Jessica White | Staff Writer
In popular video games such as “Halo” and “Call of Duty,” the player’s objective is to stab, shoot and blow up other players. The games are often criticized for their violence, but virtual reality researcher Rachel Wagner said they can be viewed as religious experiences.
Virtual experiences such as stories, films and video games are forms of world-building that serve as ways for people to make sense of their own worlds — activity that is arguably and patently religious, she said. Video games are interactive, with players making sense of a reality someone else created, so they also shape emotion and behavior more than other types of storytelling.
“In a game without obvious religious components, you can have a religious experience,” she said.
Wagner will discuss video games and virtual reality working functionally as religion and how recognizable religion is portrayed in games, at 2 p.m. Friday in the Hall of Philosophy. Her lecture, “Godwired: Religion, Ritual and Virtual Reality,” shares the title of her new book.
Wagner, a professor of religion at Ithaca College, is a pioneer in her study of virtual reality as a religious experience. Hers is the first single-authored book on the subject, and many of her fellow researchers are still students — some of whom she taught.
She looks at several forms of media but focuses on video games, because that area is largely unexplored. In games, Wagner studies rituals, storytelling, community and violence. Some people define religion as the social glue that holds people together, she said, and there are elements of gaming that create that ritual and community.
“I ask questions like whether it’s possible to do virtual harm,” Wagner said. “Can you virtually sin?”
Wagner also studies intentionally religious video games, such as “BIG Bible Town” — though she said there are not many.
“There can be theological consequences for the ways that we experience a story if we can actually play in it,” she said. “A lot of Christian designers and religious designers around the world will be very careful about what you can and can’t do. So in (“BIG Bible Town”) you cannot play, for example, as Moses or as Jesus.”
Games such as virtual football or racing are the exception, Wagner said, and players probably will not have much of a religious experience. They may have diluted forms of ritual experience, because there is structure that shapes behavior, but there may not be consequences for how the player creates meaning in the world of the game.
“So let’s say you’re playing a shooting game that takes place in Iraq, and you’re supposed to shoot people who come out of mosques,” she said. “There’s a game like that, and I think that game can have real consequences for how you perceive inter-religious encounter in real life.”
Wagner, who grew up in the generation of Pac-Man, said she does not play many video games, but her students and 18-year-old son help her.
“I’m very interested; I watch what games come out, and I keep track of the storylines and look at the experiences,” she said, “but in terms of actually having the reflexes — I try, I’m just no good at it.”