Spirituality Explored in Virtual Gaming

Atheist blogger JT Eberhard posted a glowing review of new game “Guild Wars 2″ and called for a Godless Guild. I’m not a gamer myself, but I do find them fascinating. Humanists are trying to remake the world without deference for religious tradition or authority. There are obviously adjustments to physics in the video game world, but the best worlds build culture, society, and ethics within which people build new lives. Progressive Humanists who would like to fiddle with the culture and practices of the real world should take a look at what’s done in the virtual world.

Shifting gears, the US military has been promoting spirituality across all branches of service, with the Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness office leading the way for all branches of service. Their efforts seem to be intended to build traditional religious values into the military ethos. Apparently, this program was pulled from scientific efforts like Positive Psychology (from the University of Pennsylvania) and the VIA Institute on Character. Some have argued that the military efforts have inserted Christianity and traditional religious language into what was once a predominantly secular approach to psychology. It’s unnecessary: Pepperidge Farm rolled out the Fishful Thinking campaign for kids for their Goldfish crackers line using the same foundation of Positive Psychology without a stitch of prayer or worship (the campaign has since been changed).

What does all this spirituality talk have to do with gaming?  CNN reports that the game “Ultima Forever” is being rolled out with new character development and a game progression system based not on hack-and-slash but on values like “compassion, sacrifice, and spirituality.” Game designers are apparently harkening back to the groundbreaking 1985 game “Ultima IV,” a quest-based role-playing game that is the ancestor to juggernauts like “World of Warcraft” and the aforementioned “Guild Wars.” The new “Ultima” title will compete with other online universes. And this focus on values in the virtual characters will be its key point of differentiation. Game designers encoded eight chief virtues upon which players are rated: Valor, Justice, Honor, Compassion, Honestly, Humility, Sacrifice — and Spirituality.

In the Army, “spirituality” has been given an unfamiliar, secular definition related to “one’s purpose, core values, beliefs, identity, and life vision.” That’s all fine until one remembers that spirituality in fact means supernaturalism and supernatural religion. “Ultima” designers adhere to a more traditional definition of spirituality, citing giving money to a church to be a spiritual action.

“Ultima Forever” is still in beta, so you may choose to join up if you’re into that sort of thing. You may also go to the Facebook page where developers are posting moral quandaries. This sort of crowd-sourced morality may or may not work out, but it is an interesting approach. We Humanists should drop in and ensure that there is an inspired and progressive view of ethics.

As noted, these virtual worlds build do provide an alternate reality. Sometimes the boundary between one’s real and virtual life start to blur. Felicia Day (also of Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along-Blog — sequel coming! – and the voice of gnome-like Zojja in Guild Wars 2) created the hilarious docudrama The Guild to parody the breakdown of virtual and real life. For anyone who doubts this, Check out the Cracked list of how “real” things can get when others mess with the virtual world. The list includes a light-of-day, no-apologies, catch-me-if-you-can $170,000 heist and a massacre of those assembled at a funeral. Don’t think ethics aren’t flexible in the virtual world.

The new “Ultima” game is being produced by Bioware, a division of Electronic Arts. These are massive game design companies, so this is no passing fancy. In addition, tech website io9 issued a gushing review of the sociological implications of Bioware’s flagship title “Mass Effect.” io9 called “Mass Effect” the “most important science fiction universe.” They cite the ability of characters to be male or female, gay or straight, human or alien. The “Mass Effect” storyline molds itself without discrimination to any gender, human race, alien species, or sexual orientation. This sort of radical diversity shows that Bioware has its heart in the right place with respect to ethics. Of those virtual ethics, the good thing is that the worlds are large and well-populated and provides an excellent opportunity to test out progressive ethics in a world without fear of punishment or reward after death.

About Jason Torpy

**Comments at Friendly Atheist do not necessarily reflect the official policy or positions of the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers are any other organizations.** Jason Torpy serves as President of the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers (MAAF), a nonprofit community for atheists and humanists in the military. MAAF also educates military leaders about the needs of nontheists and advocates where necessary. Jason is a former Army Captain and Iraq veteran with a Bachelor of Science degree from West Point and an MBA from The Ohio State University.

  • J.V.

    Ultima Forever is actually being produced by BioWare Mythic (formerly Mythic Entertainment), a division of EA which appears to only share a general manager with the “real” BioWare (by which I mean the well-known one which produced the Mass Effect and Dragon Age games). So it’s not quite the same, though I would still have fairly high hopes for them.

  • Marco

    The only online gaming I do is simulated racing. There the only goal is to win the race (or place well, which is usually more realistic) and while we also suffer from cheaters and crashers (hence the reason why we race in close knit leagues with rigid rules) at least we don’t have to deal with religion in any form.  Sometimes we discuss religious topics in our online forums, but by and large we try to avoid religion and politics if we can help it.

    I have always been curious about these massive online games and the subcultures therein, but I have always considered them a massive waste of time (and yes, I am aware of the irony, but somehow spending 3 hours of my time trying to gain an extra .4 of a second at Monza seems to me a more rewarding effort than hunting fairies while riding a dragon, or something). 

  • Kimpatsu

    Bio ware is also the maker of my favourite MMO: Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR). In that, you can win dark side/light side points by how you respond to certain ethical quandaries. It seems that Bioware has a certain interest in developing a canon of gaming ethics…

  • Aaron Scoggin

    Hey, as long as I can achieve the highest virtue score in the land with a spirituality score of 0, then it’s all good.

  • http://twitter.com/JawsForJesus JawsForJesus

    To be fair, in one of the  endings for Mass Effect 3, the hero’s personality gets downloaded into a race of sentient starships, which would be a pretty cool afterlife.

  • Mark Hanna

    It’s actually because of the Mass Effect universe that I find myself avoiding the “humanist” label, despite being sure that I’d fit its description. In the Mass Effect universe, a person described as a “humanist” would likely be a human prejudiced against non-humans, arguing for human superiority.

    Basically, the fact that we’re human is irrelevant. What matters is that we’re people. Unfortunately, it’s hard to find so clear, concise, and poetic a term as humanism that more accurately describes the philosophy.

    EDIT:

    Looks like my name has been eaten by the comment monster, but you can call me Mark :)

    • Thalfon

       Looks like your name is back. Anyway, I’ve heard a similar, real-world complaint about humanism: that it disregards animals. It’s a sensible thought, in my book, that animals should also have some level of respect in our society, and it is true that the term humanism ignores them (even if humanists themselves do not, something I wouldn’t necessarily take for granted without further research).

    • JasonTorpy

      As soon as we’re surrounded by aliens, maybe we can think of a different moniker. In the meantime, being humanist is best determined as being the best human possible because we’re human. I do agree that humanists have a bit of an ethical blind spot with respect to non-human animals. 
      http://www.americanhumanist.org/HNN/details/2011-03-why-vegan-priorities-are-humanist-priorities

  • Mark Hanna

    It’s actually because of the Mass Effect universe that I find myself avoiding the “humanist” label, despite being sure that I’d fit its description. In the Mass Effect universe, a person described as a “humanist” would likely be a human prejudiced against non-humans, arguing for human superiority.

    Basically, the fact that we’re human is irrelevant. What matters is that we’re people. Unfortunately, it’s hard to find so clear, concise, and poetic a term as humanism that more accurately describes the philosophy.

    EDIT:

    Looks like my name has been eaten by the comment monster, but you can call me Mark :)

  • Mr. Shine

    It’s interesting that you bring up ‘Mass Effect’, because it actually does touch on religion in a couple of different ways, despite its science fiction setting.  One of the major characters is a Christian, and it’s treated as being pretty unusual. (She mentions ‘weirding people out’ with her faith) The player is given the option of implying they’re also religious, assuring her that it doesn’t matter or mocking her.

    Another character (an alien) professes a polytheistic faith that is tied up in his profession. (he’s an assassin) Again, the game doesn’t really lead you in any particular direction. You’re left to agree, accept, tolerate or reject his beliefs as you see fit.

    The last big one involves a race of sentient machines who worship an even older race of artificially intelligent robots. In this, it’s presented as 100% a bad thing- not only are they wrong, but their actions are hastening the extinction of all organic life. So they’re not all that different from fundamental Christians. ZING!

    Anyway, throughout the game the choice to be morally upstanding or more cutthroat is made almost completely without religious basis. It can be argued that the society you see is (if you’ll forgive the human-centrism) a secular humanist one…which is pretty awesome.

  • http://www.facebook.com/chrisalgoo Chris Algoo

    I agree 100% – there should definitely be secular ways to gain Spirituality points. Meditating in a calm forest, perhaps.

  • Tainda

    I’m a big online gamer.  I started with Everquest in 1999 and have been hooked ever since.  In EQ you picked a god (whether evil or good aligned) when you created your character.  It was awhile ago, but I do believe there was an atheist (or no god) option in there.  There is usually always a good vs evil side in the games but not many have a choose your god option lol

    Bioware is known for trying to bring a human element to gaming.  Most of their games also have romance/relationship options too which is rare for online gaming.  It’s one of the reasons I really like SWtOR (Star Wars: The Old Republic)

  • DreadPirateRogers

    Of course the real worry is that everything I’ve read about this game shows it as having only the barest resemblance of one of the greatest and most influential RPGs ever.

  • AnneK

    ” spirituality in fact means supernaturalism and supernatural religion. ” I’m interested in where you came up with that definition of spirituality. Do you know that religion and spirituality are not necessarily the same thing and that an individual who has no belief in a God or any deity or “higher power”can in fact possess a “spiritual intelligence”? This is based on the criteria for intelligences as proposed by Gardner (1983) and is similar to emotional intelligence. It is described as the ability to see beyond the physical, as in seeing the beauty in a tree, for example, as beauty is not physical.


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