lies behind the proliferation of certain new religious movements, like Matrixism (from The Matrix films), Jediism (based on the Star Wars films), and Scientology (founded by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard). Media, especially digital media in video games and films, can evoke real effects of being religious, which leads scholars to want to investigate the consumer’s perception of religion in media and how media can produce religious feelings.

Religion in Virtual Game Worlds

Many games offer religious themes in constructing content and scenarios (8), a point noticed by the game designer and programmer Peter Molyneux: “Clearly God, the divine as a concept, plays a huge role in modern gaming. Virtually every fantasy role-playing game… explicitly includes the divine in the form of priests calling down healing prayers or smiting evil foes” (9). Although a virtual world is “a separate world from that of the daily living, clearly defined in its spatial and temporal borders” (10), it is, Robert M. Geraci argues, not an unreal, false reality. The virtual world in World of Warcraft, for example, is not false as it offers the possibilities to communicate, play games, and carry out almost any real-life possibility within it (11). As another commentator writes,

“Virtual worlds enable new ways of being oneself and of interacting with others that affect the users of that world and the physical world. The interconnections between conventional and virtual life mean that religious practice and thought developed in, emergent from, and objectified by virtual worlds will help shape everyone’s life in the years to come” (12).

Virtual worlds are inhabited and, despite their strong fantasy component, are realistic in paralleling the real world through the use of various objects and abilities like money, play, weapons, characters, storytelling, etc. The social factor of virtual worlds is another factor pointing to their reality,

“Online game avenues such as WoW [World of Warcraft] provide such a mythical space where players can access a coherent world aided by technology and mythic iconography where they can interact with other mythic characters, locales and events. These factors create an almost real world for the player” (13).

They are a copy of real-life and “laboratories” where players can safely try out different identities, freely express deviant emotions, and play with the controversial, forbidden, and subversive through role-playing (14). As a complex simulation, the virtual world is “an alternate world in which players can do anything they want and have a vacation from their everyday lives” (15). The gamer is really present in the virtual world in the form of an avatar, which is the character the player uses to navigate the in-game world. The avatar offers a sense of really being there in the game’s virtual world (16).

Virtual worlds are open to analysis because they are places and legitimate research locations for academic fieldwork. But where does religion come into this picture? Religion is relevant because virtual worlds “provide places for playing out our religious thoughts and simultaneously are inscriptions of them” (17).

Game designers create idiosyncratic virtual worlds in which legends, myths, and religious archetypes are combined. According to Fabian Perlini-Pfister, engaging virtual worlds allow players to become detached from real life and experiment with new worldviews in which gods from diverse religious and mythological traditions coexist (18). The increasingly hyper-real experience of games engender questions of faith, purpose, and truth. 

Games tell stories, including religious and mythic ones. Religious themes (i.e. supernaturalism, life after death, apocalypticism, questions of ultimate meaning, etc.) are often baked into the narratives. Gods, both good and bad, are prominent in games and players are often encouraged or required to perform various religiously oriented quests to collect objects, like totems or weapons imbued with mana, and might need to perform seemingly religious activities such as draining souls, performing healing, summoning spirits, resurrecting the dead, engaging in telekinesis, and so on. It is through this engagement that players can connect to religious ideas,

“Many gamers find spiritual and theological meaning in metanarratives within games such as Halo 3, which allow them to play games where they are the hero or heroine, save the world from holocaust/disaster, and explore new worlds, therefore allowing them to find connection with spiritual elements” (19).

Players become a part of the story. Narrative allows the player to create his own stories and participate in myths as an active character. It is to participate in a grand mythology by taking on a role through the avatar. Virtual worlds often evoke the desire to return to the past. For example, MMORPGs like World of Warcraft utilize fantasy and imaginary representative of medieval society untouched by modernity. Religion is fundamental in this design: “Not unlike neopagans in the spiritual milieu, then, the producers of online worlds construct, or better, literally design a ‘mythopoeic history’ by cutting and pasting premodern religions, myths and sagas and by offering it for further consumption” (20). Some, for example, speak of not encountering fictitious knowledge in virtual worlds but rather a “lost” way of seeing the world (21).

Religion in World of Warcraft’s Virtual World

Games like World of Warcraft are not set in the real world, which means they are not trying to depict historical religions like Christianity or Islam, although they might draw inspiration from those sources (22). 

World of Warcraft‘s virtual world is certainly replete with references to myth and religion. The game, to offer just a sample, presents motifs of spiritualism, clerics, archbishops, magic, sorcery, shamanism, Druidism, and more (23). There are identifiable in-game, virtual religions such as the Religion of the Holy Light, Loa-worship, the Followers of the Old Gods, the Cult of Forgotten Shadow, to name a few. These virtual religions are not isolated from the game narrative and the player’s experience. For instance, religion and myth are a significant part of a race’s stories and histories in the game, and often have an impact on the faction, race, and class, as well as on narrative choices made by players. Game developers stress narrative since “Gamers are attracted to games that feature deep storylines”, part of which is the use of “religion, religious references, or narratives that can be applied theologically in order to create a meaningful story” (24). 

Identifiable religions and religious movements in World of Warcraft have clear parallels to real-world religions. For example, devotees of the Holy Light worship in the Cathedral of Lights located in the Alliance’s Stormwind and have missionaries commissioned to preach its teachings, wisdom, and good news to nations. This parallels real-world religions in which organized worship and missionary activities are important. The Horde, the Alliance’s opposing faction, also embraces various religious beliefs and practices to which shamanism and animism are fundamental. The Tauren race associates spiritually with nature, engages in ancestral worship, and honors their ancestors’ spirits. Again, these religious elements take inspiration from real-world religions, both historical and contemporary. One avid player of World of Warcraft, for instance, perceives strong parallels between the Holy Light religion and Christianity (25). He also perceives parallels between the Tauren culture and Buddhism, especially as the Tauren embrace the notion of being reborn and desire to live in peace with each other.

The religions in World of Warcraft are, as some commentators argue, no less real to real-life religions, although they take a different form (26) and are, to one commentator, somewhat more limited (27). If a person is influenced by a game’s virtual reality, then the researcher must accept some degree of reality. Several reasons seem to support this view. First, many players take the game’s mythic cosmology, including its supernatural elements and religious motifs, as both serious and meaningful, and that engaging a virtual world is informed by the player’s beliefs, values, and concerns in everyday life. Second, virtual worlds become important spaces in which players can realize themselves. Third, video games are an interactive media motivating participation. Religion in video games is an example of how games reflect the world around them. Finally, the religious and mythic motifs and elements of a game can have a real-world impact on its players. A virtual world’s reality is also apparent in how engaging with it is informed by the player’s beliefs, values, and concerns in everyday life (28). 

Consider several players’ experiences of and reactions to religion in World of Warcraft’s virtual world. One player’s encountering of the Tauren culture in the game motivated his search for information on Buddhist history and philosophy, and also watched documentaries on the topic (29). Some Christian players reported experimenting with atheism in World of Warcraft, which supports the notion that players often produce in virtual worlds “parts of the self that they have found necessary to suppress or efface in the offline world” (30) since they are considered controversial and taboo (31). Similarly, atheist players reported enjoying creating and role-playing religious characters like priests and reverends. As a player remarks, “WoW is an opportunity for me to play with the consciousness of people who think about gods like people in our world do” (32). Another player who comes from a very religious background created an avatar to symbolize her newly regained atheistic worldview in the spiritually infused virtual environment.

A dedicated player created multiple avatars representing distinct phases in his religious and spiritual beliefs. For example, his first and second avatars represent his earlier years involving religious longing, but his third avatar symbolizes his atheism. A player who had a bad experience with religion in his youth developed an in-game avatar who embraced an intense hatred for the gods. Some players who are not religious speak about how religious characters in-game have motivated them to think about religion in ways that had not previously,

“I’m not religious, but I do think about those big questions, and trying to find if there is an answer that I can find or a reason. I wouldn’t go as far to say that WoW holds answers in that or has the promise of them, but looking at their belief systems and why they see things like that does make me wonder about our own, and why we sometimes think as we do” (33)

Several players report that encountering religion in World of Warcraft made them more open to religious diversity in society, even if they are not religious themselves. A player who is identifies as a materialist reports that his encounters with beliefs and religions in World of Warcraft make him “open to [religious] things” (34).

These players all take World of Warcraft’s virtual religion and cosmology as important, shape their avatars according to their beliefs and identities, and seriously and consciously re-enact their own religious past in the game.

To many players, World of Warcraft’s virtual world offers them the opportunity to transcend the ordinary in their lives through myths, ritual, and community. It is an opportunity for an exploration of identity and the meaning of life, which have traditionally been religious themes (35). Players enjoy being part of a mythic world in which they can take an active role taking a role and the game’s cosmology invites deeper and often existential, religious, and philosophical reflection. Geraci reports how World of Warcraft offers religious opportunities,

“World of Warcraft offers its players many traditionally religious opportunities, including a community, a moral compass, a sense of identity and meaningful purpose, and transcendent experiences. With millions of users receiving these sacraments from World of Warcraft rather than a traditional religious institution, there can be doubt about the seriousness of the game’s religious implications” (36).

Jose Vallikatt has participated in studied World of Warcraft for several years and suggests that “World of Warcraft might fulfil the religious functions of creating worldviews, finding meaning, and exploring identity through an analysis of the game’s mythic content, ritual practices and online communities… WoW could be called ‘extraordinary religion,’ because it helps people to move beyond their everyday culture and concerns” (37).

Vallikatt argues that in the modern secular world, religion can be reawakened through technologies, especially in games like World of Warcraft. Such games offer a new form of religion in their sacred myths, rituals, and communities that can satisfy the spiritual needs and desires of players. Vallikatt writes that World of Warcraft “may not be religious in traditional sense, but is effervescent and meaningful and numinous” (38). Geraci has similar views saying that new technologies and video games can saturate the religious needs of the present postmodern and secularized person through their traditionally religious features of community, moral standards, orientation towards transcendent meaning, and experience.

But can religion in War of Warcraft replace religion in the real world? Slavomír Gálik does not think so. He does say that that religion in World of Warcraft can partially saturate the spiritual needs of the contemporary hypermodern person, but that there are limitations distinguishing the religions in World of Warcraft from traditional, real-life religions (39). Virtual religion cannot replace traditional religion because it lacks traditional religion’s core elements, such as the salvation of the person achieved through self-knowledge, eliminating bad inclinations, prayers or meditation. For example, virtual religions lack active, bodily participation and religious methods to reach salvation,

“Though the cyberspace of digital media can penetrate into our mind and senses, it will never take over our body. It is similar in our communication with other people. Communication “face to face” differs from communication through digital media… Virtual religion still misses human’s physical characteristics and physical community of people. If we suppose that religion depends on the matrix life – death – resurrection, then human body is a key, unique and irreplaceable requirement. Rebirth of a man is not only a matter of his mind and soul, but also body” (40).

He goes on: “Human body, or more precisely the body and mind together, is the key to gain the goal (for example salvation or freedom) in various religions. Salvation is usually achieved within a community whose members are physically present. This is the reason why virtual reality, including World of Warcraft, will never be a place for real religion” (41).

Conclusion

This article has only touched the surface of video game studies focusing on religion within game media. For instance, numerous exploratory questions are raised, such as on religion’s representation in virtual worlds, common religious themes to emerge across different games, how religion might aid in organizing in-game social communities, whether or not religion’s depiction in games is somehow related to what is going on in the present real world, why video games mostly, although not always, focus more on polytheistic and animistic forms of religion than on traditional religion, how certain religious groups might react to in-game violence, gore, and sexuality, and so on. At the very least, these questions suggest the importance of studying religion in virtual worlds, a conviction underlying the roughly a decade or more of scholarly investigation into this area in the sociology of religion.

References

1. Valanne, Ville. 2020. “Cyberbullying on World of Warcraft: Experiences.” Masters Diss. p. 8.

2. Partridge Christopher. 2004. The Re-Enchantment of the West: Volume 1 – Alternative Spiritualities, Sacralization, Popular Culture, and Occulture. London: T&T Clark; Possamai, Adam. 2005. Religion and Popular Culture: A Hyper-Real Testament. Brussels: Peter Lang Publishing Group; Cusack, Carole. 2010. Invented Religions: Imagination, Fiction and Faith. Farnham: Ashgate; Davidsen Markus. 2014. “The spiritual tolkien milieu: a study of fiction-based religion.” Doctoral Diss., Universiteit Leiden, Leiden. 

3. Grieve, Gregory Price., and Campbell, Heidi A. 2014. “Studying Religion in Digital Gaming: A Critical Review of an Emerging Field.” In Religion in Digital Games: Multiperspective & Interdisciplinary Approaches, edited by Simone Heidbrink and Tobias Knoll, 51-67. p. 52.

4. Wolf, Mark J. P. 2018. “Contemplation, Subcreation, and Video Games.” Religions 9(5). Available.

5. Possamai, Adam. 2012. Handbook of Hyper-Real Religions. Leiden: Brill.  

6. Possamai, Adam. 2005. Ibid.

7. Luckman, Thomas. 1967. The Invisible Religion: The Problem of Religion in Modern Society. New York: MacMillan Publishers. p. 106. 

8. Bainbridge, William S. 2010. The Warcraft civilization: Social science in a virtual world. Cambridge: MIT Press.

9. Vander, Corliss. 2011. “Gaming with God: A Case for the Study of Religion in Video Games.” Senior Theses, Trinity College, Hartford. p. 11. 

10. Rapp, Amon. 2020. “An exploration of World of Warcraft for the gamification of virtual organizations.” Electronic Commerce Research and Applications 42:1-17.

11. Boudreau, Kelly. 2008. “Online role-playing games.” In The Video Game Explosion: A History from PONG to Playstation and Beyond, edited by Mark J. P. Wolf, 173-176. Westport: Greenwood Press.

12. Geraci, Robert M. 2014. Virtually Sacred. Myth and Meaning in World of Warcraft and Second Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 213.

13. Vallikatt, Jose. 2014. “Virtually Religious: Myth, Ritual and Community in World of Warcraft.” Diss., School of Media and Communication College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University. p. 49.

14. Schaap, Julian., and Aupers, Stef. 2017. “Gods in World of Warcraft exist’: Religious reflexivity and the quest for meaning in online computer games.” New Media & Society 19(11): 1744-1760. p. 1744. 

15. Brignall, Thomas W., and Van Valey, Thomas L. 2007. “An Online Community as a New Tribalism: the World of Warcraft.” Proceedings of the 40th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences. p. 6.

16. Eladhari, Mirjam Palosaari. 2007. “The player’s journey.” In The Players’ Realm: Studies on the Culture of Video Games and Gaming, edited by J. Patrick Williams and Jonas Heide Smith, 171-187. Jefferson: McFarland & Co.

17. Geraci, Robert M. 2014. Ibid. p. 9.

18. Perlini-Pfister, Fabian. “Philosophers with Clubs: Negotiating Cosmology and Worldviews in Dungeons & Dragons.” In Religions in Play: Games, Rituals, and Virtual Worlds, edited by Maya Burger and Philippe Bornet, 275-294. Zürich: Theologischer Verlag Zürich.

19. Hodge, Daniel. 2010. “Role Playing: Toward a Theology for Gamers.” In Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God, edited by Craig Detweiler, 163-175. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press. p. 165.

20. Schaap, Julian., and Aupers, Stef. 2014. “Beyond Belief: Playing with Pagan Spirituality in World of Warcraft.” In Religion in Digital Games: Multiperspective & Interdisciplinary Approaches, edited by Simone Heidbrink and Tobias Knoll, 190-206. p. 194. 

21. Schaap, Julian., and Aupers, Stef. 2017. Ibid. p. 1751

22. Tregonning, James. 2018. “God in the Machine: Depicting Religion in Video Games.” Diss., University of Otago. p. 6.

23. Wowpedia. 2009. Religion. Available.

24. Vander, Corliss. 2011. Ibid. p. 45. 

25. Schaap, Julian., and Aupers, Stef. 2017. Ibid. p. 1756.

26. Gálik, Slavomír. 2017. “World of Warcraft as a New Form of Religion?” Perspectives on Culture 18:23-35. p. 30; Geraci, Robert M. 2014. Ibid.

27. Gálik, Slavomír. 2017. Ibid. p. 31.

28. Taylor, T. L. 2006. Play between Worlds: Exploring Online Game Culture. Cambridge: MIT Press; Campbell Heidi. 2012. “Religion and the Internet: a microcosm for studying Internet trends and implications.” New Media & Society 15(5): 680-694; Linderoth, Jonas., Mortensen, Torill Elvira., and Brown, Ashley M. L. 2015. “Dark play: the aesthetics of controversial playfulness.” In The Dark Side of Game Play: Controversial Issues in Playful Environments, edited by Jonas Linderoth, Torill Elvira Mortensen, and Ashley M. L. Brown, 3-14. Milton Park: Routledge.

29. Schaap, Julian., and Aupers, Stef. 2017. Ibid. p. 1756.

30. Robinson, Laura. 2007. “The Cyberself: The Self-ing Project Goes Online, Symbolic Interaction in the Digital Age.” New Media & Society 9(1):93-110. p. 98.

31. Linderoth, Jonas., Mortensen, Torill Elvira., and Brown, Ashley M. L. 2015. Ibid. p. 4.

32. Schaap, Julian., and Aupers, Stef. 2017. Ibid. p. 1756.

33. Schaap, Julian., and Aupers, Stef. 2017. Ibid. p. 1769.

34. Schaap, Julian., and Aupers, Stef. 2017. Ibid. p. 1769.

35. Vallikatt, Jose. 2014. Ibid. p. 98.

36. Gálik, Slavomír. 2017. Ibid. p. 25. 

37. Vallikatt, Jose. 2014.Ibid. p. 193. 

38. Vallikatt, Jose. 2014. Ibid. p. 201. 

39. Gálik, Slavomír. 2017. Ibid. p. 23. 

40. Gálik, Slavomír. 2017. Ibid. p. 31. 

41. Gálik, Slavomír. 2017. Ibid. p. 32. 

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