Religion in MMOGs

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?


Comments on Religion in MMOGs:

Bonnie Ruberg says:

One of the most interesting things about MMO's is that, in a way, they allow for the recreation of culture without the weight of history, according simply to the wishes of the players. Why hasn't religion, as we know and expect it in RL, become prominent in VWs? Because people don't want it there - or so it seems. If they did, they would find a way.

Perhaps they prefer to be able to walk away from normal religious morals and labels, into a more free, and at the same time unifying world, where the only mentions of religion are based on science fantasy, which they can take or leave as they please. Or perhaps, they have found elements of virtual life that fill the same role for them as religion. After all, religion offers a sense of comraderie, a higher purpose, and the promise of immortal life. VW's offer this and more.

Posted Feb 13, 2006 12:36:48 PM | link

Chip Hinshaw says:

I think any "proselytizing" would be met negatively in any MMO. It's a bit interesting that there doesn't seem to be much uproar over the latent near-Christian mythos in many MMOs, but that may be a reflection of the fact that the treatment is very shallow (for lack of a better word) or maybe more reflective of the fact that most gamers (in North America and Europe) are Christian (practicing or not) and so the presence of these themes is almost unnoticed? (The latter is legitimately a question -- I have no idea).

I think it would be possible to play up religions more in MMOs and have them be a more central part. But I think it would have to be done with religions that are likely to be less familiar to the playerbase. Christian or Jewish faiths will probably not go over well. Islamism could be interesting to non-Muslims, but (from the way the media portrays Muslims) it seems to me that Muslims might take great offense to such treatment of their faith. (Please, hold all flames, I mean no offense.)

I think that ancient or "exotic" religions would appeal. The "religions" you tend to see associated with Asians seem to have a lot of appeal as a mythos to many people. Ancient Egyptian beliefs see some success, as may ancient Greek or Roman. Norse mythology would go over well. And I don't mean to mix "religion" and "mythology" so haphazardly, but there does seem to be a degree of myth (whether based on truth or not) in many religions. And some of those mythologies are more compelling than others as a means for driving a story or back-story in a game.

Posted Feb 13, 2006 1:08:14 PM | link

Michael Chui says:

My experience in Dragonrealms, at least on the forums, has strongly suggested to me that people will make up religions to justify their characters, and will even make decisions based on this constructed view. Now granted, this is in no way prevalent; I only discovered it when I started playing a cleric myself.

My design philosophy says to give players a snapshot of the current "beginning of time" = "beta release" or "live release" as the scenario they have to work from in developing their characters. If they want to create religions, or subscribe to one of the current ones, or do a hybrid, or abstain altogether from the theological landscape, I feel that should be their right. Me, I've been intending to add in ambiguous and contradictory religious thoughts into my latest creation.

I don't think it would be appropriate to have things like the KKK or the Church of All Things Chuck Norris, because these things are inherently outside of the magic circle. However, if you could produce a convincing argument that a Deliverer will be coming back, and that the first time he came, he was killed in a ritual that made it possible for all people to shed their deviations from the One True Way, I would say that's acceptable, even though it's blatantly Christian.

Similarly, I'd say an organization of bigots wearing white sheets and committing hate crimes is acceptable. But the important thing is that they commit it within the context of the virtual world, and more importantly, they should be dealt with in the context of the virtual world.

Now, granted, I haven't considered the customer service side of it. I rarely bother, since I'm not really expecting my games to hit the mainstream. But, good business practice or no, I tend to believe in a hands-off administration. "We fix bugs. We do big changes if we feel like it. But we don't babysit little feuds." And no, I don't have a solution for griefers.

If you pin me to a wall, I'd be agnostic, because I was raised Christian, but feel that God is unprovable. So, in summary, I think real religions are an important part of worlds that have been thoroughly neglected in favor of real deities. Part of the richness of our world comes through the mixing of real religions; the question of whether or not there actually are the presumed deities isn't actually asked. Because it's the unaskable question.

And just to stir the pot, one of the other things I haven't seen are real politics. The best I've seen is the stuff by Iron Realms, and something feels lacking when I look at that. After Patrick Curry's latest game idea, I've been trying to figure out a good way of doing that.

Posted Feb 13, 2006 1:20:08 PM | link

Michael Chui says:

Please, hold all flames, I mean no offense.

Reportedly (I haven't been following the story), they had mass riots due to a comic. But, then, what happened to The 99?

Posted Feb 13, 2006 1:23:26 PM | link

Rick R. says:

I think anything in MMO's along the lines of real-world or even (perhaps especially) invented religion would be viewed internally as imposing a limitation to your intended audience, as well as "drawing aggro" as Mike so eloquently put it.

In this day and age of massive development timelines and budgets, it's an unfortunate side-effect that very few publishers are willing to risk any sort of deviation from the tried-and-true (non-WoW?) formula.

Posted Feb 13, 2006 1:24:06 PM | link

Jarod Scott says:

The problem with real-world religion in a fantastic world is that often the metaphysical elements will contradict the religion.

Dragons exist. Why? Because God prefers dragons. What God? The real one. Then why don't dragons exist IRL? God isn't IRL. O RLY?

The only way I see around this problem is to have a world that encourages its users to bring all their real world beliefs with them, a world for which the fiction includes the fact that its not really a fantastic world but merely a representation of one. E.g., dragons are imaginary; but the idea of dragons has been illustrated by the virtual world's fallible creators, who may in turn have been created by one's God IRL.

Posted Feb 13, 2006 1:24:12 PM | link

Mike Sellers says:

Many of the replies above seem to be assuming a Tolkein-esque/D&D-derivative fantasy setting for the game. This opens the door to existential questions about dragons and might give preference to ancient or otherwise exotic religions.

But what about a science fiction or near-future MMO? Leaving current religions (and maybe some fictional ones) out of the picture might seem odd. Consider for example the character of the Imam in the Riddick movies, or Shepherd Book in Firefly/Serenity.

In a non-fantasy setting, why would including -- or allowing players to create -- religious organizations relevant to both players and characters, and that might well include real-life ones be construed as "imposing a limitation" on the audience as Rick said above?

Posted Feb 13, 2006 1:38:33 PM | link

Matt Mihaly says:

Michael Chui wrote:

And just to stir the pot, one of the other things I haven't seen are real politics. The best I've seen is the stuff by Iron Realms, and something feels lacking when I look at that.

Thanks, and yeah, they're certainly far from perfect. We're experimenting with various systems though. For instance, in Achaea, we just moved from a system where the city-state representatives are direct representatives of the people to one in which there's a mixture of direct representatives and indirect representatives (appointed by Houses in rough proportion to their influence in the city), and Lusternia allows their cities to choose different forms of government (conquest, religious, commercial, etc).

--matt

Posted Feb 13, 2006 1:46:22 PM | link

Chris Dahlen says:

Regardless of the particular faith (and I agree that using a real one would cause major problems), it comes down to gameplay: would having a faith require you to do anything, or act a certain way?

I'd be interested in having more rules (why aren't pallys forced to help strangers in trouble?), and more benefits for characters who practice a (made-up) faith, and a "faction" system around those faiths. It would be an interesting cross-current that could unite, say, members of the Horde and the Alliance in WOW, while diving people in the same race.

But aside from new quests, new factions and new rules, what else could religion add from a gameplay standpoint? Could you experience random "miracles" or other unexpected events? Encounter a different set of NPCs (saints, etc.)? What would make it more interesting than joining a guild?

Posted Feb 13, 2006 1:47:06 PM | link

Edward Castronova says:

It's hard for me to imagine a story arc that does not set up some kind of contrast for the viewer/participant between some desired state of the world and some undesired state of the world. there has to be tension between states of the world in order to motivate action. in any flow concept of personal satisfaction, for example, the actor needs to be engaged in an action that has some purpose, and that purpose in itself must be something that's good. Hang-gliding into an active volcano doesn't induce flow, but rather terror. for satisfied motivation to happen, we need some distinction between good and bad outcomes. and while i can see how a game could come up with the required tensions using very basic, non-religious building blocks - things that appeal to the animal elements of human psyche, like explosions and body shapes - i don't think those get you very far. for deeper, more satisfying and more motivating tensions, you need to set up contrasts using more mystical building blocks, like the desires of the gods, the temptations of evil spirits, and the demands of justice. show a man a woman's breast, and he will have something to do for 10 minutes. show him a great but correctable injustice, and his entire life acquires meaning.

and once you start talking about great but correctable injustices, you're in a religious mindset. the religions may not be explicit in games, but religious thought is everywhere.

notes:
1. it is much better to keep RL religions out of it.
2. Most thoughtful, educated people today would argue that the moral tensions mentioned above imply nothing about religion, and that you can have concepts of right and wrong without having a prior concept of god. I don't agree with that.

Posted Feb 13, 2006 1:52:13 PM | link

Daniel Speed says:

Politics is easy, just look at Eve. Take the following writeup of player news in Eve:

---------------------
The bitter conflict between the allied forces of The Forsaken Empire, Phoenix Alliance and NBSI against The Five is hurriedly being re-evaluated today as The Forsaken Empire, widely acknowledged to have fielded the bulk of the forces on that side of the conflict, publicly announced that it has broken its ties with NBSI and the Phoenix Alliance to form a new coalition with The Five.

This announcement came only a few days after the announcement of a Non Aggression Pact between the two alliances. Although many pilots predicted it would expand from a simple ceasefire into a full blown alliance, this move has still undoubtedly caused the Phoenix Alliance and NBSI to review their defensive policy now that their relatively secure borders have become the new front line.
---------------------

There's people who play Eve and pretty much only take part in politics.

Anyway, I'm in vague agreement with Bonnie. From a player point of view, MMOGs answer your questions about life and death, and there's obvious higher power (code / developers) that defines what choices in many regards are "moral" ones. There's really no question about what's going to happen to you, because it's utterly controlable though the divine subscription and alternate accounts, otherwise it's part of the game and well defined.

As for developers integrating religion [as gameplay]... you never know - we do after all have games designed around religions and Christian developers. It seems like just a matter of time before one of them decides to take it to a MMOG ('Christianity Online'?) and defines gameplay for it. In my more dangerous moments, I ponder that gameplay, and realise that I should never speak of it in public.

Posted Feb 13, 2006 1:57:38 PM | link

Matt Mihaly says:

Mike Sellers wrote:

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?

Religion is a huge part of all the Iron Realms games, and I am aggressively anti-religion in the rest of my life, so I'm not sure there's much link between developing games with heavy religious components and spirituality in the rest of one's life.

On the other hand, we do not really allow players to bring their real-life religions into the game. It conflicts with the game-fiction, and the in-game Gods are going to treat this player as a heretic who is, at best, an insane person babbling nonsense about false Gods, or, at worst, someone who needs to have his or her heresy beaten out of them. Atheists really aren't welcome either, insofar as it's difficult to be an atheist when Gods can manifest themselves in very real and immediate ways within the game world.

--matt

Posted Feb 13, 2006 2:03:16 PM | link

Matt Mihaly says:

Chris Dahlen wrote:

'd be interested in having more rules (why aren't pallys forced to help strangers in trouble?), and more benefits for characters who practice a (made-up) faith, and a "faction" system around those faiths.

Just fyi, there are virtual worlds that do all of that. Avalon started doing it in 1990, for instance, and all of our Iron Realms games do that. It's not that the code forces a paladin to do something, for instance. It's that the organization that governs who gets access to a particular skill strongly associated with 'good' enforces (or tries their best) certain rules for behavior. For instance, in Achaea, there are Divine Orders that each God has, which players join. They can climb in rank within the Order, and gain access to powers that manifest through the shrines of the God (followers of various Gods often battle to destroy each others shrines and erect their own, as they exert an area of influence around them in-game). There are often areas of the Gods' temple(s) accessible only to followers of certain ranks, and many Gods have elaborate ceremonies and rituals their followers engage in.

--matt

Posted Feb 13, 2006 2:08:48 PM | link

Mike Sellers says:

Chris Dalen: I agree that using a real one would cause major problems

And Ted: it is much better to keep RL religions out of it.

And Daniel Speed: In my more dangerous moments, I ponder [religious] gameplay, and realise that I should never speak of it in public.

Could we dig into that a bit more? The dangerous, problematic nature of real-world religions in MMOs seems to be almost an article of faith (heh), but I'm curious as to why. What are the "major problems" that seem so inevitable? Note that I'm not talking about violations of the world fiction (I will not use "magic circle," sorry), nor about a "Christian MMO" or an "Islamic MMO," nor (especially) about a game where one religion has a demonstrable edge that they don't enjoy in the physical world (that is, no thunderbolts with Zeus's -- or the dev's -- name on them). Rather, I'm musing about one in which you might find Christian, Islamic and other (including RL and fictional) religions possibly created by the players and definitely presented in a way that makes them more than window dressing for the players.

Ted, I'm not sure what to make of your discussion of flow, breasts, and injustice (the first two, I guess, we have in games already :-/ ).

once you start talking about great but correctable injustices, you're in a religious mindset.

I think a religious mindset is a superset of a response to 'great but correctable injustices.' I'm not even sure that's a necessary (if insufficient) aspect of religious thought. Especially in the context of a MMOG.

Posted Feb 13, 2006 2:17:41 PM | link

Cael says:

It's being tried ;) I'll make certain you get a Beta invite.

Posted Feb 13, 2006 2:24:24 PM | link

infocyde says:

I think this is a great area to explore. I started playing Second Life the last week and I was struck by what kind of virtual world develops when a free for all approach is taken. What happens in Second Life and the acts committed there virtually by some of its denizens I’m sure (or hope I’m sure) would never happen in real life. MMORG in a sense I think act as a safe sandbox where people feel free to act out and explore elements of their personalities that they are restrained from doing so in the real world. I think this might offer an explanation about the absence of religion in MMORGs. The type of play attracts those that are typically restrained by traditional religion or societal conditioning because MMORGs are free from those types of restraints.

Yet at the same time being a born again Christian I see a great opportunity in these games to reach out to people in an evangelical sense. I’ve seen people in SL who were talking online about feeling extremely depressed and exhibiting suicidal text responses. I felt like I had some real solutions to offer that person from my Christian perspective, but I felt restrained because I felt like talking about Jesus online was *taboo*. I feel like these MMORG sandboxes, as much as any other human endeavor, are drawing hurting people who to them that are either escaping from painful circumstances in real life or who are looking for answers like why am I here, what is life all about, stuff typically answered by religion. Part of their exploration for these answers will from this point onward will have a virtual component as well, as the virtual being as much as a valid frontier of seeking answers and exploring our existence as any other realm. Yet I will be the first to acknowledge that having a bunch of Born-Again Christians running around proselytizing (or muslims, hindus, what have you) would be a huge turn off for most MMORG players. If I wasn’t a Christian I will admit it would be a real buzz kill to get so serous in my escape or my exploration of my MMORG character.

So for me I think a happy medium should be struck. I would love it if organized religions had a presence in all MMORGs. For those who reach a point of interest, I think God should have a presence online that is as powerful as His is in the real world, and that presence should always be easy to find. Yet at the same time, just like in the real world, for those who don’t want to hear it, they should be free to go about their virtual business unbothered if they so choose. I think religion being to aggressive online would just result in efforts to squash it, which I would hate to see.

It will be interesting to see how religion and the virtual get along, it will be as interesting as it is the real world.

Posted Feb 13, 2006 2:27:01 PM | link

Michael Chui says:

Okay, I've seen way too many posts based off a vague, yet hot-button topic lately. Between Raph's little cataclysms and this, I'm starting to get worried.

Can we get a definition of the term "religion" that people can say they are definitely talking about, or definitely not talking about? I foresee much shouting and inarticulate babbling in the future without this.

Posted Feb 13, 2006 2:32:56 PM | link

Rick R. says:

Mike Sellers wrote:
In a non-fantasy setting, why would including -- or allowing players to create -- religious organizations relevant to both players and characters, and that might well include real-life ones be construed as "imposing a limitation" on the audience as Rick said above?

My own feeling is that many people feel there are lines that should not be crossed, taboo subjects that should not be broached. They are willing to suspend belief to fly on a gryphon, or slay a dragon, or fly a starship, but an imagined or invented religion in a game would still be viewed as a false god in the real world. When the design document is reviewed prior to signing off on the development budget, I think it more likely than not that this real or imagined controversy would be hearkened as being potentially offensive to some segments of the gaming populace and/or vilified in the media. Hence the limitation; the popular and least risky approach to big-budget titles is to genericize them so as to appeal to the broadest possible audience.

Posted Feb 13, 2006 2:35:32 PM | link

Andrew Krausnick says:

"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."

I'm going to focus on this sentence, as it explores the game reasons to implement religion outside of a sense of evangelism.

First of all, implementing a representation of RL faith and relgion in a virtual sense is a headache waiting to happen. If you think the GLBT issue created problems for Blizzard, try being responsible for moderating discourse between a greater number of beliefs explicitly allowed by your world and an exponentially greater number of inter-faith interactions.

That said, I think there is a great deal of potential for the concept of faith and belonging to exist in modern MMO's. I think your strongest argument for the inclusion of inner-game faith is that it would be a force for deeper gameplay. By including varying codes of ethics for players to adhere to, not only would it enchance the RPing options available, but it would have the possibility of adding a greater purpose for players to strive for and be a part of.

Of course there are a great number of questions to answer about this implentation, and it wouldn't be something you can tack on to the current generation of diku-derived MMO's. However by tackling real world concepts such as culture clashes, evangelism, and the sense of belonging that are embodied in faith, there is a possibility to not only build stronger communities but also build in more powerful and meaningful conflicts.

Posted Feb 13, 2006 2:57:09 PM | link

genericdefect says:

The trouble may be connected to the immanence of the deities within virtual worlds. The designers generally just aren't vague enough to allow groups of individuals to forge their own significance in many of these worlds or to pursue their own style of mythopoetics.

Without this, it is hard to see how sui generis cultures can have a firm narrative grip on the actions and intentions of the participants. Perhaps designers and world owners exercise too much control over the governance of most of these protoworlds and are short-circuiting the will to power, the spirit of civitas, or what have you. Perhaps these creative few have not hit upon the means to create worlds far more complex than they could ever hope to shape.

Also, I would note that in some ways, we would see mundane ethos more prominently in virtual worlds, because the old reward-style morality just doesn't play out in an environment where the spectacular and immortality are themselves mundane. The transcendent efforts would likely solely be based on the space between participants, seeing as Natural Law is sui generis and transparent in a virtual world.

Posted Feb 13, 2006 3:43:21 PM | link

realtrance says:

While I'm not religious, I think it would be interesting to try to introduce something that appeals to this aspect of human experience, which is currently almost totally absent from the acquisition-oriented, competition-oriented nature of most of our computer gameplay.

The critical question in my mind is, can one have a game design structure that encourages contemplative moments? That provides room for the kind of mental activity and pacing that would have to come with awareness about the spiritual aspects of one's activities in the gameworld?

What would spirituality mean in this context? It would mean aspiration (note clever play on words) around experiences in the game that are clearly not "loot-driven," nor captured within a challenge/reward cycle. It would mean thinking about the kinds of choices a player could make in this sphere, and the kinds of consequences, in game and between players, that could be made manifest in response to those choices. Making it just another progression tree, I think at least, would limit it from being anything more than just that -- yet another path to grind down.

Is there anything present in our current repertoire of gameplay that would be familiar enough to be grokkable by the average gameplayer, yet flexible enough to open out towards a player's being able to think about her spiritual, poetic identity in interesting ways, and make choices about that in an MMO? To provide the means for players to group or contest with each other in new and interesting ways in the operation of collaborating or competing spiritual economies? Just some questions I'd think raising in this area.

Posted Feb 13, 2006 4:17:58 PM | link

Cael says:

Of course, you could argue that all MMOs are religious by default.

Pay your monthly tribute to the Creators and you may or may not receive blessings. But woe unto ye! should the nerfbat fall upon thine head for thou, being naughty in the Developers' sight dost deserve it and hast no possible comeback, except possibly changing your religion/subscription.

I must make certain the first words in spatial when we go live are "Fiat Lux!"

Posted Feb 13, 2006 4:20:41 PM | link

Timothy Burke says:

One thing to consider here, as with all presences and absences in existing MMOGs, is the sociologies of those who are drawn to existing MMOGs. Beyond that are two other social orientations: those who haven't heard of or don't care about virtual worlds or computer games, and those who are active rejectionists. In the latter category are at least some American Christians, who object either to the typical content if not idea of a MMOG (e.g., fantasy themes) and those who perhaps even object to or find unsettling the medium itself.

So before we even start to consider the implications of the lack or presence of religion, we have to consider the circumscribed character of actually existing virtual worlds. This is why I find the kind of statements that Bonnie makes above somewhat worrisome: an inference that no one brings religions into virtual worlds because no one wants to. There is a strong tendency for many of us to assume that particular visible pattered absences and presences in existing virtual worlds in some way mirror either freedoms that we desire in worlds unfettered by history or prejudices and identities which form the necessary or inescapable predicate of online sociality. Sometimes it's much simpler: what we see is a product of a fairly particular subset or subculture of wider societies, and tells only about that subculture.

However, another thing that I think is interesting to consider is the intensity and ubiquity of debates about morality and ethics within all existing virtual worlds. Players endlessly debate whether it is right to do this or that, about how one should or should not connect virtual personas to real personas, about how to be and even believe in the virtual world. What I suppose is striking is that these debates rarely invoke religious reasoning, even when they do invoke habitus (e.g., a player may say, "This is just the way I think people ought to behave in this game, because that's what I was raised to", and even think that because they're religious, but they won't often say that explicitly.) So I do wonder a little about the specific cultural inhibition against grounding or connecting constant ongoing debates about ethics and morality to existing religious beliefs or practices.

Posted Feb 13, 2006 4:22:18 PM | link

Eric Random says:

Virtual worlds can act as a medium for delivering deep, meaningful experiences. Theism is not the only solution to creating a moral code or shared identity central to gameplay. Some uses of theism, real or fictional, will invite controversy, but not all. Might sound obvious, but I'm attempting to answer the question briefly. There are a lot of questions.

It is significant to examine the pieces of human community and their uses in achieving meaningful interaction to determine the varying degrees between the operative religions of virtual worlds and those religions of the world the virtual world is contained within. The common elements between the two, as when it occurs successfully, are the central archetypes generally required in the transposition and adaptation of the central message to the virtual medium. Additionally, religions solve specific issues in the human condition, and such conditions may not be prevalent in the virtual world. Thusly, not all archetypes may transpose, and archetypes unique to the medium may be required. For example, one archetype of religion and superstitions that are attributed to theistic involvement is the archetype of The Unknown. If a game does not have unknowns or mysteries, then there will exist no useful competing superstitions or explanations to resolve them.

Very often it seems game-play drives religious fiction. "I want characters to cast healing spells, and thus I must create a fiction for dealing with that." Rather than "I have a central message to communicate in the medium and I need to actualize it."

Can the free expression of religion, real or fictional, cause problems in a virtual world? This depends entirely on the virtual world and its terms of service. Such inclusion, though, can be thematically appropriate and can be desirable as the virtual world can serve as a medium for discussion and exploration of subjects difficult to discuss in the world it is contained within, while also incorporating a level of actuality not experienced in verbal or written exploration.

If it is thematically appropriate to advertise one's religion, it may not be a problem if implemented properly, but it can be. There are, at least, two potential problems.

An "anything-goes" mentality can invite a level of depravity which can offend the general public. Some persons may operate specifically to offend others and abuse the terms of service to legitimize such activity. If it is not forbidden, and it can happen, consider that it will happen. This may be an invitation to undesirable states an operator is both unable to predict and unable to resolve.

Ultimately, it is humans operating in the virtual worlds through avatars. Humans are emotional beings, and can be offended, angry, disgusted, outraged, hateful, and sensitive. They are also capable of interpreting matters differently than intended. Our society has a lot of institutions and ethos that deal specifically with this condition, and still it is not enough. Invoking this condition in a virtual world without establishing the neccessary mechanisms for resolving or avoiding it may create more complications not readily percieved as directly associated with the original function, whether intended or not.

This topic is definately worthwhile to explore in virtual worlds, but clearly difficult to implement in a meaningful way, perhaps parallel to the difficulty in writing a popular meaningful work of fiction or non-fiction concerning religion (or comparative religion) as a central theme, but clearly moreso complicated, as such a work would need to be adapted to a virtual medium with communal interactivity.

Posted Feb 13, 2006 4:56:42 PM | link

Chip Hinshaw says:

I have to wonder (as others above have hinted at) if a more "fleshed-out" presence of religion/faith/beliefs is even WANTED by the playerbase. I realize that we're not just talking about RPG's here, but in considering those worlds, religion is (to me anyway) an RP element.

Your non-RP players are not likely to care about its presence. Or, if religion is made a key element (you have to engage in the "religion system" in order to advance or whatever) then non-RP players would engage only as far as they need to in order to advance and nothing more. Then again, the current purpose of RP-only servers seems to be to serve as a refuge for players who hope to escape the nastiness they experience on general servers -- they don't actually do any RP on the RP-only servers that I've seen.

If we look outside MMORPG's then ... I don't know. I guess it depends on the game. An MMORTS? Again, seems to me that religion is an RP element. In a VW like SecondLife that is somewhat "genre-less" then religion can absolutely be a part (and already is).

Posted Feb 13, 2006 5:02:26 PM | link

Charles says:

Interesting though the discussion has been, I haven't noticed anybody addressing the secondary question:

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?

If I could take a stab at it I'd venture that, yes, the gaming development community (and audience) are uncharacteristically non-religious (as compared to the general population). This is based on personal experience and from the observation that technically minded people (the kind who tend to become game developers) tend to be less religious than the general populace. I'm speaking only of broad trends of course, individual exceptions certainly exist.

However, I'd also venture that, by and large, the observed bias against religious content is not motivated by the agnostic nature of the development community, but rather by risk-minimizing corporate decision makers.
In most media, religious content (justified or not) is seen as a niche product and associated with generally low quality. Thus, many companies will try hard to avoid association with religion. Furthermore, as a polarizing topic, any association with religion will tend to fragment the available market. The "religious market" is actually a number of highly incompatible markets, and thus difficult to market to. Because of its complex and emotional nature, even well-intentioned attempts to reach this market can be rejected by the consumers targeted.
Attempting to take a non-denominational religious view can be equally disastrous. Because of the incompatibale nature of most religions with one another, anything perceived as promoting other religions could yield a great deal of consumer alienation. Even _allowing_ religious expression is easily conflated with _promoting_ religious expression. Religious parties tend to disagree with the promotion of other religions and thus would be lost as a market, and any imressions of promoting religious activity could quickly alienate secular consumers, who may or may not be willing to purchase a "religious" product.

Of course, there is a great deal of nuance here that I'm not addressing. Religious groups tend to be internally united and vocal, which could, as mentioned in the original post, yield a PR nightmare if anything is perceived as improper.

To most corporate decision makers, the idea of making money is infinitely more important than the idea of exploring new types of interaction in virtual spaces, so games with these themes tend not to get made. I personally have no doubt that a properly developed product that dealt with religious themes effectively would be wildly successful, but managing the issues involved properly is undoubtedly too risky for most developers. The agnosticism of games isn't any more pronounced than the agnosticism of any other popular entertainment medium.

Posted Feb 13, 2006 5:50:44 PM | link

Warren Grant says:

For the most part I think the lack of religious content and depth in MMOs is simply a reflection of the developers wishing to avoid the inevitable conflict, anger and harassment. Attempting to introduce a serious religious element into any game would inevitably give rise to complaints, increased support requirements, and undoubtedly bad publicity. I don't see an upside to it for the company maintaining an MMO.

As well, many players are seemingly unable to seperate their religious beliefs in the real world from those in the fictional world their characters inhabit. This is of course hardly true for everyone who is religious, but I have met sufficient people in game for whom religion was simply not an acceptable subject to fictionalize under any circumstances. I have seen some people get very vocal about their beliefs and attitudes in game in fact. Its this narrowmindedness on that part of the population that I think makes religion in MMOs a touchy subject at best.

I am not overtly religious, although I have many friends who are. I have no problem with the concept of *roleplaying* a member of a religion in a game, and I can keep my personal RL beliefs separate from those of my character in game, but for those who are unable to make this distinction, portrayal of anything other than their own beliefs is problematic, and many folks I have met are seeminly unable (or unwilling) to do so.

As in the real world, the big problem is primarily with the monotheistic religions, given the fact that by their very nature each believes itself to be the one true way and thus all other religions must inherently be misguided. Christians believe that only through accepting Christ can one be saved, Muslims know that only by following the words of the prophet can one be acceptable to God etc. I am not demeaning those beliefs, merely pointing out that they are mutually exclusive and thus give rise to the vast majority of religious intolerance in the world today. If we accept that its inevitable that at least some segment of the population playing a given game may take those views and that some segment of that population may be unable to distinguish between real world and in game viewpoints, then its inevitable that religious conflict will be brought from the real world into the virtual. As I don't see this adding anything positive to the gameplay of the players, I can see why its remained mostly unexplored in the games I have played.

In SWG, I started a religion - tongue in cheek mostly - when the NGE arrived. The "Church of the Old Ways" exhorted its followers to "express the viewpoint that while we may be sadled with the New Way (ie the NGE), that many elements of the Old Way (pre-NGE) were in fact better and eminently preferable". The Church has at least 2 buildings in different towns and about 30 members or so, with 3 people as clergy, but never actually managed a public gathering of the faithful. Sadly, since I cancelled my account I have no idea if this idea has been followed through on at all, although my vendor selling the church's bright orange robes (at 1c each) should still be up and running. In the course of setting this up though, I did receive some negative feedback from people via /sends. Most common were people asking me if I was setting up a real Christian group in game - and if so what type, others seemed to assume I was laughing at (their) religion and were offended. Most players admittedly could have cared less, and obviously some people agreed with me enough to join.

In DAOC I recall a Christian group showing up on Percival server in the realm of Midgard. Their primary purpose was evidently to simply provide a fellowship for other real life Christians to gather with, and they set up a guild for that reason. Their secondary purpose was also in fact to "witness" to the rest of the server in the hopes of converting other players to Christianity in real life. This went over poorly shall we say, and I have no idea where they went in the end. To their credit they were trying to roleplay Norsemen converted to Christianity.

Personally, I see religion as simply one more area to explore via roleplay in game. I think I am equally capable of playing a Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or Pagan follower of a religion with equal conviction and no desire to offend anyone else, but I don't think that I am all that common. For many people religion is just too serious a subject to have anyone explore, and their viewpoint and its correctness is so absolute that they cannot accept that anyone can hold another valid viewpoint. For these people "belief" is seemingly equal to "fact" (thus of course negating the whole point of Belief), and therefore it would potentially give rise to unresolvable conflicts, or simply drive them from the game. Neither is desirable.

If religions are to be portrayed in a game, then the only viable way of doing so would be to portray entirely fictional ones relevant to the in game cultures.

Posted Feb 13, 2006 6:05:50 PM | link

Chas says:

To see one method of reconciling real-world religions and fantasy, look up GURPS Fantasy (3rd edition, or earlier) by Steve Jackson Games. The 4th edition's content was split, and the "Yrth" world is covered in another book of another name (banestorm, I think).

As for "religion" in games:

I know a few religious fundamentalists that left City of Heroes at the first reference of "Gods" being the superheroes of previous centuries- any hint of a game's theology that influences their real-world religions are heretical enough to avoid. As it was explained to me, since CoH is a "divergent" world sharing many real-world elements, any claim to the validity of false gods is a no-no, as is anything that tries to explain away what it means to be divine.

I also encountered quite a few people in the army whose primary hang-up with fantasy RPG's were the "bearing false gods" issue, which was browbeaten into them by various religions leaders (they had no issues playing Cyberpunk or other religion-neutral games)

Yes, there are plenty of others that would just shrug and say, "it's a game" but I was amazed at the number of people who really were hung up on such issues.

Posted Feb 13, 2006 6:08:43 PM | link

Bart STewart says:

The big clash here appears to be between "multiplayer game" and "existing real-world religions." It seems you can have one of these, or neither, but trying to have both is just asking for trouble.

A sandbox world like Second Life can allow existing real-world religions; that's part of the ethos. So can a simulation of Earth cultures. To exclude real religions from a simulation of human history would eliminate important drivers of historical change.

And a primarily single-player game like Civilization can have real-world religions as well, as there's no one to complain if your gameplay stamps out "their religion." (Multiplayer Civ could be a different story, which may explain why in their user's guide for Civ IV, Firaxis carefully addressed their decision to include real-world religions.)

"Dead" real-world religions may be OK as well in games, including multiplayer games, as there's no longer a culture espousing that religion to object to its perceived misuse. You're unlikely to get your embassy burned down because of your portrayal of Ishtar or Anubis or Mithras or Hera/Juno or Thor, for example.

Bringing existing real-world religions into a multiplayer game... there's the problem. You're combining a widely-held belief system that existing individuals use to define their sense of self-worth with a virtual world that encourages players to try to kill other players' characters. Whether you RP that or not, players will try to off each others' characters purely because of their self-identified religions. (Not that it will help when someone screams "Die, infidel dog!" at your character while trying to rip her head off.)

Combative players in MMOGs are already not known for being terribly mature. It's just too much to expect that these folks will surprise us by good-naturedly roleplaying something as deeply personal as religion. The more likely outcome is massively increased unhappiness among both players and the already-underappreciated Customer Support staff who have to try to figure out "who's right" when someone claims to be offended.

Even having imagined (or dead) religions in a multiplayer game is asking for a little of this kind of trouble, but at least these can be treated like special cases of factional gameplay because they're only valid within the game world.

***

That practical point made, what about the design question of how best to implement religion in a multiplayer game? If religion can be a useful gameplay/roleplay/lore device, what should it do?

The basic function of a modern religion (as opposed to primitive, nature-explaining religions) is to minister to the soul on the beliefs that:

* you have an immortal soul, and
* what you do in this life will affect the treatment of your soul after you die.

The rest is doctrine and definitions of God(s). It's tempting to focus on those things; they're nice and concrete and thus relatively easy to imagine as game features. But I'd argue that these externalities aren't what matter most about any religion, and thus don't offer as much bang for the development buck as how souls and an "afterlife" are handled.

So how do these two notions -- immortal souls, and consequences to one's soul in the afterlife for acts in this life -- translate to virtual worlds in general, and MMOGs in particular?

--Bart

Posted Feb 13, 2006 6:53:04 PM | link

Mike Sellers says:

Bart: The big clash here appears to be between "multiplayer game" and "existing real-world religions." It seems you can have one of these, or neither, but trying to have both is just asking for trouble.

I'm still hoping to dig into that rather than just taking it axiomatically. I'm not talking about imposing a religion on a game, but about not sequestering religion (fictional and RL) from the game.

Combative players in MMOGs are already not known for being terribly mature. It's just too much to expect that these folks will surprise us by good-naturedly roleplaying something as deeply personal as religion.

Why then the vocal defense of, say, the presence of GLBT-friendly guilds in WoW but not this? WoW is a fantasy game that has little reference to sexuality, so there's nothing RP-thematic about guilds built around a real-world issue (e.g., "GLBT-friendly"). Are religions organizations different/lesser? In a non-fantasy MMO (modern or science fiction, say), should we expect that people will respect others' religion any more or any less than they'll respect their stated sexuality? Is one more of a CS timebomb than the other?

I disagree with your rather narrow definition of the basic functions of religion, but that's a separate discussion. Part of my original question was to see if religions could be made to have in-game relevance rather than being (axiomatically) ignored or made to be paper-thin. I think they can, though it may be that I'm thinking too far outside the bounds of current MMO kill-monster-get-gold gameplay to be able to describe it well here.

I'm still interested in the potential issues people see with not preventing the presence of real-world religious organizations ("guilds") in a non-fantasy MMO, especially ones unique to religion.

Posted Feb 13, 2006 7:08:38 PM | link

Bart Stewart says:

Mike Sellers: I'm still hoping to dig into that rather than just taking it axiomatically.

Same here; that was why I went on to try to explain how I reached that conclusion.

Mike: Why then the vocal defense of, say, the presence of GLBT-friendly guilds in WoW but not this?

Yep, someone who holds both of those views would appear to be inconsistent. Hopefully one of them will take a stab at answering your good question.

Mike: I disagree with your rather narrow definition of the basic functions of religion

Not a problem. I don't take it as Gospel myself -- it's just a construct put out there for people to beat up on in the hopes of finding something more accurate.

Mike: but that's a separate discussion.

I won't argue with you about that. I went there because I thought it might be helpful to consider exactly what it is about religion that makes it relevant to people (and thus relevant to MMOGs). If I didn't understand where you were trying to go, mea culpa.

--Bart

Posted Feb 13, 2006 8:19:33 PM | link

Coffee says:

I've become an avid reader of this site over the last several months and have thouroughly enjoyed all of the intelligent discussions...While this comment may not be totally appropriate to this topic I couldnt resist posting this link:

www.divinequest.net/faith

I have been a regular player in FaitH for longer than I care to admit...there are three explicit religious factions fighting a 'divine war' for dominance...the player gets to choose his 'religion'.

Posted Feb 13, 2006 8:50:51 PM | link

Chip Hinshaw says:

Cael>http://www.edgecase.net/devsite

Coffee>www.divinequest.net/faith

Uh-oh!

Posted Feb 13, 2006 9:17:10 PM | link

Andrew Krausnick says:

First of all, just because people are defending the GLBT's right not to be banned for their actions, there's still a large number who believe that sort of thing to be immersion breaking at would prefer it to stay out of their fictional worlds.

"I think they can, though it may be that I'm thinking too far outside the bounds of current MMO kill-monster-get-gold gameplay to be able to describe it well here."

The desire to keep 'real world' constructs out of games has very little to do with so called kill-monster-get-gold gameplay. This isn't to say that the concept of religion itself shouldn't be a part of up and coming MMO's/VW's, simply that trying to emulate say, Christianity, in a virtual setting doesn't get you very far in terms of good gameplay.

I don't think the right question to about this sort of thing is "why not?" The right question is ask is, "why?"

And there are some good answers to that question, but it is the question that should be asked first and foremost. Academically speaking there's no end to the number of reasons to want to simulate any real world cultural construct, however if you want to use it to create a more compelling virtual world, then you have to search deeper.

Also, I think it's important to look at the development of religion in current societies, and when doing so you can't necessarily separate yourself from the kill-monster-get-gold game mechanics. Looking at it from a anthropological standpoint, you need production, labor, and consumption as a basis upon which to build culture such as religion. You can't simply assume that abstract cultural concepts such as faith will exist or have meaning on their own, but rather you need to build them upon existing modals of behavior, virtual or non.

In conclusion, I'd agree that there is a place for religion in virtual worlds, however it's something that needs to have a place designed for it and to have meaning with its inclusion. The GLBT issue is incidental inclusion of religion in a way that only affects gameplay insofar that it affects social relations (which, don't get me wrong, can be important in WoW, however social relations is as far as it goes). And, thusly, isn't a good example of crossing the boundary of VW's and religion, especially not in a elegant and well designed way. If we're trying to seriously consider bringing in religion as part of gameplay, it has to be designed in a way that is not only immersive, but meaningful to the game world itself.

Posted Feb 13, 2006 9:38:33 PM | link

galiel says:

What if, instead of an authoritarian, "what shall we allow" approach, one applied some aspects of democratic decision-making and community empowerment to world design, coupled with some wisdom- and experience-driven anticipatory design to facilitate the experience? Call it "Anticipatory/Participatory Iterative Design", to mash a phrase.

If you build a top-down design centered around violent or at least Malthusian violence-sublimated conflict, and then introduce religion into the mix as a 'permissable, yet highly constricted' behavior, with 'religion' being a shorthand for a binary, I'm/We're Right and You're Wrong mindset, how can it not deepen social disfunction?

On the other hand, in a self-sustaining, naturally-evolved society of empowered participants who have developed "civilization"--shorthand in term for voluntarily agreed upon, socially constructive behavior norms that have emerged from group consensus, experience and common interest--then it would be interesting to see if such a community would choose to introduce religion into the mix.

Perhaps they would, as a fun, artificially divisive conflict device, perhaps they would not, seeking relief from a theistically oppressive real-world. Or, perhaps, in a truly naturally emergent civilization, they might never consciously get together and make the threshhold decision, "let's have religions", perhaps they might simply emerge, and new rules and community norms would develop to accomodate them.

An Anticipatory/Participatory Iterative (API?) designer might approach this with a view to providing tools and facilitating activities and connections that enable religious (or any other kind of common-interest/common-worldview) communities to emerge--as well as tools and affordances for the broader community to handle them.

That seems to me a much more interesting scenario to contemplate, design and observe than the typical "what new treats or obstacles can we drop on our hapless customer-rats in our maze in order to keep them distracted and thus continuing to Pavlovian-like press the subscription button?" MMO design. It certainly seems to me a more puzzling and intricate and ultimately more satisfying design challenge, to combine empowerment with clever affordances and social architecture that simultaneously frees users and yet constrains destructive and encourages constructive behavior--and to create a flexible enough design to benefit from iterative improvements based on both player input and observation of social behavior and communal consequences. So much more interesting than trying to figure out how to create the perfectly benign dictatorship, IMO.

Posted Feb 13, 2006 10:28:29 PM | link

Moses says:

I'm surprised there's no mention here of Habitat's "Church of the Holy Walnut." Religion has been a part of MMOs since the very beginning.

Posted Feb 13, 2006 10:30:38 PM | link

Cael says:

Chip wrote:

"Cael>http://www.edgecase.net/devsite

Coffee>www.divinequest.net/faith

Uh-oh! "

I'm not concerned. To be blunt, the odds on both products making it to RTM are staggeringly low.

Posted Feb 14, 2006 1:04:31 AM | link

Toal says:

"Similarly, I'd say an organization of bigots wearing white sheets and committing hate crimes is acceptable. But the important thing is that they commit it within the context of the virtual world, and more importantly, they should be dealt with in the context of the virtual world."

Anarchy-Online has a group of roleplayers who have taken the role of bigots and terrorists.
(http://www.zenpushergasoline.net/nlf/forum/viewtopic.php?t=1391)

In-character they do not see themselves as such of course, merely as a group who fights for the survival of their race (nanomage, one of the four races on Rubi-Ka). They do it strictly in the in-game context, but on more than one occasion, there have been some references to real world, such as possession of WMDs...

Out of character they are respected as role-players. In-character they are one of the most hated groups on the planet, and they are proud of it.

Posted Feb 14, 2006 3:33:26 AM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Some links for you:

http://churchoffools.com/
http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol4/issue2/schroeder.html
http://www.sociology.uwaterloo.ca/relcybercsssr.html (clickable link is to Google's cache)
http://dragonmud.com/people/jen/ritual.html
http://www.luckymojo.com/avidyana/gnostik/mudpsyc.html
http://mud.co.uk/dvw/designinggod.html
http://www.muddled-times.com/article.fod?IssueId=19&ArticleId=1382

Richard

Posted Feb 14, 2006 4:43:44 AM | link

Daniel Speed says:

Mike:

My aversion to designing a religious game comes from the way I always find myself projecting my own views onto it, to form something full of sardonic humour.

Anyway, I think there's essentially four different forms in which religion could be integrated.

1) Advertising Religion ("Christianity Online")
2) Religion as central gameplay
3) Religion as ancillary gameplay
4) Religion as backstory and RP excuse for some balance choices

Not personally keen on (1), but can I see it happening.

(2) As I see it, religion is about faith / belief, if you have tangible rewards for religion as a method of gameplay, then it's not really religion, but something of a gameable reward mechanic. I don't actually see much difference between this and (4), other than the thematic difference, which isn't something that really interests me.

(3) is the most interesting to me. In fact, I'd go as far as saying that as gameplay that players engage in in parallel, it should be devoid of tangible "proof of god". Actual divine reward should be so concealed from the player, they probably don't notice it (small probabilities added or subtracted during normal gameplay, or a slight filtering applied to reduce extreme bad results [like a reroll on a damage blow that would lead to death that's far above the expected damage]). Naturally, choosing a religion and not following it should probably have some negative results.

At the same time, you could have visible elements of the gameplay. Some faiths could require visible acts of worship etc, and performing these could increase your favour with the invisible dice master, but would also increase your reputation as being a member of the faith (which I'd keep seperate from *actually* being a faithful member, mainly because I like clergy that lack faith as part of a game, and possibly because you could have someone pretend to be of one faith while actually following another). Your reputation for being faithful could open some doors, and close others (NPCs, player interactions).
Eventually, the greater your reputation for being faithful, the less leeway you have from dodging the negative personal effects that a religion might have (such as tithes etc).

Posted Feb 14, 2006 6:22:59 AM | link

Endie says:

I'm not much given to nodding in agreement when reading Bonnie's posts, but I think she's spot-on here when differentiating between what we may need in real life and what we find useful in VW's, which are at best a first-order derivative thereof.

In real life, I'm newly married and delighted with that state of affairs. But I don't crave the state of matrimony in MMOs. In fact, I find those RP marriage things embarassing and wouldn't bother including them in my Perfect Game Design(tm).

In real life, I'm a (vastly heretical) Christian, but I'd hate to try and play WoW on an RP-PvP server while turning the other cheek to some corpse-camping "Level ??" rogue.

If I was going to play a religion in such an environment, it'd be something with a healthy tendency to embrace ultra-violence: say, Salafism or Wahabbism. And any games designer who decided to openly implement either of those in his specification document would find his coat hanging by a very shoogly nail: his producer might decide that fatwas are more trouble than they are worth.

Btw, Bonnie, since you say that VW's offer "the promise of immortal life", please can you send me some tips on soloing Scholomance, as eternal life for me seems to amount to about 15 mins tops.

Posted Feb 14, 2006 7:00:10 AM | link

says:

Mike: Why then the vocal defense of, say, the presence of GLBT-friendly guilds in WoW but not this?

As far as my understanding of American History goes, the defining issues of all of American history have been race (slavery, immigration) and religion (persection). Of course, the simple grade-school story of fleeing religious persection to build an ideal society is a gross simplification, but religion was undeniably a major factor in our history.

Sexual preference simply does have the cultural weight (baggage, some would say) behind it, allowing people to express themselves more freely. The younger generations in particular have no problem discussing sexuality, but religion is still a touchy subject for nearly everybody.

I guess what I'm really trying to say is, the old dinner party standby "politics and religion" still holds in our society at large.

Posted Feb 14, 2006 10:17:18 AM | link

Charles says:

Oops, the above comment is mine. Forgot to fill in the info.

Posted Feb 14, 2006 10:18:11 AM | link

Heather Sinclair says:

The answer to the original question - "Why isn't there more religion in MMOs?" is far simpler than most of the answers posted here. The reason? Multiple branching religions are very expensive in terms of content, and they're content only a small portion of your playerbase is going to *ever* see. Dungeons and Dragons, for example *does* have multiple religions which are supported by game mechanics, but in DDO we encountered the problem that implementing the numerous religions in Eberron (CoSF, all of the Sovereign Host, all of the Dark Six, then the weird ones like Path of Light, Cult of the Dragon Below, Blood of Vol, or Undying Court) was going to be a ridiculous amount of content and gsys work for only a portion of the portion of player characters playing clerics.

That's why religion is almost always a background prop or notes in the backstory - it gives players who want to rp something to base their actions upon, but it doesn't put an unnecessary burden on content.

Posted Feb 14, 2006 10:37:00 AM | link

Timothy Dang says:

Mike Sellers> [i]Rather, I'm musing about one in which you might find Christian, Islamic and other (including RL and fictional) religions possibly created by the players and definitely presented in a way that makes them more than window dressing for the players.[/i]

At the very least, this would be a force segregating the players. When the divine is just a label for game mechanics, then it's easy for players to say, "OK, I don't worship a thief god, but I want to start in city X." or "My faith says so-and-so, but this isn't real".

But if the other stuff presented *is* real, then players will be much less likely to set aaside their beliefs for the sake of a game. As an atheist, I wouldn't have a problem role-playing a worshiper of Filette, the Queen of Birds. I would not role-play a Christian, Hindu, or Wiccan in a MUD, however, both because of personal discomfort and the feeling that I'm defrauding the real Christians, Hindus or Wiccans. I expect most people of one faith would likewise be very averse to pretending another *real* faith in the game.

To whatever degree these real religions become important in the game, players would be cut off from that content, or from other players. In a game with fantasy religions, at least you can have holy wars between them to provide game material, but I doubt that's something devs would allow or encourage if the faiths were real ones.

Posted Feb 14, 2006 11:20:04 AM | link

Tim says:

Consider the headwaters of all our fantasy gaming; Tolkien, a deeply religious (Christian/Catholic) man who in his imagination developed the basis for most of the genres mechanics. His (virtual?) world is still the most copied whether it is in book or electronic form.

A contemporary of his; Clive Staples Lewis also conjured up a world much more blatantly allegorical and Christian. With the current movie and its subsequent sequels I’d be surprised if it WAS’NT made into a video game or even a MMO.

Posted Feb 14, 2006 11:35:35 AM | link

Chip Hinshaw says:

Timothy Dang>I would not role-play a Christian, Hindu, or Wiccan in a MUD, however, both because of personal discomfort and the feeling that I'm defrauding the real Christians, Hindus or Wiccans. I expect most people of one faith would likewise be very averse to pretending another *real* faith in the game.

Would you roleplay a woman? Or do you feel that that is a similar fraud? I kind of agree with you: I would also not feel comfortable rp'ing a non-Christian character, but for some reason I don't even think twice when playing a female character. So, you bring up some food for thought.

I was interested to see that Achaea (sp?) actually has a race of Sirens which the char creation interface describes as "For females only" (paraphrase). I wasn't sure if that actually meant only female players may play this race or if there were only female members of the race available to play. If the former, I was curious how the devs could control that. Of course, then it dawned on me that it must mean the latter.

So that brings up, for me, another intriguing thought: What are the limits on players RP'ing characters who adhere to a specific real-world religion? What happens if uber-WASP me tries to play a Hindu character? Well, it will probably be a ho-hum experience since I know nothing about Hinduism, and I will also come off as, at best, unauthentic to legitimate Hindus (and people who are familiar with Hinduism). However, it's the "at worst" that is worrisome. Now we've got players, intentionally or not, making a mockery of other people's religion. And while a religious aspect may make for intriguing possibilities, you just can't prevent the emergence of conflict from the outside. As Timothy mentions above, "...this would be a force segregating the players."

Posted Feb 14, 2006 12:07:45 PM | link

Damion Schubert says:

There are three seperate issues here, all of which could be done more. There are reasons why and why not to do each of them.

Inventing fake religions, and putting in game systems that adhere to them is something that many games do. In most games, these are window dressings. In Shadowbane, the lore around our religions is extremely deep, but does little to affect gameplay other than limit class options. One thing about religion as a game construct is that it can be gamed, meaning that players will make whatever decisions it takes to get ahead. Some could argue this runs parallel to real-life discussions about the nature of heaven, but then there you go.

Introducing real-life religion into your game fiction. Most games are reluctant to do this for a surprising reason - in most cases, you want to have large organizations such as the political leads or the church be major actors in your story and events. If you're using the real-life Catholic Church as your story church, then depicting that Church as corrupt or the Pope as Machiavellian has the potential to offend real practitioners of that faith. Better to use an analog of the organization.

Facilitating in-game worship by the religious. While not being religious myself, this is the one I support the most vociferously, for exactly the same reason I support the GLBT guild - my game is stickier if I am facilitating people with similar interests getting together. On the flip side, I can easily see how some people wouldn't want to be aggressively recruited by either guild. The interesting question is where the balance is, and how to best allow players of like interests to find one another and how much effort should go into shielding those with thin skin.

Posted Feb 14, 2006 1:25:46 PM | link

Susanne MacDonald says:

The trend I notice in most games that have some thread of religion is that everything is an absolute. The gods DID create this world in this way and there are no other in-game theories because the gods are very real, etc.
To say the world was creating by some scientific theory doesn't fit into the game world because the gods DO exist, there is definate proof of their existance, whether they manifest themselves into an avatar and smack the party around or give the hero an items or such.

In real life, honestly we don't have solid proof of how the universe/world was created, there have been many gods and none of them seem to appear often. SO, we CAN speculate that the world was rended from the body of a dragon or that it was hatched from an egg or even that there was some gas build up that exploded sending particles in every which direction.

I do want to point out Final Fantasy XI where they do have a focus on the religion of the beastmen and the religion of "human" characters. They even have moral dilemma of fighting against the beastmen, one scene depicts a character running throug a beatmen tunnel and killing them all while another character comments that they were only protecting their eggs.

Also in the world there is internal politics concerning the races. The Elvaan (elves) tend to think themselves superior to everthing else, Humes (humans) treat their more beastly looking and more physically stronger Galka characters like slaves which reflect the way we in IRL look at those of another race.
I think it provides a better element that makes us question our decsions IRL.

Posted Feb 14, 2006 2:11:22 PM | link

genericdefect says:

Well, I believe I have already offered the extent of my thinking on the subject of theodicy in artificial worlds, but the utility of "churches" to mechanics of interaction deserves further mention.

What is a church but a place or organization where people share congregate and share a message or a communal meal? It has looser connotation as a dispersed Nation interested in overall welfare, or aspects of welfare, but the more immediately observable aspects of it is as a scripted meeting. How often does that happen in virtual world maintained by an entertainment corporation rather than academic or artistic group? Before a "raid" perhaps? Do warriors about to enter battle usually say a prayer in between affirming group strategy? Isn't the grouping enough to identify a sectarian tendency within the world without importing an attendant soteriology (generic definition of "rituals") upon it?

When will see more mechanics of communities arise? Will participants need to attend collective services in order to be infused with the day's marching orders, blessing, or instruction of community duties? As designers create more latitude and tools for the players to script content, won't we see players having the duty of participating in delivering instruction and providing for the group some of the time in order to recieve the privelege of being a beneficiary the rest of the time?

I believe we can distill this down to the inquiry of whether collective purpose in these entertainment-type virtual worlds can become more direct and immediate rather than vague, general, indisputable and near-cosmic themes.

My curiosity centers on what happens subsequent to making these kinds of activities no longer constitute an "inefficiency." It is not simply a challenge to create the space to convert buffing characters into mere chaplains by doing away with objective game-goals. I would be very surprised if giving players more content control would result in minimalist schemas of interaction. Rather, I would presume that eventually, modes of interaction and intra-dependence would only become more richly nuanced over time.

Posted Feb 14, 2006 2:58:39 PM | link

Rich A says:

I find Damion Schubert's post above very useful in understanding this topic.

I suggest that what happens in online games is two-fold: 1) game designers create content, the ostensible focus of game play; 2)the game provides a social sphere in which players can get to know one another, form groups, and so on. The game designers facilitate this socializing through chat channels, in game email, player-run guilds, etc.

Discussions of real world religions, GBLT-friendly guilds, and other reflections of real world concerns, can enter any online game that provides a social sphere. Trying to keep such discussions out is probably a fruitless endeavor, and possibly wrong-headed, since you end up dictating to the players the terms on which they're allowed to socialize. Outside of issues of harassment or hate speech, the game staff probably don't have any business telling people what they can or can't talk about. Even a role-playing-heavy online game usually has to provide some sort of channel for out of character communication.

It is another matter altogether, whether a game designer wants to include religion as part of the game content. If the game religion is supposed to directly mirror real world religion, that would certainly make for some interesting game dynamics, but it would seem foolhardy to me.

Posted Feb 14, 2006 3:35:21 PM | link

Dr. Cat says:

I think past experiences of the various entertainment media show that most people in western culture prefer not to have entertainment media based on their religion, and a minority do. Things like "Christian Rock", the "Bibleman" character (played by one of the former actors from Eight is Enough), Veggie Tales, christian Nintendo games as far back as the 8 bit Nintendo era, etc. all exist. But they're a niche market. Mainstream cultural icons like The Simpsons even make fun of Flanders and his sons for liking that kind of entertainment. I think it might be due to religious being considered more "serious", whereas tv, comics, musicm videogames, etc. are more "lighthearted escapism". The two don't necessarily mix well.

I do think there's a tendency to see somewhat less of real world religions in gaming-oriented worlds (Dikumuds, EQ, WoW), and somewhat more of it in social izing-oriented worlds (MOOs & MUCKs, Second Life, etc.) I remember one of the biggest of the early social MU*, FurryMUCK, had an active group called "The FurryMUCK Christian Fellowship". It might still be around to this day, for all I know. :) I don't know if religious groups in social worlds will ever be as popular as discussing the latest anime releases, but they've been out there at least as far back as the early 90s.

Posted Feb 14, 2006 7:23:31 PM | link

Chip Hinshaw says:

Dr. Cat> I think it might be due to religious being considered more "serious", whereas tv, comics, musicm videogames, etc. are more "lighthearted escapism".

Good point. Look at how long "The Book of Daniel" lasted on NBC.

Posted Feb 14, 2006 7:29:26 PM | link

Thomas Malaby says:

This is a great post and discussion. I just wanted to mention that I find it interesting that when we think and talk about religion, as we're doing here, the overwhelming focus is on two things: doctrine and religious organization or institutions.

This is all well and good, and has generated excellent observations, but scholars of religion often talk about the tension between religions as institutions governed by doctrine, on one hand, and the subjective experience of religion by individuals or small groups. This is often framed as the contrast between established church hierarchy and the mystical or ecstatic forms that religion takes which, by virtue of their experiential, subjective nature, tend to oppose hierarchy and doctrine. (One can think of a number of examples, including Sufism, the Quakers, and certain Pentecostalist traditions).

So this leads me to ask: Is there room for thinking about religious experience in virtual worlds that is subjective in this way? Is it possible that these immersive, complex environments will be arenas for ecstatic experience? Seems a bit far-fetched, perhaps, but I have learned never to be surprised by the variety of human experience, on- or off-line. Perhaps around TN we tend to emphasize to such a great degree what is intentionally designed into virtual worlds that we may miss the potential of meeting point between the unintended and emergent features of that design and the experience of the users.

Posted Feb 15, 2006 11:30:55 AM | link

Jason says:

Pointed out a few times above, I think the main reason true religion hasn't entered into games is because coding is absolute (even when its buggy) and religion isn't. The moment you try to assign numerical values to accrue rewards to ideas of religion all you are really doing is adding gameplay constraints. If healing low level people gains you reputation with the local towns and attaining high levels of reputation opens new benefits (spells, quests, etc), healing low level people becomes gameplay. To use a real world analogy, religious game mechanics would result in more Christmas & Easter Catholics than actual practicing Catholics.

However, if you want to stretch the idea of what religion is, then it already exists in just about every game on the market. A Guild is a cult. While they might not actually put faith in a higher power of creation and all that, they most certainly do have rules of conduct, goals and rewards. Players themselves create religions, in many cases their higher power is simply the accumulation of loot, but how they achieve that is as important as the goal itself. Some groups will have rigid methods of attendance and distribution, with bonuses for greater contributions. Others might adopt a simple random assignment of rewards. And in my time in online games I've even been a member to guilds whose highest asperation had nothing to do with loot at all but sought to be well known as helpers and "good" people, or even as disruptors of gameplay.

I'd say religion, as far as it can, already exists in games, and the less developers do to try to support it, the more it will flourish.

Posted Feb 15, 2006 12:41:34 PM | link

Charles says:

Thomas: This is often framed as the contrast between established church hierarchy and the mystical or ecstatic forms that religion takes which, by virtue of their experiential, subjective nature, tend to oppose hierarchy and doctrine.

Thank you for bringing this religious studies distinction to the fore. Regarding the existence of personal spritual moments (the somewhat awkward term "numinous" has been used to describe these) in online worlds, I would think we should be surprised if this hasn't happened yet. Like so much else, these numinous moments are more about the person doing the experiencing than the situation in which the experience is had. That which is not directly related to the person having the experience is often related to the people that generate those events that lead to the numinous experience.

That is to say, there's very little about the virtual nature of the world that would impede spiritual experiences. The person having the experience is still there, as is the environment which may foster such experiences. Spiritual experiences ought to be commonplace.

I would think that a better question than "Are they occurring?" would be "Why are they occurring as much or little as they do?", or "How can we design these worlds to foster such experiences?"

Posted Feb 15, 2006 1:28:37 PM | link

Michael Chui says:

I think the main reason true religion hasn't entered into games is because coding is absolute (even when its buggy) and religion isn't.

That made me think that the people who work to reverse-engineer formulas and crunch numbers to optimize their characters (and then publish, of course) are like the clergy of a religion worshipping The Code. =P

I'd say religion, as far as it can, already exists in games, and the less developers do to try to support it, the more it will flourish.

In Dragonrealms, the Cleric forums are abuzz in their annoyance that the Immortals, whose hand they are, don't seem to actually be bothered to call down wrath upon the miscreants the clerics are being afflicted by. Citing this as a case of Less Support != More Religion. Roleplayers can make stuff up, yay and good, but when it's unenforced by code, they also feel cheated. That is not restricted to religion, of course, but it goes back to world persistence, instead.

Posted Feb 15, 2006 2:59:27 PM | link

Jason says:

Roleplayers can make stuff up, yay and good, but when it's unenforced by code, they also feel cheated.

You've just described real life religion. Right now, Muslims are burning embassies because the world doesn't enforce their religion. What I am basically saying is that coded enforced religion in games wouldn't be religion as we know it. It would be gameplay rules. If the game coded only Christianity you wouldn't be allowed to be anything but a Christian. Coded religion is basically a faction system with penalties and rewards defined by programming and applied to the player based on actions. For real religion, I believe you have to leave it as free form as possible, or take on the herculean task of coding "everything".

Posted Feb 15, 2006 5:19:24 PM | link

Daniel Speed says:

I still don't think you actually have a religion (at least in the christian sense) when you receive clear feedback from a deity because it's no longer "faith".

If the Christian God made it indisputable somehow that he existed, the idea of being rewarded for belief would be out of the window, we'd be down to a system where we're effectively gaming the Bible (as a codified set of rules) to maximise our eventual known reward (given) like mice with cheese. It'd have nothing to do with if we agree with the values or message or if we just happen to believe, just about the indisputable judgement of our actions that will eventually result. Of course, this does raise the question about St. Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus, since he didn't literally have 'faith' (imo).

So you can put in religious structures and factional systems based based on the perception of faith, but actual perceived divine acts undermine the whole thing.

If you approach religion from the point of view of it being intentionally irrefutable and absolute, with codified rewards, then it seems to me you're back at the point of Clerics who are told to go out yonder and smite kobolds and finish quests for experience, which is where we started from under the assumption that it wasn't religion.

Posted Feb 16, 2006 10:17:50 AM | link

Mike Sellers says:

I think it'd be a lot more interesting in a game sense to have multiple religions, each with their view of the world, some fictional and (if players choose) some built on existing ones. For example, suppose you made a game of "AlienNation" (movie/TV show about life after aliens come to live here with us) -- how would religions adapt and change in the face of this? What new ones might spring up? What new questions about the world become important?

To be meaningful these would have to have gameplay effects, but that doesn't mean God coming down and smiting the unbelievers. If you put a bit more meat on the social side of the game (that is, create gameplay that doesn't reduce to mechanical achievement), adherence to a moral code espoused by a religion (real, fictional, or someplace in between) could become a guiding force in the game for those players who chose to follow it. I suspect this sort of thing, not just limited to religion but including it as a powerful personal and social driver, could open up social and community dynamics (and not just pathological, Inquisition-style ones!) that we've barely guessed at in current games.

Posted Feb 16, 2006 10:34:08 AM | link

Matt Mihaly says:

Mike Sellers wrote:

suspect this sort of thing, not just limited to religion but including it as a powerful personal and social driver, could open up social and community dynamics (and not just pathological, Inquisition-style ones!) that we've barely guessed at in current games.

I think you may be surprised at just how far behind the graphical games are here. You might be pretty amazed at the social and community dynamics that arise from use of religion (albeit made-up religions) in existing text MMOs.

--matt

Posted Feb 16, 2006 3:27:02 PM | link

Mike Sellers says:

Relevant examples, Matt?

I was being purposefully vague because I can't really talk about what I'm referring to here (sorry). But I'm also pretty certain that not even the bleeding-edge/small-scale text games have gone down this road.

Posted Feb 16, 2006 4:08:40 PM | link

Michael Chui says:

I still don't think you actually have a religion (at least in the christian sense) when you receive clear feedback from a deity because it's no longer "faith".

I want to emphasize that you say "in a Christian sense": faith is a fairly Judeo-Christian-Islamic idea, produced most strongly from the idea that people might actually challenge said illogical beliefs.

The old mythologies were simple fact. People didn't believe or disbelieve; they just were, as much as apples fall to the ground if nothing holds them up. People didn't believe that Zeus sat on a fictional mountain in the clouds, tossing lightning bolts. Zeus was a twofold utility: (1) he was an explanation for the way nature worked, and (2) he was a character in a mythological context, either as protagonist (like when he kills his tyrannical father or commits adultery) or as authority (like when he declares that Persephone will spend a quarter year in Hades' realm).

Pagans weren't polytheist in the sense that they had multiple Jehovahs. They are polytheist in the sense that there were multiple personalities in the dramatis personae of their mythos.

So, I'm not going to continue on this tangent, since that's what it is, but it's a point to make that religion does not necessarily mean Christianity. Religion means a relation to divinity, whatever that may be.

Sometimes, I wonder if I read too much Joseph Campbell. =)

Posted Feb 16, 2006 5:56:10 PM | link

Coffee says:

The basic problem, as I see it, is that religion has a dual nature and game worlds by their nature can only effectively portray the hierachical finite aspect. The best analysis I have ever read of that duality is James P Carse's "Finite and Infinite Games".

At the core of all religion is the spiritual experience of those who brought forth the religion. Unfortunatly the real world works on the finite rules of hierarchy. Status and all the conflicts that go with those rules. The infinite rules of spirituality get lost in the translation. The religion becomes a creature of the real world, the best example of which is the Catholic Church.

Game worlds are by their nature, hierachical systems of competition. Just like the real world. I think that the best a virtual world could manage to protray would be the japanese bushido code...with its attendant arts of haiku, the Tea ceremony and honorable combat.

Posted Feb 17, 2006 2:07:58 PM | link

Arthur says:

Currently, religion does exist in games, but mainly exists as "backstory" or as a plot device. This is appropriate, and far better than the using in-game religions as propaganda to further RL ideological agendas. The main reason that religion can't play a major role in an online game is simple: no game is immersive enough for an online religion to actually take root.

By definition, spiritual or religious avocations explore the metaphysical realities that exist beyond the physical world. But, in a virtual world, there is no "physical" reality; only virtual reality. Also, by definition, everything that exists within the virtual world is part of that virtual reality. Especially any behavior that is enforced by the mechanics of the game world. This is why magic loses its "magic." There's nothing mysterious about a lightning bolt that appears every time you push the "lightning bolt" button!

If religion (or spirituality) is the pursuit of metaphysical truth, it must be the pursuit of a truth that exists above, or outside, of the physical (or in this case, virtual) limitations imposed by the game world. That's what spirituality is. It's the pursuit of a higher Truth (with a capital 'T').

Now, all roleplaying games have an inherent metaphysical Truth. All virtual worlds already have a "higher" realm that exists above and beyond the given virtual reality.

It's known as "RL".

For examplee, if someone mentions the results of the "Super Bowl" within a virtual game world, they are talking about something that cannot be expressed in game terms, and something that no avatar can demonstrate or prove. It is, in fact, something that does not exist within the virtual world, and yet it is something that many players know to be real and true. In fact, it doesn't even require an act of faith to believe it! Why? Because we are already aware of this dual-existence. Of existing in the real world while at the same time projecting ourselves into this virtual world.

The main problem with "spiritual" pursuits in a role playing game is that we as players already know that we are playing a game. The "answer" is already known, so there is no point in seeking it out! The trick, I suppose, is to have a virtual world that is so immersive, that people forget that they're playing a game. In such a scenario, the purpose of religion would be to help the person to remember that original Truth. That it was all just a game to begin with.

And isn't that the purpose of religion in real life, too?

Posted Feb 26, 2006 6:25:45 AM | link

Mike Sellers says:

By that logic, Tolkien's quasi-religion/history in LOTR or Lewis's much more apparent and allegorical religion in Narnia would not have worked in book form; and yet they do.

In game terms, suppose for example that in a fantasy game the elves, dwarves, and orcs each had religions that were meaningful to them: creation stories of where they came from, why they're here, what their ultimate destiny is. It's fairly easy to generate reams of backstory that has no bearing on gameplay (the most common way of doing things), but I continue to wonder about how games could be enriched by taking such religions and actually making them as much a part of the game as, say, the history of the Alliance-Horde battles in WoW. How might the elves' version of their creation differ from the orcs, and make various actions or events more significant to them?

In a non-fantasy game, might there be constructive ways to include real-world religions in ways that are meaningful to the game? For example in a space-faring game, include (and/or allow players to include) variants on existing religions in ways relevant to the setting of the game: migrations of faithful pilgrims with their own goals and methods; pacifist stations where trading is encouraged but no weapons are allowed; ports controlled by one religious authority or another.

Currently we turn a blind eye toward any religious presence at all, which seems fairly odd to me (or perhaps not, if our industry is istelf much more agnostic than the societal norm). I wonder if we'll see changes in this as our industry matures and explores different kinds of gameplay.

Posted Feb 27, 2006 1:34:49 PM | link

arthur says:

The reason why religions work in book form is because they're non-interactive. They're purely story elements.

The problem is not how to include religion in a game. That's easy. The problem is, how does a character interact with that religion?

You can't represent "faith" with game mechanics. Faith, by definition, exists beyond netural (or virtual) laws.

I think it would be fairly easy to treat religions as in-game factions, and leave it at that.

However, religion, much like sex, is a mature issue, and requires a mature audience. That fact alone makes the inclusion of religion risky, but within the right niche, it would probably be very popular.

It's a strange artifact of our times that violence does not carry the same stigma, but so be it.

Posted Mar 2, 2006 11:33:32 PM | link

Atabani important says:

ISLAM IS RELIGION.JESUS WILL COME AGAIN.
Please Look:
http://atabani.i8.com

Posted Mar 3, 2006 9:03:45 AM | link

Chris Mancil says:

Mike Wrote: "Currently we turn a blind eye toward any religious presence at all, which seems fairly odd to me (or perhaps not, if our industry is istelf much more agnostic than the societal norm). I wonder if we'll see changes in this as our industry matures and explores different kinds of gameplay."


It’s an interesting question Mike, but I seriously doubt this aspect of our business will change. In truth, I believe religion will continue to fade from future online worlds and eventually disappear completely. Not for any agnostic preferences or development bias, but two simple reasons – demand and practicality.

Demand is the easiest mitigating factor in why religions are fading away. I suspect a vast majority of users simply don’t care about it. Just as many of them don’t care about their game’s lore, mythologies, or histories either. This background information is simply not relevant to the game. Actually, I should qualify that – it’s not relevant to ‘how they, the user, play the game’. There is a vocal and very valuable segment of an MMO community who will care about this mythology of course, but they will be in the minority. The hardcore role-player communities can be very dogmatic about a game’s lore, but again – this world fiction rarely impacts their game play, only their ‘in-game’ belief systems.

But if fundamentalist Christians or Orthodox Jews were a majority of our global customers, I bet our games would reflect the specific needs and wants of those constituencies. Since these groups make up only a small percentage of our core market at present, our games have evolved to meet the specific needs and wants of our existing base of users.

What do they want? Above all else, more content. But beyond that, they want the simple things. Better communication tools built into the game for both online and offline use. More flexible time investment as a fraction of reward and overall advancement. Better tools for running guilds and large alliances (or raids), and ‘Ebay like technology’ for server commerce at every bazaar, village, and market square. And most, especially in Asia, want to use their cell phones to interact with their games on diffrent levels.

In terms of consumers, game world ‘immersion’ was always a critical factor in the decision to purchase or remain subscribed to an online world. But now, I would bet good money that technological convenience and ‘competitive’ in-game services have almost completely replaced immersion entirely with modern gamers.

And as a last comment from an online community standpoint, Religions are a thing of the past. In the global economy more and more of our customers are joining us from different cultures around the world, and they often bring very different belief structures with them. In truth, our own North American users have a plethora of different beliefs as well. So for us, its all about building environments and structures that bring different groups together in our worlds – and an in-game religion, is not (and has not shown to be) a very effective tool for that on a global scale.

Ideologies are the new vogue: Politics and World View as religion.

And I wouldn’t be surprised if good and evil also disappeared from this equation eventually as well, to be replaced with diametrically opposed value systems like Environmentalism vs Industrial Capatilism.

Chris


Posted Mar 6, 2006 4:36:00 AM | link

Chris Mancil says:

Darn it! I wrote all of this and this story is old news! Just my luck.

Just in case anyone does come back for sentimental reasons, I would also like to add that modern gamers seem to want features and services that directly challenge the traditional concept of immersion as it was previously defined.

The features they want blur the line between their 'real' life and their in-game character. Listening to their own MP3s inside of the game, VOIP chat in the game, all while watching American Idol, and no doubt talking on a cell phone to a friend not in the game, or to some kind of food delivery service (unless your in EQ2) =)

I know for sure - that I personally do not consume MMOG content in the same way I did 3-5 years ago. I think its a safe to say, that many of our customers are not consuming our games in the exact same ways that we were in years past.

I think the veil of disbelief, or whatever, has been replaced by more Cow Bell...

Chris

Posted Mar 6, 2006 5:13:37 AM | link

Mike Sellers says:

Hey Chris - topics stay alive as long as there's interesting discussion going on in them.

You said, I suspect a vast majority of users simply don’t care about it. Just as many of them don’t care about their game’s lore, mythologies, or histories either. This background information is simply not relevant to the game.

You're right about useless mounds of ancient history (I'm reminded of the scene in the movie Galaxy Quest where the alien starts recounting millions of years of utterly boring and irrelevant history :) ).

So one question is, can history, mythology, or belief be made relevant to the player's experience of the game in a way that adds to their experience? Are there aspects not of specific belief structures themselves, but of belief itself (manifested in-game via various structures, including ideologies as you mention) that can be explored in an MMO in a way that is both engaginng and potentially illuminating?

I don't disagree with your list of what players want, not at all. But even given all those things you mention, it would be easy to come up with a soulless, "so what" game. In the broader sense what I'm wondering is, even given those gameplay-infrastructural elements (not that they're simple, but assuming them for the moment), what other aspects of life, such as religion, might make for a deeper, longer-term engaging experience?

Posted Mar 6, 2006 10:16:56 AM | link

galiel says:

Mike, I am continually surprised that many designers seem to think that it is so difficult to introduce those "other aspects of life" into an inherently cultural communal experience.

It is only hard because current designs do not easily accomodate, nor do any design deliberately, for anything that cannot be quantified and marketized and engaged in as a zero-sum game. It is also because the primary player-designer interaction is the process of designers battling to prevent players from having any power or control over their own experiences, in a well0intentioned but misguided attempt to ensure that everyone has quantitatively and qualitatively the same experience.

It should not be surprising that in games that only measure binary results, binary processes dominate.

The fact that many players create these kinds of rich "other aspects of life" extra-game, in forums, public and private, in one on one and intra-guild communications, and in real-life meetings, is testament to the lengths that players will go to overcome the determined efforts of designers to thwart any activity that cannot fit in a database table, or be otherwise "monetized".

This is why I consistently argue that designers need to think more like architects rather than engineers, facilitating, enabling and affording, encouraging certain behavior with conscious design and discouraging other, but never dictating, never prohibiting, never imposing or forcing or limiting through design. Design using the principles of least resistance to guide behavior, rather than using the principles of the police state to enforce behavior.

In all other areas of human community, we are moving toward greater democracy, greater empowerment of participants and greater trust in the wisdom of the crowds.

In all other areas of cutting-edge communications technology, the momentum is with those who build tools, not those who dictate behavior.

In MMO design, we're still asking questions such as, how can we impose religion on players in a way they will like?, rather than thinking about how we can create a context, design an environment and provide tools that will make rich cultural experiences emerge and thrive through the collective wisdom and willpower and collaborative efforts of the people who may play our games.

Players build culture anyway, but almost ALWAYS in spite of our designs, not enabled by them.

Posted Mar 7, 2006 3:00:13 PM | link

Laylah says:

There are no metaphysics in online worlds.

for me, thats a crucial point in how religions should act in MMO's.

i imagine the ancient world, a world where every astablishment is also a part time teocracy, even the most democratic or tyranical rullings or if its a household. i think it was a world where people just weave in their faiths and truths into each other when even one of those comes up, where they let their poetic exploration of themselves and of their sarounding be treated just like we treat a scientific discovery today. concepts, insperational expiriences, thoughts, emotions, pehnomanon and forces that played a role in each of their indevidual expiriences, those where the gods of the time, it was the science of the day.

if you require a classification in words, how about this: animistic aproach towards one's indevidual life's elements, and to the flowing components in the releationship of the inner world with the outside world and backforth.

i think that if a game world had a dynamic metaphysical simulation on some sort of level, then that ancient form of religion could exist in an mmo, the players would explore and research that metaphysical realm in a very similar way, even if they aren't RPing, but just exploring the game mechanics.

this brings one of the main problems in mmo's, the main element that prevents this from happening: the game mechanics are very visible. not only that, but it is easier to understand their mechanics with the not so mystical charts, and in some games, a dagree of real world physics. unexplainable phenomanon are usually just bugs, no need for metaphors to understand that.

making a world the game mechanics are deep enough for the players to actually simplify them into mystical understandings, is a minimum requirement for such a thing to work.

bringing the lore into code is also a step towards such a manner of dressing game exploration into a spiritual level of immersion: what if the rain actually did came because the AI of the rain goddess decided so, and the intentions of that AI are as mysterious and unknown for the players as rain was for the ancient people who triad bringing it with prayers in the middle of the desert?

the third element would be the worlds reaction to players without them knowing that. if the game, gave enough room for expression of the personal creative thinking of the player, and would have a way of bringing that into the game world in a balanced fashion, then this is level of spirituality might be simulated.

ofcourse, all of this would bring only the first level of mmo simulate religions, and won't bring into acount the shape of modern religions or mono' religions. in this case, the highest level of religious competition would be if your gods where in a disagreements or if the derived interest of ones own faith was on acount of another person's life, and not questioning what shape and what is the name of the gods of rice: as long as it is the god of race, people pretty much seemed to leave the rest to the poets, artists and theocrats, and ofcourse rice farmers. they didn't think that if their own god rules all rice then the other god of rice is trying to take overy the rice crops... it has little room for the later stage of history where religions stoped weaving into each other and communicating with each other, and started competing.

i should also describe where i'm coming from with this:
all of the above is not that for-off my own still forming view of the world, but my religion has only one follower, and i'm still having a hard time converting myself, and even with that follower i disagree on almost everything, so i think its safe to asume this is not a trial of converting anyone ;)
i am of jewish blood, though not much for jewish faith. i did have a part time buddhistic upbrining and an upbringing with a scientific view on the other part, but kind of rebbeled against both in an early stage.
however, my understanding of religions stems a lot from jewdaism and islam which is all around me, and both religious complies of groups, at list here in israel, see their own religious studying as a way to understand the world better and therfor live better lives (or afterlives in the case of the later), and the treatments of others has a lot to do with questioning through the paradoxes of how their religions tell them to treat others who either "are not chosen as gods beasts of burden" or "do not dwell in the words of the prophet", and have very little to nothing to do with the questions of faith or metaphysical disagreements, which the religious sects only apply when dealing with the increasing massess of secular people here who are the basic norm, or little spiritualist explorers like me, but not among themselves: they don't try to convery each other.

Posted Mar 21, 2006 6:05:51 AM | link