Over at Terra Nova Jen Dornan is wondering whether “mmogs are rituals”:http://terranova.blogs.com/terra_nova/2007/02/mmo_as_ritual.html. Like the question ‘are video games art’, posing the question this way has the drawback relying on the idea that ‘mmog’ and ‘video game’ are somehow moving targets in a way that ‘art’ and ‘ritual’ aren’t. However I do think that Jen’s question does allow us to think a little bit more fully about how moogs serve, as William James would put it, as a ‘genuine reality’ for their players.
To a certain extent the fate of ‘ritual’ as a topic was one of gradual decline. Attempts to describe exactly what ‘ritual’ was and how it differed from every day interaction foundered on the fact that practically everything seemed to be ritualistic — our everyday lives were, Goffman wrote, Interaction Rituals. Then we had Moore and Myerhoff’s book Secular Ritual. Today we see the classical work that ritual does — moving participants from one social role to another — as an aspect of all language use.
But the real question of how Worlds of Warcraft can count as ritual comes not from this take on ritual as a means of structuring social interaction but on an older sense of ritual as a form of embodied experience which appears, at first glance, to be distinct from the ‘disembodied’ experience of playing Worlds of Warcraft. How can you get the thrills and chills of real ritual when you are just sitting there staring at people do things on a screen? That our country’s anglo-protestant majority could make this sort of objection has always boggled me, since the vast majority of churches that I have been to involve, well, congregations that just sit there staring at people who do things on an altar.
Sure, they are allowed to since a few hymns now and then, but overall the majority of Christian liturgical practice throughout the ages has involved a congregation that seems incredibly passive to people who come from other faith traditions. And one can say this without endorsing Dornan’s description of “traditional ritual” which seem considerably less rigorous than we would hope given the fact that she is supposed to be one of the ‘token anthropologists’ on Terra Nova. Where, exactly, is it that they practice “the Pacific Islands ritual with heavy drumming and men in horrifying costumes of spirits believed to inhabit the island” except in the exoticized imagination of ‘south seas natives’ and just how likely are you to hear “an aria in a cathedral” since this is a genre that is more commonly found in the opera house than the church?
But of course video games, like davening, are more experientially engrossing than sitting through mass because both of them require you to actually do something. And of course playing video games is an embodied experience — you are still there, in your body, when you play Unreal Tournament — as anyone who has watched the bodies of shoot ’em up players jerking back and forth can attest.
The question of whether mmogs can serve as a source of community building and social solidarity ultimately hinges on asking what counts as ‘copresence’. The default — and unanthropological assumption — is that mere consociation (time-space contiguity) brings people together. But as anyone who has ever sat through hour (after hour after hour) of public events in a foreign language and a foreign culture can tell you, you don’t really start ‘making music together’ as a group until physical copresence is mediated by participating in the shared production of meaning. One of the crazy things about the Internet is that it made us realize very quickly exactly how central this cultural mediation of interaction was and just how little physical contiguity mattered.
Or perhaps we didn’t have to wait for the Internet. As William James pointed out long ago in his own thinking about religion, what counts as ‘reality’ is the stuff which people care about. This pragmatic approach — which swaps out ontological reality for existential concern — makes moot in exactly the right way issues of the primacy of the meatworld. What counts as the real here is not the physical but the meaningful — that is to say, the cultural.
But the flip side of this is to blur the distinction that Dornan makes between ‘knowledge’ and ‘experience’ — a distinction which allows the problematic Western mind-body distinction to slip back in via the back door of multiplayer versus singleplayer experiences of media.
In closing I have to remark that I find it off to say that people who have played Half Life 2 or watched Buffy without being in the same room with one another can be said not to have ‘shared experiences’ or not to be part of a ‘community of practice’. There is an old Jewish saying that the world will end and the moshiach will come if just for once every Jew on the planet would attend services at the same time… or if just for once a service passed without a single Jew in the entire world marking it. This saying encapsulates a truth about religion that even the Christians have long known — genuine reality in the Jamesian sense goes deeper than merely being in the same congregation as someone. Copresence is really about communion, for there is but one loaf and yet those who are many are one body, for they partake of the one loaf. They, being many, are one body in Christ, and severally members one of another.