Sunday, July 22, 2007

Sacred Spaces in Virtual Reality

Carl Sagan wrote:
'Imagination will often carry us
to worlds that never were.
But without it, we go nowhere.'

I created a number of different webpages in order to separate my interests a little. I know, for example, that most people who are not involved in gaming would be bored to distraction by a post that enthusiastically describes a game. Mythology usually interests gamers, but fans of Harvest Moon may not be interested in my ramblings about comparative mythology.

Today, however, I am going to write about a game that isn't really a game at all. It is called 'Second Life' and that's precisely what it is. It is another world, where every conceivable type of individual and activity is pursued. Every culture and every language is represented there as well.

It is a vast world containing land masses separated by water. Some places are organised by theme or activities. Others are not.

I believe that human nature in general refuses to be constrained or limited by THIS reality. Throughout history, there have been individuals and groups who sought to create and experience other realities. Ludwig II of Bavaria built castles and recreated the tale of the Volsungs in 'Hunding's Hut'. The Hellfire Club and others attempted to create microcosms where their own visions could be manifested. Secret societies have been part of human society since the dawn of mankind. Sacred spaces often transcend this time and space architecturally as well as through the rituals performed there. The caves of Lascaux constituted another reality in the Neolithic period in Northern Europe and in the Middle Ages, cathedrals often embraced entire worlds in their composition, from columns built like the trunks of trees, thickly decorated with outlandish mythical creatures, flora and fauna, to soaring arches that pierced the heavens.

Second Life, however, is a different sort of reality. It is not a sacred space, although it includes sacred spaces. It is worldwide, due to the nature of the internet and it is accessible to the general public. It therefore contains all the chaos and muddle of the 'real world' alongside glorious visions created by true artists.

One might meet a kindred spirit there, but one is as likely to encounter the same varied crowd one would find in any urban environment. There are people who are rude and boorish, and there are people who extend themselves to help the newcomer. Strangely enough, there are people who basically have little imagination as well. I imagine that people invest in a 'Second Life' for many different reasons. Boredom, loneliness, the desire for adventure, or a need to express oneself creatively... those motivations I would have expected. What I was not prepared to encounter was the vast economical structure of this world and the many ambitious entrepreneurs who have succeeded in creating viable careers for themselves in their Second Life.

For me, it is the encounter with genuine beauty that thrills rather than the idea of carving out a virtual empire. The world of 'Second Life' contains so many places and objects created by some one with a vision and then shared freely with the public... These are the visions that beckon to me, and draw me into the fantasy.

I always loved travel and more than anything, I enjoyed the challenge of living in a completely foreign culture and environment. In a way, 'Second Life' satisfies some of that urge to explore new places and cultures. It is no substitute for a trip to Crete or Mongolia, but it does offer the promise of adventure and more than that, further demonstration of the great diversity of human nature and human aspirations.

When I was a child, I loved to go into museums and explore the rooms that had been recreated from other cultures and periods. I liked to pretend that I lived in these rooms, that somehow I had been able to find my way back to that period and civilisation. Those were childish fantasies but I can see that 'Second Life' has made many of those fantasies a virtual reality.

It is rather like walking or flying through other people's dreams. There is more than a little voyeurism in the experience, but beyond that, it is a way for people to share their own visions with others and to be appreciated.

I suppose the desire to be appreciated is universal. Without that impulse, we would not have the wealth of art and literature that has been created, preserved and shared throughout the ages. One wonders if 'Second Life' will endure somewhere, to be accessible to people of the future... If our reality were expunged from this planet and the only records that remained were those of 'Second Life', I wonder if a future anthropologist would perceive in it a representation of our reality or of our fantasies or if he or she would have enough sense to recognise it as a synthesis of both.

This morning, I decided I would explore 'sacred places' in Second Life. It is Sunday morning after all a traditional day for spiritual activity in Western civilisation. I thought I might visit a few churches and cathedrals as well as some beautiful meditation spots.

I visited almost a dozen churches. Many were quite detailed, including an organ or piano with sheet music that could be chosen, votive candles that could be lit and offering boxes for donations. One could kneel or sit in the pews to pray. In some cathedrals and churches, there were fantastic stained glass windows and copies of religious paintings from the Middle Ages and Renaissance. There was one Roman Catholic Church that included transmissions from a radio station. I didn't investigate that, but it is quite possible that one could watch a televised Mass.

There are Christian Churchs, Goth churches, Satanist Churches, Hare Krishna centres and even churches that can be purchased or rented as living spaces. There was a church for seafarers and mariners where prayers could be offered for those at sea.
Another Church was dedicated to departed loved ones.

Were these places empty shells or could they be considered sacred spaces? It all depends on intention, imagination and focus. Second Life is a very realistic experience. One can shop, explore, meet people or engage in a number of physical or mental activities.

After a few hours of exploration, I was as exhausted as I would have been if my physical real self had been exploring a new place in this world. It is amazing how flying or walking in Second Life can be so real. On the other hand, it is not much different from video games in that respect. In most RPGs, one begins the game with a character who is weak and almost helpless. Any activity is difficult. It takes huge amounts of energy to swing a weapon or even travel across the map. As one acquires experience and upgrades, all actions become easier, even effortless. It takes real time and energy, however, to accomplish this.

Second Life is similar to an RPG in many respects. Characters are not particularly graceful at the start. They need to purchase augmentations and animations in order to become more attractive. Unlike most RPGs, however, the economy of Second Life is very much connected to reality. Money will buy you anything. In a classical RPG, it is your acts of heroism and successful quests that bring you wealth and equipment.
In Second Life, you simply can go to an ATM machine to convert your real currency to SL currency.

What I am interested in exploring, however, is the emotional and spiritual component of this second reality. There are people who marry and buy property together in Second Life and there are others who simply go from one orgy to another. There evidently are quite a few who are looking for some spiritual inspiration in Second Life as well. Although churches do acquire an income when couples use them for weddings, there must be others like myself who can generate a real sense of spiritual energy in a virtual sacred space.

In some religions, 'virtual reality' never could be a substitute for reality. In others, a virtual reality could easily be a 'focal point' for an intense spiritual experience. For a Roman Catholic, there can be no 'communion' in virtual reality because of the doctrine of transubstantiation. For most Christian Protestants, however, virtual communion could be as valid as real bread and wine.

I visited a number of meditation spots, some of them Buddhist. I did visit a Church devoted to the dark side as well. In the square outside the church was a fountain of blood rather than water with what appeared to be a raven or crow circling overhead. Evidently that Church does as brisk a business in virtual weddings as its more traditional counterparts.

I have to admit that the organ in the Goth church was one of the best. I'm afraid I did not visit the Satanist Church, but I suppose I should at some point. I did visit a Church that purported to be dedicated to the 'Red Dragon'. It was rather disappointing, apart from the doors.

I visited a mosque in virtual Morocco. It was a little disconcerting as the only requirement was that people should remove their shoes. I would have expected some kind of hijab to be provided or required. I do not know if there was a separate prayer space for the women. I did not explore it thoroughly. I didn't feel comfortable about walking into the prayer area in the circumstances.

It is strange to see oneself or avatar as a being disconnected from the real person typing at the keyboard. One becomes very much a part of the avatar. As a matter of fact, it can be a little absurd. When I looked into the mirror this morning, the thought crossed my mind: 'Perhaps I will change the shape of my mouth a little at the corner to see if I like it', an act that is possible in Second Life at any moment in time. A moment later, I realised I was in THIS reality and not that one, but I often have had dreams about games I currently have been involved in playing. In a video game, often one can reload the game if one makes a terrible error rather than preserving the mistake in a 'save'. More than once in reality, I have thought of 'reloading' when I dropped something or broke an object, only to realise a moment later that it would not be possible in this life.

In Second Life, when my character knelt at an altar to pray, I actually was able to enter into the spirit of the act to some extent. At the same time, it was a solitary act. How much it will become part of my own 'memory' of my life, I do not know. After all, memories of films and books can be as vivid as those created in life. I imagine that one could have an epiphany or extraordinary moment in virtual reality that would be remembered forever. It is an interesting concept.

Most fascinating perhaps is the question of interactions with other individuals. How much of it is real and how much is simply a 'multiplayer game' where you are only concerned with yourself and the other person simply is a little less predictable than any Artificial Intelligence generated by a game would be?

I realise I am not like most people in one respect. The characters in ANY game I play become very real to me. When I play Harvest Moon games and court a husband or wife (depending on my gender), those characters become as real and important in the context of the game as any one in my 'real life'. When any one dies, I feel a real sense of loss. Harvest Moon does require its players to experience the sadness of loss as well as the joys of love. (Natsume games always are appropriate for a 'General Audience', even in those games when one marries and has a child.) There usually is one villager who will die of old age at some point. In one Harvest Moon game, your character ultimately dies of old age!

I become absurdly attached to characters in games, but I realise that for many players, there never is any sense of the game being more than an amusement. In Second Life, however, the other characters are not generated by a computer or game system.

That, to me, is the danger inherent in games like 'Second Life'. There is the danger that one will be able to use other people or simply be less than courteous, forgetting that real people exist behind the avatars. Courtesy is extremely important to me, but I have noticed quite a few individuals in Second Life who apparently feel justified in treating every one else with outright rudeness. To those 'players', no one else really exists. It is an imaginary world, after all.
To some extent, it is a playground. People who go there with a specific aim may ignore any one or anything that does not advance their own ambitions. I hope I never become capable of that sort of lack of empathy towards others.

Even for non-gamers, behaviour on the internet can demonstrate the same polarity. There are people who post nasty messages on boards that they never would dare to communicate in person. There is incredible arrogance and even cruelty to be found.
On the other hand, there always are many individuals who go out of their way to be kind.

Returning to the topic of spirituality in Second Life, I was amused if a little alarmed to discover that there are 'missionaries' in that world as well as this. I never have agreed with the attitude of people who believe that they and they alone have a key to spiritual truth and enlightenment. Unfortunately, for those who feel they are under a duty to herd the rest of humanity to 'salvation' according to their beliefs, a second world could be as much a hunting ground as the first.

I wonder if politics will be next, if there are campaigns to promote one group or individual over another, to gain vast power and domains in the second world. Second Life is NOT Utopia by any means. It contains both great beauty and great ugliness, the splendid and the pathetic side by side. It is not one individual's vision but the visions of every one involved in the game. To that extent, it almost could not be considered a game at all. It is more of an ongoing experience of humanity and the incredible depth and power of human imagination.

As Emily Dickinson declared: 'The Brain - is wider than the Sky - For - put them side by side - The one the other will contain - With ease - and You - beside -'

It is rather an extraordinary experience not only to have other people in my imaginary world but to be in theirs as well. That is the experience of Second Life.

Note on 31 July: A friend drew my attention to an article published in the Italian Jesuit journal 'La Civita Cattolica', written by Antonio Spadaro, urging Roman Catholics to enter the virtual reality of Second Life in order to bring religion to the masses there.

Antonio Spadaro declared that: 'It's not possible to close our eyes to this phenomenon or rush to judge it. Instead it needs to be understood ... the best way to understand it is to enter it.'

He did describe the 'dangers' of the erotic elements in Second Life but in his opinion, residents were as likely to turn to a Second Life for spiritual inspiration as they were for erotic stimulation. In fact, another article on Second Life published by Reuters recently mentioned a Swedish Muslim whose avatar followed the same strict Islamic rules for salat (prayer) in Second Life as he did in real life.

1 comment:

Fleming said...

Because I am also entering "Second Life" this post is very meaningful to me. I don't you'll mind my linking it from FLIGHTS OF PEGASUS. I had planned to write a post about the nature of "Second Life" this morning, but now I find that you've already described it. Our ways of exploring and seeing the game will of course be different, but your description is a good introduction.