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January 21, 2008
Bob Hoose
A Case of Virtual Spirituality

A Case of Virtual Spirituality

"It's an Online Game Thing!" is a 5-part online series that explores the nooks and crannies of Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs) and the rest of the Internet gaming world. This is Part 3.

When game time used to get a little rough, my mom would calm me and my rampaging siblings with, "It's all fun and games until somebody gets hurt!" Her specific forewarned damages usually fell somewhere between injured feelings and a poked-out eye. With today's digital gameplay, though, things have changed. Now it's fun and games until ... you lose all your hit points, rematerialize as a ghost in a graveyard 10 miles away, and then have to find your way back to resurrect your fallen body.

The Massively Multiplayer Online Games that entertain us in the 2000s are a far cry from yesteryear's games of badminton and living room Nerf football. Internet video games can be anything and go anywhere—from conquering expansive fantasy frontiers to building a second existence. And more often than not, the characters we play are creatures of enchantment and wonder. Heroes who leap into the air and fly to distant lands or use magic to reach impossible goals.

When wrapped up in the fun of these wizarding worlds, however, do gamers ever question where all that magic comes from? How does one create that firestorm, become invisible or turn virtual skin to stone? And should a virtual version of abracadabra give any of us pause as we go around casting all those spells?

Some will pooh-pooh those kinds of questions because it's only a game on the Internet. But consider that each online playground can, and often does, have its own worldview and philosophy that shapes every thought and activity. In that light, then, isn't it important to think about what these gaming universes are really offering?

Science writer Margaret Wertheim, author of The Pearly Gates of CyberSpace, thinks so, and argues that the Internet is actually becoming a place of spirituality.

"The Heavenly City of the New Jerusalem was the great promise of early Christianity," she writes. "In the last centuries of the Roman era, as the empire disintegrated, such a vision offered special appeal. ... So too, in our time of social and environmental disintegration—a time when our 'empire' also appears to be disintegrating—today's proselytizers of cyberspace proffer their domain as an idealized realm 'above' and 'beyond' the problems of a troubled material world. Just like the early Christians, they too promise a 'transcendent' haven of radiance and light, a utopian arena of equality, friendship and virtue."

As heady as that kind of statement may sound, it certainly supports the idea of closely looking at game environments. And so does 1 Thessalonians 5:21 when it exhorts us to "examine everything carefully, holding fast to that which is good."

The Ghost in the Game
World of Warcraft is a good example for us to hold a magnifying glass to, since it consists of a polytheistic world that contains at least 11 different religions that game characters align themselves with (including necromancy, demonology and voodoo). And you find temples in large cities for the worship of each sect's founding deities.

Now, the spiritual side of the game is never really pushed, it's just accepted as gameplay backstory for the struggle between good and evil. But as priests and magicians cast their spells, it seems natural to assume that their powers are bestowed by their religion's patron gods. Which raises this nagging question: Should Christians wield virtual magic? Deuteronomy 18:10-12 certainly doesn't shy away from condemning the use of magic, and 1 Peter 5 warns of that roving adversary who will use anything to trick and devour us.

And while gamers aren't really casting spells on anything but a pixilated animation, let's face it, entertainment that inspires the imagination (games, TV, movies) can, and many times does, impact our beliefs and behavior—especially considering the amount of time gamers usually find themselves immersed in these inviting and enchanted worlds. Again, Margaret Wertheim:

"People can now slay dragons. And in a sense what we've done without moral trappings of a religion—we're giving people a religion—but sadly divorced from overall moral responsibility—we've Disneyfied the supernatural."

Virtual Salt
There are other aspects of spirituality in online gaming that also bear examination, of course. It just so happens that some gamers have been reading their Bibles and believe that Scripture encourages them to play in (and be spiritual salt in) this new frontier.

Online guilds of Christian players such as the NBC (New Blood Covenant) and The Narrow Path believe their WoW gaming can be more Lord of the Rings and less Dungeons & Dragons. They invite gamers to join in a "safe" playing environment where they can support one another and reach out to players around them. Some groups even offer daily Bible verses and devotionals on their guild Web sites.

Meanwhile, in Second Life, a 3-D virtual world that's a social platform for an online society of millions, some players have applied their faith in another way. Site participants create avatars to represent themselves and then interact with other "residents" to build a brave new world of their own design. And some of them have started building ... churches.

An Oklahoma City congregation called Life Church, for instance, has invested thousands of real dollars to build a digital presence in Second Life. On Sunday morning the pastor's sermon is pumped into the Internet version of Life Church and avatars gather from far and wide to attend the service. This cyberflock is uniquely integrated. And it's not even always human. An MSNBC article spoke of one particular cheetah, dressed in Hawaiian shirts, who attends regularly and said that he only feels accepted in this virtual house of worship.

Not Just Fun and Games
How do we land this topic, then? Should we be condemning all modern technologies (and their online gaming siblings) and encouraging everyone to wear sackcloth and live in caves? No. Caves can be far too damp for sackcloth. Should we then be unthinkingly praising these digital domains and throwing caution to the wind? Not a chance. Rather, what's most needed is to recognize and acknowledge that online environments such as World of Warcraft and Second Life are much more than simply fun and games.

These virtual worlds can be filled with spirituality in many forms that include all the temptations, opportunities, happiness and problems that real life has. And if we want to make sure that no one gets an eye poked out (metaphorically or otherwise), we should be discerning and tread lightly, thinking ultimately of what will be not just fun for us, but, as 2 Corinthians 5:9 says, pleasing to God.

In Part 4, a chance to live a Second Life. Bob Hoose travels to that land in which ordinary people fly—and everybody else buys and sells, lives and lusts till their hearts can't take it anymore.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Opining on Online Gaming