Massively Multi-Agent Simulations of Religion

In: Journal of Cognition and Culture
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Massively multiplayer online (MMO) games are not merely electronic communication systems based on computational databases, but also include artificial intelligence that possesses complex, dynamic structure. Each visible action taken by a component of the multi-agent system appears simple, but is supported by vastly more sophisticated invisible processes. A rough outline of the typical hierarchy has four levels: (1) interaction between two individuals, each either human or artificial, (2) conflict between teams of agents who cooperate with fellow team members, (3) enduring social-cultural groups that seek to accomplish shared goals, and (4) large-scale cultural traditions, often separated into virtual geographic regions. In many MMOs, both magic and religion are represented, in ways that harmonize with a social-scientific theory that defines them in terms of specific versus general psychological compensators. This article draws empirical examples from five diverse MMOs: Dark Age of Camelot, Dungeons and Dragons Online, World of Warcraft, A Tale in the Desert and Gods and Heroes.


Massively multiplayer online (MMO) games are not merely electronic communication systems based on computational databases, but also include artificial intelligence that possesses complex, dynamic structure. Each visible action taken by a component of the multi-agent system appears simple, but is supported by vastly more sophisticated invisible processes. A rough outline of the typical hierarchy has four levels: (1) interaction between two individuals, each either human or artificial, (2) conflict between teams of agents who cooperate with fellow team members, (3) enduring social-cultural groups that seek to accomplish shared goals, and (4) large-scale cultural traditions, often separated into virtual geographic regions. In many MMOs, both magic and religion are represented, in ways that harmonize with a social-scientific theory that defines them in terms of specific versus general psychological compensators. This article draws empirical examples from five diverse MMOs: Dark Age of Camelot, Dungeons and Dragons Online, World of Warcraft, A Tale in the Desert and Gods and Heroes.

1 Introduction1

Several forms of computer simulation of religion exist, distinguished in terms of the functions they serve for users, and the programming techniques employed to create them. I first began programming simulations with an academic purpose in the mid-1980s, when Rodney Stark and I were developing a deductive theory of religion, starting from fundamental axioms about human behavior and seeking to derive theorems concerning religion (Stark & Bainbridge, 1979; 1980). It proved difficult to be as rigorous as we wished by traditional methods, so I explored computational methods including logic-based programming, neural networks, and multi-agent systems (Bainbridge, 1987; 1995; 2006). Looking backward from the perspective of today, I see that a number of entrepreneurial teams of programmers have incorporated ideas related to religion into software sold as games. The goal of this article is to survey the range of concepts they employ, with the hope that colleagues may wish to look more closely at specific topics and methods, transferring them from the commercial realm into the scientific.

In many respects, the most complex and innovative computer simulations of human social and cultural interaction are currently classified as massively multi-player online games, and religion is central to many of them (Bainbridge, 2010a). Really, these are multi-agent systems in which some of the agents are living human beings, but many are artificial, and all behave in the context of algorithmic structures. The algorithms operate on several levels, including: (1) conflict between solo agents based on individual cognition, (2) collaboration between two agents in conflict with a third based on social interaction, (3) long-term goal questing by individuals and teams in the context of subcultures, and (4) regional norms and values comparable to large-scale cultural traditions. The five games used as examples here illustrate all these dimensions of variation, including many design details. They were studied by means comparable to observational field research, actually playing them for hundreds of hours, as well as consulting forums, wikis, and other online sources of information (Bainbridge, 2015).

2 A Modern Simulation of Ancient Legends

A good starting point is a Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) “game” or “virtual world” launched back in 2001, Dark Age of Camelot, that depicts a fantasy version of western European history (Mylonas & Howarth, 2005). Often described as Medieval, DAoC does contain many large fortresses in architectural styles from that period, but the story takes place earlier, in the years immediately following the death of King Arthur. In eGods, a book about religion in virtual worlds, I reported that this example contained many relics of the historical religions, from Stonehenge to the Glastonbury Thorn that supposedly grew from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea, protector of the Holy Grail (Bainbridge, 2013). The world is divided into three realms, each based on the legends of a different ethnicity: Albion (English), Hibernia (Irish), and Midgard (Norse), plus contested territories. These societies are at war, and each player’s avatar is a warrior belonging to an army of other players in one of these factions. At its peak, the combat was exceedingly complex, involving siege machinery as well as fortresses, and extending over many new lands that were added over the years.

One of the more interesting and historically accurate features of Dark Age of Camelot, also found in many other fantasy worlds having no connection to real history, is the lack of any clear distinction between magic and religion. According to the cognitive-social theory of religion that Stark and I proposed, humans in real life cooperate in their search for rewards, and tend to develop some degree of faith in fanciful compensators when real rewards are difficult to obtain. Religion offers very general compensators, such as the promised afterlife and the assertion that traditional customs are endorsed by God, while magic offers specific compensators, such as spells that one person may use to help or harm another (Stark & Bainbridge, 1987). This is a spectrum connecting religion and magic, rather than a dichotomy separating them. In recent centuries, established religious denominations have tended to back away from offering specific compensators, because they are easy to refute in the modern scientific era. But the distinction between general and specific was blurred in the Dark Ages, and in DAoC many players and some of their enemies possess magical powers, either to heal or harm, during battle.

In order to have a clear and easily explained example of how algorithms can be magical, after exploring all three realms years earlier, I re-entered DAoC in April 2017, creating an Elf avatar in Hibernia, named Alfheimer after the Elf city, Alfheim, mentioned in The Prose Edda, which was written by Snorri Sturluson in about the year 1220 (Sturluson, 1916). Being an Elf allowed Alfheimer to belong to the enchanter class, one of many specializations defined by the skills and thus the algorithms associated with the particular kind of avatar.

A DAoC wiki explains: “Enchanters are the only casters in the realm of Hibernia who summon citizens of the ‘Underhill’ to assist them in battle. They, too, research and study the ways of magic through the Sun, the Moon, and Enchanting powers. They have the ability to buff their realm-mates and deal powerful direct damage against their enemies. They have powerful debuffs, which have large ranges and greatly hinder the enemy.”2 These sentences contain several technical game technology terms. Summon refers to switching on a simple AI assistant, in this case of a category called Underhill, which suggests they dwell beneath the superficial level of the interface programming. A caster can employ a magic spell at a distance, to harm an enemy or help an ally. Research can apply to game-specific methods for acquiring or improving a skill. A buff is a passive spell that improves one of the statistics of the simulated person it is applied to, usually by simply adding a number temporarily to one of the variables describing that character. A debuff is similar but negative, reducing some variable, for example making an enemy weaker or slower.

MMO combat may take place between two avatars operated by people, between an avatar and a non-player character (NPC) simulated graphically and behaviorally by the software, between two NPCs, or among much larger collections of various combatants. In the simplest case of two combatants, each has a set of variables defining its initial characteristics, such as how much health or hit points it possesses, how strong its armor is, how strong its weapon is, and how skilled the character is in wielding the weapon. Combat consists of actions back and forth, with the outcome determined by an algorithm. Exactly what the formulas are is usually concealed, to a greater or lesser extent, but here is a simple example just to communicate the concept.

Alfheimer carries a magical staff that enhances his ability to hurl a ball of fire from a distance at an enemy. He can learn many different magical spells, including fire balls of increasing power, by visiting the NPC enchanter trainer back in town, spending points he earned by completing missions for other NPCs or just by defeating the nearly ubiquitous monsters. He also earns money by looting valuables from defeated enemies, which he can sell to vendor NPCs, using the money he earns to buy increasingly better staves that enhance the power of his magical spells. When he battles an enemy, he tries to position himself a distance away and fire his most powerful spell, which may take longer to cast and will alert the enemy to his presence only when it hits. Depending upon the type of enemy, it may need to approach him before it can retaliate, for example if its weapon is a battleaxe. Therefore, Alfheimer tries to fire a couple of quicker spells before the melee phase of battle begins.

The damage inflicted upon the enemy by each of Alfheimer’s spells is reduced by any armor or defensive magic spells the enemy happens to have. Similarly, the damage done to Alfheimer by each of the enemy’s blows is mitigated by Alfheimer’s own defenses. His armor consists of many components, from helmet to boots, each of which adds to his total defense, thus motivating him to buy or loot increasingly stronger pieces of armor. Each strike against the enemy causes some reduction in the enemy’s health variable, and each hit by the enemy on Alfheimer reduces his own health. With luck, because random numbers are also a factor in these algorithms, the enemy’s health will reach zero first, causing death and rendering Alfheimer the victor. If Alfheimer “died,” he would resurrect at a sacred stone back in town, having lost some of his hard-earned statistics, which he could regain if he ran to a tombstone at the location of his death and prayed before it.

Figure 1 shows Alfheimer in the midst of combat, the figure in the center of the picture with his back to us and wearing a long cloak. The short figure near the lower right corner is his Underhill companion, and the bright cloud with legs between them is an NPC enemy invader from Midgard suffering a hit from a magic spell. The large rectangle some distance behind the enemy is a Midgard shielded battering ram on wheels, that was positioned to attack the building to the left, and we can see other Midgard attackers and Hibernian defenders in the background. The Midgard invader swings a sword, which is a short range weapon. He had been standing near the battering ram when Alfheimer aimed a fire spell at him, and Alfheimer had been able to hit the enemy again before it could wound him.

Figure 1
Figure 1

An example of the multiple roles of magic in virtual combat

Citation: Journal of Cognition and Culture 18, 5 (2018) ; 10.1163/15685373-12340044

The boxes prominent at the right edge of the picture are components of the user interface, which will be left out of the other pictures in this article but are the ways the player can give commands and access various information sources. The box exactly in the lower right corner contains bar graphs representing the health of both Alfheimer and the enemy, as well as measures of how much experience Alfheimer has gained to this point in his adventuring, and how much consumable magic power he has at the moment. The similar sized square just above contains one bar graph representing the health of Alfheimer’s Underhill companion, and two sets of “radio button” commands telling the companion what tactics to follow. The seven small squares above that are icons that perform actions when clicked by the user’s mouse. The bottom one magically summons the Underhill companion; the three above it provide magical shields, and the three at the top fire different kinds of fire magic at the enemy.

The Underhill companion is a non-player secondary avatar, operated by the computer in response to the player’s settings and the events in the environment. Thus it possesses rudimentary artificial intelligence. One of the companion’s tactical settings has three alternatives: Agro means “attack any nearby enemy.” Passive means “do not take actions.” More complex, defense means “apply a healing spell to me if my health declines, while if we are in combat but I am okay, hurl your own damaging spell at the enemy.” There are four commands telling the companion where to move. Follow means “come along with me wherever I go, but keep your distance.” Stay means “stand right where you are, even if I depart.” Go target means “go to the enemy I have targeted (by clicking on the enemy’s image with the computer’s mouse).” Here means “come stand right beside me.” If an enemy is near, the agro command may override one of the movement settings. Thus, the companion’s programming contains several if-then short fragments of artificial intelligence code. When moving, the companion avoids objects in its path. When told to follow the avatar, its wandering is determined by random numbers that calibrate the direction and distance it diverges from the direct path.

There is also an Attack button that would make the companion stop healing Alfheimer and only concentrate on the enemy, which Alfheimer tended to use only in emergencies when his health was low and he needed to run away, sacrificing his companion to delay the enemy in chasing him. There is also a Release button that simply kills the companion when he is not needed. The ethical implication of these algorithms is a topic for a different essay.

MMO culture generally avoids being very specific about where it derived its symbolism, but often provides clues. For example, one NPC in DAoC explicitly represents Snorri Sturluson, but in Midgard rather than Hibernia. We may wonder where the name of Alfheimer’s companion, “Underhill,” came from. Some real people had this name, notably Evelyn Underhill, an influential writer about religious mysticism a century ago, whose perspective can actually illuminate an issue about the subjective reality of Dark Age of Camelot and the four other examples of virtual worlds described here. She doubted that objective truth could be discovered by any means other than mystical experience, given that it was possible to doubt the evidence of the ordinary human senses, a problem that had vexed science-oriented philosophers since René Descartes nearly three centuries earlier (Descartes, 1912; Husserl, 1965; Bloom, 2004). Her statement of the problem uses the highly relevant metaphor of electronic communication:

The conscious self sits, so to speak, at the receiving end of a telegraph wire. On any other theory than that of mysticism, it is her one channel of communication with the hypothetical “external world.” The receiving instrument registers certain messages. She does not know, and – so long as she remains dependent on that instrument – never can know, the object, the reality at the other end of the wire, by which those messages are sent; neither can the messages truly disclose the nature of that object. But she is justified on the whole in accepting them as evidence that something exists beyond herself and her receiving instrument

Underhill, 1930:12–13

A recent extension of this line of thought is Nick Bostrom’s speculation that our apparently real world is itself a computer simulation (Bostrom, 2003). Of course the ease with which we can log out of an MMO like Dark Age of Camelot suggests it is less real than the physical computer that displayed it, which remains sitting on our desk even if we unplug it. However, we have no evidence that the creators of DAoC had Evelyn Underhill in mind when they adopted this name, and much more likely is that they were suggesting a connection to J. R. R. Tolkien’s Hobbits, among whom Underhill was a common family name and was adopted as a pseudonym by Frodo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings.3 A sign of how difficult it can be to nail down the origins of artistic symbols is the fact that Evelyn Underhill belonged to J. R. R. Tolkien’s extended social network, through his friend C. S. Lewis who also wrote religious fantasies, so conceivably her name stuck in Tolkien’s mind, from which it traveled to DAoC (Duriez, 2003:138).

As Alfheimer ascended 50 levels of experience skills, he was able to magically summon five different kinds of Underhill denizen, the last being the zealot. All appeared to be human beings, but the gender and physical size seemed to vary randomly from each summoning to another, so the companion was not a single virtual person, but a role that different NPCs could play. Clicking the icon to summon a particular class of companion caused the temporary apparition of an immense hand, made apparently of dirt, that opened to deliver the companion. Thus, the summon algorithm triggered symbolism reflecting what is typically found under a hill, namely earth.

To pose the scene for Figure 1, I found an area in a manageable tutorial region of DAoC where non-player characters of two factions were constantly fighting each other. I stood Alfheimer where the Underhill companion is now standing and gave two commands in this order: here and stay. I set the companion to perform defense. Then I moved Alfheimer to where he is now standing and clicked the icon to send a weak fire spell at the Midgard invader. The reason for using a weak spell was that I wanted the enemy to survive so it could move into the position in the picture before receiving the fatal, magical damage.

3 The Origins of Algorithms

Essentially all online role-playing games owe a great debt of gratitude to the 1970s table-top game, Dungeons and Dragons (D&D). The word dungeon not only conjures up images of ancient horrors, but also has a technical meaning comparable to instance, which refers to subareas of a virtual environment that may exist in multiple examples, experienced separately by different people. The earliest multi-user online games were called MUDs, for multi-user dungeons, and they also emerged in the 1970s (Bartle, 1996). When friends would meet to play D&D, one of them would be the dungeon master, who crafted a story outline with segments of potential combat, and other kinds of decisions, then led the other players through it over a couple of hours or an entire evening. A physical D&D play set included polyhedral dice with from 4 to 20 sides – tetrahedron to icosahedron. A roll of some subset of these dice would determine the outcome of key actions, serving as the prototype of the random number in the algorithm defining a step in the combat between Alfheimer and a Midgard invader in the previous section. In computerized as well as traditional versions of such games, each player works over time to build up enduring strengths of the avatar, as quantitative variables, typically: “(1) hit points: current health total; (2) armor class: a measure of how difficult a character is to hit with physical attacks; (3) attack bonus: a measure of how capable a character is at handling weaponry” (Sukthankar & Sycara, 2007:60).

Dungeons and Dragons Online was launched in 2006, and consists of a large collection of dungeons around an open central city named Stormreach. Much business is transacted in the city’s market, and in four surrounding districts that belong to oligarchical families called houses. Players may team up when they encounter each other in these open areas, then enter a particular instance to complete a challenging story mission associated with it. Many sewers and tombs are the sites for occult enemies performing corrupting rituals, often concerned with raising the dead, in a huge district called Necropolis, and elsewhere. The Church of the Silver Flame possesses Catacombs, and NPCs including a cult called The Twelve conduct research in magic.

Memorials for the two deceased creators of the original D&D, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, decorate virtual cemeteries. Amazingly, the recorded voice of Gygax allows him to live after death, playing the role of guide to the quests assigned in an extensive nearby dungeon, just as in real life he had instructed the early D&D game masters (Gygax, 1979). Figure 2 in this article depicts the tomb of Dave Arneson, as it appeared in June 2010. It is the structure behind the kneeling knight and the lioness, depicting a book that represents the D&D Dungeon Masters Guide, and one of the icosahedral dice. The knight is the main avatar I was then using, and the lioness is a tamed companion operated by a simpler algorithm than Alfheimer’s Underhill companion. She follows the knight and supports him in any battle that breaks out, but cannot be given complex commands.

Figure 2
Figure 2

A virtual team at the tomb of Dave Arneson

Citation: Journal of Cognition and Culture 18, 5 (2018) ; 10.1163/15685373-12340044

The five other “people” in the picture are secondary avatars called hirelings. Ideally, teams of real human players would send their avatars into one of the dungeons, to fight whatever demons dwelt there, but often players lack friends playing at the moment and have trouble assembling a team from whatever strangers are currently available. A solo player can hire one or more AI mercenaries, paying either with virtual coins earned by completing missions, or with points that must be bought in an online store for real dollars. Each hireling has special abilities, and sometimes only one or two will be needed, often to fill out a team of mostly real players. They were posed for this picture using the same method that posed the main avatar and single secondary avatar in Figure 1.

In addition to attacking a specified enemy, the hirelings may be given many different commands, including: (1) stand still or follow the primary avatar, (2) come to the avatar, even over a long distance, (3) behave autonomously, (4) go into defensive mode, responding only if it or the primary avatar is attacked, (5) enter passive mode, doing nothing, and (6) interact with a target. This last command has very different consequences, depending on the nature of the target. The classic case is in a dungeon set up like a maze with gateways that must be opened temporarily through different combinations of actions using controls such as levers. The team may walk to one lever, where the player tells one of the hirelings to stand still and marks the lever as the target for that hireling. The player’s main avatar walks to a second lever some distance away, activates it, and sends the command to the hireling to activate the first lever. The combined activation of both levers, which the main avatar could not do alone, opens a gate. The avatar commands all the hirelings to follow, and enters the next area of the dungeon.

A vast wealth of online resources offer information and images concerning practically every aspect and implication of D&D. A rather spectacular series of YouTube videos shows what playing the original table-top game is like, when the dungeon master invests huge energy developing a story and environment, the first episode having been viewed 1,056,273 times during the 16 months after it was uploaded to the web.4 One wiki devoted to Dungeons and Dragons Online claims to have 50,000 pages, while another seems more selective with only 1,586 pages.5 By June 2017, users of the official online forum for Dungeons and Dragons Online has posted 4,163,789 messages in 312,709 topic discussion threads.6 A rival D&D-based MMO, Neverwinter, allows users to create their own dungeons, using a system called the Foundry to assemble components of a virtual environment, including active NPCs, and thus serve as dungeon masters for less ambitious players.7

4 Sacred Quests

Very many MMOs contains religious sites like temples, with associated missions and classes of character, that give the game the sacred quality of a fictional religion. The best known of many prominent examples is World of Warcraft (WoW), which contains many temples, shrines, and holy artifacts (Bainbridge, 2010b; Nardi, 2010). A good starting point for discussion is a quest given to Night Elf avatars near the beginning of their lives, called Crown of the Earth. On March 13, 2008, my avatar named Lunette received this mission, and the date is significant because this quest was removed from WoW during a massive update of the virtual world, called Cataclysm that took place in 2010, replacing all the original geography under the premise that magic-induced geological upheavals dramatically upset the balance of nature.8 Thus, in well-designed, popular virtual worlds, narrative justifications are provided for technical improvements. Lunette got the mission from a quest giver NPC named Tenaron Stormgrip, who displayed this text on the computer screen:

It is time for you to set out to seek your destiny, Lunette. But before you are ready to set out into the world beyond our enchanted forests, there is much you must learn about our recent history. Much has changed with our people since the Battle of Mount Hyjal. Nordrassil lies a pale shadow of what it once was, its power used to defeat Archimonde and drive back the Burning Legion … There is a task you must perform. Go to the moonwell north of Aldrassil and return me a phial of its water.

Like several other major fantasy MMOs, World of Warcraft imagines a history of conflict between societies, magnified by supernatural forces. To give two other prominent examples, EverQuest and Rift imagine that polytheistic religions are factually true, but the gods have abandoned the world to its disastrous fate, leaving only a faint possibility that pious rituals might induce the gods to return. Stormgrip’s reference to Nordrassil and Aldrassil hearkens back to the world tree, Yggdrasil, in Old Norse religion.9 The zone where Lunette began her life was Teldrassil, a stupendous tree stump in the form of an island surrounded by cliffs, within which a few magical trees wander.10 Figure 3 shows her at the moonwell north of the giant rooted tree named Aldrassil that serves as a town, on that vastly larger tree, Teldrassil.

Figure 3
Figure 3

A night elf student priestess at a holy moonwell

Citation: Journal of Cognition and Culture 18, 5 (2018) ; 10.1163/15685373-12340044

Lunette represents the Night Elf race, tall, lean, with long pointed ears. The decorative arches around the magical pond of the moonwell are made of wood, representing not only the fact that Teldrassil is a tree, but that the Night Elf religion considers nature to be sacred. The connection to algorithms is found in the fact that Lunette needed to get to this exact set of coordinates in the database in order to fill the phial, which she then needed to return to Stormgrip’s coordinates. This is a ubiquitous feature of computationally simulated virtual worlds: A collection of diverse algorithms maps onto the geographic space, within which the avatar moves and takes actions by invoking a locally connected algorithm. Many actions are not bound to specific locations, but those that are require travel time, and form a major way in which the virtual world is made meaningful.

The picture was taken when Lunette was very early in her adventures, only level 5 of experience. At the time, the maximum she could achieve was 70, which typically took around 400 hours, unless one were rushing to gain experience. A series of WoW expansions raised this level cap to 110 in 2016, when I found that only 200 hours was required to reach this considerably higher maximum. Over the years the difficulty of gaining experience was nerfed, or rendered easier by adjustment of the algorithm awarding experience, and among the motivations for the game designers was encouraging players to create more avatars, exploring this vast virtual world from the standpoints of different cultures.

From the expansion that took the level cap to 90 in 2012, there have been 13 races, each with its own starter zone on the shared world called Azeroth. Several are distinctively religious cultures. The Humans worship in their Cathedral of Light, and only careful attention to the story reveals that it is a cynical tool of the elite to exploit the masses. The Pandarans have a religion similar to Chinese Taoism or perhaps Zen Buddhism. The Orcs are too primitive to have a well-developed religion, so they are shamanistic. The bovine Tauren seem to posses an eclectic Native American culture, complete with totem poles, but have implicitly adopted elements of the more advanced Moon worship of the Night Elves.

Lunette was in training to become a priestess, in the service of Elune, the Moon Goddess, and all the NPC religious teachers among the Night Elves are female. The males have defensively developed a separate Druid cult, also shared with the Tauren. One of the several WoW wikis explains the nature of Elune in a way that also clarifies the text in Stormgrip’s instructions to Lunette:

She is associated with the larger of Azeroth’s two moons, the White Lady, and is the mother of Cenarius. In tauren mythology, she is known as Mu’sha, and is the left eye of the Earthmother. Elune is one of the few true deities in the world, and the most powerful Eternal. In the world’s infancy, she protected all living things and allowed them the chance to grow and thrive. Whenever she found violence, she would cast her calming influence across the land so that peace and healing might be given another chance to thrive. Thus, it was for many centuries, until arcane energy began to leak into the world through the Well of Eternity. Despite her attempts to guide them away, she watched in horror as her spiritual children among the kaldorei were drawn to the Well and seduced by its power. Though her companion Malorne and their child Cenarius joined her faithful among the kaldorei in an attempt to stave off the arrival of the Burning Legion, the demons spilled across the land in a wave of death and destruction that even the moon goddess could not prevent. With the Great Sundering and the terrible loss of life that came with it, the demons were defeated.11

Among other dramatic outcomes, the Sundering initiated a splintering of the Elf ancestors, the kaldorei or “children of the stars,” that today is primarily represented by two of the 13 player races, the nature-worshiping Night Elves, and the Blood Elves who worship magical technologies, thus representing secularization. Soon after delivering the phial of sacred water to Stormgrip, Lunette undertook a pilgrimage to the Temple of the Moon in Teldrassil’s main city, Darnassus. It is a huge dome, over an open space surrounded by a spiral ramp to higher levels. At the center is an heroic statue of Haidene, first High Priestess of the Moon, raising her hands in adoration. On the second level, Lunette was able to meet the current pope of the Night Elves, High Priestess Tyrande Whisperwind, who proclaimed: “Darkness covered us in the beginning, and we could not see. We cried for guidance and the moon shone down bright upon us.”

In my ethnography of a highly theatrical, polytheistic communal cult called the Process Church of the Final Judgment, I drew upon the writings of the dramatic opera composer, Richard Wagner, who proclaimed his intent to create total works of art that would guide a society by expressively combining all significant aspects of its culture (Wagner, 1895; Bainbridge, 1978). If the Process was a total work of art, so, too, is World of Warcraft and other MMOs that include music as well as visual arts, literature, and in the case of WoW even giving each race of avatar its own dance moves. From the Wagnerian perspective, religions are total works of art, and the distinction between faith and fantasy is irrelevant (Bainbridge, 2017a; 2017b).

5 Adapting Ancient Rituals

A Tale in the Desert is a marvelous but strangely unpopular gameworld set in ancient Egypt that recently began its Seventh Telling, an eighteen-month period in which a civilization will be constructed along the banks of the Nile, ending with the building of monuments to commemorate the players’ accomplishments (Bainbridge, 2017c). There is absolutely no violence in Tale, and the players seem to include more women and more elderly persons than the typical MMO. Patience, intelligence and a love of cooperating with other players is required to build Egypt, and any reader interested in understanding the vast potential of virtual worlds really needs to visit Tale.

One of the seven paths for advancement in Tale is the Worship Discipline and requires performing rituals oriented toward ancient Egyptian religion. Figure 4 shows one of the many sacred altars scattered across the landscape. The first ritual in the series requires two players, often coordinated by a third more experienced player, to prepare extensively and then go through these steps, as described on Tale’s wiki:

Perform the Ritual of Initiation
Horus Offering: Bow Down (Bless emote)
Horus Incantation: “Praise Horus, King of Egypt!”
Isis Offering: Plant a bed of Flax
Isis Incantation: “Praise Isis, whose seed is forever fertile!”
Osiris Offering: Drop a beetle into a Mine
Osiris Incantation: “Praise Osiris, who was Reborn like the Scarab!”
Thoth Offering: Learn a new skill or technology
Thoth Incantation: “Praise Thoth, the Magician who created Science!”
Ra Offering: Light a Ritual Torch in Deep Desert
Ra Incantation: “Praise Ra, of the Blazing Eye!”
Bastet Offering: Place Camel Milk in a Grassy Field near Water
Bastet Incantation: “Praise Bastet, who teaches grace and elegance!”
Amun Offering: Eat a meal of Grilled Fish
Amun Incantation: “Praise Amun, who gives us reason to celebrate!”
Perform the Closing Ceremony12

One ritual in the socially-oriented Harmony Discipline is a marriage ceremony, in which two players are joined together at one of these altars and afterward share property. Each member of the couple must place a diamond temporarily on the dish held in one of the statue’s hands, and for other rituals other objects can be placed there or on the two other dishes supported by small stands. The marriage ceremony and its consequences constitute a complex chain of algorithms, triggered by human actions. The participants must obtain the mission at a University of Harmony, a few of which are widely dispersed across virtual Egypt. Here is how the Tale wiki summarizes the social dimensions:

Marriage in Egypt is a private affair. A man and woman, two women, or two men, each who has been in the land for at least 24 hours should find an altar. One spouse places a medium diamond on the left focus, the other places one on the right. Five close friends witness the marriage by meditating at the altar. Points for a marriage are the number of weeks of that marriage times the number of Tests that your spouse passed during the marriage. Your marriage score is the sum of points for such marriages. Couples are aware of each other’s accomplishments, may use each other’s possessions, AND MAY EVEN LOG IN AS ONE ANOTHER. Divorce in Egypt is quick and easy.13

Note that the algorithm that allows one member of a couple to log into the other’s avatar does not permit access to the subscription part of the game’s site, thus limiting possible theft to the virtual wealth accumulated inside Tale. A marriage ceremony requires seven avatars, and one of the “close friends” is usually an experienced player who understands all the rituals and can guide the others in their preparation as well as during the ritual. The two parties to the marriage must each have a medium diamond, but typically these were bought from another player, donated by one of the other participants in the ritual, or obtained by achieving trusted status within one of the richest formal groups of players called guilds. Each guild has a Guild Hall, which functions as the access point to information about its membership and is often surrounded by many other player-constructed buildings, including storage facilities. Access to a chest containing medium diamonds is usually restricted to members who have achieved a certain formal status rank within the guild. Thus formal social relationships are defined by algorithms.

The two diamonds required for the marriage ceremony must come ultimately from a mine created by player avatars, after one learns mining technology and finds a suitable spot using the dowsing skill with a dowsing rod that itself needs to be made from one wooden stick and eight drops of sap from a suitable cactus. Building a mine requires a considerable list of resources, all of which demand special skills and procedures to obtain: 100 wooden boards, 300 bricks, 100 pieces of leather, 10 pulleys, 75 pieces of rope, and 100 jugs of water. For example, boards are created by collecting logs from trees and running them through a rather interesting mechanical wood plane constructed from four pieces of slate and one stone blade that frequently breaks and must be replaced. Mines in only three of the many regions of Egypt ever produce medium diamonds. Typically, medium diamonds are produced only after a multi-person economy has developed with mines all over the place, some of which produce medium diamonds incidentally to their main product. Production of each unit of resource listed in this paragraph requires some degree of skill – essentially an algorithm that unlocks another algorithm – and actions taken at particular location coordinates across the vast Egyptian territory.

The worshiper in Figure 4 has decided to perform his own self-initiation ritual, bowing down before a sacred flame, after placing a jug of water on the left hand of the sculpture, reciting the invocation from actual Sabbath Assemblies of the Process: “May the life-giving water of the Lord Christ, and the purifying fire of the Lord Satan, bring the presence of love and unity into this assembly.” The fire is simply one of the many fireworks available to players in Tale, obtained by subscribing for the entire eighteen months of the Seventh Telling. The standard set of ten emote gestures in Tale includes both a modest bow and the bless in which the avatar devoutly presses the head to the ground.

Figure 4
Figure 4

A player-staged self-initiation at an ancient Egyptian altar

Citation: Journal of Cognition and Culture 18, 5 (2018) ; 10.1163/15685373-12340044

6 A Lost Classic

When great works of literature go out of print, copies can still be found in libraries, including today increasingly online. But, sadly, many culturally sophisticated MMOs have utterly vanished, including Gods and Heroes that simulated ancient Rome and its religion. Figure 5 shows an avatar inspecting his sword at the foot of the stairway to the Temple of Venus in virtual Rome, as two of his secondary avatar companions gaze at the statue of the goddess while holding their shields and spears. I explored Gods and Heroes extensively, first in an incomplete beta version November and December of 2010, then in a more complete version in July 2011, prior to its demise a year later. I found it a remarkably attractive simulation of an ancient culture, if a bit idealized, for example in its assumption that the ancient gods actually existed.

Figure 5
Figure 5

The temple of Venus in a virtual Rome

Citation: Journal of Cognition and Culture 18, 5 (2018) ; 10.1163/15685373-12340044

When each avatar is created, the user selects a class defined by a set of skills, from a list of four. Two are secular, as described in the game interface where the selection is made: “The Soldier represents the pinnacle of Roman military might – loyal, courageous and above all, well disciplined.” “Trained to fight for fame and fortune, the Gladiator knows well the roar of the crowd and strives always for the sweet taste of victory.” The other two have supernatural powers, one of which is clearly defined in magical terms “With mastery over all the elements, the Mystic has the power to destroy enemies with the many spells at his command.” In contrast, the Priest represents religion: “This hero of the divine wields the power to heal and protect his friends or curse enemies in the name of the gods of Olympus.” Within each class, the user must also decide which of two deities to worship, and from whom to earn magical enhancements, here described in the game’s instruction manual:

Minerva: “goddess of wisdom and war … presiding over strategic warfare.”
Mars: “mighty, fearsome god of war … delights in any opportunity to partake of the chaos and carnage of battle.”
Jupiter: “the supreme leader of the gods who presides over laws, social order, and justice … capable of dealing out divine justice himself in the form of his mighty thunderbolts.”
Fortuna: “goddess of victory and fate … she determines man’s destiny in everything from war to harvests and travel.”
Trevia: “the three-headed goddess of sorcery and magic … guards the borders between the human world and the realm of the dead.”
Bacchus: “god of wine and intoxication. Though he represents raving lunacy and uncontrolable passion, he also represents personal liberation and unity with nature.”
Juno: “a solemn and regal goddess who defends the virtue and moral values of the state and presides over childbirth and morals.”
Pluto: “the dour and gloomy god who rules the underworld and the souls of the dead…. also has dominion over wealth and riches.”

The avatar in Figure 5 was named Andivius after the protagonist of a remarkable 1921 novel by Edward Lucas White, Andivius Hedulio: Adventures of a Roman Nobleman in the Days of the Empire. The author had a relationship with his characters that could be described either as psychotic or supernatural, as if he was the avatar of his characters, claiming that his writings literally recorded his dreams and nightmares. White’s last published book memorialized his deceased wife, and on the seventh anniversary of her death, he committed suicide.14 The last sentence of Andivius Hedulio, written in the first person, resonates to the deity system of Gods and Heroes: “Of course, as in my city mansion, so also at Villa Andivia, I have had consecrated a handsome private chapel to Mercury” (White, 1921:592). Since Mercury was not one of the patron deities available for my avatar, and the research required a certain intellectual strategizing, he selected Minerva instead.

In its final form, Gods and Heroes gave each avatar an aristocratic estate containing NPC servants, several buildings, and natural features including a lake. A continuing task for the avatar was building a temple to the deity in the estate, through which additional minions and powers could be gained. Occasionally, a priest representing the avatar’s deity would assign a sacred mission. The instruction manual explained: “Deity Quests are given, usually by a Flamen or Sacerdos, who are the priests of ancient Rome. Deity Quests are usually specific to the God that your Hero follows, and may force you to battle against your chosen Deity’s enemies, or to recover a valuable artifact that belongs to your temple” (Heatwave Interactive, 2011:27).

Venus is not among the eight patron deities, but her temple still plays a role in the mythological action. When Andivius entered the temple shown in Figure 5, Sacerdos Murria Calidia said to him, “Venus holds a special place in the lives of all Romans – our forefather Aeneas was a child of the Goddess.” An acolyte named Hybridia proclaimed, “O most beautiful soldier, rejoice! Veneralia approaches – that most wonderful of festivals when lovers, dreamers and all good Romans sing the praises of the goddess Venus.” From the acolyte, Andivius received a quest to harvest myrtle boughs in a nearby valley possessed by fierce bears, for ritual use in the festival and conferring a blessing upon him. But before leaving the Temple of Venus, Andivius donated coins to gain holy favor, not with Venus but with his patron deity, Minerva.

7 Conclusion

In order to get the full research advantage of religion-oriented virtual worlds as simulations or laboratories, one would need to establish a partnership with the company running each one, for at least three reasons. First, only the game designers know the exact algorithms programmed into an MMO, by “algorithm” meaning large-scale structures of procedures as well as single lines of code. Second, huge floods of complex data flow back and forth between the user’s computer and the company’s Internet serve and database, documenting the interaction between human beings and the NPCs and virtual environments, that could be valuable for statistical analysis based on theories in the social and well as computational sciences. Third, under some circumstances the company might want to make use of the researchers’ expertise by allowing them to add features and even major experiments to the MMO that might result in discoveries of value to both partners. However, observational methods like those illustrated in this article can be practiced according to rigorous plans, exploring much more deeply than attempted here, and achieving insights into computer simulation of religion and the social-cognitive processes it models.


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The views expressed in this essay do not necessarily represent the views of the National Science Foundation or the United States. [Legally required disclaimer].


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