Playing with Imperialism

I was lucky to be invited to speak at the University of South Carolina, Upstate this past week, where I was the guest of the African American Studies Program. Dr. Cassandra Jones, who invited me, is teaching all kinds of fascinating material, including a class on the relationship of gender and race to videogames. As part of that, she came across my book, Virtually Sacred, and asked me to come to Upstate and chat about games. The invite came with a cool poster…which launched a thousand reddit posts (Actually just a bit over 200; but it was still interesting when random people emailed me and asked that I come over to reddit and weigh in on the content of the talk, which had spurred much debate). Redditors were grateful to hear that I’ve played World of Warcraft for about ten years, and thus my comments weren’t going to be an outsider’s critique.

In the book, among other things, I argued that virtual worlds provide opportunities for religious and/or quasi-religious activity, including community building, ethical reflection, personal identity formation and meaning making, and even transcendence.

Having spent the past few years studying India, I’ve had a chance to rethink that book from a different perspective. My time studying India has reminded me that the study of religion is often a power play, and that reflections upon another community are often done in such a way as to express one’s own dominance over that group. This was generally the British approach to India, and it fits the pattern of control that Edward Said described in his famed book Orientalism and that David Chidester shows of early studies in comparative religion in his book Empire of Religion.

World of Warcraft, which took pride of place in my book, adopts real world cultures and religious groups to provide the aesthetics and traditions of in-game cultures (actually races, which are really species, and which are conflated with cultures). Taurens are noble savages with the dress, art, architecture, and spiritual traditions of Native Americans. Trolls are (were, perhaps, as the rhetoric is softer now) brutal savages with the dress, art, architecture, speech inflections, and spiritual traditions of the Caribbean islands.  Ultimately, it seems to me that when we essentialize real world groups in producing in-game groups, we limit what the game can do for its players. World of Warcraft might provide a sacred opportunity or two, but the game’s approach to religion, race, and culture  restricts who might have access to them.

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