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.Continued...