Many MMOGs have within them some nod toward religion, some degree of religious trappings at least. Priestly characters are common, as are holy warriors (paladins). To say nothing of demons and angels based loosely on Christian archetypes, the former of which make regular appearances in online games.
And yet, actual religion and theology are pretty much absent or at best non-operative in most MMOs. In fantasy games the priest is typically a "healer" but otherwise the character is a façade. In modern or science fiction games, religion is conspicuously almost entirely absent.
I've been wondering for some time about enabling the presence of both real-world and made-up religions in MMOs as thematically appropriate. Is this a good way to flesh out a world, to create gameplay surrounding a moral code and shared identity, and to bring a significantly missing piece of human community to the game, or would it just be a way to invite controversy -- in effect, to draw aggro from both religious and non-religious players and cause a heap o' customer service trouble?
The companion to this question is a bit more introspective: to what degree does the answer to the question of operative religions in MMOs vary with our own degree of spirituality/religiosity? Is the perceived agnosticism of the game development community keeping religion out of MMOs?
When religion does appear in MMOs it does so as a vague prop that
provides nothing in the way of gameplay based on themes of faith,
adherence to a code of conduct, membership in and sacrifice for a
larger organization, etc. In game terms religion could become operative in a number of ways ranging from socially motivated achievement gameplay to role-playing to exploring somewhat deeper themes than we typically find in existing first-generation MMOs. Even in straight achievement terms amenable to current games, imagine for example a paladin who gained bonuses for things like making a personal sacrifice for weaker members of a party (your paladin receives buffs when rezzing if by your death the mob was killed while other party members who had sustained over 50% damage did not die).
But if we open the door for gameplay with a religious component, is it desirable or even possible to keep the religions in an MMO entirely fantastic? If a group of players want to set up an guild/organization that's avowedly Christian or Hindu, or one which has no relationship to any actual religion, is there any reason not to allow it?
Another way to ask this is, would players be accepting of having Jewish, Shinto, Lutheran, Puppeteer, and Flat-Earth organizations in-game? Would "proselyting" -- people advertising their religion or religious organization in chat channels -- be a problem? (Yes, there are echoes here of the recent GLBT discussion.) And might people holding a particular religious belief in their own lives either be offended by its presence in a game, or use that presence as a lever to annoy others with their beliefs?
One immediate problem of course with anything along these lines is that religion is one of those areas where people unfortunately often leave civility behind when discussing others' beliefs. For the sake of this discussion, assume that any organization that in name or practice actively disparages another's philosophy is excluded or shut down -- though of course even that is open to the same sort of "giving offense" interpretation as has been seen in the latest GLBT flap in WoW. By this thinking we wouldn't have to allow the KKK or Aryan Nations, but we probably would have to let players form the Church of All Things Chuck Norris.
Is this on balance a good thing or more trouble than it's worth? Are there new forms of MMO gameplay that can be explored here, or is it better just left alone? And again, how do our own individual religious biases play in to how we see the answers to these questions?