Virtually Sacred: Myth and Meaning in World of Warcraft and Second Life,
by Robert M. Geraci.
Oxford University Press, 2014.
Hardcover, 368 pages, $35.

Reviewed by Matthew C. Millsap

As individuals living in the twenty-first century, we find ourselves unable to deny the fact that technology has irrevocably changed our lives. After all, if the everyday smartphone user now holds more processing power in the palm of his hand than what would have been available by combining every single mainframe computer in existence on the entire planet in 1960 (a mere fifty-four years ago!), how could the life-changing qualities of the devices we now possess be denied? Average citizens now have portable access to exponentially more information than did the intelligentsia of bygone eras who inhabited the nooks and crannies of the largest physical repositories of human knowledge. Can such a feat be anything other than awe-inspiring?

It is into such a milieu that Robert M. Geraci writes Virtually Sacred: Myth and Meaning in World of Warcraft and Second Life, an examination of virtual worlds and their capacities for religious meaning and experience. Arguing that virtual worlds are now used by their inhabitants to explore the praxis of religion as well as to form communities in which such praxis can take shape, Geraci examines the existing worlds present in World of Warcraft and Second Life to demonstrate how such religious meaning is both brought into and formed within these realms. Geraci’s approach is expectedly sociological in nature, given his background in religious studies. But what are the more explicitly theological implications of his study?

Let us consider a Christian worldview, or more specifically, the Christian story as an interpretive framework for what might take place in virtual worlds. Lyotard may have once famously boiled postmodern thought into “incredulity toward metanarratives,” but there can be no mistake that, thirty-five years after he penned those influential words, the majority of the inhabitants of this physical realm nonetheless operate with a metanarrative of some kind, however subconsciously, whether Christian, atheistic, or otherwise.While it may be true that many “gamers,” or more accurately, persons who enjoy playing video games, generally have a distrust of organized religion, it is clear that they still seek meaning, as do all humans, so naturally this search comes part and parcel into the virtual worlds in which they regularly immerse themselves.

Geraci, then, is right to note the ways in which activities undertaken in virtual worlds can mirror real-world religious practices, or even supplant them in some cases. What virtual worlds can provide that the real world apparently does not are spaces for alternative metanarratives to play out as though they were, in fact, reality: safe havens for those dissatisfied with the theological trappings of the physical world to explore religious thought “on their own terms,” so to speak. Not to be confused with unhealthy type of escapism, this Tolkienesque alternative provides the means to bring such ideas into physical fruition, but in virtual form.

But the problem here is that Tolkien praised the healthy form of escapism for its ability to provide the participant a better appreciation of the real world; the “escapist” was enhanced in his real life by his temporary escape into another realm. The transhumanist alternative (and the ideas with which Geraci interacts are unmistakably transhuman) presupposes not only a blurring of the lines between the virtual and the real, but also that the virtual is, in some way, qualitatively superior. For the transhumanist, once the distinction between the virtual and real dissolves, the fabric of the virtual envelops the real, and in the transhumanist search for immortality, the virtual supersession of the real is all but required.

Theologically speaking (from a Christian perspective), then, there are problems with an entirely positive appraisal of religious meaning-seeking and religious meaning-making in virtual worlds. The first is that holding confessionally to the Fall and original sin necessitates the conclusion that there is trouble in virtual paradise. Seeking an alternative religious community in a virtual realm presupposes, to a certain degree, that something is deficient in the physical realm. These seekers are right in that they recognize something amiss in the physical world, that something is broken. But religion in a virtual realm cannot somehow divorce itself from the theology of the physical. It is thus a vast error to assume that the problems due to sin in the physical world will not find their way into the virtual. The idea of religious practice in a virtual realm being better (or more efficacious) than religious practice in the physical realm may work in theory, but it is impossible in reality, for it still involves humans who are, by nature, sinners.

Secondly, Christian theology holds essential anthropological understandings of the physical body in a physical world. There are far too many to discuss here, but two in particular are worth mentioning. First, we may examine Christian ordinances. For example, if baptism (particularly by immersion) is an outward, physical sign of an inward reality—the cleansing of sins and the transformation of a life through faith in Jesus Christ—how could such a physical actbe properly performed, experienced, and witnessed virtually? One might argue that with the use of avatars something resembling baptism could take place, but that is exactly the problem: the act merely resembles an ordinance without actually constituting it. (This same argument can be made more extensively for the other main ordinance, the Eucharist.)

The second anthropological understanding involves the community of believers gathered physically as local churches. The New Testament emphasizes the physicality of its ecclesiology; actual physical presence for worship, for the preaching of the Word of God, and for other activities is part of what makes the church the “bride of Christ.” The author of Hebrews, for instance, even rebukes those who are in the habit of choosing not to gather physically (Heb. 10:24–25). Although one might attempt to argue that virtual communities of Christians today can accomplish the same tasks as a physical church, it is difficult to argue reasonably that there is no qualitative difference between physical and virtual presence.

The final theological problem with viewing meaning-making in virtual realms as entirely positive involves the Incarnation. The fact that God became man, taking on both a human body and a human nature in the one person, Jesus Christ, should speak to us about the theological importance of the physical realm. Athanasius, in his masterful treatise On the Incarnation, speaks directly to the necessity of perfect union of the divine with a human body for the abolition of death and sin. God himself left his perfect heavenly realm to come down to a realm marred by the ravaging nature of sin. In contrast, those who have found they prefer religious meaning in virtual realms effectively “ex-carnate” themselves from the physical world in relation to religious practice.

What can we conclude about video games and their potential for religious meaning or practice? Video games continue to gain popularity, and more people are drawn to experience life in their virtual worlds. As Geraci has noted, the more technology progresses, the more advanced and life-like these worlds will become. Is this a recipe for a mass exodus from the real world as humans are given the freedom to practice religion however they like or even create their own religions in virtually sacred spaces?

Perhaps the better option with video games is not in meaning-making, but in meaning-discerning, not to attempt to practice or experience religion in a virtual environment per se, but rather to let theological convictions help serve as an interpretive framework for narratives found in games. Video games most certainly do say things about God. But it could be that the player benefits the most when he or she theologically analyzes a virtual world through play rather than simply using the virtual world and freedoms afforded therein to experiment with religion.  

Matthew C. Millsap is an adjunct professor in The College at Southwestern in Fort Worth, Texas. His Ph.D. dissertation examined how to dialogue with video games from a theological perspective.