Encountering A New World

In early two thousand and eight I was pondering what to do for my PhD. One of the lecturers in my department had just obtained a grant to develop a space in Second Life to use in the teaching of religion to undergraduates. It was she who first initiated me into the mysteries of Second Life. She showed me how to get an avatar and how to get around. Then she started to show me some interesting Pagan places in the world. One of those places was a sim where a group of Pagans met. A sim, short for simulation, is a 256×256 metre block of land. One day we turned up there to discover that the group was doing a ritual, a solstice ritual. I was both enchanted and querulous. Why, I found myself asking myself, are these people undertaking an activity so heavily reliant on embodied experiences in a space where one’s sense of the visceral, the sensual, is severely limited? I was so amazed, so keen to understand what was motivating these people that I decided to examine this question for my PhD.

But then I asked myself the question, is the divine in the world? My first instinct, being a panentheist, was that it must be. The divine is in all things. Ergo, it is in the world. But I wanted to find it. I wanted gnosis. Not just knowledge. Gnosis in the world. Logic and reason are not enough. Sensation is required. We have a mind and a body. The relationship of them to each other is at the core of our being. I wanted gnosis in my body to signify the presence of the divine in a non corporeal world. This seems contradictory. But it had to be this way. My self includes my body. My knowledge of my self is completely coincident with my time in this body. Therefore the way I identify the presence of the divine is a combination of mental and physical responses. I would not settle for reason alone.

It is worth bearing in mind that this study was not possible until today. Virtual worlds are some of the newest horizons of human endeavour. The ways of being within (and without) them are only just now coming into being. We have only just arrived at the point at which it is possible to have these types of experiences, the Heideggerian disclosure point where a new world becomes possible. The way we experience being within them is likewise a product of the now. It is a transient thing. Once this cultural moment is past the sum of the experiences that we have had in virtual worlds will be added to our culture and it will not be possible to go back and have that moment again in exactly the same way as we are having it now. Not only that, but it has been impossible until now to have a discourse about the way we are being now. It is a discourse of the moment. We can’t describe a condition until it has been fulfilled. Once fulfilled we can describe it. Once described, it can never happen again in exactly the same way. We will have added its cultural and technological distinctiveness to our own. It will have become part of us and we will have become a new thing on account of having done it.

Apart from my own quest for gnosis, this study is worth doing for a number of reasons. Perhaps the most immediately apparent is that no one has published a study of this type and scope before. Despite the fact that role play is one of the activities most commonly undertaken in Second Life there are no monographs to date which are ethnographic studies of particular role play communities in Second Life. Most monographs about Second Life focus on the nature of the world in general1 2 3 or the process of its initial creation4 5 6. Now that Second Life has past its ten year milestone it is time to move beyond such studies and see what it has become.

Another reason this study is valuable is that it makes an important contribution to the study of religion on the internet. While there has been much discussion of religion on the internet since its very earliest days7 the development of virtual worlds opens a whole new set of possibilities for immersive ritual online. Using virtual worlds we can begin to experience religion in cyberspace in a very visceral way, one which moves beyond the possibilities of the text only experiences that characterised early experiments in religion in cyberspace.

Role play will also be central to this study. It is the thing that brings these communities alive. The essential core of what they are is the characters who inhabit them, and the characters those characters create. However before the communities can be created their venue needs to have been created. So before I delve deeper into these communities I will provide a little background to the games virtual worlds developed from.

  1. Meadows, M. S., (2007), I, Avatar: The Culture and Consequences of Having a Second Life, New Riders, Berkeley. ↩︎
  2. Guest, T. (2008), Second Lives: A Journey Through Virtual Worlds, Random House, New York. ↩︎
  3. Montagne, O. (2007), Metaverse Manifesto, Studio SFO, San Francisco. ↩︎
  4. Au, W. J., (2008), The Making of Second Life: Notes From the New World, Collins, New York. ↩︎
  5. Ludlow, P., Wallace, M., (2007), The Second Life Herald: The Virtual Tabloid That Witnessed the Dawn of the Metaverse, The MIT Press, Cambridge. ↩︎
  6. Malaby, T. M., (2009), Making Virtual Worlds: Linden Lab and Second Life, Cornell University Press, New York. ↩︎
  7. Campbell, H., (2005), “Making Space for Religion in Internet Studies”, The Information Society, No. 21, pp. 310-313. ↩︎

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