Thinking too hard.

It is not a new phenomenon. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Someone trained as an ecologist, such as myself, is prone to look at things through the lens of environmental adaptation, and competition. When you’re a sociologist who specialises in religion, everything starts looking like religion.

I was reading a New Scientist interview with a chap called William Sims Bainbridge, who has written a book called The Warcraft Civilization.

In the past, you’ve done a lot of work with religion. What does religion in WoW tell us about religion in the real world?

The horrendous question that always troubles me is, what if religion is factually false but necessary for human well-being? What does science do then? Could there be some other stage of development in which we express ourselves through a kind of protean self in numerous realities with different levels of faith or suspension of disbelief appropriate to each of them?

That, on a much smaller scale, is what is happening with the fictional religions in WoW. The overwhelming majority of the people that play WoW don’t take its religions seriously.

And we actually have good reason to believe that people who play computer games are, on average, much less religious than the average person in society. I tend to think that fantasy literature in general inspires people to believe that the traditional religions are fantasies too.

Maybe we will move to a time when we no longer make a distinction between belief and the suspension of disbelief. The difference between faith and fantasy might not have been very distinct in ancient times, and it’s possible that we will move towards a time when instead of religion, people’s hopes can be expressed in something that’s acknowledged to be a fantasy but also, on some level, sort of real. WoW might exemplify that kind of post-religious future.

People do not take the religions in WoW seriously because they know they are not real. The majority of people that play WoW ignore most aspects of the lore and backstory, not just religion. It is no more a guide for what is happening to religions in the real world, than it is a guide for the state of our dwindling dragon population.

MMOs are certainly a fantastic laboratory for scientists. Through them you can examine many aspects of game theory, economics, and ethics. But from what I read above, the writer is trying to squeeze his own favourite subject into something that I don’t think has much to do with it, perhaps in an attempt to make his subject matter appeal to a wider audience.

I’ve not read the book itself yet. I suspect it is quite fascinating, and no doubt covers far more than just religion, but the interview suggested to me that he may have vested online gaming with a great deal more philosophical weight than it deserves. He needs to use his gamer eyes, not just his philosopher ones.

1 comment to Thinking too hard.

  • Gizbyt the Squig herder

    Our Dragon population is dwindling? Damn….well guess we need to corden off some new land for them and add them to the endangered speices list