Spiritual identification in Virtual Worlds
World of Warcraft. Depicted is a fighting scene between several characters.
Every day, millions of people spend their days in magic worlds exploring undiscovered places, fighting monsters, creating covenants, buying property, chatting, performing magic rituals… Is this fantasy? No, this is virtual reality. These worlds exist in computer games like World of Warcraft and three-dimensional virtual worlds like Linden Lab's Second Life. Clearly, there is a fascination with otherworldly realities as presented in The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Wheel of Time and Narnia. Fantasy books are booming business. These are grand narratives about heroism, magic, and a struggle between good and evil. Besides, they are examples of the apparent need for enchantment that has its parallels in the rise of romanticism in the 19th century.
Through Second Life and World of Warcraft, people can become involved in such an enchanted world. Fantasy worlds may be functioning as utopia where the life is magic and exciting. The persons in such a world are part of a fairy tale or an epic myth. Reading fantasy literature or watching a film can be a temporal escape from the real, modern and technical world. The same can be said from participating in virtual worlds. Here, one cannot only be a reader or an observer, but one can become actively involved in the fantasy world.
Screenshot Second Life, Avilion: My avatar is standing in a church
What could be the motivations to live in a virtual fantasy world? Are people mere players who want to have a good time online? In the previous chapter, we have seen that playing and experimenting with identity on the Internet is serious business. The playful space of cyberspace can offer a virtual moratorium or a virtual stage, where people can experiment with their identity and presentation.
In the previous chapter , we have seen that the playful side of the Internet is important in the construction of identity. In this chapter, I will explore the spiritual dimension of identity. As I argued in the introduction, spirituality is concerned with making sense of things. The existential questions about being in the world are part of it. People need to make sense of life, and rituals are an expression of placing events in a framework. The two virtual worlds offer mythical narratives, a fantasy world and many opportunities to play and develop a cyber-character.
I will show how they can be a place where spiritual identification can occur. Therefore, I will firstlyargue why the apparent illusions of play and virtual worlds are so important for spirituality. I will use the framework that the Dutch anthropologist Jan van Baal offers in his book De boodschap der drie illusies : overdenkingen over religie, kunst en spel (1972). Secondly, I will present the virtual worlds of World of Warcraft and Avilion more extensively. Thirdly, I will present a system of the narrative and ludic aspects of identity. I will show how narratives and play can contribute to the construction of identity. This framework is borrowed from Jos de Mul, who has applied the narrative theory of Paul Ricoeur to computer games in 'The game of life: Narrative and ludic identity formation in computer games' (2005). Afterwards, I will elaborate on the community aspect of the two worlds, and apply the four dimensions of religious identification from Hervieu-Léger to those worlds. Finally, I will synthesize these different frameworks of identification and show how virtual worlds can offer a spiritual framework.
What is the connection between play, religion and spirituality? Jan van Baal argues that Religion, art and play are all illusions. Religion is based on an improvable reality, art on a symbolic reality, and play on a fictional reality. As we have seen, there are, especially in cyberspace, many options to play with identity. Identity as concept is a construct and not a given or fixed concept. We could even consider identity to be an illusion! But let's go back to religion, art and play. Why are these three 'illusions' so highly valued?
Human beings are individuals and social beings. They try to relate themselves to others and to reality as a whole. Therefore, they have to communicate. However, communication is always finite. There is no logical piece in the puzzle that solves all problems. Religion, art and play are varieties of human behavior that are puzzling. They do not have a clear goal, neither a well-defined use. They do not offer practical solutions to keeping mankind alive or how to prevent the human species from extinction. Nonetheless, we value them positively. They are important things that reveal the fundamentals of being human.
Religion, according to Van Baal, supposes, "All explicit and implicit notions and ideas, accepted as true, which relate to a reality which cannot be verified empirically." Why do people ascribe the highest value to that what they cannot prove, nor make true? An expression like 'the certainty of faith' points that one realizes that there is an uncertainty that from a factual point of view is an illusion. It does however have value for the practice of life. It gives support in crisis situations. Religion bases her improvability by referring to forces like the community, the nature, or the divine, that are important realities for people. The problem of western Christianity, especially after the Enlightment, is the credibility of religion. The world has become disenchanted, and stories, dogma's and creeds seem to contradict modern science. Van Baal calls the modern man a 'bricoleur sans trésor'. He has left the old symbols of religion and does not know how to communicate with the intimacy of his soul.
Art is concerned with aesthetics. But what beauty is cannot be defined. There are no objective properties for beauty. But it is enjoyed anyway. Speaking beauty provokes a silent enjoyment. It makes the human being silent and provokes feelings that he or she cannot put into words. He feels it. Feeling is that what is unclear and not definable. Religion and art are things that are, despite there improvability or intangibility, taken very seriously. This is not the case with play. Play is, by definition, not seriously. But it is valued enormously and seems to be indispensable, something that one does not ascribe to religion or art. When we call play an illusion, no one denies it. But when we call religion and art an illusion, people deny powerfully.
Play is an illusion that is not taken seriously. But when a game is played, it is done with sincere earnestly. According to van Baal, one can be absorbed in the game and play someone else without losing oneself. One can be someone else without losing its identity. Everyone knows that the game is an illusion. However, the rules of this game world are kept strictly, without making objection. Those rules are binding as long as the game takes. The function of a game is relaxation, but one can only play well by making an effort.
The playful element in games must be taken seriously. Jan Van Baal, as well as Johan Huizinga, and Victor Turner, argues that culture is playful. Play is an illusion that is not taken seriously. But when a game is played, it is done with sincere earnestly. According to van Baal, one can be absorbed in the game and play someone else without losing oneself. One can be someone else without losing its identity. Everyone knows that the game is an illusion. However, the rules of this game world are kept strictly, without making objection. Those rules are binding as long as the game takes. The function of a game is relaxation, but one can only play well by making an effort. We can experience elements in life as play, or, when set apart in time and space, as a game. A football match, and also a religious service, has elements of a game. Objects like a ball or bread and wine become, for the time that it lasts, objects with a serious or even sacred dimension. Religion also contains many festive and playful elements. Religious festivals and music, or miracle plays in the Middle Ages were a mix of contemplation, reflection and entertainment, play and spectacle.
The border between immanence, where the divine is part of daily life, and transcendence, the otherness and sacredness, is often ambiguous and blurred. This ambiguity is also reflected in virtual worlds where epic narratives, heroic quests, game pleasure, spectacle and fun all seem to coexist. The two virtual worlds described in this chapter, Avilion in Second Life and World of Warcraft contain many playful elements. Moreover, playing in Virtual Worlds could be considered as liberation from everyday life. People can choose and construct a virtual character and play in a fantasy world that is totally different from their daily lives. These worlds are individualized media where people can choose who they want to be. At the same time, those worlds contain a community element where rules and dress codes are taken very seriously.
World of Warcraft
"Four years have passed since the aftermath of Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos, and a great tension now smolders throughout the ravaged world of Azeroth. As the battle-worn races begin to rebuild their shattered kingdoms, new threats, both ancient and ominous, arise to plague the world once again. (…) Whether adventuring together or fighting against each other in epic battles, players will form friendships, forge alliances, and compete with enemies for power and glory."
World of Warcraft
World of Warcraft is a Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game created by the company Blizzard Entertainment. With more than nine million players, it is one of the largest multiplayer games at this time. The three-dimensional world of World of Warcraft is clearly inspired by Tolkiens' Lord of the Rings. The world is shaped by a mythological past as presented in the narrative of the game.
In this world, one has to choose a character, a virtual avatar, from one of the different races featured in the game. Each race has a specific history and properties. The night-elves, for example, are found in one of the many countries presented in World of Warcraft. They venerate their own goddess and use magical tokens. As the story goes, their lands and temple have been destroyed because they used the magic in an unwise and decadent way. The elves are presented as an old race with an affinity for nature and they consider themselves superior to other races. They certainly resemble the elves of in Middle Earth, the world of Tolkien. After having chosen a character, the player, or his avatar, enters the magical world where he has to fulfill so-called 'hero quests' in order to develop his character and gain an understanding of the world. He has to fulfill quests where different powers work to prevent this. He has to fight enemies and monsters and explore unknown areas. The quests are part of the game narrative. They contain prophecies and stories that contribute to the mythical character of World of Warcraft. (Krzywinska, 2006) To give an example:
"The ancient prophecy of Mosh'aru speaks of a way to contain the god Hakkar's essence. It was written on two tablets and taken to the troll city of Zul'farrak, west of Gadgetzan. Bring me the Mosh'aru tablets. The first tablet is held by the long dead troll Theka the Martyr. It is said his persecutors were cursed into scarabs and now scuttle from his shrine. The second is held by the hydromancer Velratha, near the sacred pool of Gahz'rilla. When you have the tablets bring them to me."
The hero quest offers a clear perspective, creating certain narrative expectations. Moreover, from his point of view and his point of action, the player can actively execute his quests and become a hero in World of Warcraft. Players can fight dangerous creatures and decide whether to explore this world alone or accompanied by a fellowship while they are fulfilling their quests. When they finish a quest they can earn experience points and reach higher levels. This increases the potential and the possibilities of the avatar. Many players join online guilds and virtual communities in World of Warcraft. These guilds have distinct identities that are presented by icons and colors on the clothes of the avatars. They form an important space for the online relationships of the players and frame the social experience of the game.
In the description of Second Life: The Official Guide, Rymaszewski states: "From your point of View, SL works if you were a god in real life. Not an almighty god perhaps - more like one of those mythological minor gods, who tended to specialize in certain areas, get drunk, have sex, fight." In the media, Second Life is described as a virtual world where everything is possible. It seems to have created a myth where millions of people find an improvement of their daily lives in a virtual world not limited by physical restrictions. To be sure, as was my personal experience, Second Life has many limitations, because the computer software and hardware do not work perfectly at all. When starting Second Life, one has to choose an avatar as in World of Warcraft. This avatar looks like a virtual photo model, but can be adapted to one's personal taste. After this, the program starts a tutorial where one can learn how to walk around, pick up items, buy, fly, and talk to other people. After having chosen to leave the tutorial, one enters the 'real' world of Second Life. Second Life is, contrary to World of Warcraft, not a computer game. It is a simulation of the 'real world' without quests, but not without rules. In Second Life, programmers can create their own virtual world. These can resemble 21th century worlds, but fantasy worlds are also possible.
"After the King, King to all, Christians and Pagans alike, passed away, those non-believers sought to destroy his work. Those that loved him, believed in him, followed him to the Island, to where he was laid to rest, and it was agreed that those of this land were not yet ready for Peace. Those with the gift of the mind, and of the sword, exiled themselves to the Island, and with the power gained by their unity, chose to save the Island by shrouding it in a Mist. Those of the Isle gave up all that they possessed, and chose the peaceful co-existence on Avilion Isle. You stand on the shore of this peaceful lake, as you have many times before, but this time something has changed. The Mist, which had always been there, starts to fade, and the shape of an island is seen. Could this be the island that legend foretold?"
In my research of Second Life, I have focused on a simulation called Avilion. Avilion is a world with beautiful landscapes, waterfalls, gardens, castles, tree houses and so on. A part of this world has a mythical narrative as in World of Warcraft:
Avilion. My avatar (brown shirt) is having a conversation with one of the 'lords' of the houses.
The 'population' is composed of elves, knights, ladies and gentlemen. Before entering Avilion, the avatar is obligated to choose suitable clothes that fit into this world. On the one hand, Avilion looks like a role-playing game, but there are no quests that one has to fulfill. The avatars can dance in a ballroom, chat around a campfire or fight in a tournament field. In researching spirituality in the simulation Avilion, I have played the virtual ethnographer . I have walked around; talked, played music, danced and have often lost my way. This was possible until my computer crashed, which happened several times. To document my experiences, I made an online diary, saved my chat logs and made screenshots of my activities. I had the impression that many people spend their time in Avilion because they like the fantasy world and often encounter avatars they already knew. Meanwhile, my co-researcher in Avilion, Hessel van der Bij, conducted research on what can be called online citizenship. In the simulation, Avilion people were dressed in a certain style, often talked in a very polite manner, and contributed together to make the fantasy world as real as possible. One of the 'managers' of the world even stated that the fantasy world should be protected in order to exclude people if they did not respect the rules:
"Lady S: my children live down here
Lady S: aye and they take care of the lands they watch over
You: is it a dangerous place that has to be protected?
Lady S: all of Avilion is precious and needs protecting
You: who are the enemies, if I may ask, mylady?
Lady S: there is no enemy here unless they come from off the Isle
You: and they can disturb the peace in this place?
Lady S: this community has lived together for many generations, though we have different heritages and customs we are one big family"
Avilion is considered a virtual world with a community and an imagined mythical past. When spending more time in this virtual world, it is possible to get used to the world and become part of this community in Second Life. As van der Bij stated,
"In Avilion, you are confronted with members that have been walking around for a long time; they have a lot of knowledge and look beautiful. I experienced this as a kind of mirror, even though there is no principle of internal pressure to enhance your character."
The reason why people came back to this virtual world was the ambiance and the company of others. This ambiance is constructed with background music and the role-playing aspects, where people dress and behave in a way suitable to such a fantasy world.
Narrative and play
In World of Warcraft, the narrative is much more sophisticated than in Avilion. All avatars fit in the greater story of wars, revenge and magic. These elements refer to the clear need of re-enchantment and romanticism. The myth of World of Warcraft is mostly created by the stories that surround the game as well as the design of the characters in this world. These narrative contexts have consequences for the possibilities and structures of the gameplay. This appears in the so-called hero quests, where the avatar has to complete assignments in order to develop. Another important part of the game dimension is the fact that World of Warcraft can be defined as a massively multiplayer game. Players enter a world that is populated by thousands of individuals that are being played by real people. Also, it is possible to form communities within the game. This way, the players are bound by the structures, which are partly determined by co-players.
As we have seen in both World of Warcraft and Avilion, the story plays an important role in the construction of the world and the construction of the cyber-self. The self can be perceived from different perspectives that might be helpful in the study of the construction of identity in computer games and virtual worlds: the narrative and the ludic (play) dimension of identity. De Mul has incorporated the hermeneutic theory of Paul Ricoeur about the construction of the self . Ricoeur states that human identity is mainly realized in mediated self-reflection. Though Ricoeur focuses on stories as a media, De Mul enlarges the model by incorporating games as media in the mediated self-reflection.
A person gains self-knowledge in a process where the lived experience is articulated in expressions, such as stories. These expressions can be internalized and become part of how one perceives himself. Ricoeur has worked this out in a model of narrative identity. The narrative is not only a metaphor of identity, but also one of the most important kinds of expressions in the life of individuals and communities by when they construct their identity. Not only autobiographic and historical stories can play that role; fiction can also contribute to self-construction. According to Ricoeur, our life has a narrative prefiguration. He distinguishes three levels of mimesis.
- The first level, mimesis1, is connected to the narrative prefiguration of daily life. As de Mul formulates it: "We experience our dealings with our fellow human beings in terms of meaning: we distinguish motives and interests, we set standards and ascribe values, we attempt to realize certain ideals in life. Therefore in a certain sense our actions already contain an implicit narrative."
- Ricoeur calls the expression of the experienced narrative mimesis2. This expression can be a story about the everyday life, an autobiography or a novel. This dimension is described in dramaturgical terms. Central is the plot, the expression of connected acts. The plot can, according to Ricoeur, be considered as the synthesis of heterogeneous elements. All elements such as people and events become a unity. That makes it a complete story. This complete story has a clear spatial and temporal dimension. The 'plot' makes the life story concordant; however, there will always be events that threaten this meaningful configuration. Factors like frustration and bad luck can be in tension with the plot. This is why the story is a dynamic whole. Ricoeur therefore calls the story a discordant concordance
- Mimesis3 is the reflexive application of the narrative formation of the self. This can be caused by identification with the characters of the story. When the narrative has an effect on us and transforms our view of our reality, it changes our life and identity
De Mul's criticism of Ricoeur is that he focuses too much on the classical story that is characterized by linearity and a more or less closed end. The model should be adapted when used in the domain of digital media, because these new media are characterized by multimediality, interactivity and virtuality.
Though the rules of World of Warcraft clearly resemble a game as defined by De Mul, this is also more or less the case with Avilion, where the game consists primarily in 'role-playing'. Games can be considered to be a subgroup of play, joyful activities set apart in time and space. They can be limuloid, a margin in daily life. When the everyday play is being structured, it can become drama or a game. In both cases, the structure is independent from the players. In the famous definition of Johan Huizinga, games are
"a free activity standing quite consciously outside "ordinary" life as being "not serious", but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguise or other means."
In Homo Ludens, he argues how game elements are present in culture and how they structure people's lives. Computer games differ from other games because of their technological mediation. The game space of computer games is a virtual space that can be manipulated. When you press the forward button while moving your avatar, it will move in the virtual world. The computer monitors and reacts on the acts of the player. The main difference between a narrative and (computer) game is the interaction (De Mul, 2005: 258).
Though the narrative using quests can structure games, the narrative is in some way external to the rules of the game. Furthermore, a narrative is linear. Stories have a beginning, middle and an end. Though some experimental books have a different non-linear structure, this is the case for most stories. Games are multi-linear; a player can choose various options. A chess player can move several pieces in various directions. A player of World of Warcraft may choose which direction he wants to go to complete his quest. De Mul argues that the interactive element of computer games and the structure of the games are important for the construction of identity. He has adapted the narrative model to a ludic model.
- The first level is play1 and the ludic prefiguration of daily life. This means that we experience the natural and human world as playful. Examples include the play of children and animals, the play in the political arena, and the play of sexual seduction.
- Play2 is the expression of a ludic coherence in games. It is the level where the rules and structures determine the opportunity for action. An example is a chess game, where the rules determine how the pieces on the chessboard can be moved.
- The third level, play3, means that the player can identify himself with the possibilities and opportunities offered by the game. The possible actions are being reflexively applied to the self. As in a reflexive application of the narrative on the self, there is no simple imitation of the rules. These rules are being assimilated in the order that they change the identity of the player.
De Mul states that the narrative and ludic (play) dimensions of identity can coexist. The narrative dimension applies mainly to the reflection on the past, while the ludic dimension enforces expectations upon the now and future possibilities that a game can offer. The expectations of the future are shaped by the experiences of the past. The tension between the narrative and the game could be perceived as the interaction between the point of view and the point of action. The point of view in a narrative is the perspective of the reader who reads and interprets the (life) story while the point of action is the position of a participant in a playful setting.
The narrative and ludic dimension in World of Warcraft and Avilion
The narrative dimension is clearly present in World of Warcraft and Avilion. This narrative is embedded in a virtual fantasy world that differs from daily life. The expression of stories, mimesis2, is intertwined with the action that is part of this world. The narratives do not only reflect on, but also prefigure future actions. This is especially the case in World of Warcraft, where the hero quests are structured by the story. In Avilion there is no need to complete quests, but the rules for dressing up and communication are inherent to the narratives. The plot, the synthesis of all elements, is open and interactive because the avatar, or the cyber-self, influences the story. The narrative and ludic prefiguration seem to interact. The first level of the ludic prefiguration concerns the experience of the world as playful. The world is in these cases a virtual one and promotes play. Play2 that is determined by the opportunity for action certainly applies to World of Warcraft, where the rules are the rules of a game. But the world of Second Life with its simulations is certainly without rules. The world of Avilion has several rules that determine how to act and interact.
The third dimensions, mimesis3 and play3, are the most important in the search for identification with the events in the two virtual worlds. Mimesis3 is the reflective application of the narrative formation; play3 is the identification with the possibilities and structures by the 'game'. That means that people playing and interacting in World of Warcraft and Avilion both identify their avatars in the narrative and the structure of those worlds.
The cyber-self as another
Do people identify with their avatar? I do believe that there are several reasons to do so. First, they create and design an avatar according to their preferences. In World of Warcraft, they can choose between different races like elves, orcs and humans, choosing clothes and colors they prefer. In Second Life, it is possible to create and program an avatar to an even greater extent. Moreover, one can design clothes and even the body can be totally adapted. Of course, these options require a certain degree of experience, but it is also possible to buy these items.
Secondly, people who are playing World of Warcraft or Second Life on a very regular basis, such as more than fifteen hours a week , constantly use their avatars to walk, explore and communicate. Their avatar is the medium through which they navigate in virtual worlds. Their physical body, sitting in front of the screen, is not important to the virtual world. Their virtual appearance in World of Warcraft or Avilion is the only way in which they are visible for others and themselves. Though they might be strongly aware that they look differently in the mirror, they may be very well identifying with their avatar. When the virtual world becomes an important part of their lives, their cyber-self may be as real as their offline identity. They may even feel happier online than offline when they are, for example, physically disabled or consider themselves fat or ugly.
Thirdly, when playing for several hours, people can be absorbed by the virtual world. The virtual world can become a 'flow' . They forget about time, realizing only after hours that it is already three o'clock in the morning. The effect can be compared to a book that is so exiting that the reader forgets that he is turning the page and is totally absorbed by the imagined world of the book. In three-dimensional worlds that interact with the actions of the user, this effect might even be stronger.
Of course, computer games and virtual worlds are one of many cultural means in a changing world. People that are spending time in virtual worlds do not only form their identity online. Education, family and jobs contribute to this construction. However, it is clear that current cultural expressions form an important part of how people experience the world. These cultural expressions are often mediated by words, sounds and images. Virtual worlds mediate the experiences of the users and can shape the way they perceive of the world.
Modern spirituality is largely concerned with self-realization. In the two virtual worlds, World of Warcraft and Avilion, cyber-self realization is one of the main dimensions of playing. This self-realization takes place by designing the character and fulfilling hero quests. The environment, including virtual landscapes and background music, can also contribute to spiritual experiences. They can become part of the narrative of the virtual world. In the case of Avilion, I considered myself a cyber-pilgrim, searching for spirituality in this fantasy world. I was responsible for making sense of this strange world and for developing my online self. In World of Warcraft, self-realization is clearly bound to the goals of the game. Considering the narrative and ludic dimension of identity in virtual worlds, the rules and assignments are more explicit in World of Warcraft. At the same time, the narrative of this enchanted Tolkien-like world structures the game. In Avilion, the narrative or maybe the personal narrative, developed by each avatar, is more prevalent than the ludic dimension. In World of Warcraft you have to be a hero, in Avilion you can be a prince, knight, or a pilgrim.
Identification in virtual worlds
The narrative and ludic dimension of identity are important ways in which we can frame the importance of story and play. In World of Warcraft and Second Life, people do play in a virtual community. How important is this community in the process of identification?
If we apply the four dimensions of religious identification from Hervieu-Léger to virtual worlds, there are many similarities. The community dimension is present in World of Warcraft as well as in Second Life. People are using their avatar online meet other avatars of real people. Avilion is clearly a community of people with the same interest in the fantasy world. The social markers are clear; the rules of how to dress and how to behave are very explicit. Avatars who do not fit in this picture are (sometimes actively) excluded by the community or by the moderators. In World of Warcraft, there are also groups that collaborate in hero quests and battles. The ethical dimension is in the determined by the rules of the game. It is questionable if these rules should be coined ethical, but the rules do dictate behavior. The cultural dimension is very explicitly present in the stories concerning World of Warcraft and Avilion. And, as Ricoeur shows, stories are part of the identification process. Clothes, manners and music also all attribute to a cultural dimension in virtual worlds.
The fourth dimension, the emotional, is present in the people who feel that they belong to the community of Avilion or certain groups in World of Warcraft. They are spending their time in those worlds because it makes sense to them to explore this world and communicate with other avatars.
From this point of view, the elements of religious identification can be applied to virtual communities. When, in current new-age thinking, the divine is seen as something inside every human being and self-realization the means to access a divine spark, this self-realization could happen offline and online. A spiritual journey could be perceived as an individual journey, but though modern spirituality is individualized, it certainly has community aspects. Spiritual sessions and mediation take place in a group of people with the same interests. This is exactly what happens when people go online and log in to their community in Second Life or World of Warcraft. They encounter people with the same interest (the virtual fantasy world) and if they are satisfied for the moment, they log off and continue their daily lives. If Huizinga's definition of a game as set apart in space in time is correct, it is certainly working for cyberspace. A pilgrim meets with other pilgrims on his journey, for example, on the road to Santiago de Compostela. A cyber-pilgrim meets with other avatars in worlds where he feels at home.
Can virtual fantasy worlds be a source for the construction of a spiritual identity? Can these playful illusions make sense? Yes, illusions do make sense. Van Baal shows that the illusions of religion, art and play do matter. They matter tremendously. The worlds of Avilion and World of Warcraft offer all these three illusions. The two virtual worlds offer mythical narratives, a fantasy world and many opportunities to play and develop a cyber-character.
Though they do not present a religion, they contain many elements that are part of religion: mythical narratives, rules or game-ethics, community and a game culture. The worlds are beautifully designed, but whether this is art, I leave to the player of those games. More important, is certainly the playful element of these worlds. Huizinga, Turner and Van Baal all show how important play is. Play may be an illusion, but it is very serious. Play enables people to transcend daily reality and take other positions, without losing themselves. In a game, they have a clear goal to achieve within the rules of play.
How does spirituality play a role in both World of Warcraft and Second Life? In both worlds, the 'player' or 'user' can create a cyber-character, an avatar. This character can evolve by exploring worlds, by fulfilling quests and by meeting others. As I mentioned before, Aupers argues that in the New Age movement, the main focus is on the so-called spiritual core of the human being. This spiritual core is called the higher self, the soul, or the divine spark. In self-spirituality, one strives for personal growth and self-realization; the sacralization of the self. The search for the self is an identification process. I have showed that this identification can contain narrative and ludic dimensions. De Mul argues that when forming an identity, mediated self-reflection is essential. This reflection can take place by constructing stories but also by playing computer games.
The narrative of a mythical past is a motivation to play the game and evolve the cyber character. The spiritual dimension as a search for realization and authenticity can be shaped by a narrative and by game elements, if the narrative and game are internalized (mimesis3 and play3).. The rules of the game or the rules of the world together with the mythical narrative do shape the experience of being in the world. Self-actualization can happen when individuals learn how to use their avatar, fulfil hero quests and integrate in the virtual communities. In the Western world where the grand narrative has largely disappeared, virtual worlds can mediate the search for identity and spirituality.