Professor Investigates Connection Between Virtual Worlds in Video Games and Religion; Fosters Student Research and Publications

Robert Geraci releases new book on how video games might play a role in the religious options of modern life and publishes paper with student as a result of NSF grant.

Robert M. Geraci, Ph.D., professor of religious studies at Manhattan College, has spent much of his academic career researching the association between religion, science and technology. His newest book, Virtually Sacred: Myth and Meaning in World of Warcraft and Second Life, which was released earlier this summer, analyzes the connection between virtual worlds in video games and how they are now part of the landscape of religion in contemporary pop culture.

As part of Geraci’s continued exploration of virtual worlds, he received a National Science Foundation award in 2011 to fund further research and hire three student researchers. Most recently, Geraci and Nat Recine ’14, a civil engineering major, discovered a virtual world in the multiplayer online role-playing game Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR). The pair published a paper in the July 2014 edition of Games and Culture, a journal of interactive media that serves as a premiere outlet for innovative work in the field of game studies. The paper examines how a gamer can experience and contemplate the political debate between totalitarian and republican rule, a debate that we inherit from Enlightenment philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant.

Learn more about Geraci’s new publications in an exclusive Q&A:

 

Q: Can you give a brief description of your new book Virtually Sacred: Myth and Meaning in World of Warcraft and Second Life and how virtual worlds and video games have become religious havens for some participants? [+]

“In my new book, I looked at the virtual worlds in World of Warcraft (2004) and Second Life (2003), which are both massively multiplayer online role-playing games and how they might play a role in the religious options of modern life.

For example, in Second Life there are many religious communities that have created churches, temples and meditation gardens. There is an extensive importation of traditional religious ideas and sometimes that is in connection with conventional churches and also imaginative engagements with traditional religions. For example, one of the groups I discuss in the book established a community based around C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, exploring the Christian themes in Narnia and connecting them to contemporary theological ideas.

Second Life enables someone to have a Christian community, like the Christian Narnian landscape, that would be fundamentally impractical and probably impossible in the conventional world. In addition, however, I am also interested in how you can think about recreating a religious tradition in a virtual world but also the question, ‘How does participating in a virtual world itself substitute for traditional religious affiliation?’

For example, in World of Warcraft, you get people who can build communities and reflect on questions of ethics. These communities matter to the players; the online friends are really important to them even if they never meet them in a physical, conventional reality. The questions of right and wrong appear throughout the game, engaging good and evil, of course, but also environmentalism, consumerism and other moral concerns. There are these little ways that World of Warcraft provides a kind of religious experience but also this really big question of how one becomes more than oneself, which ties into a wider religious phenomenon of transhumanism. Within transhumanism, science and technology are used to fulfill fundamentally religious goals such as eternal happiness, becoming smarter, wiser, and more powerful, even acquiring immortality, which is a key religious goal.

For transhumanists, science and technology are the keys to those sorts of things, and there are many people who want to do things like upload their minds into virtual worlds. In the book, I engage, in both Second Life and World of Warcraft, the idea that the virtual world might enable a kind of human apotheosis (making divine of the human being), and if that’s the case, then they are very much at competition with a more traditional kind of religious outlook.”

 

Q: How does your new book relate to the National Science Foundation grant research for which your students have been a part? [+]

“While working on my 2010 book, Apocalyptic AI: Visions of Heaven in Robotics, Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Reality, I became aware of the connection between Second Life and transhumanism and included a chapter on this in the book.

Shortly after, I attended an academic conference held in World of Warcraft and started drafting my newest book, and I decided to apply for a grant with the NSF to explore more on virtual worlds. As a result of the NSF grant, “EAGER – Virtually Meaningful: The Power and Presence of Meaning in Virtual Worlds,” I was able to hire three research students and will finish up work on the final phase of the grant this summer with the submission of “Grotesque Gaming: The Monstrous in Online Gaming,” a paper written with Samantha Fox ’12, a communication major.

In addition, Daniela Robles ’12, a sociology major, presented “Dying to Play: How Death Mechanics in Guild Wars” at the 2012 International Conference on Videogame Cultures and the Future of Interactive Entertainment held at Oxford University. Her paper was published in Cultural Perspectives of Video Games.” 

 

Q: Did you find any common themes between your new book and your first book, Apocalyptic AI: Visions of Heaven in Robotics, Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Reality[+]

“What fundamentally interests me is how we use technology as a way to make the world meaningful. In the first book, I was engaging the idea that someone might want to live forever by uploading his mind into a robot or into virtual reality. That was really a way of thinking about how these technologies are doing religious work and making the world meaningful and making a person’s life meaningful.

That carries over into the second book, which is more narrowly focused because it’s no longer about robotics, artificial intelligence and virtual reality; now it’s just about virtual reality — in particular, virtual reality experiences that millions of people are seeking out. From a religious perspective, people are making their lives rich and meaningful and interesting in these virtual worlds. The grant project was to expand on that and say, ‘Ok, in what other ways are virtual worlds meaningful for their participants?’”

 

Q: What future projects lay ahead for you, and are you doing any follow-up to your Fulbright Nehru Scholar grant and the social study of robotics in India? [+]

“I’m working on a project with Cory Blad, director of the Urban Affairs program and associate professor of sociology, which will evaluate the cultural, scientific, economic and policy implications of privatized spaceflight. Cory’s handling policy and economic aspects, whereas I’m interested in the scientific advances and the ways in which spaceflight is a cultural enterprise associated with human progress. The project will go through the grant process in the coming year.

As a result of my Fulbright research in India in 2012-2013, where I was visiting scholar at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), an elite technical institution in Bangalore, I will be publishing a book on religion and technology in India.

IISc is the seed of most of India’s high technology, education and industry. For example, its aerospace and software industries emerged out of the Institute, and the very first U.S. IT company to come to Bangalore was Texas Instruments, and it started with a little group at IISc.

I interviewed scientists at IISc and other academic institutions; in the tech industry, from startups to large multinational companies; and in hacker culture.

I’m putting together a book based on all of these interviews and will engage the question, ‘What is meaningful and what is religious about technology in India?’”

 

To read more about Virtually Sacred and purchase a copy, visit Amazon.com.