Dreaming Cyborg Dreams: Virtual Identity and Religious Experience

If it is true that, as theorist Sherry Turkle has claimed, that in our increasingly mediated world “we are all dreaming cyborg dreams,” it is certainly safe to say that at least some of these dreams are religious ones.

In this essay, I look at four types of immersive new media that address the issue of religious identity: Waco Resurrection, a religiously-inspired first-person shooter, Noah’s Ark, a religious online reality show; Roma Victor, a massive multiplayer online role-playing game, and religious experiences in the online world of Second Life.

In each of these examples, the level of immersion in online identity plays a very powerful role in shaping the authenticity of religious experience, as channeled through those digital representations of self that virtual natives call their avatars.

Liquid Identity

Avatars are digital representations of users that can be designed to fit within a particular virtual context. Depending on the virtual world, users can choose gender, body type and size, profession—and sometimes even species. Turkle claims that when people select avatars they don’t simply “become who they play.” Rather, they “play who they are or who they want to be or who they don’t want to be.” The effect of interaction with and through one’s avatar can affect one’s daily life, since players often consider their virtual selves as representing some facet of their real-life selves, and see their virtual selves as shaping their real lives in meaningful ways. In this respect, virtual environments produce the possibility of what Polish artist and game theorist Miroslaw Filiciak calls “liquid identity.”

One of the problems of virtual identity became apparent last spring in a course I taught entitled “Religion, Ritual and Virtual Reality.” I wanted to show my students the new virtual hajj experience sponsored by Islamicity.com in the online world of Second Life. When I forgot my password, my student Jonathan offered to log in and allow us to visit the site with his avatar. Unfortunately, his avatar was already wearing a Batman costume. So would wearing the costume on the virtual hajj be disrespectful? And if Jonathan were to guide his black-caped avatar through the online sacred space, who—him or his avatar—was actually “going” on the hajj? And what was actually going on when I programmed my own avatar to wear digital hijab and clicked an animation ball to make my avatar prostrate before the black stone, praying in the same “place” Abraham prayed?

The answer, it seems, has something to do with the level of our investment in our avatar’s experience. For Richard Bartle, game researcher and pioneer, there are four potential stages of identification with one’s avatar:

In the first stage, the “player stage,” one “control[s] an object within the virtual world that is associated with [one]” [my italics]. In the second stage, the player identifies with the digital object, or avatar, and sees it as actually representing him or her; it is a “conduit through which [players] act.” In the third stage, the avatar becomes “a tokenization of the player,” that is, “an extension of a player’s self, a whole personality that the player dons when they enter the virtual world” [my italics]. The fourth and final stage is to see one’s avatar as a “persona,” that is, a real version of oneself. Players in this stage describe themselves as actually being “in a world” as the avatar.

According to Bartle, in the “persona” stage “you’re not assuming an identity, you are that identity; you’re not projecting a self, you are that self . . . [t]here’s no level of indirection, no filtering, no question: You are there” (154-155). So what happens to religious identity when you go online? It depends, at least in part, on who you want to be, where you want to go, and what you think you’re doing when you get there.

Waco Resurrection

In 2003, digital artist Eddo Stern debuted a first-person shooter (FPS) Doom mod called Waco Resurrection. FPSs are some of the most rigidly-controlled of video game experiences, typically defined by a series of set goals with specific endpoints, and with the entire experience repeatable in order to achieve success. Waco Resurrection first appeared at an installation in Las Vegas, at which players were invited to immerse themselves in ways unusual in most FPSs. While they played the game, participants at the installation donned a “Koresh skin” that consisted of a hard plastic three-dimensional mask, while they were invited to reenact select events from the 1993 violence at the Waco compound that ended the lives of more than 70 people. According to the Eddo Stern’s Web site, gamers “enter the mind and form of a resurrected David Koresh,” and enter the game’s network “as a Koresh [who] must defend the Branch Davidian compound against internal intrigue, skeptical civilians, rival Koresh, and the inexorable advance of government agents” [my italics]. Within the plastic mask, players are “bombarded with a soundstream of government ‘psy-ops,’ FBI negotiators, the voice of God, and the persistent clamor of battle,” and must respond with specific “messianic texts drawn from the Book of Revelation” as they “wield a variety of weapons from the Mount Carmel cache and influence the behavior of both followers and opponents by radiating a charismatic aura.”

Players of Waco Resurrection are asked not only to imagine themselves in the real-life horror of the Waco standoff, but they are asked to interact with an avatar representing David Koresh and perhaps even imagine themselves as the self-proclaimed messiah. Jeff Douglas of the Associated Press reported that in the game, “Koresh’s energy comes from massive Bibles that rain from the sky. Those Bibles also rain bullets and turn federal agents into Davidian followers.” After considering this game, we are prompted to ask with Sherry Turkle: “Do our real-life selves learn lessons from our virtual personae? Are these virtual personae fragments of a coherent real-life personality?” A game like this raises some disturbing but profound questions about degrees of identification with one’s avatar.

Noah’s Ark

Whereas in first-person shooters players can do little to alter the trajectory of the game, in some virtual experiences, online role-play allows greater improvisation. The 2003 reality “game” Noah’s Ark, like many reality shows, featured contestants that fans could periodically vote to be removed from the (virtual) ark. But in this odd new twist on reality shows, contestants competed to play the roles of various biblical characters, and then remotely controlled cartoonish biblical avatars by personal PCs. The creators of the game, Ship of Fools, playfully describe the virtual crew: “It’s a cast to make even Cecil B. DeMille’s hormones bubble.” The cast includes twelve “biblical saints and sinners rubbing shoulders on the world’s most famous floating zoo.”

What of the religious significance of “playing” as Eve, or Job, or Moses, or John the Baptist? It seems hard to refute the claim that the experience in some way diminishes the traditional respect attributed to the biblical characters. If we take Bartle’s categories of immersion seriously, the apparent humorous intent of this experience requires that the player’s relationship with the digital avatar be at most at the “character” level. That is, the avatar must be considered only a mere representation of the player’s self, perhaps representing some aspects of his or her real personality, but not identical to it. Due to the place of the Bible in popular culture, full immersion in Noah’s Ark seems impossible: nobody playing this game, it seems, should be capable of seeing themselves as really on Noah’s ark, or really becoming the biblical Esther or Samson. In practice, then, Noah’s Ark creates a sort of immersive midrash that invites viewers to consider the impact of the biblical characters from the inside out. Apart from the Bible-study style discussions that Ship of Fools hopes to generate (complete with study guides and transcripts), the point appears to be to find that place where virtual identity and religious story meet, prompting us to ask what makes the biblical stories “real” to us in the first place.

Roma Victor

One particularly interesting case of identity and religion is the virtual crucifixion controversy in Roma Victor. On March 23, 2006, the following message appeared on Roma Victor’s official discussion board:

We’re about to crucify one of the Roma Victor test team, Cynewulf, for ringleading a gang of spawn killers. It’ll be the first of several crucifixions, which will be used as a banning and anti-griefing punishment tool.The crucified character will appear affixed to the cross on full public display for the duration of the ban. I’ll drop by with a screenshot as soon as I get a chance (posted by KFR).

The incident earned Roma Victor some media attention with reports that some Christians were offended. The virtual event was too similar, they claimed, to the real crucifixion.

Roma Victor is an MMORPG—a game with at least one thousand players role-playing at the same time. MMORPGs also allow players greater flexibility than first-person shooters, especially in terms of which missions they select to play and how they choose to portray themselves within the virtual world. Filiciak quips that in MMORPGs today, “hundreds of thousands of players are finding themselves in situations described by postmodern theorists, even though the vast majority of them have never heard of Baudrillard.”

The “crucified” player, Cynewulf, must have watched with curiosity as Christian viewers claimed his experience was too Christlike. Certainly, Cynewulf himself could feel no pain as he “hung” on the digital cross. The Roma Victor controversy thus offers us a fresh insight into virtual identity and the hybridity of self. Cynewulf’s virtual experience of crucifixion is strangely akin to docetic interpretations of the real crucifixion—especially the Gnostic forms that imply the “spirit” of wisdom left Jesus as he hung limply on the cross. In this view, the body of Jesus was a mere virtual or illusory avatar—one that had once hosted an entity that in fact cannot experience pain and certainly cannot die “in-world.” This case suggests, albeit indirectly, that the ability to immerse deeply in an avatar depends on the extent that one’s religious worldview is imported into the online world.

Second Life

In the online world of Second Life, “residents” design their own avatars and engage in unscripted encounters, making real religious dialogue a possibility. Rita King (and her avatar Eureka Dejavu), engaged in some tough discussions about cultural differences with Muslims, as reported in Dispatches From the Imagination Age. Eureka describes a time when the conversation broke down: “Unfortunately the language and culture barrier acted against me with Ingush [her Muslim conversational partner], who mistakenly read [her] question as one about jihad, not ijtihad. He thought I was being hostile, and the tension, despite the fact that I could have logged out as any time, was palpable.” Second Life is a boon because virtual worlds afford the opportunity to overcome our cultural differences in a new community, formed of people from different cultures and with different beliefs (New World Notes).

The opportunity to explore new religious “territory” is aptly seen in the case of the Muslim woman who attended synagogue in Second Life because she had been curious about Judaism but felt too self-conscious to attend a real-life temple service. The woman chose to wear her hijab in Second Life while attending the virtual synagogue, presumably so closely identifying with her avatar that she wanted it to be modest in its pixellated portrayal of herself in the online world.

She appears to be enacting what Filiciak defines as the “opportunity to painlessly manipulate our identity, to create situations that we could never experience in the real world because of social, sex-, or race-related restrictions.” As Nillson wonders about Rita’s encounter with the Muslim men: “Would these men have felt comfortable having this conversation in the physical world, especially with a woman involved?” In Second Life, however, such new encounters are possible, and it is precisely due to the artifice, or at least the hybridity, of identity that the online world invites. It seems that online encounters in places like Second Life have the potential to broaden our sense of self because they enable us to see other selves as real, even when these selves are presented only in a virtual form. People from vastly different belief systems can “speak” directly to one another, protected by the “masks” of their avatars.

Molotov Alva and His Search for the Creator

Molotov Alva is an example of machinima, short for “machine cinema,” an emerging new form of moviemaking, using game engines or real-time online worlds as the setting. Immersive play is transformed through digital recording of online interactions into the raw elements of a story, which are then edited, sometimes with the addition of new sounds or text, to create a finished product. If the filmmaker uses an online world like Second Life, he or she can even recruit actors, design sets and costumes, and produce a set script. If a director uses a game engine, he or she may have access to tools that the original game designers provided for the creation of additional levels, new characters, new environments, and scripted events. Some of the most popular platforms for machinima are Second Life, Halo, World of Warcraft, The Sims, and even Grand Theft Auto.

Because of its self-reflective and journalistic style, Molotova Alva has been dubbed “the first documentary shot entirely in a virtual online platform.” The Second Life avatar who stars in the production, Molotov Alva, is physically modeled after Douglas Gayeton, the producer of the series. However, Alva is now marooned in Second Life, gradually losing his grip on his connection to his real self (his embodied self) and to his creator, presumably also Gayeton. Gayeton asks via Alva:

If this new reality was an illusion, did its persistence depend upon me?… [but] even I was a fabrication. In this new world, I could stand on a beach—but could I taste the salt hanging in the breeze? Feel the sand crunch beneath my feet? Dip my toes in the water and shiver from its coolness? All that I saw and experienced relied on memories that I had from my other life. This place could only create an approximation of a beach. It was up to my mind to do the rest.

Faced with the emptiness of an existence that was only an approximation of the real, Alva goes on a quest to find “the creator” and at the end of the series, leaves the online virtual world for the real world, where the experiences are much more vivid, and relationships invite richer physical and emotional engagement.

Maybe this is the place where the consideration of virtual religious identity ultimately brings us: We can invest ourselves in the virtual world, but only if it offers us something real in this world. We can find religious community online, but only if it gives us a richer sense of being human in our own embodied form. We can use the virtual context as a means to explore new possibilities of self, but this must in some way change how we live our lives offline. Molotov Alva does not abandon the virtual world because it was useless; he leaves it when it has taught him the value of the real.

The notion of a dream state as a metaphor for virtual immersion is apt—but even dreams can enrich our real lives, if we let them.