Faith In Terra Nova

Most important: Pippa left this morning for three weeks with her aunts. We woke early, she traveled safely, all in Maine are giddily happy, and I’m sitting here alone, gazing at the dog. It’ll be a great time for Pippa and Jeanne and Gail; I’ll get by.

Now, to matters of less far-reaching consequence!

Both Steve and Liz pointed my attention to a post at Terra Nova in which Mike Sellers asks whether it might not be time for massively multi-player online games to engage seriously with the topic of religion. And he’s not talking only about the made-up religions of the fictive gaming worlds — he explicitly wonders whether one might not want to migrate Christian, Judaic, Islamic, and other physical-world expressions of faith into game-worlds.

I have much to say about the query and the long, long chain of comments that follows it, and some of it will fit better into another blog essay I have in mind for a later occasion. Tonight I’ll just touch on the specific questions Mike raises, and will answer them as a theologian, as a person with a faint background in designing games, and as a player.

As a game designer (again: I disclaim any robust qualification as a game designer, but I did spend a fair amount of off-hours long ago writing, fine-tuning, and playing computer games), I would say “No!” right away — not because I have some aversion to religion, but because the design problems it represents would require vast amounts of processing overhead for a relatively small benefit.

Think about it this way: if we assume that God (or “various gods”) exist, we must admit that God’s involvement with the observed world is so subtle as to make atheism entirely plausible. Very few people “don’t believe in”Jay Leno. Doubting the existence of Jay Leno would defy all the cues we customarily rely on when we form judgments about reality. Doubting God’s existence doesn’t require that kind of comprehensive effort; lots of people disbelieve in God without any effort at all. So from a game designer’s point of view, programming this kind of God would require investing computational energy in an element of the game that you couldn’t detect. Or maybe the answer is, “That’s already a feature” — how would we contradict them? “If there were a God in this game, God wouldn’t let my character get all the way to Onyxia, then die because. . . ”? In a world with copious natural disasters, the claim that we could identify the hand of God in an online game rings hollow.

But [intriguingly enough] most people don’t want the subtle, elusive God of real life in their gaming worlds. They want the more obtrusive, predictable God of popular imagination and media, and of particular flavors of theology: a God whom you know how to please and displease, and who responds to pleasing behavior with rewards, and to displeasing behavior with punishments. That sort of God would take less programming subtlety, but the overhead would still be high, or the manifestations of the god’s presence would be tediously mechanical (and would thus be gamed quickly with a user mod or macro). If the God of Stormwind wants the sacrifice of a small animal every eight hours, then in short order an AutoSacrifice mod will be posted that keeps track of your sacral responsibility — which would render the “point” both of that God’s presence and of that gesture trivial.

The ideal gaming deity would be more Homeric, more capricious, and more interested in unspecificiable particular actions. This version of the God of Stormwind would sometimes pay close attention to your character’s behavior, and if your conduct reflected poorly on your home city, this God might nerf [render less effective] your abilities, weapons, spells, or whatever. If you showed yourself a loyal defender of Stormwind, this God might enhance your abilities. Of course, this God would be a bear to code; it would require setting up a monitoring capacity that zeroed in on a character occasionally, assessed that character’s actions against a norm of Stormwind-ity, and effect an adjustment that corresponds to the scale of the character’s departure from the norm. But how do you measure Stormwind-ity and deviancy? How do you establish a correspondence between deviation and recompense? How many players and characters would even care (since presumably, average behavior would not affect one’s character’s performance at all)?

As a player, I’d very much like to think that the plot of the game-universe would involve and respond to the extent to which players’ behaviors accord with the game’s expectations. The notion that “being a priest” or “paladin” in a game-world entails absolutely no obligation to behave in ways that befit that role frustrates me (as a player — though also, of course, as a priest). I would love to vie with others for the attention and affection of a game-deity, to puzzle over series of events to discern, if possible, whether they involved divine intervention (“Were those three straight rolls of 99 divine intervention, or did I just get lucky?”). I suspect that if the gaming company employed roughly one Divine Emissary to every fifty players, they could do an interesting job of manipulating games and outcomes in an unpredictable, non-mechanical, nuanced way. On the other hand, that gets very expensive, very fast.

As a theologian, I note that few if any of the commenters described “religion” in any way that I’d recognize. If they’re representative of a relatively sophisticated readership, the sort of people who participate in game design (and some of them clearly are designers), I’m just as happy that they’re leaving religion out. I dissent actively enough from what some of my colleagues say about theology and religion — having to deal with the catechetical influence of theologically problematic game designs would only aggravate my frustration.

What about Mike’s suggestion that physical-world religious communities take their activity into Warcraft (and related games)? I’d be extremely cautious; while there may be no compelling reason to prevent the Knights of Columbus Guild or the Rodef Shalom Raiding Party, the opportunity for people to live out their radically-profound frustrations and alienations in conflict with other gamers could damage both the game and its participants. If you think that hostilities between Guild and Alliance run deep, just imagine the first time a Hamas Guild gets into a PvP environment with a JDL Guild. Game admins don’t need that tension, gamers don’t need that tension, and the game itself (I’d argue) needs a suspension of the pre-existing allegiances and alienations that (sadly) beset religious communities.

And in this world, one can’t just respawn fifteen minutes later.

3 thoughts on “Faith In Terra Nova

  1. As a theologian, I note that few if any of the commenters described “religion” in any way that I’d recognize.

    There is an analogy there to the way some (not all!) atheists or agnostics describe religion: not in ways that many religious people would describe their belief systems. Some of these folks are atheists whom I respect deeply and read avidly. Still, the “catechetical” task is so burdensome (and usually unwelcome) that, despite my love for science, I could never be even part-time a real “science and religion” guy.

  2. “Do you believe in God?”

    One of the world’s most annoying questions. Simply answering “yes” tells the questioner pretty much nothing, and is actually likely to leave the person asking with completely the wrong impression.

    Me: “Well, when you say ‘God,’ what do you have in mind? And what, exactly do you mean by ‘believe?'” (To the skeptic-questioner: I probably DON’T ‘believe’ in that God either.)

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