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.