Storyboard: Exploring religion in MMOs

And here, we see yet another thing thrown away for no damn reason.

One of the things I wanted to do in bringing back Storyboard was to expand a little bit beyond just roleplaying to the stuff that does inform roleplaying, chiefly when discussing lore. Our individual game columns sometimes cover lore and backstory, and this stuff is important, but lore concepts are vital to roleplaying and also sometimes not subject to much scrutiny the way the rest of a game is. So with that in mind, let’s talk about religion!

In-game religion, mind you.

Religion is a tricky thing in video games, and honestly, a whole lot of them get it wrong by merely copying the surface level while not really understanding how the concept works simply because, well, religion is so omnipresent in basically every human culture that we don’t tend to think about the differences and push myth, religion, and legend into the same general category. This is how you wind up with World of Warcraft, wherein the humans have a huge cathedral and priests but completely lack any actual religion.

Some of you, bless your hearts, are no doubt rushing to the comments right now to explain the religion that humans in Azeroth actually have, explaining that the “main” human religion is centered around the Holy Light but Gilneas and Kul Tiras both have splintered separate faiths and so on. You are wrong. What the Night Elves have is a religion, but following the Light is basically the opposite of a religion for the same reason that I wouldn’t describe electricity as a religion.

I know how electricity works. I flip a switch; my house turns on. Flip it back, it turns off. I may not understand all of the precise mechanics underlying the electrical grid, but they are there. If I cared to do the research, I would understand.

The same is true of the Light in WoW. It is an actual force that actually works and can be measured, accounted for, manipulated, and discussed. There’s no ambiguity or morality to it, and while you might argue that there’s supposed to be an inherent moral component to it, the damage to that concept has already been done by the game’s storytelling.

Elune, on the other hand? No one’s seen her. No one knows what she is. It’s very possible that Night Elves are deriving their power from her; it’s also very possible that they’re just accidentally connecting to the Light. There’s veneration, but no absolute validation.

This, then, is the cornerstone of religion. Religion is more than simply a set of rules to follow or a set of beliefs about what is right and wrong; those things can exist without any sort of actual codified religion. You can believe that theft is wrong without believing in a deity, but you can’t “believe” in a deity you regularly see in physical form and interact with.

Faith is so complicated, guys.

Here’s another example: Do humans have religion on Tyria? I’d say they don’t, and that’s not because it’s somehow wrong for players to spend a good chunk of Guild Wars 2 hunting down Balthazar. It’s because there’s no sense of veneration and ambiguity. Balthazar isn’t an idea given humanoid form; he is an actual guy who you chase down and fight. You can revere him or not, but you cannot disbelieve in him.

Well, all right, you can disbelieve in him, but it will have as much effect as disbelieving in heat and putting your hand on a stove burner. (Note: Do not do this.)

None of this is to imply that your personal beliefs are incorrect, whether you personally believe in no deity whatsoever or are really hoping that Sobek worship comes back sooner rather than later. But the core word there is belief. It’s the one that keeps coming up because religion isn’t about revering someone more powerful than you but believing in something.

Belief requires an absence of evidence. That is not inherently evidence of absence. If you’re a devout Christian, you likely would explain that you can see the touch of God in every part of the world. But it isn’t confirmation. You might point to a butterfly and say that it’s proof of the beauty that God gives us, while another person might point to the same butterfly and say that it’s proof that Psyche is watching over you. And neither belief is incompatible with scientific explanations for the appearances of butterflies, which themselves neither prove nor disprove the existence of higher powers.

In Final Fantasy XIV, there’s no proof of the idea that any of the Twelve actually exist. There are hints throughout the game that these deities are actually just Primals, the same as the beastmen revere; indeed, there are several parallels between some of the deific depictions and various Primals. (Ramuh, for example, alternately resembles Thaliak or Rhalgr.) It’s possible that these things don’t exist at all.

By contrast, Hydaelyn, the mother goddess, most definitely exists. You interact with her avatar. There’s nothing unclear about it. The Ascians serving Zodiark don’t worship him; they revere him and serve him. He’s not their god, he’s their boss, because they know full well that he exists and is real. (Of course, given the way that faith and aether can produce a physical form for these beings, even that might not be entirely so cut-and-dried.)

I believe that there's a plan for each of us! I believe that plan includes me getting my own planet!

Religion, at its heart, is about faith. And while being able to disprove a deity’s presence is really a quick shot through the neck of anyone’s faith, proving it does the same thing. Once you know that these things are real, belief isn’t an option, just acknowledgement and dealing with its existence.

And then you get games like The Elder Scrolls Online, wherein there can be no religion because most of these supposedly divine entities definitely exist, but at the same time there’s no way that many of your player characters at this point in history would have any way of knowing that fact. So that’s more like having a religion based around the coelacanth in 1900; you’re revering a thing that does actually exist, but you wouldn’t know that during the worship.

That’s the part of religion that makes it fascinating to me in a roleplaying situation and at the same time exasperates me so much about games that create elaborate religions based around deities that most definitely exist. Xenogears did a far better job by giving us a full set of religions based around a belief in deities, then offering up four or five creatures that may have inspired any melange of these myths, and there still may or may not have been an actual deity in there somewhere without invalidating anything.

I encourage roleplayers to think about the lore of their chosen game from this angle. Outside of games that are resolutely disinterested in any touch of this discussion, it’s worth thinking about both the beings you know are real and what ideas do actually require taking elements of it on faith. For that matter, it requires examining the lore and the commonality of that knowledge and can lead to some really interesting places if a character goes from earnest faith to realizing that yes, this object of reverence is definitely real, and suddenly “belief” isn’t relevant anymore.

Or you could play Skyforge, I suppose, which answers any questions about the presence of gods when you create your character. While raising a bunch of new ones.

If you’re an old hand at roleplaying in MMOs, you can look to Eliot Lefebvre’s Storyboard as an irregular column addressing the common peaks and pitfalls possible in this specialized art of interaction. If you’ve never tried it before, you can look at it as a peek into how the other half lives. That’s something everyone can enjoy, just like roleplaying itself.
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