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eGods: Faith Versus Fantasy in Computer Gaming

William Sims Bainbridge
Image from Aion (NCsoft, 2009)

"If humans are by nature lovers of fantasy, then little may be lost if they consider all their gods to be fantasies."

Reprinted from eGods: Faith versus Fantasy in Computer Gaming by William Sims Bainbridge with permission from Oxford University Press USA (footnotes omitted). Copyright © 2013 Oxford University Press. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.

Chapter 1: Disbelief

A priest strides rapidly along the road from Northridge Abbey through Goldshire to Stormwind City, excited that he has been sent for advanced training in the Cathedral of Light. In the Temple of the Moon at Darnassus, a priestess learns new supernatural healing techniques while bathed in moonbeams and standing beneath a colossal statue of the goddess Elune. At the top of a precipice in an archipelago of magic-shrouded islands, an anthropologist studying shamanism wonders if she can trust a totem to save her if she leaps toward the rocks far below. In a remote valley, a shaman prepares to attack archaeologists whose digging will desecrate his people’s holy burial grounds, activating a protective totem before unleashing his pious rage. The first of these four religious professionals is a Human, but the others are a Night Elf, a Draenei, and a Tauren. Indeed, none of them are people, exactly, but the avatars of people in the dominant massively multi-player online role-playing game, World of Warcraft.

It is easy to dismiss such avatars as mere tokens in a game, yet through them the user experiences a marvelous world, often for many hundreds of hours, frequently encountering religious symbolism. Imagine that a devoutly religious person said to a World of Warcraft player, “I can’t believe you take that stuff seriously!” The player could reply, “Same to you, buddy!” If games are not real, then neither is art, or music, or drama, or sports, or politics, or the stock market, yet all of these are real in their socioeconomic consequences. To a significant degree, they are also real in their psychological impact: belonging either to a smug religious sect or to a successful World of Warcraft guild can give pride to a person who lacks social status in the wider world. What about the psychology of faith?

Religion has always been deeply involved in the creative arts, but the relationships between them are changing. Perhaps we shall come to see religion merely as an especially solemn art form. Suspension of disbelief is the essence of art, according to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and electronic games are a new and powerful art form that often depicts religion. Yet we may wonder whether suspension of disbelief is really very different from belief itself. Traditional religions took their faith very seriously, and pious believers today would be shocked if told their God was not very different from an elf’s image on a computer monitor. Yet much may be gained by thinking from that admittedly radical perspective.

At his passing, King Arthur said, “The old order changeth, yielding place to new, and God fulfills Himself in many ways, lest one good custom should corrupt the world.” This famous quotation takes on new meaning if we consider that God was part of the old order, even undeniably a good custom. In Norse Ragnarok and German Götterdämmerung, the old Pagan gods were swept aside by the tide of history, yet they like Arthur still live in our imaginations. If humans are by nature lovers of fantasy, then little may be lost if they consider all their gods to be fantasies.

An interesting topic that some erudite anthropologist should explore—and much existing literature touches on—is the extent to which preliterate peoples really believedfaithful can mean loyal; a true patriot is a self-sacrificing rather than a fact-speaking one, and conviction may arise as much from social demands as from personal needs for emotional security.

We can speculate that when ancient people sat around the campfire in the evening, telling tales of heroes, gods, and demons, they knew that all of them were fantasies. But somewhere, across the centuries, the church and state required faith, and faith bred hope in a way that made it precious, which it never had been at the dawn of humankind. Perhaps the cruel necessity to hold rich farmland against enemies that gave rise to knights in armor also demanded uniformity of belief from dukes and peasants alike. But then, the Industrial Revolution and the subsequent Information Revolution deposed the landed aristocracy, sent the peasants to work in factories, and educated everybody to a new level of skepticism. I am proposing a curvilinear model of religion: faith was fluid and inseparable from fantasy early in human history, and it will be the same late in human history, but near the middle of human history the social conditions associated with agricultural empires favored the emergence of religious bureaucracies that demanded faith.

Here stand three disbelievers: an Atheist, an Agnostic, and an Aesthetic. The Atheist is certain that God does not exist: end of story. The Agnostic is not sure, or suggests it is impossible to decide, or is unwilling to express personal views about such a sensitive topic: The story never begins. The Aesthetic knows that tales about gods are fables, rather than facts, but some of those fables are quite beautiful: For sake of art, not truth, we can tell endless stories.

Not far away stand three believers: a Conservative, a Moderate, and a Liberal. The Conservative is convinced not only that the holy scriptures tell the literal truth but that any culture that contradicts the scriptures is evil and must be banned. The Moderate is a person of faith who makes a clear distinction between religious fact and artistic fiction, granting the latter some freedom to play with spiritual concepts, so long as nobody takes them seriously. The Liberal feels that religion and the arts both express deep human longings, and that both may contain some metaphoric truth, but is perplexed over what we should really believe.

Many modern fantasy media exist, from movies and television shows, to comic books and novels, to the latest videogames. The best of the solo-player computer games and massively multiplayer online gameworlds are the most effective media for fantasy, because they allow a person to experience magic directly and to act in the fantasy world as if it were real. They take us back to those dark nights of ancient days, when the lights and shadows flickered on the trees around the fire, and it was easy to imagine that the monster described by the storyteller stood nearby in the darkness. Thus, the newest secular technology returns us to the origins of religion so we “arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Before we consider gods, priests, cults, and other major concepts in the domain of religion, it will be useful to learn a modest amount about each of several gameworlds, to get a sense of their variety. To do so, I shall briefly describe three real-time strategy games that have a religious dimension, then three massively multiplayer online gameworlds in which the player experiences everything through an avatar and religious implications abound. All of these can be described as virtual worlds, although they differ greatly in visual style and the degree to which the action is primarily social.

Playing God

There are many varieties of computer games, and many games are hybrids of different varieties, so any fully accurate description would need to be long and complex. But at a first approximation, the type usually called real-time strategy (RTS) games has two connections to religion. First of all, these are often called god games because the player takes the role of a god, existing outside the world and commanding the action from an Olympian height. The player of an RTS is not represented by an avatar and does not see the world from ground level but directs armies or nations, as a chess player does but usually in a much more complex and often realistic world. These may be solo-player games, in which the goal is to build the power of a simulated city or nation in competition with others operated by the computer. Or they may be multiplayer games in which a few opponents communicate online.

Second, religion is often one of the features of the simulated society commanded by the player, although usually a minor one. We will consider three examples that reveal interesting issues about religion: GodStoria, Rome: Total War, and Spore. GodStoria is one of the very few attempts to build a traditionally Christian religious gameworld, and with all due respect to its creators, for a game released in 2010 it is technologically very primitive. This probably reflects the very limited investment capital available for developing Christian games, as well as the fact that the game was still under development when it was released to the public.

It is best described as a real-time strategy game, and it is also a browser game, because it is played online through a web browser. Some browser-based gameworlds employ graphic software to produce a three-dimensional immersive environment, but GodStoria, like many others, presents a sequence of two-dimensional web pages, each one updated on the basis of decisions the user made on the previous page. Thus, technically it is a minimalist virtual world, representing the features of the real world in an extremely abstract manner. For example, when soldiers are sent into battle, they are not depicted on the computer screen, whereas in Rome: Total War, to be described shortly, every single soldier can be seen, even though they are commanded in groups rather than individually.

GodStoria is based on the biblical book of Genesis. The major first section of this evolving game, which was available to be explored when I did my research, is set in the time outlined near the end of Genesis 11. Ur is depicted as a wide desert territory in which each player has set up a village. The goal is to develop the economy, defend the village, and prepare for an ultimate move to Canaan. For example, GodStoria’s tutorial has the user click on a farm in the two-dimensional image on the screen, switches to a screen presenting data about the farm, and requires the user to click “Update” to invest resources to improve the farm. The same is then done for a timber camp, a mine, and a clay pit. All these investments begin to pay off in providing materials, first of all to build a warehouse on land selected by the user, to store the materials. The general principle of strategy games is to go through a period of building resources, training soldiers, and then perhaps engaging in military competition against other tribes. Of special interest here is that GodStoria allows the user to build some architecture that has religious implications, including these as described on its building list page:

Temple: Temples allow you to receive God’s blessing and enhance spiritual attack power. Temples with higher levels allow players to receive more blessings. In the temple you can read the word of God and increase your faith.

House of Prayer: Houses of prayer enhance spiritual defense. Houses of prayer with higher levels further increase spiritual defense.

Altar: Here you can offer sacrifices to God at the altar. Decreased faith is restored whenever you offer a sacrifice.

Sheep Pen: Sheep are raised here. Sheep are given as offerings to God and are used as food during a feast. Sheep pens with higher levels can raise more sheep.

Spiritual attack power and spiritual defense are variables that interact with many others in determining the outcome of a battle. An early challenge for players is keeping up their faith, which starts at 100 percent but gradually drops as it is eroded by stone effigies representing competing faiths that are set up in the neighborhood. A player’s first experience of battle will be sending a platoon of soldiers out to destroy such an effigy, but after a while the computer will rebuild it, so it must be destroyed repeatedly. In the early months of GodStoria’s existence, players complained on the forums that it was costly to sustain faith, yet faith did not offer much in the way of benefits. This can be seen either as a superficial remark about the unfinished nature of the game at that time or as a profound critique of real religion. 

At the beginning, each player has one “hero,” named Abram. He is not depicted through an animated character, but merely as a two-dimensional portrait on web pages where decisions are made about him. In building an army, one really just assigns numbers to the hero, representing his capabilities and the number of soldiers of various kinds assigned to him. His march to the site of a battle is depicted merely by the passage of time. When a player is constructing one building, no others can be built simultaneously, and the construction goes in stages that take set periods of time. That is the real-time part of the definition of RTS. The strategy part is deciding how to invest resources, including when and where to send the hero to battle. After a while, I was given a choice of two names for a second hero, and I chose Crescens, the name of one of the absolutely most obscure characters in the Bible. Crescens is mentioned only in 2 Timothy 4:10 as one of the first Christians.

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