At the recent BASR/EASR conference at Liverpool Hope University I spoke about dragons. My paper was on the application of Ninian Smart’s dimensions of religion to the Nine Divines. The Nine Divines is the principle “religion” to be found in the Elder Scrolls video game series and it has no meat-world presence. My argument was that the Nine Divines as a religion met all the dimensions that Smart detailed and that there were no logical grounds upon which we should not consider it a religion of as much legitimacy or reality as any meat-world counterpart (i.e. Hinduism, Islam, etc.). In short, the Nine Divines is an example of what Smart characterises as an Imperial religion: a ‘relatively loose’ organisation ‘with cities and regions for instance having their own priesthoods and cults’ (1996:237).
There was a certain amount of ludicrosity to the whole affair, something I felt acutely as I did my field research from the comfort of my own armchair. On more than one occasion I was forced to stop and ask myself “is this serious?” I mean, how many field researchers have had to deal with the problem of troll attacks as they travel to investigate what sort of items have been left as offerings at a shrine? It certainly doesn’t feel very phenomenological to bury your axe into a bandit’s face. However, this in itself was part of what fascinated me about the whole exercise. As ludicrous as it all was, going through Smart’s dimensions I found no impediment to say that the Nine Divines isn’t a real religion. The fact of the matter is that applying our scholarly assumptions and categories to the religion of a video game throws up interesting challenges that we might not have considered if we restricted ourselves to roaming the meat-world. The main question I raised in my paper was that despite the fact that there are various discussions about the reality or unreality of gods, spirits, or what have you, no scholar has every stopped to consider the reality or unreality of the practitioners. No definition of religion I can think of stipulates that the practitioners of that religion, however defined, have to have meat-world presence.
This is just the tip of the iceberg of a plethora of questions that are raised by treating the Nine Divines as a real religion. I didn’t have the time to mention them all in my paper and it is not my intention to go through them here. Rather, I want to comment on the “ludicrosity” of the whole affair. Being such a large conference with nearly eight panels running simultaneously at a time, the panel in which I presented my paper did not have a particularly large audience and none of them were prominent academics (as far as I was aware). That, and technical difficulties that led to a limitation upon discussion, meant that there wasn’t really a chance to get a feel for how other academics responded to my paper. While the other papers were also on video games I think I am the first to suggest this sort of study. So to a certain extent the ludicrosity of the study was passed by until later that evening.
Later I was among the contestants for a recording of the second RSP Christmas Special (you can hear me make a fool of myself at the first one here). During the game, which had a large audience definitely featuring some prominent academics, I was joking with my colleague David that unless he started asking questions on Skyrim (where the latest Elder Scrolls game is set) I wasn’t going to know very much. I had already fluked the question on the books of the Bible and was then stumped by a question on the Unification Church. It was during this aside that I happened to get a glimpse at some of the prominent academics who were listening to our brief exchange. It was then that the idea of ludicrosity returned to me. The looks I saw can only be summed up in one way: “Is this guy serious?” I don’t mean to criticise them for giving me those looks or thinking in that manner. I can completely sympathise with them because on one level if I had been in their position I would probably be thinking the exact same thing.
However, as a theory driven scholar driving home that we should all be phenomenologists I am both blessed and cursed by a generality in the academic market place. I can, in theory, be dropped into any number of locales and teach any number of introductory style courses for the study of religion. But, if the recent adverts for academic positions are anything to go by, no one wants the general theorist, they want specialists in a particular topic (Islam usually). And as “theory and method” no longer seems to appear as a “concrete” specialism I would have to say that I specialise in video games. Yet if those looks were anything to go by then that specialism isn’t going to serve me very well either. We have supposedly proclaimed the death of the World Religions Paradigm, and yet academic post after academic post is advertised for positions framed on that very paradigm. “Don’t think in terms of WRP,” we are told, “but that’s how we’re going organise our departments.” Credible academia seemingly depends on an idea we’ve abandoned.
I do not wish to criticise those who would think that the study of video games in Religious Studies isn’t a credible activity. I understand their scepticism. We’re breaching new territory, charting a region on the social scientific map that we may very easily fall off. William Sims Bainbridge, for example, has already been writing on the topic for some time but his recent work has been descending into an apologetic transhumanism (see this blog post for example) which would incite many of us to use that most dirty of RS swearwords: “Theology!” And certainly the same could be said of treating the religions of video games in themselves if we are not careful. But I have no intention of promoting the Nine Divines as a religion – that is the province of a number of emerging Facebook groups – and I am instead intrigued by the analytic value of such a study. To give another example, another paper from the conference made heavy use of Lyons et. al’s concept of “overimitation” (2007) to explain religious rituals. Using this concept to compare ritual worship in the Nine Divines and other meat-world instances we can see just how problematic the idea of “overimitaiton” is for social science. In fact it is on the very demonstration of this point that credibility depends.
But in saying this two forms of credibility are beginning to emerge. On the one hand there is academic credibility, proving that the study of video games as I have gone about the task is valid social science. On the other hand there is employment credibility, proving that religion and video games is worth a teaching position in a university. And we cannot simply assume that appeasing one side will appease the other. There is a difficult and tentative line to be followed in reaching a sense of “credibility” that can satisfy both sides of the line. On the social scientific map, it seems, credibility can only be found on that part that reads: “Here be dragons”.
Smart, N. (1996); Dimensions of the Sacred; London, Harper Collins
Lyons, D. et al. (2007); “The Hidden Structure of Overimitation” in PNAS 104; pg.19751-19756
 It was somewhat depressing that one of the catalogues from the publishers present at the conference devoted a full fifteen pages to books on Islam where the nearest rival (Christianity) could only muster four as if all we talk about these days is the one religion.