Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Virtual Worlds: Significant Cultural Phenomenon for the Practical Theology Agenda

Fans of the Star Trek: The Next Generation series will remember the holodeck, that place on the Starship Enterprise where computers used three dimensional imagery to create imaginary worlds that crew members could enter into for vacation, pleasure, and training simulations. These simulations appeared just as real as the external world, and at times the holodeck served as the location for entire episodes of the series. Our technology has yet to catch up completely to what this science fiction program envisioned for virtual entertainment, but it's not too far away from reality.

The Matrix series of films postulated a world where human consciousness lived in a fantasy world generated by machines so that their bodies could be harnessed for their energy to feed the machine society. Many were rescued from the virtual world of the matrix but even to the escapees this cyber reality seemed as real, perhaps more real, than the external world. The scenario presented by The Matrix led to a number of significant philosophical, theological, and ethical questions that addressed the nature of reality and human relationships with technology, particularly with the construction of and participation in virtual worlds.

But all of this is just the stuff of science fiction or fantasy entertainment, isn't it? Sure, we have the Internet and computer gaming, but nothing like Star Trek's holodeck or the virtual world of The Matrix. Before we casually dismiss these artifacts of popular culture we need to consider that the stuff of sci fi has moved closer to the real world than many are aware and we need to be thinking about the implications in a number of areas, including that of theology.

My colleague, Philip Johnson in Australia, was the first to bring the significance of these aspects of modern life to my attention. He suggested I take a look at Second Life, a virtual reality metaverse created by Philip Rosedale and his Linden Labs as a result of a number of influences and experiences, including inspiration during a Burning Man Festival experience in 1999. As Rosedale described Burning Man, "it reinforced that idea that what we believe in or what we make of things is all that is real. It was unreal because everything was clearly made of found materials and was transitory. But it was real, because when you were there, it was real to you." Rosedale would later apply this same thinking to the creation of Second Life. From its modest beginnings with a few hundred thousand register accounts in 2006, SL had over five million by the middle of 2007. With present growth rates it may involve 30 million users this year.

Second Life is not the only virtual world. World of Warcraft by Blizzard Entertainment is also popular with eight million subscribers as of 2007. Lineage by NCSoft involves two million subscribers, and Gaia Online by Gaia Interaction involves millions of subscribers for their teen online world.

Increasingly, people are recognizing that the phenomenon of virtual or synthetic worlds represents a significant aspect of human life that needs to be explored and understood. As Edward Castronova has written, "Time and attention are migrating from the real world into the virtual world," and this has tremendous implications in a number of areas, from the economy, to human identity, to questions of defining the "real" in contrast with the virtual, to the implications related to play in these contexts.

I suggest that virtual worlds represent an important item for the agenda of practical theology for Western theologians and those involved in intercultural studies. This phenomenon needs to be engaged not merely in terms of concerns or critique, but more broadly and holistically so that the broad ramifications of this phenomenon can be understood and responded to properly. Evangelicals and other Christians have produced a number of volumes of late that interact with various facets of popular culture, particularly film and music, but virtual worlds must be added to our theological research agenda.

For my part I am involved in an ongoing research project in this area. I am current reading three volumes related to this topic including:

Edward Castronova, Exodus to the Virtual World: How Online Fun is Changing Reality (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)

Wagner James Au, The Making of Second Life: Notes From the New World (Collins, 2008)

Tom Boellstroff, Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human (Princeton University Press, 2008)

Millions of people around the world are investing thousands of hours creating new identities, pursuing play and pleasure, exploring spirituality, creating homes, and running businesses that generate cyber and real world currency. Perhaps its time for Christian scholars to engage this pop culture phenomenon while the wave is cresting.

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