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Mar 12, 2008



but of course they are :)

although your comparison of the two churches to guilds is not correct - they should be compared to two similar MMOs (like 2 EQ-clones or WoW-clones, or something like that)


Religions are not virtual worlds, because they're not places. It might be better to phrase it the other way round: are virtual worlds religions?

The reason that there is a lot of overlap between virtual worlds and religions is because at some level they address the same needs. Campbell gave many examples from religions in "The Hero with a Thousand Faces", in which he identified the Hero's Journey. The link between virtual worlds and the Hero's Journey is very strong, so it's not surprising to find that there's a connection.

This isn't to say that virtual worlds need share the same basic philosophies as religions. Mind you, religions don't do that either: even at level of the "Golden Rule" list you present there are dissimilarities. For example, the Confucian "Do not do unto others what you do not want done to yourself" is not saying the same thing as the Christian "Do to others as you would have them do to you". In the former, if I don't want pity I shouldn't pity others (even if they do want it); in the latter, if I want pity I should pity others (even if they don't want it).



Keep with it brother! This tellings over and Pharaoh Teppy promises the next telling will be utopia! (ATITD/post judiasm religions)

Kill BOB(praise bob) and it'll alllll be yours! (EVE/subgenius)

Guess which religion I find more entertaining.


While the comparison with the religions is rather neat, I think that comparing the -social environment- of VWs to "clubs" would be a little more precise. The members live in small communities (or form such within the larger ones), share familiar interests, (more or less) follow a set of social rules and consider their VW to be superior to others.

VWs are like that, religions are like that, football clubs are like that... and the list goes on. I think that you could say, with a certain degree of confidence, that this applies to all leisure-time, non-monopolist communities.


As Dr. Bartle says, religions and virtual worlds address (some of) the same human needs.

Although religions "aren't places", they often have the notion of joining with others in ritual action in a "special" place, outside of the normal world. e.g. "in circle" in Wicca, Shinto shrines, perhaps even churches for some Christian denominations. The special status of the place makes them more like virtual worlds than (for example) a bridge club.


/me re-things that post on religion and vw's he was working on. Doh.


For some people, playing a "good" character in a VW may boost their personal sense of self-worth.

Part of the appeal of religion seems to be that it enables the believer to see themselves as a good person, however delusional this might appear to people outside the community.


It would seem to me that this comparison is fundamentally one of superfical elements of religion, those of practice, ritual and protocol, rather than examining the actual fundament that define religions.

Religions are about faith, a faith in something this cannot in essence be proved - the exist of God, in whatever form, and their interaction with the world.

Virtual worlds do not require faith, while you can talk of them as gatherings, sharing protocols and rituals in the same way religions often do, this is not unlike comparing them to sporting events, social groups or other organisations where these functions are used, even societies - rules, interaction, addressing a users needs and rewarding them for their actions - heck you could be talking about work as easily as religion.

No one has to believe in a virtual world, it is presented to them in digital form, it is an interactive world, not a matter of personal spirituality.

To address religion as simply a form of ritual and habit is to completely miss and denegrate the actual purpose of religion which is one of belief.


One item I find fascinating in both religions and virtual worlds is the jargon that keeps outsiders, well, out.

Church people use words like "sanctification" and "grace" to mean certain things.

Virtual world players use words like "rez" and "grind" and abbreviations like "PUG" and "noob", etc.

Players of both religions and VWs use language to signal their belonging/community status and their expertise.


Well, in SL, we tell people to "rez" a cube, because telling them to instantiate a new instance of a cube object in the virtual space gets a bit long-winded.

Not all jargon is designed to exclude, though that is a part of a lot of groups for sure.

In answer to the OP question, I think the hubris of game gods knows no bounds.


Hmmm, I don't like the term "Virtual World" compared to religion. I think they are two different levels of abstraction.

A religion can be thought of as a type of social network, like a guild, but not all social networks are like religions.

Within most major religions you are not allowed to challenge their belief system with any amount of evidence to the contrary. Instead you are compelled to disregard your experience and evidence in favor of "faith" (also called "drinking the cool-aid" in business).

Other social networks, such as the better guilds and successful businesses like Google constantly reinvent themselves, challenging their own assumptions and trying to improve themselves based on empirical evidence.

So there are at least a few social networks that don't fit into the idea of religions.

The example of the guy switching religions like someone switching a guild doesn't really fly because from the religious viewpoint he wouldn't be a "power gamer", he would be 1) a heretic and not to be trusted (e.g. Catholic doctrine about sacrement), and 2) he was a convert and not to be trusted. (e.g. see Jewish law regarding maternal bloodline, etc.)

Religions are not meant to be flexible systems as you suggest. They simply can't handle ever changing models of reality.

A place where your simile has more weight is regarding the fundamental problem of knowledge both in MMOs and reality:

In the MMO, some company (like Blizzard) knows the real implementation... they may choose to reveal formulas or not. Players typically don't know the implementation, so they must learn these rules either through experience, or through belief systems perpetuated by social networks.

This parallels religions in that there are some implementations of the world that we (the players) are not privy to but God is. Religions are simply organized belief systems about how the world really works.

A key difference here however is that, again, religions have no obligation to match their belief systems to reality or evidence. The better guilds on the other hand have changed considerably in response to changing rules (nerfs, bufs) and environment.


To be a bit snarky about precise question you're asking here (and apologies in advance), you might as well ask: "are dogs cats?" Because dogs and cats both have four legs, are used by humans as companions, are furry, yadda yadda.

The answer to that question is no, dogs are not cats. Dogs are, however, *like* cats.

But I really like your post, which makes lots of good points about how virtual world communities, religions, and many forms of socially cohesive interpretive communities have similarities.

I think the vein you're mining here is probably tied to a few things. First, most religions and all virtual worlds are tied to phenomenon that are symbolic and immaterial. Second, most religions and all games, prescribe goals for collective social action. Third, the goals prescribed by most religions and most all games are goals that might be described, by skeptics outside the community, as "irrational." And finally, both religions and games have elements of ritual.

After you're done with TL's book, I'd recommend checking out Huizinga, if you haven't read that one yet.


I honestly don't mean any offense, but this is kinda dumb. It seems like you're trying to draw parallels between things that are completely unrelated just because you can.

There are surely better things you could compare virtual worlds to in the real world that almost apply. Countries, for example. Gamers are citizens, developers are the government. Rules are established by the government that the citizens must follow. Etc.

It seems like something you wrote just to provoke impassioned responses from religious advocates, with no real premise for the comparison in the first place.

Is the internet a religion? Is violence a religion? Is porn a religion? Is religion a religion?!


@Richard Bartle: I think of religions as places: alternate realities that overlay the physical experience of being on earth. And almost all religions have real-world components. The Vatican, Stonehenge, churches in general. But what I am proposing is that being in a religion is making a virtual world out of the real world. Like wearing a VR helmet - having an augmented, competitive, achievement-based overlay

@greglas: Maybe "like" is a better word. I have known some very religious people though, and my experience has been that once a person is a believer (Gallows-Bait, a lot of people do not experience religion primarily as a struggle with their faith), they begin to assimilate information differently. I am talking about believers here, which is why I used that word. Believers are people who are fully immersed in their religion and respond to the real world in terms of their religion.


How about scouting? You wear interesting outfits, travel to non-typical locations, have adventures, do raids, form guilds, do crafting, leveling, achievement awards, use a domain-specific set of terminology, and a lot more.


@Merci. My comments had nothing to do with the struggle to believe. What I fail to see is why this is a valid comparison to apply to religions, when all of the points you seem to be raising are about form and function, which are organisational, and not about religion. Religion is not the practice of attending Church on a Sunday, mouthing the right words or doing what a preacher says, it is an internal part of one's being.

Those beliefs do not change one's interaction with the world any more than anyone elses social or moral convictions, they do however have a deeper impact on the belief in something outside of that world. What makes religion suddenly comparable to a VR helmet in one's interaction, any more than being a pacifist or a vegetarian would influence one's actions based on external thoughts and views?

We all colour the world with our own personalities and the influences upon us. Singling out religion and focusing effectively on comparing in order to claim that religion is virtual seems to me to be more of a prejudice and dislike of religion than a serious study.

I am influenced by the culture of my work environment. I am rewarded for taking certain actions and conforming to certain modes of thinking. I too can acheive peace of mind by emailing my boss and never having to concern myself with a problem again once I have taken action.

All of these are your examples, yet I don't see the outcry to tell me that my job is in fact a virtual world.

As many others here have mentioned, you are talking of social structures and behaviours, but I see little linking this to religion.


I think you have it right, Gallows-Bait; this carries the ring of someone unfamiliar with the religious life looking at its externalities and mapping them to another set of externalities (much as Greg says with "are dogs cats?"). If this line of reasoning is valide, we might similarly line up young unmarried guys to talk about how women are (like) cars or beer, or maybe talk about how MMOG players are serial killers given the similarities of their behavior. Such comparisons miss essential aspects sometimes not apparent to the casual outside observer.

It would be very interesting to see how virtual worlds might provide aspects of the experience of religious participation, or how the experience of religious faith might parallel the virtual world experience (though I can't really think of instances for that latter one).

If we're looking for comparisons and connections, virtual worlds and clubs of various types might be more fruitful.


I have had extensive personal experience with religion, which is what informs my opinion that being a believer in a religion is like participating in a virtual world. Part of the reason that I think religions are like virtual worlds is that the religion I was raised in is unusual. This religion is an amalgam of all world religions (a child of the I AM Movement). As a member of a New Age religion I was exposed to mainstream religions not just from the perspective of someone who is critically removed from them, but from the perspective of someone who was expected to believe in all of them. I was taught to see how similar they are to each other. As an unintended result I also saw how similarly religions would reinterpret the world for their believers.

I've also done a fair amount of independent research into New American and shamanistic religions. I have gotten to know, and to know of, people who actively try to form their own religions. It's pretty fascinating, and it lays bare a lot of the devices that have created what we collectively know to be mainstream religions.

I still don't see why saying that religions are like virtual worlds is so offensive to the religions themselves... I think it's kind of cool that people get so much validation from virtual worlds, and I think it's a lot like what people get from religion.

I just wanted to defend myself as someone who has had maybe too much exposure to religion, not too little. Thanks for participating, this has been really interesting. :)


Sure, clubs and the Scouts are kind of like virtual worlds, too. :)


Can you think of a cultural phenomenon that is _not_ 'like religion' then?


Sure! Social networks are not religions at all. There are no objectives, no levels, and no dominant personalities to whom the participants owe homage or from whom they gain knowledge. There is also no shared fiction, which is at the heart of my argument that religions are virtual worlds.

Instant messaging is not a religion either. Neither are cell phones, or text messaging. Photo sharing is not a religion. Cities (and then suburbs) were cultural phenomenon and they are not religions.

But Rex, my contention is not that a lot of things are 'like religion' but that religions are like virtual worlds. These are very different positions.


@ Merci: I'd have to contend that on social networks, a great many people use them in exactly that way - the number of contacts, the dozens of subgames employed by the social networks, the ability to join groups, they form objectives for the users and influence their behaviour - gathering contacts becomes competitive, users form their own languages (text and even 'L337' speak).

While I can see your parallels, I don't find most of them unique to religions. What I do find concerning is that you express what many millions of people believe across the world as 'shared fiction' and compare it to the objectives of a game - is it so surprising that some such as I would find it belittling to compare spirtituality and salvation of the soul to the "ding" of getting another level in World of Warcraft?


"Social networks are not religions at all. There are no objectives, no levels, and no dominant personalities to whom the participants owe homage or from whom they gain knowledge. There is also no shared fiction, which is at the heart of my argument that religions are virtual worlds."

I think you'll find these in social networks if you watch Heathers.


Merci>I think of religions as places

OK, well in that case we're going to need another umbrella term to refer to the kind of computer-moderated, shared, persistent worlds that we've been using the term "virtual worlds" for here.

>I still don't see why saying that religions are like virtual worlds is so offensive to the religions themselves.

If religions are virtual worlds, that means they're imaginary, right? They're not real, because otherwise you wouldn't need that "virtual" adjective. Now although I personally am perfectly happy in characterising religions as imaginary constructs, used by people to ask their imaginary friends to alter reality for them, I'm an atheist. People who are not atheists may not be so keen on having their faith presented in this light. That's why they may be offended by it.

I know of two books which come at this from the same direction as you. Indra Sinha's "The Cybergypsies" draws parallels between the levelling structure of an early virtual world called Shades and the levelling structure of Scientology, and Tim Guest's "Second Lives" has comparisons between the lives of SLers and the people who ran the bonkers cult that Guest was brought up in as a child. Neither of them suggested that religions were virtual worlds, however.

The real world could be a virtual world, but that's another topic entirely.



This is morphing your original question a bit, but it might be more interesting to look at when the external aspects of an experience are sufficient to discuss it fully, compare it to other experiences, etc.

For example, the external view of playing many games is that you kill people as aggressively as possible, over and over. And yet, many (probably most) here would object to the line of reasoning that such video games "are" violent, or that the more relevant internal experience of head-shotting someone in one of these games is remotely similar to the real-life experience. Even less palatable is the idea that (paralleling the idea that "religions are virtual worlds") real world murders are equivalent in some way to in-game killing. Likening video game violence with real-world violence based on the external aspects of each experience is not something that most game proponents support.

There are many other external views that could be brought up to show the logical difficulties this approach brings ("are dogs cats" probably being the most succinct).

To get back to your comparison, religions, for most people who follow one, are decidedly not summed up by externalities, the social network, "leveling up" or the like. Rituals and such are obvious externals, but anyone who follows a particular religion will tell you that the ritual is significant not for the overt actions, but for the internal meaning. The finger pointing is not the moon, as the Buddhists teach.


Interesting point, because Emile Durkheim's famous">http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&client=firefox-a&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&hs=fP&q=elementary+forms+of+the+religious+life&btnG=Search&sa=X&oi=print&ct=title&cad=one-book-with-thumbnail">famous account of the origins of religion argues the opposite. It is the shared, collective experience, he says, that forms the basis for the lasting moral power that religions exert over us (through symbols, meanings, and the like), rather than the teachings themselves. They are, in a way, after the fact, in his view.

Jen Dornan explored some of this territory as a guest author here in this post.


Richard's point (as I take it) is a good one: virtual worlds and the meatworld are both 'real' because people care about them -- that is to say, they are made significant by the arbitrary and collective systems of meaning which mediate our experience of the world.

But -- is it just me -- do Merci's criteria mean that Warcraft, Buddhism, and the Boy Scouts are virtual worlds, but Second Life isn't?


Throughout the ages, people have enjoyed making metaphors about life, religion, love, etc. using whatever "stuff" is big in the popular mind at the time. During the industrial revolution, images and metaphors of engines, trains, power, pistons, gears, etc. were all over the place. Clock imagery was big during the Renaissance. In the 1950's in America, everybody talked about the "road of life," and there were car similes out the trunk. Since the computer age began, we've seen the same thing with computer as brain, as organizing force, as society, as reality (the Matrix), etc. Doing these exercises can be fun, as long as the context is examined.

I disagree with the assertion of this post completely. I have only to ask one question (at least to myself) to blow this one away:

If religions are virtual worlds, what were they before we had a concept of virtual worlds? We've had religions for 6,000 years or so. Were all those people creating/experiencing virtual worlds but just not quite aware of it? Go back in time and use the metaphors from other eras and see if it works for you:

Religions are corporations.
Religions are nation-states.
Religions are games.
Religions are sports.
Religions are communes.

There will be truth in some of those, eh? Because religion is such a big part of our lives, comparing it to many things is possible. Why not just say, "Life is a virtual world," because we all bring all kinds of overlays (culture, language, education, body chemistry) into our interpretations of reality?

Religion is a belief about the actual world. VWs are alternatives to the actual world (or at least are contained in it). The world, for many religious people, is a subset of religion. VWs are a subset of the world.


That's true, Andy. Of course, the other way to think about how religion relates to our context is to see how in more than passing ways a number of religions have been regularly re-imagined, all the way down, based upon the changing context of those who follow them. I've given this quote from Marhsall Sahlins' Tribesman on TN before, but it's so apt for your comment that I can't resist pasting it here again:

When we were pastoral nomads, the Lord was our shepherd. We were his flock, and He made us lie down in green pastures. When we were serfs and nobles, the Lord was our king. Sat regnant on the throne of heaven, His shepherd's crook now a jeweled scepter: monarch of feudal monarchs, even to a Prince of Evil, His own contentious baron...Finally we are businessmen--and the Lord is our accountant. He keeps a ledger on us all, enters there our good deeds in black and debits our sins in red. And when the Great Businessman closes our accounts, to those who show a profit He shall pay eternal dividends; but for those who show a loss -- well, the Devil take the hindmost.

To me this is a wortwhile caution to a tendency we may have to give religion some kind of primacy over other aspects of our lives, at least when we're talking about broad-scale social processes.


I personally am not a big fan of the term 'religion' as a useful cross-cultural category. That said, what I find useful in Merci's post is the idea that, say, Christianity and Warcraft are both institutions with structures of care that participants find compelling. In particular, the idea that both of these organizations and their attendant care-structures are wrapped around a fantasy world (in the nonperjorative sense -- I was going to say 'fandom', which is not a bad description of Xianity, I suppose) seems a sort of cute way to connect the two.


Not all "virtual worlds" are places, and not all are defined as places separate from the real world. I recently blogged about how our perception of reality gains new layers with the advent of smartphones and "always on" internet access.

We all filter the reality around us. As an example, did you ever buy a new model of car, and then find yourself noticing all the cars like that one on the road? Especially how many of them were the same color? You were adding a "my car" filter to your perceptions.

When I was a gypsy roofer, I had a reality filter that noticed roofs in poor repair, or water damage inside a business. A landscaper driving through a neighborhood will see things most of us ignore about the lawns he passes (brown spots, bad trimming, etc.). Much of our reality is not in what we see, but in what we filter out and the extra meaning we assign.

Geotagging is an example of adding a meta-data layer to the real world (for that matter, so is a tape or pamphlet based self-tour of a museum or historical site). Geocaching can be seen as a very simple form of an "augmented" or "layered" game in the real world. LARP's, of course, are game and real world mixed together with abandon.

We even have some very primitive versions of exactly the kind of "Campus as game board" environment the team I was on proposed as the winning entry in the first Ludium conference.

Religion is another form of reality filter. In its more extreme forms, everything becomes tinged with religious meaning. And just as many players of MMOG's have caught themselves appraising the real world with the same filters they use in the virtual realm, and using game jargon in ordinary conversation, as we see games "cross the virtuality barrier", many of them will take on properties very similar to those of religion. I've come to think of this as "Cybercult", and we'll be seeing it in action soon.


"..... my contention is not that a lot of things are 'like religion' but that religions are like virtual worlds."

that's false, because while the religions are the organisation of the faith in something unprovable , while the very existence of divinity cannot be proved or disproved -one coud say is fiction- nobody doubt that SL's CEO is real and in fact he really is.

While in a religion some ppls believe in divinity, in a VW everybody knows that it's not for real: it's "virtual".

Well, except you, ofc.

Everyone agrees on the term "religion",it have an accepted definition, while the term "VW" have not. You cannot ask questions or discuss things without establishing the terms.So, this intellectual child was born dead. God rest its soul and let hope in a ressurection.


"Here I am not positing that virtual worlds are religions, but rather that religions are virtual worlds.

What do you think?"

methinks religions are human constructs about divinity while VWs are human constructs about humans.

you can compare anything and everything to religions , you can even posit that "X" actually IS a religion. But you can never posit that religion is anything else that it is , because the religion refferes to deity. The only refference point in such associacions of ideeas is the religion , not the other way around.

Unless the point is to build rating.


I think the conv. could drift away from games and religion a wee bit and hit up the cognitive sci world (represent!) a bit more. the whole false belief test, the neurological basis of perceptual layering, etc etc... besides, debates between atheists and theists are so much fun


Enjoyed this piece - nice to see someone other than me discuss religion. ;)

All belief systems can be seen as virtual worlds from a certain perspective; I would be more inclined to say they are virtual realities. :) The reality of a Taoist, a Theravada Buddhist, a Shinto practitioner, a Marxist and a die-hard Dallas Cowboys supporter are all radically different worlds!

Richard's objection that religions aren't worlds because they aren't places is fair, but takes a grounded view of what you are gesturing at more generally.

As for religions as imaginary constructs - in that reality is constructed in our imagination, this is broadly factual. Our notions of nations and of self are also imaginary constructs (as I argue on my blog quite frequently; see also Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities, and Charles Taylor's term "social imaginaries").

The successes of the modern scientific materialist paradigm has made it seem as if only entities that can be rendered in this paradigm are "real", but as Nietzsche noted "there are no facts, only interpretations". The scientific materialist belief system is itself a virtual reality, one full of bizarre imaginary ideas like quarks and photons and space-time which are not real, per se, but merely the imaginary models we have created to explain behaviours we can observe. (Similarly, religions provide imaginary models which place us in particular metaphysical and ethical contexts - both functions unavailable to empirical science.)

Consider what the word "atom" used to mean, what it now means, what it will mean when the new super-collider is completed... Rutherford's model of the atom was necessarily imaginary, just like the Greek's notion of an atom. In fact, the scientific reality changes far more rapidly than the various religious realities - in a sense, it is less real, since entities that once were "real" become "discredited" in just a few decades or centuries. ;)

As Richard himself notes: "The real world could be a virtual world, but that's another topic entirely." I couldn't agree more! :)

Best wishes!


This begs the question: what is the MMO golden rule?

("don't be a d***k" is all that comes to mind)



No offence meant, but as far as I'm aware photons aren't that imaginary at all. And uh... Marxism is considered to be a religion now?

I might be a little picky here, but you see what I'm getting at.


Chris may see what you're getting at, but I'm afraid that I don't, Nicholas. I take Chris to be saying that all of the available accounts (pictures, versions) of what the world is are equally "virtual" in the sense that each one is a social construction that is only, in the end, an imperfect account of what the world, in all its messiness, actually is.

This does *not* mean that they are all equally "valid" in some sense (the relativists' mistake). It is only to recognize the *provisionality* of all of these claims (yes, even about photons). To forget that is to cease to do science (or open inquiry in general), and to start to do something more like what, say, the Intelligent Design people think should be science.

The value of these different accounts of the world depends upon, when you get down to it, their usefulness for answering the questions we are asking in each case.


too lazy to read all the comments, and probably only Merci will read this (hi!) but i thought i'd add that whether x = y depends on the criteria that you're using to define. some comments invoked function; perhaps the function x fulfills in the life of an individual = the function that y fulfills... sorry but had to bring this in. according to what criteria are religions equivalent to virtual worlds? (and then of course you have ontology to wrangle with ;)


What sets virtual worlds apart from religions, is the fact that players act within the protection of being anonymous. This alone makes virtual worlds a totally new medium of communication.

Despite similarities, and you stated them, religions, and any other human cultural structure indeed, are prone to lies, deceptions and "political" games played by the participants because of their natural tendency to empower a certain limited group, who then try a grab for power, resources, while within virtual worlds, power is dished out by the game design mechanics, and such grabs, and therefore politics are limited, though it would be interesting to see what happens to online-religions if they were not!!!

great essay, thanks.


One very different thought comes to my mind: Hindu and Buddhist teachings say that the world that we normally experience and believe to be real is nothing but an illusion. One could say that our conception of reality is nothing but a huge virtual world, and there is no way out of it except to transzend it through spiritual awakening. What Krishna said in the Bhagavad Gita is, that the thing to do is to play the game while knowing that you are playing, that is act, but not be attached to the results of your actions, to play as well as you can, and according to the role you have been given, or have taken, while at the same time not to attach much importance to it, as it is still an illusion, or 'virtual world'.


very good thinking in the article! Btw, has someone here read snow crash? Probably... I like the definition of religion there.

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