Rachel Wagner, associate professor of religion at Ithaca College, recently published “Godwired: Religion, Ritual and Virtual Reality,” a book that explores the connection between religion and virtual reality. In her study, she urges video game players to think critically about the virtual worlds they interact with and discusses how they perpetuate certain stereotypical views of mainstream society.
Staff writer Candace King spoke with Wagner about how her publication is relevant to today’s virtualized society.
Candace King: What inspired you to write this book?
Rachel Wagner: I knew some people who had done study in ritual theory, and ritual theory is the way that we interact with stories, gestures, meaning, behavior and with ways that shape the way we see ourselves in the world. People are doing that in film, and I thought, ‘Well, if we’re thinking about how people engage interactively with stories on the screen, must that be true with video games?’ So that got me started, and no one was writing about this. If you play a video game, you are actually engaging in behaviors with images that represent people.
CK: What are some of the topics you touch on in your study?
RW: There’s a chapter on storytelling, which is about what happens when mostly sacred texts become new media and how they might be chopped up by Twitter. They might be transformed by cut and paste, and they might be hyperlinked. They’re going to be digitized, and so they might exist as an app alongside other apps on the iPhone, for example, and that might change their meaning. I have a chapter on virtual violence and whether it’s possible to do something called virtual evil. You harm, but it’s only within the virtual context. Even if you are not actually physically hurting the real person, the game may still be inviting you to make moral choices that then may possibly shape your choice in the real world, at least if you don’t think critically about it.
CK: What kind of reconciliation is there for the issue of stereotypical representation in some gaming culture?
RW: I wrote the book in part because I do believe that critical thinking is possible. We should think about the algorithmic structures that engage us in any screened, digital environment. I also think that if we learned to think critically about those spaces — the spaces that we make behind our computer screen or behind whatever screen we are using for gameplay that have been coded by people with particular purposes in mind — we can also think critically about the coded structure places in our lives which are equally ideologically informed.
CK: Is there anything else you are currently working on?
RW: I am starting a second book. It’s going to be called “Religion and the Game.” It’s following up on these issues. There’s a trend in society called gamification, and that’s that we want everything to be fun, we want everything to be a game. So I’m wondering about those groups that play religion like a game and those people who gamify culture and therefore view religion in this very simplistic way.