Storyboard: Exploring religion in MMOs

    
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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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Rodrigo Dias Costa

Religion on MMOs sure is an interesting topic to discuss, but you’re wrong saying that a religion need to have an deity that can’t be proven to exist. That’s not how religion work.

Ashfyn mentioned that religion is a power structure, and that is almost right. Of course religion is a bit more than that, but it is a structure of sorts, defined by it’s beliefs, practices, and morals (I think these three defines the others, like hierarchy, laws, punishments, etc.)

Is more like a way of living, or a guide of sorts, to help the believers decides what’s right, what’s wrong, and what you should be doing to deserve your deity’s blessing.

I agree that the games’ religions should be better explored, but I disagree that the ones that aren’t aren’t even religions

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Utakata

For me, when hit with a sudden does of credulity the response is usually followed by, “Dear Elune, god and Hitchens, no!” >.<

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Utakata

Edit/Erratum: …sudden dose* of credulity…proper.

Freddy
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Freddy

Tunare’s Blessings!

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Bryan Correll

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

You may not ‘know’ it going in but you sure find out pretty quick when you get off the boat in Vvardenfell (which is where all new characters are dumped now.) The first thing you see on leaving the village is someone getting possessed by a Daedric prince. And you get the task of going to tell a “Living God” about what happened.

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thirtymil

I admit I’m nitpicking here, but I think you get dumped off the boat ‘Elsweyr’ now… :)

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Bryan Correll

Not if you haven’t payed for it!

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thirtymil

Lol, good point, well made. :)

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Witches

Religion is less the thing and more the effect of the thing.

It’s not so much about the existence of a deity, but about an organized structure that dictates how said deity will be worshiped.

Using the most common examples of Buddha, Christ, Moses and Muhammad, none of these were actual deities even within the lore of the religions than worship them, they were ordinary or extraordinary people that served as intermediaries between the deity and humans.

But while they were the intermediaries, they were not the founders of the religions that worship them, and a deity through them, their followers are the ones that create the religions, so religion is twice removed from the existence of a deity.

If individual x interacts with a deity in some way, that in itself is not a religious experience.

Religion is about the followers, not the deity.

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zoward

I’m not sure that knowing your god exists should exclude it from being “religion”; just a different kind of religion that what passes for religion in the modern day world. In Dungeons & Dragons lore, there are petitioners and proxies who live in the outer planes in realms their deities rule. In such places, where you’re living around the corner from your deity’s palace on land they lay claim to, religion must be a lot less mysterious, and perhaps more like serving a powerful monarch. That might provide its own impetuses for roleplay.

Mitzruti
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Mitzruti

I think where you tying to go is good, but the method/arguments used suck.
what is good? where did the world come from? what happens after you die?
Just because your god drops by for tea doesn’t mean you can’t believe that they hold power over the fate of the world in some way.

The issue is more about how do you practice this religion? For a lot of games, it stops at here’s a church, here’s a priest, here’s a god. but they don’t really communicate what their beliefs or practices are.

I think an article about how to work a game’s religions into your RP (especially if the game isn’t communicating the details for you) would have been more interesting that an argument that it isn’t actually there.

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Fervor Bliss

I would think Buddhism as a religion. Not an expert by any means but there is a quote I like.

“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”

Buddha (Hindu Prince Gautama Siddharta, the founder of Buddhism, 563-483 B.C.)

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thirtymil

“Belief requires an absence of evidence.”

I would disagree. I think it is absolutely possible to believe in something that you also have evidence for. It’s also blatantly possible for people to believe in something that there is evidence against. This is apparent in anything from asking people whether they believe in aliens to whether they believe Star Citizen will be a good game.

The issue lies in the strength of the evidence and the willingness (or not) of people to accept it, and the fact that we like to call people who believe things that our evidence supposedly disproves as obviously mad. Belief is simply trusting something will be true over and above what the existing evidence says either way.

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Utakata

You are pretty much saying the same thing only by further qualifying it. Which is fine…save for the fact that the qualifications does not dismiss that quoted statement.

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thirtymil

Not really – Eliot is saying belief requires an absence of evidence, I’m saying it doesn’t. Yes, there’s a similarity in the assessment of the value of evidence, but we come to opposite final conclusions.

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Shawn Main

Though there was no direct insult to faith. It comes across that people that believe in religion has absolutely no facts at all, or possibly a bit naive in their faith.

I would argue on two points…

In court of law, a witness is an acceptable “proof”. Testimony

Cause and effect, faith in God changes people. Revelation

Let me be the devil advocate. Some people may think they are wise and not gullible but we tend what we want to believe.

Example only, does people who claim to be LGBTQ have any proof, no, it’s just their words. Yet more and more people believe it to be true.

Again, we believe what we want to believe, to an extent.