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Feb 05, 2007



I'm not so certain that "shared experience" demands simultaneous interaction with each other. But that's an interesting question to explore.

Just my opinion, I and quite a few others have staked a lot of personal time, engagement, and money on the idea that "community" does not necessarily require proximity in either geographical or virtual space-time. You can find social networks that have many of the sociological functions of place-bound community, and the same emotional affect as place-bound community, mediated by synchronous or asynchronous communications systems. (Community is also very difficult to define.) Ritual also does not require shared space-time.

Certainly virtual worlds do foster real communities and real community interactions. I just don't want to pin communities down to synchronous communications.


I don’t mean to suggest that concurrent shared virtual space is the only way to build a community, but I do believe that there is something fundamentally powerful for the human psyche to build on experiences that are in fact shared in space and/or time. I’m actually not sure if being on team speak and interacting with someone’s avatar can replace standing next to someone during a beautiful/horrific/exciting/terrifying ritual where we also share direct visual and potentially tactile interaction. I guess part of my question is – can we foster this? Are there mechanisms we can build into games to make it more likely that players can construct many different kinds of meaningful shared experiences?


This all really depends on how much weight you lend to the notion of "ritual": I view ritual as having two divergent meanings, the main difference being how much is implied by the word itself.

On one level, it can be posited that there are three central criteria for an act to be considered a ritual: utilitarianism, sacred belief, and participation. Operating under this assumption, the ritual is an event that is, by its nature, highly participatory. In addition, you have the added weight of the importance of the ritual. The ritual is performed because it has a utilitarian purpose. Dancing to bring strong rains for a good harvest, for example. And to round out the idea, there is a sacred belief that the ritual has a direct causal relationship between the dancing and the coming of the rains. But the introduction of skepticism means death for the ritual, for when belief escapes and the ritual becomes habit, there is a shift from ritual to performance, even without the introduction of spectators. In the example of the "rain dance," each year a tribe might dance to bring the rains, and it is a singularly important tradition, as the survival of the tribe depends on it. But one year, there is a drought. The rains do not come, and the tribe suffers greatly. The next year, they perform the dance, but the failure of last year's dance is still fresh in the minds of the people. But they dance anyway, because they have always danced, and so they feel an obligation to do so. As the belief in the ritual itself slips away, causality breaks down, and the ritual ceases to be ritual. (fn1)

In this context, I think that the very nature of the medium would disallow such games to contain ritual. There is an understanding between the group that maintains the game and its players that there are established hard and fast rules that govern the world, and that these rules will be adhered to. This form of "quality assurance" on the part of the provider makes for a world where divine favor is coded. There is little room for sacred belief, even more so within the confines of a greater internet culture that is rife with skepticism. Furthermore, the external aid of websites that exist to inform us of all of the rules of the game, databases that tell us exactly how to execute any given process (acquiring items x and y, and taking it to NPC z, etc.) further stifle superstition. The superstition still exists, but such "sacred" rituals are all but asphyxiated in a culture that is inherently skeptical.

On the other hand, if you are looking at ritual strictly (and perhaps more skeptically) as a ceremony that has a designated form that is repeated, then absolutely. Thomas Malaby's inquiry on scripted instances in "Dicipline and Pwnage" on TN on February 1 is evidence enough of that, I think.

fn1- Copeland, Roger. "From Ritual To Theater: The Origins of Tragic Drama." Theater 253. Oberlin College. Oberlin, OH, 11 September 2006.


"Utilitarian purpose" is a debatable requirement for ritual. I grew up in a "bells and smells" Protestant church in which every service was conducted according to a ritual structure, but there wasn't really much anticipation of a miraculous event or causality. As C.S. Lewis would point out, ritual does more to change humans than god. I think that many religions designate rituals that are to be preformed primarily to unite communities or to remind the individual of one's obligations and relationships.


Indeed, Kirk -- the missing word we need here is "institutionalization." Rituals serve institutions, whether age groups, neighborhoods, nation-states, or companies. In this respect, I do think the analogy can break down when applied to games. Institutions sponsor shared experience that can have the effects just as Jen describes, but too much open-endedness (of meaning, of action) and the institution runs the risk of having its legitimacy be undermined (to connect to Chris' point).

A very nice example of this is the Hungarian government's attempt to stage a "welcome home" ritual for Bela Bartok's body upon its return to Hungary in the 1980s. It did not go as they planned -- Bartok was too rich and polysemic a figure in the Hungarian public imagination to be reliably used by the state, it turned out. (fn1)

Games, to my mind, are designed to be a bit out of control, and thus their "domestication" by institutions is a bit more difficult to pull off (think Hitler and the Berlin Olympics of 1936), although the efforts to do so persist.

Interesting question.

fn1 -- 1991 Bartok's funeral: Representations of Europe in Hungarian political rhetoric. American Ethnologist 18:3:440-458.


Erk. The author of the Bartok article is Susan Gal.


I can imagine that rituals sponsored officially by a game lacking legitimacy on many levels, but what if we gave players the tools to construct meaningful events with attendant consequences? Say a cult or religious organization that requires behavioral restrictions for membership, offers some benefits such as sanctuaries, and through which the players themselves could construct may different kinds of social/religious/whatever rituals? Maybe this would just result in guilds that throw better in-game parties…

To be fair, I’m playing fast and lose with the term ritual at this point because of the participatory nature of “rituals” in general.


"Rituals serve institutions" --sorry that is too neat.
Can't one have personal rituals? What about family rituals, or is institution any social group?
I like this idea of ritual as habit with belief (and conscious intention) but in VWs I'd suggest
*the lack of bodily presence, pervasive interactive erosion or multimodal sensory depth erodes the notion of ritual
*the gap between participant and observer is not marked enough (or even instiutionally demarcated) to separate sacred from profane (and also because eye direction and gaze intensity is not in the social domain as it were).
*the notion of digital media doesn't lend itself to transcending situated mortality as the media itself is so transient and fleeting
*there is little risk and therefore the notion of sacrifice is more difficult in a VW


Some textual virtual worlds have a ritual system coded in as part of their lore to explain magic (normally in order to make players co-operate to cast powerful spells).

Also, I recall a paper by Jen Clodius about religion in DragonMUD, which discussed whether the activities in that virtual world meant it could be regarded as a religion. Sadly, the DragonMUD archive is offline so I can't point you at the paper, but I have a feeling that ritual was one of the points raised to support the suggestion.



*the gap between participant and observer is not marked enough

Not least because in both text muds and graphic MMOs you view your own character in almost the same way you view other characters. I can't think of any rituals in multi player first person games to compare with either, unless you count one single game of CounterStrike as a ritual?

Theres a strong argument for that I guess, each map has a structure and participants have limited choice (usually which of two ways to assault the enemy) so each game on a map is usually a slightly different play on the same theme. The use of sound in CS simulates the senses more closely too, allowing more immersion.


@ErikC: The understanding of ritual and its relationship to insitutions is not mine, but I can point you to the literature. Yes, any social group that is not utterly ephemeral can qualify; the point is how a patterned set of actions and meanings serves to generate a collective sense of belonging, meanings, and also more direct consequences (like changes of state; i.e., rites of passage).

I suppose people talk in a lay fashion about some things as "personal rituals", but that stretches the meaning quite far, beyond the analytical meaning used by cultural anthropologists. Those kinds of individualized routines often end up being discussed in relationship to consumption and other aspects of the way modernity prompts a quest for identity.

I like your points about the specific phenomenological effects of the technological media of virtual worlds. I think you're largely correct, although I don't follow you on the relationship between participant/observer and sacred/profane. Could you clarify that?


Chiming in from my other research life in Indonesia:

I think part of the slightly crossing messages here relates to the need for distinguishing emic (insider) versus etic (outsider) meanings of "ritual," which is one of many terms that can serve double duty in this regard. Obviously, if people say "X is a ritual" (and there are many examples of rituals in Second Life in this regard) then one response is to say "well etically X does not fulfill conditions Y and Z that a community of scholars uses to define ritual," but most cultural anthropologists (ant others) would want to also understand the emic definitions within which X is understood as a ritual by those involved.

This distinction comes up even more when you're moving in multiple linguistic universes: for instance it is not the same thing to say "is X a ritual" and "is X an upacara," though an Indonesian-English dictionary will say upcara = ritual.

This all pops into my head right now because I'm participating in the third National HIV/AIDS Conference right now in Surabaya (East Java), and there are definitely ritual-like elements. It's been very interesting to maintain my Indonesia research along with my Second Life research. I'm continually struck by how many issues that come up as new-frontier dilemmas in virtual worlds research are actually part and parcel of studying human sociality in any venue. (And then of course, those very interesting things that are quite unique to virtual worlds!)


@Thomas, that rituals and institutions are related, I do not deny. That the former therefore serve the latter, I cannot however accept. The distinction by anthropologists if used so distinctively (and they disagree as you know) may lead one to believe that many in the West no longer have rituals..

Now an institution may well want to regulate and control abstract thoughts (as in the def below) but if a ritual requires an institution to be a ritual there has to be some ritual-creating minimum criteria for an institution, just "more than one person" is not a convincing criterion IMO. And I don't see how the desciptive observation that rituals serve institutions necessarily and sufficiently describe (or, for VW designers, prescribe) what constitutes a ritual.
Pedant, c'est moi :)

I like this but it is problematic,
"ritual - the visible control of abstract thoughts. Tries to control unpredictable events and the supernatural. Tries to know the unknowable and change the unchangeable."
There are many things going on there, the relation between internal and external, the metaphysical, the intangible and ineffable, and the existential yet admirable folly of it all.
I have met more than one person in Asia and Australia who told me Westerners/white people are not spirtual. Now according to Kierkegaard, if the spiritual is really the spiritual, it cannot be perceived materially/physically by other people.
A derivation of the Cartesian duality (mind-body) problem but also a problem for viewing *authentic* ritual in virtual worlds.

Now to your question, "the relationship between participant/observer and sacred/profane," ah, to summarise it succinctly will require a day or two on my part and may require my finding a quote from a long dead Finnish architect..

@Tom, I use the etic-emic distinction too but the demarcation is so often unclear I wonder if there could be a better classification...eg, "A War of Witches: A Journey into the Underworld of the Contemporary Aztec" by Timothy A. Knab--where would you put this approach if you know the book?

I agree with your last few comments too, the taking-for-granted nature of RL (cultural and not just social interaction) is only now being understood as a real problem due to its absence in URL (* Un Real Life*)


To follow on Tom's thoughts, rituals, customs, traditions, and best practices could be lumped into the same categories.

Like any computer processes, social processes are processes.

Rituals may be more complex than customs or traditions and may have more insider meaning and purpose, could it not be said that they are a series of customs and social processes like a program, both social and computer?

So are Rituals social processes, best practices, that aim for a social or emotional results in the same way operational processes, best practices, aim for an operational results?

It's an interesting question and I understand that the social element could be a more complex issue than the operational element.



@Tom Boellstorff: I would love to talk to you more about your research. I too found that there were often uncanny ties between my fieldwork in Belize and social interaction in MMOs.

Just to elaborate - my own notion of ritual is more of a way to “true-up” the links between experience and belief. Ultimately I view ritual as not only as symbolic performances of culturally salient meanings, but also as the central mediator in a dynamic feedback loop that exists between shared beliefs and subjective (embodied) experiences.

My favorite example is the belief in ‘portaling’ that is well established across cultures, ancient and modern. The physiological basis for this cross-cultural phenomenon has been explored in great detail by cultural neuro-phenomenologists who, drawing from both cross-cultural anthropological data as well as from the neurosciences and the phenomenological tradition, suggest that the structure of the human mind encourages the experience of transformation and world-shifting, particularly during activities which cause alterations in an individual’s state of consciousness. Rituals provide us with a way to encourage such experiences while also presenting a coherent interpretation of these embodied experiences that allow us to create and maintain shared belief systems. Or, as Chris points out, if there is dissonance between the “story” and our actual experiences we might just ignore them.

Basically I am looking for ways to explore the dialectic between perceptual consciousness and collective practice. MMOs present a very complex problem for cultural phenomenology because of the limits/unique issues related to virtual worlds.


Excellent stuff, Jen. Makes sense to me, and completely consistent with a processual view of ritual, as Frank notes.

@ErikC: I think I understand the source of the misunderstanding. I was *not* arguing for a definition of ritual that narrows it in a functionalist way (i.e., ritual serves institutions' needs, and that's all it does, or similar). I shy away from formalist (including functionalist) definitions of terms like ritual, or games, because I think they shut down inquiry rather than expand it. In bringing institutionalization into the conversation here, I was only pointing to a useful aspect of ritual and its relationship to social institutions for the subject of Jen's OP, not seeking to reduce ritual to that relationship. As with many powerful cultural analytical concepts, our test of their appropriateness for a given case must be pragmatic (that's why, for example, I see the efforts to formally distinguish secular from sacred ritual to be a fool's errand).


I can't believe there is a mile-long thread on play and ritual here, without anyone mentioning Victor Turner's work.


Julian, thanks for linking the reference. I agree that this whole discussion is certainly building from Turner's work.


I was going to cite to it, but I was wary of being pedantic (especially with this not being my thread). I'm teaching Turner's ritual theory in my grad seminar next week, in fact.

Also, I recall a paper by Jen Clodius about religion in DragonMUD, which discussed whether the activities in that virtual world meant it could be regarded as a religion.

It's been a few years since I played DragonMud, but from what I remember it had rituals that were explicitly designed as such, and meant to be taken seriously: e.g. the ceremony for when a player is given permission to modify the game-world.

On the other hand, the religious belief that Jen Clodius/Bedouin was a Goddess was probably not taken seriously. (Ok, I didn't take it seriously).

DragonMud was also good for discussions of whether the rituals of real-world religions can be performed in the virtual world (and what validity they have).


I actually put together a brief paper correlating Turner's work with some of the dynamics of online community not too long ago, for one of the conferences... I should get it online somewhere. It's not hard to see the entry into a new online culture in terms Turner put forth, and I found it a very useful way of seeing how some of these experiences can be meaningful, ie., contextualizing the validity of the experience of online culture for the individual.

Although I'm not sure I've ever seen online ritual per se that strikes me as satisfying in the way that default world rituals (even personal rituals) can be satisfying. While some ritualistic behavior can create or shape shared experiences, I don't know of many that are specifically designed as rituals (as opposed to byproducts of other behavior), and I'm not sure I know of any that people enter into with the seriousness or belief that happens in the default world. Which is sort of interesting. I think concepts like liminality and communitas are clearly valid - though the manifestation of ritual per se in online space is much less evident.



Actually, the more I think about this, the more interesting I think it is, and possibly indicative of some fundamental way that we think about our experiences in online spaces that is different than the default world... I am a strong believer that the online experience can be meaningful in many ways to an individual, and in ways that are very similar, at least, to default world experiences - that on the interior movie screen, as it were, we often don't make a distinction between virtual experiences and others... But it seems to me that, with regard to intentional ritual, we do seem to very consistently make a distinction between the two. We don't believe in the online world in the same way, or something like that. Even when we can have experiences that affect us in very similar ways.


Some very interesting ideas here, I'm an anthropology/archaeology graduate so I'm very aware the the definition of ritual I'm about to describe is very partial.

In terms of group ritual I would say the 'raid' is perhaps one of the most distinctively group ritual phenomenon in MMORPGs. It has the effect of social cohesion, especially if it is an all guild raid, it is often very repetitive, requires a degree of performance and has an outcome that is the direct result of the actions of those involved. It also literally occurs outside of normal spatial/temporal parameters because it is instanced.

My memory is a bit foggy on ritual, but i think this covers at least a few of the definitions.

By the way Jen, could you give us a list of the 'portaling' literature - sounds fascinating!


@Nick: Here's a partial list of some good places to start if you're interested in 'portaling' - the Langdon and Baer book, and the MacDonald et al. article address the topic most directly but the others at least touch on the notion.

Csordas, T., 2002. Body/Meaning/Healing. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

d'Aquili, E.G., C. Laughlin, & J. McManus, 1979. The Spectrum of Ritual. New York: Columbia University Press.

d'Aquili, E. G. & A. B. Newberg, 1998. The neuropsychological basis of religions, or 'why God won't go away.' Zygon 33(2), 187-202.

d'Aquili, E.G. & A.B. Newberg, 1999. The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religion. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Houston, S. and Tabube, K., 2000. An Archaeology of the Senses: Perception and Cultural Expression in Ancient Mesoamerica. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 10(2), 261-94.

James, W., 1982 [1902]. The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Penguin Books.

Langdon, E. J. & G. Baer (eds.), 1992. Portals of Power: Shamanism in South America. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

MacDonald, G. F., J. L. Cove, C. D. Laughlin, & J. McManus, 1989. Mirrors, portals, and multiple realities. Zygon 24(1), 39-65.

Persinger, M. (ed.), 1987. Neuropsychological Bases of God Beliefs. New York: Praeger.

Throop, C.J. & C. Laughlin, 2002. Ritual, collective effervescence and the categories: towards a neo-Durkheimian model of the nature of human consciousness, feeling, and understanding. Journal of Ritual Studies 60(1), 40-63.


Cheers Jen, that's brilliant, the Langdon & Baer one looks like a good place to start.


Jen, love your stuff. how random is this -- I was looking for carpool cartoons and webinfo (thanx goes to AQMD rule 2202) and fell into your world -- I'm looking for the end of the waiting line is so I can let you know I've become engrosed in your career and travels, love your blogs and pics, siimilar to mine a bit, but mine are all ink/paper at this point. In search of the atypical. steve


Jen said:"...shared virtual spaces do allow for the co-creation of genuinely shared experiences."

Yeah, but I'm not sure it's ritual.

Whatever the outcome is meant to be, rituals are generally symbolic in their forms. And virtual/mediative communications are already explicitly symbolic; he ain't heavy, he's my avie. You could argue that playing an MMO or in a VW is almost ritualistic per se. I wouldn't, but one might.

I'd also argue that the level of mediation is going to affect the shared significance or even the allowed level of intensity of a ritual if one was, in fact, drummed up in a virtual environment.

Let's take a mid-range symbolic ritual from real-life, for example, and think of a virtual equivalent. The handshake is way easy; two people shake hands in order to show that they are friendly. Easily done, not easily faked in the physical (I can't pretend to shake your hand), but also easily faked in the metaphoric (I can shake your hand even if I hate your guts).

Something a bit up-the-chain might be a fraternal/group ritual in which members of an organization always perform an elaborate salute upon greeting one another. Not as easily learned as a handshake, and only really significant to members of the group. A way of saying, "We're different, we're special, maybe a bit weird and funny." That could be done in a virtual environment pretty easily, too; everybody in the Guild of Bloodhammer Dwarves must, before starting a raid, do "The Dance of Pain." Neat little ritual.

But... In RL, you actually stand there and watch somebody do the dance. Like I said, you can't pretend to shake my hand. In a virtual world? There are all kinds of things that can be faked. I can teach the "Dance of Pain" to my kid brother and he can do it, using my character, when I'm afk doing chores. Maybe I set up a batch-key to run the dance 'cause I'm tired of doing it, etc.

And if the ritual is meant to be associated with a type of person/avie or environment... well, those are entirely virtual. How many "lesbian" encounters in SL are between two female players? Not that it matters (on one level), but since we are talking specifically about ritual, and ritual involves the symbolic relationships of "action to meaning," if my actions are predicated on meanings that are quite different to me and to the other members of the experience... can there be ritual? Or just entertainment?

Interesting thoughts. I will ponder them further during my meditative dance.


I completely agree that there are many problems with the notion of ritual in virtual spaces because of the embodied aspect of most (perhaps all?) ritual. However, I do think that on one level this is where participant intention enters the picture. I can sit in a church during an official ritual but if I’m not intentionally engaging myself in that ritual it is nothing but a pantomime just like the “Dance of Pain” being done by my kid brother while I’m afk.

I guess part of my question is how well we can create rituals in virtual worlds if we want to. If every time I do the “Dance of Pain” it makes me feel good ole collective effervescence, it seems to me that it is at least some kind of ritual. I’m, in theory, creating a bond of shared silliness in a ritualized way presented with a specific symbolism (aren’t we zany!). Whether anyone else is actually having a similar experience I can’t be sure, but the same can be said for any ritual in real life. I know I’ve been at religious ceremonies where people are crying, entering trances, or being possessed by spirits and I will admit I was pretty much just watching with detached interest. Ultimately we can never cross that barrier into another’s mind, it is just a lot more difficult when I can only hear their voice.

I will admit now I’m curious about this dance of pain…


I would be very interested to see any results you may have from the application of Turner's concepts to MMO's. I only have experience with ffxi, but I can already see a few of the 'rites of passage' involved. At least they were rites of passage back a few years ago when high-level help was more difficult to acquire.

I once used Durkheim's notion of solidarity to explain the rift between the one solo job in the game and the organic interdependence of the other classes... Quite a monument to dorkiness.


That's a ridiculous premise. You completely ignore the fact that ritualized experiences are just that: RITUALIZED.

You argue that the virtual spaces THEMSELVES are sacred, and thus the act of doing ANYTHING within a virtual space is tantamount to ritual. Which is a ludicrous proposition that would get you laughed out of any first-year anthropology class.

You should re-examine what you believe ritual to be.


That's a ridiculous premise. You completely ignore the fact that ritualized experiences are just that: RITUALIZED.

You argue that the virtual spaces THEMSELVES are sacred, and thus the act of doing ANYTHING within a virtual space is tantamount to ritual. Which is a ludicrous proposition that would get you laughed out of any first-year anthropology class.

You should re-examine what you believe ritual to be.


@Jmc: If a student raised that possibility in *my* first-year anthropology class, which I've been teaching for seven years, he or she would be praised, not laughed at. You betray only your own ignorance of theories of ritual by attacking the original poster on these grounds (and in a rude manner, to boot).

Our theories of ritual point back in almost every case to the original ideas of Durkheim, for whom the ritualization of something *followed from* the fellow-feeling ("collective effervescence") that being together in contingent circumstances generates. For him, the sacred was *originally* generated in human practice, not in the pronouncements of institutions. In this respect, to ask whether environments like MMOs are fertile territory for the emergence of collective effervescence (and then ritual) is not only fair game, it advances our understanding of these spaces.


Also remember that, sociologically speaking, an 'institution' is not necessary some human corporate body. They are shared social abstractions, like marriage, etc...

From this perspective 'the grind' might be an institution of the MMO experience.


In the omg-I-can’t-believe-this-isn’t-Turner gist that Julian started – I’m surprised we have not touched on two things: liminality and rituals brought into VWs.

On the liminality front, from my very meager reading in this area I thought that VW practices per se would not be considered rituals as they are more on the liminoid side of things in that they are voluntary and not necessarily about transition.

On the external rituals a pervasive ‘emergent’ behavior in many VWs (maybe even all that stay around long enough) are in-world funerals and weddings. In some we have the import of other religions as well, I’ve certainly seen quite a bit of pagan stuff going on and some Christian business in a few worlds too.


@Jen: RE dance of pain...

I was totally talking about this.

If you need reference to a more painful game related dance, please contact me off list, as I can't be responsible for posting anything that goes past "11" on a public site.


I've posted a response to this a couple of weeks ago on The Guardian's gamesblog, but to snip and paste some of the relevant points here('cause ren said I could), some of which I think earlier commenters have touched on:


[It seems that] this standpoint suggests that community, bound by shared experience or ritual or whatever you want to call it, can only be situated in a physical space. Sociologists like Erving Goffman and environmental psychologists like Harold Proshansky counter that contention, encouraging the idea that there is an emotional component to belonging which makes, for example, a house a home, or give a place or group a shared identity. If place is such an important part of it, surely it's possible to have community arise out of the shared experiences within a non-physical environment. Then the community experiences are tied to the joint representations of it.

Second, there's a whole lot of evidence which suggests that technologically-mediated communication is an effective means of extending social networks (Barry Wellman in particular). In the days even before the telephone, communities of practice, of worship, of ritual and of experience grew out of the tap-tap-tap of telegraph lines.

Third, this argument ignores the unspoken rituals that are in-place in online communities that incorporate the norms of the population who exists there. Entrance rituals, like being told what to do by an older member. Going from n00b to experienced. Rising through the ranks. Exit rituals. How to deal with common enemies (if you're interested in this aspect, read this paper).

This can't be a binary yes-it-does-no-it-doesn't argument. In this increasingly disproximate world, people are finding social experiences that form significant communities, strengthen bonds and generate trust via online interaction. These are new rituals with new rules. To suggest they are somehow inferior is to limit your view about virtual interaction.


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