Faith Versus Fantasy in Computer Gaming

by William Sims Bainbridge

11 April 2013

Image from Aion (NCsoft, 2009) 

An Assignment from the Gods of Science

Research Methods

My chief research methodology was to explore the gameworlds by playing them with the primary goal of learning rather than winning, but winning was a requirement for exploring their more advanced virtual territories. In my previous research in World of Warcraft, fully 2,400 hours were invested in running twenty-two avatars of every race and class. A few other games tabulate data about hours played: Star Wars Galaxies (in which I invested 618 hours), Lord of the Rings Online (479 hours), Tabula Rasa (305 hours), EverQuest II (262 hours), Rift (214 hours), Gods and Heroes: Rome Rising (194 hours), Warhammer Online (105 hours), Sacred 2: Fallen Angel (46 hours), and Guild Wars (44 hours). Other MMOs described here lack timers, but I estimate that my investment in each of those ten was greater than one hundred hours, and often significantly greater: The Matrix Online, Dark Age of Camelot, Age of Conan, Pirates of the Burning Sea, Pirates of the Caribbean, Final Fantasy XI, Star Trek Online, Dungeons and Dragons Online, Fallen Earth, and Star Wars: The Old Republic. In the case of seven games that required reconnaissance but not exhaustive exploration, I took an avatar up to level 25: Aion, Faxion, Perfect World, Forsaken World, Runes of Magic, Lineage II: Goddess of Destruction, and Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Solo-player games tend to be short, but some of them I only sampled, while completely finishing these four: The Da Vinci Code; Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith; and Constantine.

On the level of the mechanics of data collection, a prime technique was taking tens of thousands of screenshot pictures of the display on the computer screen, especially capturing all the text and fundamental actions of each significant quest arc. In the case of very popular games, many online data resources were also used. For example, WoWWiki ( is a very extensive encyclopedia of World of Warcraft information, while Wowhead (http://www provides details of all the quests, both of them based largely on volunteer input from players. Of course, I would never rely entirely on these sources, but always observed the quest or other virtual experience myself. On occasion I would use database systems associated with the game to do a census of avatars or gain other systematic data suitable for statistical analysis.

In some gameworlds, notably World of Warcraft, I was a very active member of guilds or comparable groups of players, and benefited from the experiences of my associates. Indeed, a medium-sized WoW guild I myself founded in the spring of 2008 was still in existence four years later. However, the need to spend time taking screenshots and maneuvering my avatar into situations where useful information would be available rendered me a somewhat unhelpful team player, so I had to use online forums, blogs, and the other data sources to gain a full appreciation of the social implications. In some of the MMOs, reading the in-game text chat was especially useful. One excellent example was the help chat in Fallen Earth, which was often moderated by a very competent employee of the game company, and where experienced players provided advice for inexperienced ones. In several MMOs, my avatar joined a guild that had a very active text chat, learning more from what the guild members discussed with each other than from going on game quests with them.

In the experimental scientific method, research is carefully designed to test hypotheses logically derived from theories. This study did not use that method, but employed an approach that I believe gave comparable results. Rather than just wandering around in the virtual worlds and seeing what happened by chance, I very carefully planned out what my avatar would do and where it would go, to gain desired data. This meant that I had to begin by doing some reconnaissance, both inside the gameworld and in online information sources, and develop avatars that would have appropriate abilities and personalities for the particular lines of research they would undertake. Having the theories discussed in this chapter in mind, I identified nine distinct areas of the social science of religion that could be the framework for organizing the data, suitable for analysis in terms of the theories. The following chapter sets computer gaming in the wider contest that is sometimes called the modern culture wars, especially in the struggle between traditional religion and secular humanism. The nine chapters that follow it each focus on one aspect of religion that social scientists seek to understand, and an appendix briefly describes the forty-one gameworlds on which this book is based.

The nine topic-focused chapters are not merely a convenient way of organizing the research findings, nor just an analytical framework, but nine high-level scientific quests that motivated and guided the research from the beginning. In gamer lingo, strings of connected quests are called quest arcs, and they have some of the sacred quality of Noah’s Ark and the Ark of the Covenant, providing a sense of deeper meaning. The four World of Warcraft avatars mentioned in the first paragraph of this chapter were on sacred quests, the first two to gain greater abilities that would allow them to accomplish new quest arcs, and the last two in the process of doing two more specific missions, which had been formally assigned to them by quest givers in the gameworld. So that was the primary research methodology that guided my ethnography, discovering all the specific missions I need to undertaken to triumph in nine great quests that had been assigned to me by the gods of science.

We naturally but naively think religions are about gods, so the first of these meta-quests is “Deities,” reported here in chapter 3. In Judeo-Christian-Islamic societies, gods are spoken of in the singular and capitalized: God. When Durkheim argued that God was a metaphor for society, representing the unity of adherents, he implicitly favored monotheism because it represents unity, either of one people as in Judaism or of all people as in Christianity and Islam, under a single Lord. Some scholars believe that monotheism encouraged the emergence of science during the Renaissance and afterward, because it assumes that all of nature was created by one deity according to one law that can be discovered through research. But humanity is not unified, and nature seems to be a chaos of conflicting forces. Thus, monotheism expresses a utopian ideal, but harsh reality may better be described by polytheism in which multiple deities compete. The computer games described here are about winning, and thus about competition, but with the paradoxical promise that all players can win. From the “winner take all” perspective of chess or tennis, this seems unnatural—even supernatural—and one way it can be accomplished is by letting every player triumph over nonplayer characters, in a fictional struggle between virtual gods, even sometimes fighting against deities.

Chapter 4, “Souls,” contrasts the Judeo-Christian notion of a unitary, immortal soul with the Indo-European idea that each being has multiple finite aspects which can be represented by different avatars. So-called Turing machines, early digital computers, were designed according to the soul principle, and a degree of unity is provided to the human mind by the limited capacity of human short-term memory. However, modern cognitive science views the brain as a collection of rather separate modules, each assembled from submodules composed of individual neurons, and similarly modern sociology views humans as collections of distinct roles. In gameworlds, devoted players exhibit the psychological concepts of protean self, as they shift from avatar to avatar, and multiplex self, as they run multiple secondary avatars simultaneously. Given the human ability to play the role of being another person, and the almost endless possibilities provided by virtual world technology, in the future many people will experience ancestor veneration avatars (AVAs). To do so, one merely creates an avatar for a gameworld based on a deceased relative and uses the perspective of that relative while playing the game. This interesting opportunity suggests that abandoning the primitive notion that humans possess unitary, immortal souls may liberate us to explore a number of rewarding spiritual alternatives.

If gods fade out of existence, and souls disintegrate, the chapter on priests considers a very different but parallel consequence of disbelief. Priest avatars, or avatars with similar functions like clerics or mages, exist in most fantasy gameworlds, yet many of the aspects of real life that motivate religious professionals are lacking. Permanent death is generally absent, so nobody needs to officiate over funerals, and the absence of families limits the need for marriage ceremonies. Religions, however, are prominent in the story lines of MMOs, so priest characters must inhabit the many virtual cathedrals and temples. The chief social role of virtual priest avatars is as healers, typically in team combat where the priest supports a warrior who directly engages the enemy. In the real world, women are more religious than men, but men dominate the clergy, while in gameworlds an unusually high fraction of the priests are female. Only rarely do games include very elaborate religious rituals, and the ones that do tend to be unpopular. These observations suggest that the erosion of belief in postmodern culture may also erode or at least transform the roles played by professional clergy. Suspension of disbelief may allow game companies to make a profit, but the priesthood may go out of business.

Shrines are the homes of gods, and the chapter with this title covers all forms of sacred architecture, including churches, cathedrals, temples, and monasteries. Religions differ in terms of how strictly they separate sacred objects and places from profane ones, with animists believing that everything has a sacred quality, and dualists being strict separationists. Many gameworlds make a clear distinction in terms of their mythologies, identifying some rocks as shrines, but not all. In technical terms, game designers distinguish the display model that produces the visual image from the world model that determines how the avatar can interact with it. For example, the image of the many stones making up the wall of a temple is a single graphic that belongs to the display model, while the programming that prevents the avatar from walking though the wall is part of the world model. This is akin to the distinction that architects make between form and function, although ideally form follows function. In gameworlds, a third factor combines with form and function, namely, the narrative that is expressed through written text and the actions of meaningful story lines. Thus a virtual shrine or temple can evoke the supernatural through visually resembling something sacred in the conventional world, by being spoken of in the narrative as religious, and by functioning in the game to provide a measure of transcendence from the material world.

Chapter 8, “Morality,” considers the central function of religion in sustaining a code of behavior for members of the society that adheres to the particular faith. In social science, one major approach is criminology or the broader sociology of deviance, and concepts from this field can illuminate dimensions of the gameworld even though faith is probably not a powerful determinant of behavior by avatars. As it happens, during the seven years I taught at the University of Washington, my biggest class was Social Deviance, where I was inspired by the interest expressed by five hundred to seven hundred students per year. The class covered religious deviance, a field my research then concentrated in, as well as providing an introduction to criminology and to the social science of mental disorder, the field in which I had taken my graduate exams. A key theme of the chapter naturally is the standard academic conceptualization of how religion and morality relate to each other. Morality evolved to support the success of one’s own family or tribe, by building a partnership among tribe members. But it is problematic in a world where separate tribes compete to the death over limited resources, as is the case in many gameworlds and may become the case in the wider world that humans inhabit.

The chapter “Cults” examines how religion sets standards for behavior and belief—indeed how religion comes into being. Every religious tradition began as a cult, such as the one Moses led out of Egypt, or as a cultlike sect that broke away from an existing group, as Christianity did from Judaism. Indeed, the descriptions of very early Christianity found in the New Testament makes them seem very similar to the two modern communal cults, the Process and the Children of God, about which I wrote two books.41 Consider Acts 4:32, “And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common.” Cult movements are deviant religious organizations with novel beliefs and practices, and fictional ones abound in the gameworlds. Real-world cults can be analyzed in terms of the new supernatural compensators they create through intense social implosions, or through the methods they use to absorb new members. However, both real and fictional cults can be considered total works of art, comparable to the grand operas about Pagan gods written by Richard Wagner, but experienced as a realm of real life by cultists and gamers alike.

Religion has many roots, but the taproot reaches into the grave of every deceased friend or family member, and draws from the depth psychology of our own personal fear of dying. Ultimately, religion is about meaning that transcends mortality, so a gloomy chapter on death (chapter 10) prepares this book for its more optimistic conclusion. Much of the action in computer games involves killing, causing the deaths both of players’ avatars and of nonplayer characters. But death in MMOs is not permanent, because in almost every instance the deceased character can return to life. Popular games do not explicitly employ the Hindu concept of samsara, referring to an endless cycle of birth, suffering, death, and reincarnation—yet as a practical matter the nonplayer characters are trapped in this tragic pattern. Huge cemeteries, individual graves, and splendid tombs abound. A few memorials for actually deceased persons can be found. In some games, the player’s avatar can be one of the Undead, supposedly having experienced an entire life before the player began the game, and now existing in a form not unlike a corpse. The games may trivialize death, but an argument can be made that religions do the same, by pretending that it is less horrifying than it really is.

To end the book on a positive note, the final chapter concerns quests. In a very real sense, this chapter uses games as a vantage point from which to debate whether life has meaning. Competitive games have goals, both small ones and large ones, collecting points of various kinds on the way toward winning. A superficial meaning of the word meaning comes from translation of one word into another, for example connecting the German word Spiel to game, or stealing a Latin word for game to create the adjective ludic. But humans want meaning to have a deeper meaning—referring to some transcendent purpose. One way they do this is through seeking to achieve goals in life, which can range from the very simple goal of having lunch to vastly richer goals such as creating a good society for our children to thrive in, thereby giving both the struggle and the accomplishment a significance to human beings. The purposeful nature of human questing translates not only to the acts performed by the person but to the features of the surrounding world that play roles in the quest. Thus, humans invest meaning in life through their questing, whether or not gods already did so. Along the way, players lose some games, and death is the ultimate defeat. The ultimate victory is to play eternally.


This book does not claim that multiplayer online games will supplant religion, but that many of religion’s historical functions have already been taken over by other institutions of society, in the process of secularization, and games will play a role in the further erosion of faith. Quite apart from what psychological and social functions games may play, they provide a vantage point from which to consider changes happening in the wider culture and to celebrate human creativity. Thus fantasy is not a perfect substitute for faith, but it has some advantages. One is freedom, because a player can decide from moment to moment which game to play, which avatar to play inside it, and within certain limits what goals the avatar should seek. Precisely because religion has traditionally oversold its value to humanity, and such value as it has may decline as many competing cultural institutions arise, fantasy need not simulate faith. Indeed, to describe secularization as the erosion of religious faith is too negative a way to define it. We might better say: secularization is a form of cultural progress that liberates the playful human imagination.

William Sims Bainbridge is a prolific and influential sociologist of religion, science, and popular culture. He serves as co-director of Human-Centered Computing at the National Science Foundation. His books include Leadership in Science and Technology, The Warcraft Civilization, Online Multiplayer Games, Across the Secular Abyss, and The Virtual Future.

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