Profession and Personality in World of Warcraft
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Religion and Gender in World of Warcraft
by William Sims Bainbridge
ROUGH DRAFT: Not for direct quotation
Major cultural shifts sometimes happen in unexpected ways that traditional social indicators fail to measure. This may be the case today for religion in the online environment, partly because social scientists of religion may have been blinded by the emphasis on faith (rather than hope or fantasy) in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic monotheistic tradition. In particular, it is possible that the "fictional" religions in massively multi-player online games (MMORPGs) are a harbinger of the future of religion more generally, and especially conducive to social-scientific research (Bainbridge 2007b). This article will employ a range of data, both qualitative and qualitative, to explore these possibilities, with the proviso that it is far too early in the development of post-modern religion, and in social-scientific understanding of online communities, to come to firm conclusions. The empirical focus will be World of Warcraft (WoW), the most popular MMORPG, and the theoretical basis is the information-exchange theory of religion developed by the author in collaboration with Rodney Stark and others over the past thirty years (Stark and Bainbridge 1985, 1987).
Poetic Faith versus Religious Faith
One entry point to the theoretical discussion is the concept suspension of disbelief, proposed by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1817), as a form of poetic faith that sustains much art. How is suspension of disbelief different from belief? Consider a Christian listening to the grand operas composed by Richard Wagner, especially the Ring tetralogy and Parsifal. The four Ring operas concern the ancient Pagan gods, notably Wotan (Odin) who strides across the stage and motivates much of the action, whereas Parsifal concerns Christian redemption among the Knights of the Holy Grail. In principal, Christian opera-goers should feel quite differently, because they reject the religious premise of the Ring and accept that of Parsifal, yet the Ring operas are arguably much better music and have had far greater influence on European culture. Originally created in the 1590s as a rebirth of semi-sacred ancient Greek music drama, grand opera demands a considerable degree of suspension of disbelief, if only because human beings in the "real world" never communicate by singing arias. Wagner's operas in particular, and his theory that the artwork of the future would consist of total works of art combining many artforms (Wagner 1849), very much set the stage for World of Warcraft, not only because the goddess Freya from the Ring features in WoW, but also because Wagner took seriously a set of ancient religious beliefs that no one "really believed" any more.
Figure 1 shows Freya's avatar, as she appeared to Catullus, my level 80 Blood Elf priest, on WoW's cold Northrend continent; later he encountered the goddess herself. Avatars are in-game characters that represent the player in role-playing virtual worlds like WoW. It is widely assumed that the word was first used in this sense in the 1992 novel Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson, that depicts a future time when the virtual Metaverse has become a major sector of human society. However, the word was actually used a few years earlier in the pioneering virtual world Habitat, and of course the term comes from Hindu religion. More broadly, Indo-European religions believe that a deity would take on the disguise of a lesser being when visiting Earth, as Jupiter did when he raped Europa in the form of a bull, and Wotan did when he became the Wanderer in Wagner's Ring. Had Christianity been invented by Indo-Europeans, people might commonly have called Jesus the avatar of Jehovah, and all the struggles over the nature of the trinity would have been unnecessary.
Figure 1: The Avatar of the Goddess Freya in World of Warcraft
The name Freya in Figure 1 is not spelled in the manner used by Wagner, which was Freia, and his character was a passive victim rather than the bold female warrior of WoW. The Northrend continent is filled with Nordic allusions, including Vikings, ships with dragon figureheads, and a village of Valkyries. Remarkably, when Catullus visits this Valkyrion, his form changes to that of a female, a case of an avatar going through a magical gender transformation to become another avatar.
WoW draws heavily on a number of European mythologies. For example, except for their Scottish accents, the Dwarves in WoW could easily have walked out of Wagner's Ring. The tall WoW Night Elves could have walked straight out of the "other ring," the one by J. R. R. Tolkien (1965). WoW's designers acknowledge debts to earlier fantasy games, notably Dungeons and Dragons, which in turn may have drawn some inspiration from the 1922 science-fiction novel, Chessmen of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (Gygax 1979). WoW even includes an operatic aria, comparable to the one Brünnhilde sings at the end of Wagner's Ring, when the Queen of the Undead sings about lost battles and lost loves. The point is that World of Warcraft is one province of a broad fantasy culture that includes obsolete religions, great works of music and literature, and a well-established subculture of role-playing games.
The theoretical tradition on which this essay is based might be called exchange theory, social cognition theory, the new paradigm of the sociology of religion, or rational choice theory. Truth to tell, it has many variants and draws upon a breadth of prior work in other traditions, so there may not be any one term to describe it. Given the importance of the strategic exchange of value and information to the theory, it could even have been described as a variant of game theory that emphasizes impression management through role-playing and reality-defining (Von Neumann and Morgenstern 1944; Huizinga 1949; Goffman 1956; Berne 1964; Gouldner 1965; Homans 1974). Aspects of this theory have been simulated using game-like computerized multiagent systems (Bainbridge 1987, 1995, 2006b).
Central to the theory is the cognitive-emotional concept of compensators: "Religion refers to systems of general compensators based on supernatural assumptions." "Compensators are postulations of reward according to explanations that are not readily susceptible to unambiguous evaluation." "Supernatural refers to forces beyond or outside nature which can suspend, alter, or ignore physical forces." (Stark and Bainbridge, 1987: 36, 39) One flavor of this theory might be called the new economics of religion (Iannaccone and Bainbridge, 2009), which stresses the fact that people often treat compensators as rewards, thus according them value and making them salient for economic exchange and for any other kinds of human behavior that can be analyzed in economic terms. More relevant for this essay is a conceptually adjacent perspective that considers religion to be a genre of fantasy fiction, very important for some individuals at some times in their lives, but comparable in its fictive quality to literature, drama, art, music, and games.
An interesting topic that some erudite anthropologist should explore – and much existing literature bears on – is the extent to which preliterate peoples really believe the myths about the supernatural they possess. Without written scriptures and enduring formal organizations, one would think that the myths of preliterate peoples are chaotic and ephemeral, although cultural consolidations may occur locally for brief periods of time. A number of classic studies suggest that these cultural mythologies are indeed dynamic and vary over time and space from highly diffuse notions that have little coherent force to relatively well-defined ideologies that have some of the flavor of modern religions (Evans-Pritchard 1937; Wallace 1956, 1959; Edgerton 1966; Silverman 1967; Lewis 1971; Whitehouse and Martin 2004; cf. Luhrmann 1989). We cannot resolve these fascinating issues here, but it seems safe to say that firm conviction in a well-defined dogma is not the natural state of human religion, but one possible situation that arises within the context of particular social conditions, such as the emergence of strong states that demand loyalty from their citizens (Larner 1984). Indeed, the term faithful can mean loyal; a true patriot is a loyal rather than veridical one, and conviction may arise as much from social demands as from personal needs for emotional security.
If for present purposes we consider religion to be a form of fiction, what salient qualities may it have? While this essay compares religion with the arts, another comparison might also be made, with white-collar crime (Sutherland 1949). The most striking example is the Christian doctrine that Jesus arose from the dead. Superficially, there seem to be two alternative ways to describe this resurrection, as actual fact or as fraudulent hoax. One could waffle and suggest that a rumor grew in the days after the crucifixion, without anybody blatantly lying, but it is hard to say that the story was just a metaphor of transcendence through the disciples' enduring love of Jesus. Only if taken literally does it possess great power. Given that the authors of the gospels have long departed this earth, it is impractical to bring them into court to compare their testimonies, and modern Christians may be perfectly sincere (cf. Acts 35-39). However, clergy and other religious professionals benefit from promoting doctrines that serve their own interests (Bainbridge 2002b), and thus may be engaged in running a self-serving confidence game rather than being objective teachers of the truth.
As I write these words, a court in France is considering a case that seeks to ban Scientology on the basis that it is a conscious fraud for economic gain. Similar questions have been raised about other recent religions that claimed to have found golden plates buried in the ground, used meditation to levitate in the air, or healed diseases through prayer and the laying on of hands. As a religion becomes well-established, it tends to draw back from the use of potentially discreditable magic, yet faiths gain much of their appeal, both initially and during revivals, from such claims. Scientology is a useful example here, because its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, was a professional writer of fantasy fiction and may not have made much distinction between his twin careers as tale-spinner and messiah. In a recent reconsideration of Scientology, I have suggested that participants could be considered adventurers rather than victims, engaged in a role playing game that gives them exciting experiences and a sense of special status, living out a science fiction fantasy (Bainbridge 2009). To be sure, individual Scientologists may differ in their orientations, and few individuals may possess coherent intellectual models that rationally categorize the important aspects of life. But to assume that Scientology's claims are more false than those of Christianity, and thus to accuse this religion uniquely of fraud, may completely mistake how the human mind actually works and ignore the extent to which all culture is largely the result of human imagination.
Viewing religion as a genre of fiction suggests not only that gods are fictional characters, but that human souls are fictional as well. Many contemporary cognitive scientists have pointed out that the human brain is a complex assembly of semi-autonomous neural components whose unity is highly problematic (Bloom 2004; Minksy 2006). Many of these components are shared with other mammals and evolved over a very long period of time to serve one function, then have recently been inefficiently exapted to serve other functions in humans. In computer lingo we could say, the mind is a modular kludge beset by glitches that cannot often be distinguished from features. Long ago, Friedrich Nietzsche (1887) decried the doctrine of free will as a tactic used to blame and thus to control people, and free will implies there is an independent and unitary self that can exert acts of will. Existentialists influenced by Nietzsche went further, expressing severe doubts whether a person would possess anything like a coherent self unless constantly under powerful social control (Camus 1946, 1955; Beckett 1954, 1956; Frankl 1967). Citizens of cosmopolitan or rapidly-changing societies thus have a choice between suffering from passive anomie or actively becoming protean (Durkheim 1897; Lifton 1993; cf. Fuller 1970; Winnicott 1971). Today, one expression of a protean self is the avatar in an MMORPG.
A good research-based transition from this point to a consideration of World of Warcraft is to mention The Process Church of the Final Judgement, which was an offshoot of Scientology (Bainbridge 1978). The central members of The Process were artists and architects who considered their creative work to be religious engineering, and I have described the communal cult they founded as a total work of art in the Wagnerian sense. They saw nothing inappropriate or insincere about consciously scripting religious rituals, designing clerical garb, writing sacred texts, publishing surrealist tracts, composing hymns and chants, or re-inventing their own personalities. Social scientists sometimes debate whether post-Christian or New Age phenomena are merely superficial cultural products rather than real faiths, yet The Process demanded much of its adherents, who often gave up jobs in the outside world to live entirely within their dramatic dream. Essentially all inner members were quite aware that they were creating a radical, aesthetic culture, and playing quasi-theatrical roles within it. Thus, it was with a sense of recognition, rather than surprise, when I encountered something similar in WoW, if weaker in the demands it makes on people.
Three of the four continents in the immense virtual world, World of Warcraft, are on the planet Azeroth, and the fourth is part of the crumbling planet Draenor. This world and its many cultures are so vast that that research reported here and in my forthcoming books required 2,400 hours of participant observation, through 22 avatars, as well as very substantial reading and quantitative data collection inside and outside WoW (Bainbridge in press a, in press b). At the present time, WoW has about 12,000,000 subscribers worldwide, who interact with each other online through operating an avatar who moves within a computerized graphic environment of great richness, resembling the real physical world but with an idealized quality. There are perhaps 500 separate and nearly identical computer servers, called realms, and I operated characters on six of them. In each realm, there are two factions (Alliance versus Horde), five races per faction, and ten classes across the factions and races. A given avatar may belong to only one faction, race, and class, but may practice various professions at different times, and belong to one or another player-created guild that can organize events, expeditions, and raids in this vast virtual world.
The most explicitly religious of the classes is priests, who are the pre-eminent healers in WoW. Age of Conan, a more recent and very religion-oriented MMORPG, also calls them priests, and in Dungeons and Dragons Online, similar characters are called clerics. To explore the doctrinal differences, I created a priest in each of the seven WoW races that has them: In the Alliance: Human, Dwarf, Night Elf, and Draenei; in the Horde: Troll, Undead, and Blood Elf. The three other races lack priests. In two, the Horde's Tauren and Orcs, shamans serve religious functions, although Trolls and Draenei have them as well. Druids also have religious functions among the Tauren and Night Elves. The tenth race, the Gnomes, place their faith in science and technology, although their Mages and Warlocks wield some magical powers.
Priests of the different races do belong to different religious traditions. Most common is the religion of the Holy Light, practiced (in descending order of piety) by Humans, Dwarves, Draenei, Blood Elves and Undead. This is a highly secularized form of religion, possessing cathedrals and churches but lacking a god, more an ethical system and a way of understanding existence than a faith in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic sense. Troll religion is somewhat secret, but appears to be related to their traditional Voodoo. Most fully elaborated, and thus best for an illustrative example, is the traditional religion of the Night Elves, who worship the lunar goddess, Elune. This is also a good example because it highlights the religious roles that women play in WoW, and thus connects this essay to a common topic of discussion in the sociology of conventional religion, the somewhat contradictory gender differences in piety and power.
Figure 2 shows my Night Elf priestess, Lunette, in the Temple of the Moon in Darnassus, the capital city of Teldrassil, the large island where all Night Elf avatars begin their careers. Teldrassil, like the Norse world-tree Yggdrasil, is actually an immense tree, and like most Night Elf architecture the temple includes trees. To the left of center we see a colossal status of Elune, the Moon goddess, holding up the Moon, from which flow streams of light that bless and heal her worshippers below. In the middle is Lunette. She has reached level 30 out of the 80 levels of advancement available in WoW, and she is just at this moment receiving priest training from Jandria. All Night Elf priest trainers are female.
Figure 2: Lunette Receives Priest Training in the Temple of the Moon at Darnassus
This priest trainer, like Freya and her avatar, is a non-player character (NPC). NPCs are not avatars, because no human being is operating them, but are programmed by very simple database and artificial intelligence techniques to interact with players in role-appropriate manners. Many NPCs are trainers, while others are vendors selling things like armor and food, and many more are enemies who must be killed or avoided. The training does not involve study or meditation, but is conducted by casting a magic spell. Similarly, Lunette's healing powers do not require prayer, or even drawing moonbeams down from Elune, but simply expending some of her supply of mana to accomplish a technical act of healing. This is a key point about religion in virtual worlds: The priest's powers do not require faith in the supernatural, but are reliable technical skills in a world where nature functions differently from in our world. Thus, while WoW religions seem to be pale fantasies compared with real-world religions, their ability to accomplish miracles is undeniable, while that of real-world religions is open to debate. When Lunette wants to resurrect a comrade who has been killed on the field of battle, she simply employs her resurrection skill, and the comrade is ready to fight again.
Running seven priest characters through WoW, one of them all the way to level 80 and a second to 75, was the participant observation research methodology of this study. In addition, informal interviewing was carried out by talking with and listening to what other people communicated through the text-based chat incorporated in WoW's computer interface. Notably, Catullus joined a very successful guild in the Horde faction, Alea Iacta Est (AIE) in the Earthen Ring realm (Internet server). The name echoes Caesar's words when he crossed the Rubicon, "the die is cast." This famous quote suggests the long heritage of games in which chance plays a prominent role, but it also implies that the real world can be conceptualized as a game. The AIE guild was formed in association with the most popular and long-running online podcast (i.e. "radio" program), The Instance, which has offered a wide-ranging half hour or longer discussion of World of Warcraft issues nearly every week since January 6, 2006.
Most WoW guilds are small, and a typical successful guild might have fewer than 100 members, but AIE always had more than 10 times that number during the time I studied it. Quantitative data about AIE were obtained from WoW's Armory online database that offers data on all characters level 10 or above. The first sample consists of extensive quantitative data on several variables describing 1,096 members level 10 or above, February 17-22, 2008. It was necessary manually to download a webpage for each character in this case. The second dataset was easier to collect but is limited in number of variables, recording the class, gender, and experience level of all 3,132 members level 10 or above on September 30, 2008. Note both that the guild nearly trebled in size over seven months, and that it was huge by WoW guild standards.
One may well ask how representative AIE is, versus having an atypical membership. Rarely, a guild is dominated by, or even entirely composed of, characters of one type. For example, on July 10, 2008, the Ladies of Destiny on the Scarlet Crusade realm had 214 members, 204 of which were female. Ladies of the Night on the Bladefist realm had 135 members, all but one of them female. A Scarlet Crusade guild named The Darkspear consisted of 100 Trolls. On the Earthen Ring realm, the Blood Elf Brotherhood consists entirely of Blood Elves, while Gnome Nation is nine-tenths Gnomes, and The Dwarven Alliance consists two-thirds of Dwarves, and one third of Gnomes. Most guilds have diverse membership, however, and this is certainly the case for Alea Iacta Est. Aside from sheer size, the most obvious way it is unusual is in that its members are part of a vigorous communication system that reflects and influences WoW culture more generally. AIE has a newsletter, as well as being connected to the podcast, and it stages many special events such as raids, marches, craft fairs, contests, parties, formal decision meetings, and celebrations of dates like its anniversary and New Year's Eve. Members are unusually knowledgeable about WoW culture and the implications of decisions about shaping their characters. Thus, it is especially valuable as a source of information about WoW culture and society, but must be balanced by samples of characters obtained in a very different manner.
Therefore, I did a census of all characters online at any point during Saturday, January 12, 2008, on two contrasting other realms, Emerald Dream and Scarlet Crusade. To do this, I employed a piece of open-source add-on software called CensusPlus, that works directly through a character logged into WoW itself.  Emerald Dream and Scarlet Crusade were well established realms, both having been in existence for more than a year, and in the same time zone. All three realms employed in this study are RP or "role playing" realms, with an officially expressed but unenforced preference for taking the mythology seriously, and staying in character at least much of the time. The difference between Emerald Dream and Scarlet Crusade is that the former is a player-versus-player (PvP) realm, on which players outside the newbie starter areas attack each other at will, creating a much more violent climate than in normal realms where players cannot fight each other unless both agree to do so.
Repeatedly through the 24 hours of the sampling day, I ran the CensusPlus add-on program, which tallies a census of all characters online at the moment in a given faction. I did so using two WoW accounts and two computers, plus having two characters in each realm – one Horde, and the other in the competing Alliance faction – because the program can be run only while operating a character of the given faction and realm. The number of characters totaled fully 22,851, of which 12,051 were on Emerald Dream, and 10,800 on Scarlet Crusade, with the full range of experience levels from 1 through 70 that existed prior to the Lich King expansion in November 2008 that took the top to 80. Two subsamples were then drawn to permit close analysis of the themes of this study. Randomly, 1,517 characters were selected with experience levels 20-39, excluding a few who were involved in the subsidiary arena competitions, which are common at level 70 but tend to involve only very specialized "twink" characters at early levels. The range 20-39 was chosen because such players have left the newbie zones and selected their professions, but still have a long way to go before completing their climb up the latter of experience. The second subsample consisted of all 1,664 level-70 priests and warriors for whom later data could be obtained, focusing on warriors as well as priests because this hyper-masculine class provided the greatest contrast with the somewhat feminine priest class.
Priesthood and Gender
To give the somewhat abstract ideas of this essay a clearer connection to the traditional social science of religion, we can focus on some of the demographics of WoW characters, notably gender and its connections to other variables. When a player creates a new character, the key decisions are selecting class, gender, and race. It is important to note that there are absolutely no differences in the capabilities of male versus female characters in WoW. Other things being equal, a warrior woman is just as powerful as a warrior man – although she tends to appear smaller – and she can wear the same armor, wield the same weapons, and move as swiftly. We can speculate that other players respond to female characters somewhat differently, although this remains to be proven. Any differences in the behaviors or accomplishments of characters of the two genders must, therefore, be the result either of differences in the skill or personality of the player, or the cultural stereotypes of male and female roles held by players about their characters (Correll 2004).
Traditionally, MMORPGs distinguish three main combat roles: tank, healer and DPS (damage per second). A well-armored tank engages the enemy at close range, while the healer and DPS stand back, healing the tank and firing missiles or harmful spells at the enemy (Duchenaut et al. 2006). In WoW, the stereotypical tank is the warrior, and the chief healer is the priest, but other classes can play these roles to a greater or lesser degree. Paladins are explicitly a mixture of warrior and priest, but perhaps a little better in the tank than healer role. The general consensus expressed on the chief WoW-oriented wiki is that the DPS role is equally well played by the mage who can cast spells from a distance and the rogue who hurls knives, but the mage may have an advantage over multiple enemies, while the rogue can sneak up on a single enemy without being detected. Druids are rather balanced characters, able to tank as well as heal. The other three – hunter, shaman, and warlock – operate with assistants and thus can function rather like questing groups during solo play without the need to involve another player. This is most obvious in the cases of hunters and warlocks who have pets (hunting animals) and minions respectively, secondary avatars that can act like a team mate. Shamans also have assistants, although immobile ones called totems.
The class of a WoW character has considerable implications for other attributes, notably the armor the character can wear and the professions that are most valuable. Priests rely upon spells to protect themselves, and they are limited to wearing feeble cloth armor. In contrast, warriors can wear plate metal armor, but lack protective spells. While some armor can be bought from vendor NPCs, or looted from dead enemies, much of it is manufactured by players from virtual raw materials, using crafting professions. Player's may share these products with guild mates or sell them to other players through an elaborate online auction system. The tailoring profession makes cloth armor, and blacksmithing makes plate metal armor. The cloth required by tailors is readily acquired from defeated enemies, but the metal for a warrior's armor must be mined from remote lodes using the mining profession.
Because a character can have only two of the main professions, many in all classes specialize in the crafts required to make their own armor. Thus, in the first Alea Iacta Est dataset, 54 percent of priests practice tailoring, and the number is almost identical, 53 percent, in the Two Realms dataset. Among warriors in AIE, 71 percent practice mining, and 37 percent do blacksmithing. In the Two Realms dataset, the proportions are 73 percent and 53 percent. Mining provides the raw materials for two other professions, engineering and jewelcrafting, so the economic value of mining makes it the most popular profession overall. Correlations between mining and the three crafting professions dependent upon it illustrate their consistent connections: blacksmithing (0.31 and 0.37), engineering (0.29 and 0.30), and jewelcrafting (0.24 and 0.24).
The second-most popular major profession among priests is enchanting, practiced by 41 percent of them in AIE and 36 percent of them in the Two Realms. Enchanters obtain various magical substances, either buying them from vendors or generating them by disenchanting articles looted from enemies, then use them to magically enhance objects such as their own cloth armor. In addition, enchanters can make magic wands, which are the most effective weapon priests wield. The correlations between enchanting and tailoring are 0.54 in the AIE dataset, and 0.48 in the Two Realms dataset. The economy of resource gathering and crafting inside World of Warcraft may seen so fictional as to be trivial. However, WoW took in something like half a billion dollars from subscribers in 2008, and I roughly estimate that the internal economy of these virtual goods may have exceeded that value by a factor of two, although because the virtual gold currency inside WoW is not legally convertible with dollars we cannot be sure.
WoW's creators do their best to fine-tune the system so that no class has a net advantage over another, so it is worth noting that gender is not strongly or consistently associated with success in playing the game. By September 30, 2008, 21.8 percent of the male AIE characters had reached level 70 of experience, compared with 22.1 percent of female characters. The mean male level was 41.1, compared with 42.6 for female characters. The random subsample of lower-level characters allows us to compare the rapidity of progress by the genders, because both CensusPlus and the Armory record a character's experience level, but the Armory data were collected between 41 and 56 days later. On average in the Two Realms dataset, each of the 807 Emerald Dream characters advanced 0.21 experience levels per day, compared with 0.19 levels for the 710 Scarlet Crusade characters. In both realms, female characters were slightly slower in climbing up the experience ladder than male characters, 0.20 levels per day compared with 0.22 in Emerald Dream, and 0.18 compared with 0.20 in Scarlet Crusade. So, different data place one of the genders slightly ahead, but not much.
As Table 1 shows, we see substantial differences, however, in which classes the two genders choose to play, especially with respect to priests and warriors. Across all three comparison samples, male characters are more than twice as likely to be warriors as are female characters, and about half as likely to be priests. Apparently something about the culture of the AIE guild makes female characters more likely to be warlocks, and less likely to be druids, whereas in the Scarlet Crusade realm female characters are more likely to be druids. Other gender ratios are fairly consistent across samples, and the extreme gender differences in the propensity to be warriors or priests suggests the power of gender stereotypes in the wider society are at work in WoW.
Table 1: Gender and Class among 4,696 World of Warcraft Characters
| |Alea Iacta Est Guild |Emerald Dream Realm |Scarlet Crusade Realm |
|Class |Female |Male |
|Blood Elf |Priest |68 |1.34 |
|Draenei |Priest |46 |1.25 |
| |Warrior |34 |1.26 |
|Dwarf |Priest |79 |1.28 |
| |Warrior |71 |1.40 |
|Gnome |Warrior |58 |0.91 |
|Human |Priest |154 |1.75 |
| |Warrior |249 |1.74 |
|Night Elf |Priest |163 |1.34 |
| |Warrior |148 |1.28 |
|Orc |Warrior |133 |1.64 |
|Tauren |Warrior |99 |1.36 |
|Troll |Priest |53 |1.37 |
| |Warrior |37 |1.34 |
|Undead |Priest |182 |1.54 |
| |Warrior |89 |1.53 |
|Female |535 |1.45 |
|Male |1128 |1.48 |
|Emerald Dream (PvP) |815 |1.46 |
|Scarlet Crusade (Normal) |848 |1.48 |
A very different kind of reputation concerns PvP duels. These can take place consensually in any realm between individuals or groups, or in special battlegrounds and arenas set aside for multi-person contests. Participants earn "honorable kills" as they vanquish opponents, and not surprisingly this is more common in PvP realms that emphasize combat between players. On average, the priests and warriors in the PvP Emerald Dream realm had earned 14,031 kill points, compared with 10,978 in Scarlet Crusade.
One might expect equal numbers of kills between priests and warriors, because they are the perfect partners for each other in combat teams. However, combining both realms, priests achieved only 10,467 kills on average, versus 14,103 for the warriors. This difference may reflect gender role, recalling the gender difference in selection of these two classes. The female characters have earned a mean of 8,494 kill points, compared with 14,362 for males, a bigger difference than between the two classes. Just 20.6 percent of female characters are recorded as having completed at least one arena contest, compared with 25.7 percent of males.
A New Form of Transcendence
More than one questionnaire survey dataset shows that people who play online games tend to be less conventionally religious than the average, and online games strongly tend to depict exotic or cultic religions rather than those in the Judeo-Christian Islamic tradition (Bainbridge and Bainbridge 2007). Extensive communication with players of World of Warcraft shows no evidence that any of them really have faith in Elune or the Holy Light. However, this does not mean that the people who spend significant portions of their lives in MMORPGs or virtual worlds lack the need for compensators.
Little notice has been given to the fact that religion is not the only sphere of life oriented toward compensators. The same is true for spectator sports, theater, movies, television dramas, novels, and music. Sports fans rejoice in the victories of their teams almost as if the fan had won, apparently gaining subjective status comparable to that of religious sect members, feeling they are better people for their association with the athletic god that they adore. Clearly, people gain vicarious feelings of satisfaction, exaltation, and enlightenment from experiencing powerful fictional narratives. Arthur Schopenhauer (1883-1886) went so far as to claim that the world is embodied music, because song and symphony elicit so well the fundamental human feelings. Religion may differ in that it often seeks to discipline human feelings, as well as to express them, yet in this the online games may be more similar to religion than the other artforms, because only by following the rules can the player advance toward ever greater transcendence of the mundane world. This raises the radical possibility that the online virtual worlds of the future may offer very substantial subjective transcendence.
Figure 3 shows Maxrohn, a level 75 Human priest, performing a Mind Vision spell on Caylee Dak, a level 70 Night Elf huntress, in order to learn how she perceives existence. Maxrohn is a living memorial to my deceased uncle, Max Rohn, who was an Episcopal priest. My uncle was very devout, and I recall with what great solemnity he conducted the funeral service for my grandfather. But he was also something of an adventurer, having churches not only in the United States but also at three locations in the Caribbean, and once teaching me a wrestling hold that could break a man's arm. He combined a wry sense of humor with something of a philosophical bent. I recall a joke he told me a half century ago, about the first astronaut to reach Heaven. When his spaceship returned to Earth, everybody shouted questions about his meeting with God. He held up his hand for silence, and said, "The first thing you need to understand is that She's a Negro." This joke not only touches upon the issues of race and gender, and of the relationship between science and religion, but also reveals that Max was quite prepared to consider new ideas about the nature of reality and the human spirit. Infused with some of Max Rohn's spirit, as I represented him, Maxrohn entered Azeroth and first visited the Cathedral of the Holy Light in Stormwind city on January 25, 2007. He is currently doing missionary work on the cold Northrend continent, where the undead Scourge and its Lich King are gradually being defeated in the great war between good and evil.
Figure 3: Maxrohn the Priest Performing Mind Vision on Caylee Dak the Huntress
Like Maxrohn, Caylee Dak is a memorial. The main WoW wiki explains: "Caylee Dak is a level 70 elite quest ender located in the Aldor Rise in Shattrath City. She was named after a 28 year old player named Dak Krause who died of leukemia on August 22, 2007. He was born March 10, 1979. The NPC model itself is an exact replica of 'Caylee,' Mr. Krause's character, bearing the same model and gear, as well as the same pet, Dusky, by his side." Caylee Dak is the goal of a quest given Maxrohn in the garden at Stormwind Keep, by a little NPC girl named Alicia. She wanted him to deliver a poem to Caylee, because she herself was too young to visit Outland, where the huntress was adventuring. The poem is a slightly edited version of a popular verse written by Mary Elizabeth Frye, which expresses a pantheist view of death transcendence. It begins:
Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am in a thousand winds that blow,
across Northrend's bright and shining snow.
Caylee responds to the poem by bowing and giving a blessing. She is operated by a very simple artificial intelligence program, and of course Maxrohn is operated by me. My most advanced WoW avatar, Catullus (2008), has actually published a book chapter under his own name, based on the premise that if he is my avatar, then I must be his deity. It is very common for actors to assume the identity of deceased historical personages, as when Charlton Heston made the Red Sea part while pretending to be Moses in The Ten Commandments, but we do not ordinarily think actors substitute adequately for the real person. Perhaps more challenging for the sociology of religion was the time in 1997 when I received a personal letter written that year by Edgar Rice Burroughs who had died in 1950. Members of a religious group called the Family or the Children of God had channeled that message, so they said, from the departed spirit of Burroughs (Bainbridge 2002a: 90). Very few religious groups, outside the Spiritualist tradition, claim to be able to contact the dead (Braude 1989), but advances in computer technology may change that.
Within computer science, there is a growing movement that believes artificial intelligence can be spiritual in all the ways humans may be, and that it will soon be possible to upload human personalities into computer systems to provide a new form of death transcendence (Mori 1981; Moravec 1988; Kurzweil 1999; Bainbridge 2003, 2004a, 2004b, 2006a, 2007a, 2008). Traditionalists may be horrified by this idea, and one could debate its technical feasibility, but it may represent either an emerging competitor to religion or a novel form of religion. Caylee and Maxrohn, therefore, may be harbingers of a new stage in the evolution either of human fantasy, or of human faith.
Clearly, analyzing religion as a genre of fantasy fiction is not one of the conventional approaches within social science, although to do so may provide valuable insights and prepare us to understand the diffuse quasi-religious dimensions of emerging post-Christian culture. Certainly, some devout believers would resent their faith being compared to a fantasy game, and religious denominations do not market themselves as such. It would be a mistake, however, to misinterpret Weberian Verstehen to mean that social scientists must accept the sales rhetoric of religious firms, or ignore the fact that people have subtle and diverse orientations toward supernatural possibilities. Durkheim's (1915) notion that god was a metaphor for society is no less challenging to faith than the postulate that the arts, through their suspension of disbelief, are equivalent to religion with its confident assertion of belief. An exploratory study like the present one cannot hope to answer questions so much as to articulate them, yet it suggests that something very profound may be happening, equivalent to a major cultural shift, through the emergence of online transcendence in environments like World of Warcraft.
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