Spirituality Explored in Virtual Gaming September 4, 2012

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.

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