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 Daniel J. Holmes
It requires a certain sense of academic playfulness to take a theological approach to understanding online video games. This is not to suggest that Robert Geraci’s Virtually Sacred lacks scholarly rigor; yet in addition to the clear application of academic discipline to his subject, many passages of the work tap into a Chestertonian spirit of childlike complexity, the ability to spot a spiritual narrative in the most unassuming places. This perspective allows Geraci to engage theological and anthropological questions whose implications extend well past the topic of online gaming. Even if the spiritual practices of the online gamer fail to make a sizable impact on the broader religious context of the modern world (although Geraci is adamant that they eventually will), Virtually Sacred uses the case of electronic gaming to offer new considerations on everything from the sociology of religion to mythopoeic values in storytelling. Although the book is weak in some places—most notably in a lack of variety among the theological resources on which Geraci draws for his research—Virtually Sacred still has plenty to offer scholars throughout the fields of both religious studies and anthropology, even those without a personal or academic interest in virtual games.
Geraci does an exemplary job of explaining the terms of his work, such that one need no special familiarity with video and Internet games to follow his arguments. Virtually Sacred concerns itself specifically with the two games mentioned in the subtitle: World of Warcraft and Second Life. Both of these are categorized as “Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games,” which tends to abbreviated to MMORPG or MMO. Both allow players to design a character to represent them in the game (their “avatar”), which they then use to play with or against other gamers around the world. As the name of the genre might suggest, the games allow enormous numbers of gamers to play simultaneously: Warcraft, the bestselling game of this type, boasts about 7.9 million subscribers, several thousand of whom might play together on a given server at a given time.
The critical framework of Virtually Sacred is based on the concept of the “authentic fake” proposed by comparative religion scholar David Chidester. Geraci summarizes the authentic fake as “something not associated with a traditionally religious group or belief that nevertheless provides the things religious groups and beliefs provide.” Over the course of his book, Geraci adapts this into a notion of the “virtually sacred,” his term for an electronic environment that allows users to participate in religiously meaningful activity in a virtual world. He identifies two main impacts that the virtually sacred can have on traditional religious experience: first, that it “provides a new place to practice old religions … and second, that they provide new locations for the creation of meaningful lives without recourse to traditional religious communities.” Religious scholars of a more orthodox bent might contest the latter of these claims, but even disagreeing with Geraci can be almost every bit as stimulating as agreeing with him—the case of spirituality in online gaming can force readers to evaluate their own, undigitized convictions from entirely new angles.
Geraci identifies several new religious practices made possible by online gaming: immersion into a mythic storyline, the ability to form communities with like-minded people across wide distances, the ability to participate in (digital) acts of creation, and the variety of online religious movements centered on the concept of “transhumanism.” The first of these ideas—the mythic value of such games—is perhaps the most rewarding in the book. Fantasy games like Warcraft borrow heavily from the Tolkien legendarium in the creation of their virtual worlds, such that the inclusion of elves, dwarves, and orcs is de rigueur, as is a plotline pitting a desperately situated good against some immensely powerful evil. Of course, game designers typically engage in their mythmaking to provide a suitably epic backdrop for gameplay, not to carve out a sense of religious meaning. The finished products are by consequence trite compared with the soaring mythopoeic achievements of the Inklings. But there is, as Geraci makes clear, a unique fashion of expressing meaning made possible only by the medium of online gaming.
Because such games are by nature an active and participatory medium, they allow the audience not simply to read a myth but to experience it. Geraci writes that “Certainly not all players invest themselves in the epic narrative of the game; many do, however, and for these the story provides rich opportunities for religious work … World of Warcraft provides the setting for players to become, once more, mythically inclined; even better, World of Warcraft gives players a sense that they are not passive listeners but rather the heroes of a mythical journey.” Geraci argues that this heightened level of participation can allow mythology to become a praxis, in which a player may “engage in purposive acts, see meaning in their work, develop self-understanding, and experience transcendence.”
Although the question of mythopoeic values in gaming is the most engrossing portion of Virtually Sacred, it is here that the poor variety of theological perspectives is most keenly felt. Although Geraci does quote briefly from Tolkien and C. S. Lewis when discussing how the fantasy genre allows for an exploration of the moral imagination, the overwhelming majority of scholarly voices he draws upon are focused exclusively on religious anthropology. Although the book certainly could not function without this content, Geraci could have provided a more complete account by balancing that scholarship with a greater number of theological sources. The very concept of praxis in a virtual world seems odd in the common context of Christian praxis, which tends to refer to action in the physical world. In fact, Geraci’s implicit understanding of praxis directly conflicts with the definition employed within the tradition of Catholic liberation theology, which could not possibly exist meaningfully in a virtual world. A careful evaluation of theological scholarship on the issue would have helped Geraci to substantiate his claims that gaming can provide a genuine experience of spiritual meaningfulness.
The second game that Geraci reviews is Second Life, which is far less conventional in its structure. Unlike Warcraft, Second Life does not have an established storyline, and therefore cannot provide the same sense of participation in myth. Instead, the game offers an open environment in which players may build whatever they wish and interact with one another as they please.
Geraci’s discussion here mostly revolves around forms of religious community that have sprung up within the game—a gamut that includes everything from Aslan’s How, a scale recreation of Narnia where Second Life’s Christians can discuss the religious thought of C. S. Lewis, to the Virtual Hajj project which, as its name suggests, “allows anyone, Muslim or not, to perform rituals associated with the traditional hajj.” Geraci says that this second example is particularly relevant to understanding the unique advantages of religious communication in the game: “in Second Life, non-Muslims have an opportunity to understand the hajj that they simply could not have otherwise. Unlike most sites of religious pilgrimage, Mecca is not open to non-believers.”
The last chapters of Virtually Sacred are mostly dedicated to understanding the concept of transhumanism as it relates to Second Life. The transhumanist claim is that technology will eventually advance to such a point that it will allow us to transcend our human identity and limitations and will therefore replace religious ideals and institutions. Although Geraci is extremely thorough in his evaluation of the movement’s influence on the culture of Second Life, the topic seems unlikely to appeal to anyone without a specific research interest in online anthropology, and is consequently one of the book’s less gripping passages.
Despite its occasional weaknesses, Virtually Sacred makes for an excellent introductory text to an emerging topic within the modern religious landscape. Apart from a few theological loose ends and unexamined questions, Geraci provides a comprehensive overview of religious activity in two of the most significant contemporary online games. Anything involving games will be by nature somewhat playful, and so is the spiritual subtext of the World of Warcraft and Second Life—but, as Geraci demonstrates, we should never assume that playfulness precludes profundity.
Daniel J. Holmes is a graduate student at Villanova University studying literature and theology.