These days, it’s a common refrain that the youth of the first world are growing up godless: Church and temple attendance have plummeted in developing countries. Meanwhile, those same young people are increasingly plugged in: Gaming, especially online gaming, has become a multibillion-dollar industry.
But what if they’re having religious experiences inside those very games? William Sims Bainbridge, a sociologist who has been studying religion for more than 40 years, turned his attention toward religion within gaming in 2007 and found far more worshipers there than you might expect.
Though at 72 years old Bainbridge might not fit the conventional image of a gamer, he has logged more than 3,000 hours in more than 30 online games to find that religion—albeit fictional, often fantastical religion—is a powerful force in many of the intricate virtual worlds where some gamers spend their time.
What do these religions look like? In a new book, “eGods: Faith Versus Fantasy in Computer Gaming,” he paints a detailed portrait. There are the gods of “EverQuest II,” vain and capricious creatures who abandoned the world and have only recently come back, leaving players to decide whether they stand to gain from worshiping them. There is “World of Warcraft”’s Church of the Holy Light, a massive bureaucracy only vaguely focused on the impersonal divine entity at its center. There are tech-obsessed religions, such as the one in the game “Fallen Earth” that seeks to destroy the remains of humanity in order to “reboot” society.
Even though most in-game religions are the work of game designers, Bainbridge sees them as outlets for genuine religious impulses in their players: Players gain status through devotional practices; they seek help from omnipotent entities. He suggests that the ubiquity of in-game religion could, in theory, be priming a whole generation for a real-world religious revival, if the world continues to see increased social upheaval.
Bainbridge considers himself an atheist, but he has created his own kind of religious practice online. In a form of ancestor worship, he models many of his in-game characters on long-deceased relatives, and uses knowledge of his forebears to guide their choices in ways he might not otherwise have considered.
Bainbridge spoke to Ideas by phone from his home in Arlington, Va. This interview has been condensed and edited.
Ideas: What’s the most novel religion you’ve seen in an online game?
Bainbridge: I found the most interesting to be the religion of the Moon Goddess in “World of Warcraft.” It’s a nature-oriented religion, an ecology-oriented religion, but two of the different intelligent species hold to this religion—the Tauren and the Night Elves—and they do it in different ways, which struck me as very sophisticated. The Night Elves are a very old and somewhat declined civilization....While the Tauren—who are kind of a cattle people, they look like cows and bulls, [and] there are many respects in which they seem to represent Native Americans—they have a less sophisticated but more heartfelt orientation to the same moon goddess than the Night Elves do, which links this fantasy-nature religion to a tribal society, as well as to a post-industrial society.
Ideas: You write a lot about another “World of Warcraft” religion, that of the Holy Light, which has an unexpected twist for attentive players. What makes it so interesting to you?
Bainbridge: The thing about the Holy Light is, it is, at best, an ethical system, and there is no hint that a deity exists. It presents a few fairly simple ethical principles and it gets debated at various points, but if you actually do all of the quests, all of the missions, you realize it’s a sham. It claims high ethical characteristics, but that is merely the way this somewhat tottering aristocracy holds control.
To me, one of the more interesting missions, you’re sent on a mission to assassinate the leader of a group of bandits way south of the human capital, up in the hillsides. You fight your way past all sorts of defenders deep underground in a hidden area, and eventually, you kill the bad guy, chop his head off, bring it back. Only then do you discover he was a good guy. That, in fact, when the religion of the Holy Light built its cathedral in the middle of the city—and it’s wonderful—the workers were promised payment and didn’t get it. They started labor actions, demanding their payment from the priests, and they were expelled from the city. So this supposed bandit is actually a labor leader seeking justice for the workers.
Ideas: What’s the most important perspective that in-game religions can give us on real-world religious belief?
Bainbridge: A fair amount of the conflict in many of these games is conflict between religious movements, and yet, when you look at the game as a whole, much of its richness comes from the diversity of them. So that balance between competition and creativity leads you to treasure that in the real world, as well.
Ideas: Is that different from tensions between religious beliefs in the real world?
Bainbridge: They’re pretty different in the gaming worlds. They’re like the cults I studied earlier in my career: They’re rather totalistic. Here’s a total worldview. It’s ironic, because if they were liberal and accepted each other, then it wouldn’t be interesting. And yet, you as the player have to transcend them.
Ideas: Is there any way in which in-game religion might be a model for real-world religion?
Bainbridge: It would not be very compatible with our current society. But that’s because it is, in part, compensating people emotionally for some of the problems of our society. So naturally, it’s going to have some mirror-image aspects, some things that are the opposite of our society, including the equivalent of slaves. In many of the games, you have nonplayer assistants who you have complete control of. So they have many features that we would consider reprehensible in the real world, but that helps it give people emotional compensation for what they’re lacking in the real world.
IDEAS: Then there’s your own invention, Ancestor Veneration Avatars, or AVAs, where you “play” your own ancestors as characters. What resemblance does that practice have to traditional ancestor worship?
Bainbridge: It’s about understanding things the way they would have and expanding, to some extent, your own perspective.
Ideas: You suggest in some recent academic writings that ancestor veneration does something for you, even though you’re a nonbeliever. What has this practice taught you about yourself and your own religious desires?
Bainbridge: There are several functions that belief in an afterlife serves. For the individual, it provides hope that you can still achieve things, you can still experience things. But for those who are still alive, how do you deal with grief and loss? Those are emotional needs. What about the intellectual loss of guidance, of the teacher role the older generation plays? What about your obligations to the deceased?...How do we give a sense of honor to people who aren’t influential?
Well, there may be a variety of ways of doing it. I’ve suggested that games do it. But there used to be something that religion could do for them. Religion was based on at least some false assumptions, and because it has lost so many of its functions, it no longer has a monopoly on any of its functions. How are we going to deal with those things? And AVAs are simply something that worked out for me and might work for others. They can try it at very low cost and see if it works for them.
Abraham Riesman is a writer and documentary filmmaker in New York City. You can see his work at abrahamriesman.com.