Can authentic religious expression be found in a digital medium?
While it can be argued that modern cultural obsessions such as celebrity worship, sport or political fanaticism, or fantasising about Edward Cullen are expressions of religion in some regard; today I plan to focus on the traditionally understood definition of religion to see how religious rituals developed before the technological age can be adapted into a digital medium.
Looking at virtual worlds, it is important to understand that watching an avatar which represents the viewer can provide a compelling experience. Rizzolatti’s discovery that brain activity while watching a task is similar to brain activity while performing the task, shows that 3D worlds like second life should be able to trigger a similar experience to participating in the physical ritual.
I have observed several religious sites in the Second Life world, each of them intricately designed and programmed to allow users to participate in ritual by-proxy. While each of these sites has suffered with the decreased popularity of Second Life, at one time they were all bustling spiritual centres of worship. Large groups of people were able to worship together and build social capital through virtual interactions. While Second Life was full of people exploring the world, these churches received a lot of first time visitors and retained a few regular members. With the reduced popularity of Second Life, there were fewer new visitors and consequently the appeal to the regular members of massive corporate worship was reduced. The social appeal of the church dried up and eventually even the loyal members moved on. These deserted sites stand as quiet monuments to the revival that could have been.
Another approach to online religion is the browser based church. By making the service as accessible as clicking a link, these sites guarantee high numbers of first time visitors, which allows the regular members to feel part of a large corporate experience. This is a more maintainable illusion, but still an illusion.
For the social capital earned in these sites to have a lasting value, the disposable nature must be replaced. Developers of online community games such as World of Warcraft have found that having users work together towards goals can build very strong personal ties while gaining in-world prestige over several years of commitment. Churches wanting to encourage loyalty in both their online and offline congregations need to provide tangible goals for users to work toward in small community groups with internal trust and companionship rewards and progressive external rewards in acknowledgement of successful task completion. These tasks could include activities ranging from raising a set monetary goal for the church, to developing a new online forum or collaborating in gathering signatures for a petition to recognise online churches.
I have only seen limited expressions of this in online churches, but I expect that when religious leaders begin adapting game theory and digital media to promote religious expression the real extent of the potential benefits of digital media for religion will begin to be understood.
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