Traditional ritual is specifically designed to trigger certain emotive, interpretive, and physical responses. Imagine the Pacific Islands ritual with heavy drumming and men in horrifying costumes of spirits believed to inhabit the island. Or the 48 hour shadow play of Indonesia where everyone is eventually exhausted while the performers tap into the beliefs, fears and desires of those watching. Or ancient Maya bloodletting and human sacrifice. Or an aria in a Cathedral. All of these experiences are enacted as a community within a larger socially constructed narrative reflecting general social beliefs and attitudes.
For most of human history, shared “entertainment” was couched in the context of a religious celebration and/or social narrative. Even village storytelling was to some extent ritualized and clearly reflected existing social values. Durkheim’s notion of “collective effervescence” was based on the idea that society is founded upon rituals designed to allow us to share interpretive experiences in order to bring us together. The contemporary social sciences interest in the phenomenology of experience also ties to the relationship between our embodied reactions, feelings, sensations, and interpretations of those experiences in a coherent framework co-created by a community.
As new social forms emerge in virtual communities such as MMOs and Second Life is it possible that we are seeking these kinds of shared experiences through these virtual worlds?
Much has been written about the non-localized community created through exposure to the same pop-cultural media. For example, we watch the latest episode of Lost on TV and that gives us something we can all talk about at work the next day.
Yet these types of cultural experiences are heavily knowledge based. We know the same information about an event on TV and can discuss theories about and feelings related to that event. Most video games fall into this same mold – I can play through Half Life 2 and I have an incredibly immersive experience. I can then share that experience and knowledge of that world with my fellow gamers that have also played Half Life 2. But, an important aspect of this shared knowledge is that it is not a shared experience.
Unlike these isolated forms of media, shared virtual spaces do allow for the co-creation of genuinely shared experiences. Not only is there a knowledge based community (we can all laugh together about Leroy Jenkins or the Peanut Butter Jelly Dance) but then we can also reinforce those ties through shared experiences that perform many of the functions that ritual performs. Our community values are shaped through guild raids, our community beliefs are co-created and reinforced as we share an epic PvP battle against the Alliance noobs.
While I do believe that virtual social spaces can and do fulfill many of the roles that ritual can, my question is to what extent can we imagine that the shared experiences and concerns, shared vocabulary, and shared mythologies constructed in virtual worlds create legitimate communities? Does that great Molten Core raid with my WoW guild create the same kinds of ties that playing hide and seek in the neighborhood might? I would love to see some fMRI or other research investigating whether playing these types of games create experiences that are more akin to reactions induced while participating in event. I do see playing an MMO as participation in a form of social ritual but I still haven’t quite decided how much I believe this can/should replace other forms of experiential community formation.