Thoughts on the BASR 2017 Conference

The British Association for the Study of Religion 2017 conference just wrapped up, and now I’m back in the comfy confines of small Durham. So now I’ll be ignoring my chapter which is due soon, and instead give you my completely unwarranted opinion on the BASR 2017 conference.

The BASR conference this year took place in Chester, running from the 4-6 of September. This was my second time attending the BASR, and was happy to be coming back this last year. Many of the connections and friends made in academia throughout the last couple years are only seen once a year at this conference, so its an event I looked forward to.

And in all honesty, it did not disappoint. The panels were all interesting – there was always at least one paper in a panel which was grabbing. I found myself often struggling to choose which panel to attend, something I frequently don’t have at conferences. Often there’s only one which sounds interesting, and it’s easy to decide. BASR 2017 was made up of panels and papers so appealing that I was almost disappointed I couldn’t attend every one of them.

I was personally excited to see multiple representatives of religion and popular culture at the conference. I’m frequently used to being the only paper, but this year was different. Not only did I share a panel with others talking about popular fiction, but there was also a scattering of others including studies of knitting (Anna Fisk), Twin Peaks (Louise Child), Christmas (Lucinda Murphy), and a study of the “Dark Goddess” on social media (Áine Warren).

The last set of papers included a lightening round room, where new postgraduates had a shorter amount of time to share the ideas of their research. This was not only an interesting room, but valuable to both the new postgraduate experience, and also for the scholars listening in the room. It allowed for those working in their respective fields for so long to they get a fresh perspective on a completely different subsection of a completely different field.

The facilities were also wonderful. The rooms were the kind of rooms I wish I had when I was doing my undergraduate living campus. The food was delicious, and wonderfully (and interestingly) all vegetarian.

One of the affects I saw happening here at the BASR this year was an eye-opening to various issues in religious studies, and more than just what some of the papers discussed. Ronald Hutton’s keynote was a moving illustration of the ill-treatment some scholars/practitioners of paganism receive, from both inside and outside the academy. In an almost strong contribution to this conversation was the next morning’s panel on Narrating Gender and Sexuality. It was nice to see a room of about 14 people, though all but one of these were women. As long as the only people defending paganism are pagans themselves, change seems to be slow to take place. As long as the only defenders of women’s spirituality are women, there is likely to be little change. The incredibly gendered panels and narratives of academic repression of pagan narratives emphasized the issues in the wider religious studies sphere.

In the namesake of the theme of the BASR this year, we must not stop getting these narratives heard. But those who speak these narratives, or write them, or publish them can only do those things. We cannot force the others to listen. So I appeal to you – the academics in Ronald Hutton’s keynote who were shocked by the treatment of our fellows, the academics who did not attend the panels on women’s spirituality, those who neglected to hear the narratives of the less represented – I appeal to you to listen. Listen to these narratives when they are spoken at conferences like the BASR. Read. Read them when they are published. Our job appeals to us to listen to the narratives of those we interview, but we cannot stop there. We must listen to the narratives our colleagues speak. And we cannot wrap ourselves in the often-elitist spire of the Ivory Tower. We must look down on the ground, where the people we choose to study are, and listen to their narratives even if we do not study them.  Things cannot change unless we do.

The Existence of Digital Culture... or not

During the hiatus of writing here, I’ve been working on a couple things. One will be a podcast which will be posted here as soon as its ready (get hype!), but the other has mostly been my PhD. One of the questions I’m determined to figure out throughout this research regards the status of “digital culture”, a question I’ll lay out the foundations of here.

In a lot of the research studying online communication, environments, etc., there’s an implicit assumption that something called “digital culture” exists. The presence of a culture different from the physical environment is taken for granted, but never fully questioned, or even considered in more detail. In many of these texts, the scholars have written out a wonderful description of how the similar the digital environment can be to the physical one scholars are used to studying, for example the similarly found study of the connection between the digital world and cultural capital (for example see Nissenbaum and Shifman 2017). But in these, it’s taken for granted that digital culture exists.

Perhaps more importantly, the assumption of a separate culture is also present in the people who aren’t scholars. The constant conversation of “gaming culture” for instance, or “nerd culture” more generally, is present on gaming podcasts, Let’s Plays, and, together with “digital culture” can be found frequently in discussions on forum sites like reddit.

For both the everyday user and the scholar in the field, the presence of a “digital culture” is referred to, accepted, but never defended, questioned, or explained. How is digital culture separate from the nondigital culture? Is gaming culture a subculture of this?

The literature is by far not all read at this point, but I wanted to take a minute out of it in order to type up thoughts, concerns, and issues encountered thus far.

The primary issue is what has already been addressed in the few paragraphs above: the presence of a digital culture is being treated as a given. I can understand the basis for this, especially as a frequent user of these arenas. The reasoning is summed up best in Trevor Blank’s description of the Internet as “field”:

While there are fundamental differences between the two – specifically that the former is virtual and the latter physical – they are bound by common themes. Both have folk groups, customs, lingo and dialects, neighbourhoods, crimes, relationships, games, discussion groups, displays of emotion, banking, commerce and various other forms of communication and education (Blank 2009, 11).

And this statement is in many ways true. There are crimes that can be committed that are difficult to explain in the physical realm without knowledge base of how the digital environment works. Lingo and behaviours are also different. But if we focus on behaviours – ways of speaking, types of lingo used, and forms of displays of emotion – these things can be different depending on which place you are. The way one interacts on Facebook, is not how it works on reddit, and the way 4chan behaves is immensely different than either of the other two. And this is similar to how the world outside of the online or digital context works. The way I act or talk among family is different than if among academics, all of which the way I talk or act while with gaming friends would be considered immensely inappropriate.

 If the scholars I’ve read so far have anything in common, it’s their insistence that the online world is not so different from the physical world. And this is what I believe as well. Storytelling online is not that different than storytelling elsewhere. So why is there a separation of a different cultural designation?

Perhaps what is truly at the core of the issue I’m having is not the presupposition of the presence of a “digital culture”, but the presupposition of the presence of digital “culture”. The emphasis should be on the second half of that.

I recently spoke to a friend of mine studying Hull as UK City of Culture in 2017 (the discussion was recorded for an upcoming podcast so stay tuned). One of the elements of her interviews she discussed was that people had different opinions of what “culture” actually means. While scholars can do that thing scholars do, and define terms, the people on those podcasts I mentioned at the beginning don’t do that. And more so, many scholars will mention a definition and move on without a second thought, or not define at all.

Perhaps what is at the core of the “digital culture” or “gaming culture” designation is an attempt of community separation. What’s the best way to tell everyone around that they are not a part of something you are? Tell them it’s a different culture – a different way of looking at the world. Whether this calls for the word “culture” or not, has yet to be seen.

A Note on the Life of Myth

It has recently come to my attention the lack of positive views toward the future (or continual production and consumption) of myths. Maybe saying it has recently come to my attention is a bit of a false step. I’ve always known, but maybe it was only recently strongly presented to me. I can list several articles which talk about myth in contemporary circumstances. Tolkien studies alone can account for many. Yet these researchers seem to be one or two steps shy from proclaiming that myth still has a pulse. But why?

Perhaps put better than I could: “the trouble with the contemporary condition of our modern civilization is that it stopped questioning itself […] Questioning the ostensibly unquestionable premises of our way of life is arguably the most urgent of services we owe our fellow humans and ourselves” (Bauman 1998).

We’ve stopped short at acknowledging myth’s continued life because it would require us to question ourselves. It’s easy to point at Tolkien and discuss how he’s everything like myth, but we stop just short of saying it is myth. Because if it is myth, what does that mean for those waiting for the midnight premier of Peter Jackson’s movies? What does this mean for those of us who re-read the Silmarillion or horde books on the history of Middle-earth?

We could take a page from early fandom studies and Other those who enjoy Lord of the Rings, but even fandom studies has seen issues with this approach and have moved in to other phases and approaches. And that does not truly help us. What about other popular culture narratives? It’s simply impractical to Other fans and sub-communities who enjoy every narrative in popular culture as we’d end up Othering all of society by the end.

Myth is not dead. It’s not near its death bed. It’s well alive, extremely active, and constantly working around us. Seeing it, however, would require us to open our eyes to the mirror. It compels us to question what we love and why we love it. It demands we dig deep into the foundational axioms of our society, which our myths are built on and reflect. Truly looking at these myths, and looking at them as myths, would require a look at ourselves. We would turn the microscope around. And that is a scary idea. But as Bauman puts it, we owe this to our society, and more importantly ourselves. And no, it won’t be easy.

Myths are constantly around us – from our television, on the movie screens, in the rumors we tell to each other, in urban legends we share around a campfire, and played out in video games. We hear them in radio shows and in music. We see them online, and create them in our communications.

Our academic hope to avoid discussing them as continuing to exist around us does not mean they don’t exist anymore. And we owe it to ourselves to actually look around us and see what’s happening. By studying these myths, we’ll learn more about our own contemporary society, and the underlying hopes, fears, and motivations we hold true.

"Yeah, but does anyone actually believe this stuff?", or how people engage with serious play

Now that I’ve officially existed within my second year of PhD study for a couple months, I can accurately tell you the most infuriating question to receive for those who study religion and popular culture is “But does anyone actually believe this stuff?”

When studying Slender Man specifically, the question comes up frequently. And while there are some people who claim “actual” belief in Slender Man’s existence, for example the two teenage girls who attacked their friend in Wisconsin, the rest of the community, and I dare to estimate this percentage at 99.9%, firmly know the Slender Man is, in fact, fictional. But does this take away the importance of these stories? Are the stories firmly believed as factually accurate the only ones academics should bother to study?

To understand both why this question is asked, as well as why it annoys me (and I dare to assume many others who study religion and popular culture), we need to shift our attention to play.

Somewhere in Western cultural history, our notion of play become trivialized. I specify Western here for two reasons: (1) Western ideas, beliefs, etc. are more of what I’ve studied and therefore know, and would not wish to pass a generalized judgement on areas of the world I am less knowledgeable of; and (2) Western culture often has a large impact on the academic world for whatever reason that may be. In this Western context, the notion of “play” became tied up with ideas of triviality and childishness, and was therefore disregarded of as lacking any importance. Following suit, many academic endeavours similarly ignored “play” due to its childish nature, and when it did consider games and ideas of play, regarded only those seen as “more serious” – areas such as theatre or sports.

This degradation of play is present in many arenas of the academic world. Johan Huizinga’s 1938 study of play is still often quoted, cited, and followed by those studying play. Huizinga’s concept of play exists in a “magic circle” outside of the context of the rest of the “non-play” world. Play, and the act of play, is thus disconnected from the rest of the world and the cultural contexts which surround. The magic circle works to maintain play as a childish and unimportant act – the play world has little bearing on significant emotions or actions in the non-play life of the player once removed from the magic circle.

Huizinga's "magic circle" more visually notated, taken from http://gamingconceptz.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/huizingas-magic-circle.html

Huizinga's "magic circle" more visually notated, taken from http://gamingconceptz.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/huizingas-magic-circle.html

The result is that the concept of fiction remains firmly as fiction – there is no ambiguous place for both belief and fiction to exist simultaneously. One either plays, separated in a magic circle from non-play life, or does not play and lives apart from fiction and fantasy.

But play does not actually work this way. Play cannot be removed completely from its non-play contexts, nor can the emotional and psychological shifts which occur in play not continue to affect the player after play is finished. The shift may not be a complete transformation, but play can be simultaneously fictional and real, fun and serious.

When engaging in elements of storytelling online, with our primary example being creepypasta (as this is where the origin of this rant lies), storytellers and storyreaders are almost unanimously aware of the fictional nature of the narratives they’re reading/writing. Few people on the Something Awful forum back in 2009 engaged wholly seriously with the Slender Man narratives. But neither were these narratives completely lacking meaning and relevance to these storytellers. The narratives become a world of serious play, which continued with other creepypasta stories. The subreddit r/nosleep for instance has rules in place which instruct both writers and commenters to remain “in character” – role-playing the “truth” of the narratives. Despite the written engagement with “as if” truth, the writers do not actually believe their own stories, nor do they write with the intention of fooling an audience into believe them to be factually accurate. The purpose is simply to tell stories.

Storytelling is fun. It’s an act of play. A game. But one which is also meaningful. The participants I’ve spoken to so far can engage with violence, loss, and death in a meaningful way, and yet in the act of play. While the stories they tell are not factually accurate, and tell stories of supernatural beings and crazy serial killers, the stories are engagements with belief and meaning.

While writing the story, or, when playing the role of audience member, while reading the story, the participant can engage with belief in strange and fearful supernatural creatures without fully engaging outside of a fictional context. But more importantly they engage with strong emotions, such as depression, loss, anger, and especially fear. Emotions which are often difficult to engage with outside of an act of play, but very real-ly felt despite in the context of play.

“Yeah, but does anyone actually believe this stuff?”

So. The answer is no. No one does believe this stuff. And yes, they do believe this stuff. Unfortunately for us scholars, life is not so easy as to be easily categorized. Their belief exists while in the act of play – participants play with belief in the same way they play with emotions and play with writing. They’ve devised a game which is sophisticated and meaningful.

Serious play – the way that video games are both games and art, D&D is both real and fictional, and creepypasta is both believed and disbelieved. The ability for a human mind to occupy two contrasting ideas simultaneously is something academics, especially academics of religion, should be pursuing. What is most interesting is not when someone “actually believes” in the Slender Man, but when they can change their life in a real sense while engaging in a playful act of mythological storytelling. And the question “but does anyone actually believe this stuff” missing all this nuance and interest entirely.

Tulpas and the Agency of Storytellers

Sorry.” I shook my head, trying to clear it of her course phrasing. “I don’t quite follow you. Remind me of what I said.”
“Ye said all the gods are alive. All the monsters too.”
“Oh, right. They’re all alive, except for the ones that are dead.”
“And the impression I got was they’re alive because we believe in them, right?”
“Um, With lots of fine print, right.”
“So in a sense it’s we with faith who create gods, not the gods who create us. And, if that’s the case, then it’s we who created the universe.” 

One main side-effect of studying popular culture is that the case studies I spend the better part of a week analyzing and researching tend to coincide with the things I enjoy on a Friday night, mostly when I least expect it. The above passage was read to me in audio book form through my phone’s speakers while I hunted for collectibles in Hyper Light Drifter. The passage is from my recent foray into urban fantasy with the Iron Druid Chronicles, and was so taken with the first book that I settled into listening to book two while I hunted gearbits and attempted to finally get a high chain dash score.

Conversations like the one detailed above is bound to happen in some sense when reading urban fantasy. Stories which involve everything from vampires to druids will bring in pantheons of gods quite readily – but there tends to not be preference to any particular pantheon. In the Iron Druid Chronicles, the main character Atticus talks to the corporeal form of the Morrigan and the Virgin Mary equally. The constant physical representation of religious figures is enough to make this religious studies scholar giddy.

But the specific discussion detailed above, as well as the scene which followed, made me stop and consider the proceedings a bit closer. After the exchange on the power of the faithful, our main character convinces the widow, the other speaker who stated the power of the faithful, to pray hard on what she imagined the Virgin Mary to be like – resulting in Mary taking physical form, which looked exactly like how the widow imagined her. Although the term was never directly used, the manifestation of the Virgin Mary based on the intense faith focus of the widow is essentially a Tulpa – something that the Iron Druid Chronicles shares with the PhD focused Slender Man.

First things first: what is a Tulpa? Good question, person in the back! A Tulpa is a physical manifestation which is brought into being simply through spiritual or mental discipline. The term arose in more mystical Buddhist traditions, but grew to great popularity when mystics and new religious movements brought these traditions from the “East” to the “West,” often with small variations. Theosophy’s Annie Besant has an entire book devoted to Tulpas, which are often called “thoughtforms” in Western esoteric beliefs.

Little Slendy’s connection to Tulpas began on its genesis forum thread on Something Awful. User Soakie broached the idea that the Something Awful thread was creating a Tulpa through the communal act of storytelling and story re-creation. The concept of Slender Man as Tulpa allowed for the online storytelling to thrive as a true urban legend. While most urban legends have an obscured and questionable lineage, and storytellers and audience members rarely know the origin of the narrative, online narratives can be traced much easier. The users of the Something Awful forum back in 2009 were busy creating an urban legend, but a simple Google search of “Slender Man” leads to the forum thread itself. This creates an issue: can one be scared of something that one knows is wholly created by a group of people. The connection to a Tulpa is probably obvious now: even though Slender Man may have started as a fiction level of fun storytelling on Something Awful, the combined emotional and mental focus on creating these narratives and this character can lead to the character coming into physical existence.

Imagine: you’ve just finished writing your first Slender Man narrative or creating an image and have shared it with the storytelling group you’re starting to get fond of. You begin reading one of the narratives that describe someone alone in their home hearing Slender Man tapping at their window. And you hear tapping – the same kind of tapping. Perhaps it’s just the tree being shaken by wind. But you don’t remember the tree being that close to the window. And it’s not windy tonight.

Image of Slender Man from Something Awful user cloudy

Image of Slender Man from Something Awful user cloudy

Attaching the idea of Tulpa to Slender Man does much more than add another avenue of horror though. The notion of Slender Man as Tulpa reveals some of the fundamental themes of online storytelling: that of communal and storyteller agency. It’s not the story, or the character, or the monster at the heart of the story that has the ultimate authority, but the community in which the story is being told to. In the same way as telling stories around a campfire is determined by the flow, connection, and authority of the community around the campfire, the online forum provides a digital local for a digital campfire – the community is still central and provides ultimate authority. The Tulpa, therefore, works perfectly in this environment – the character and story becomes real and manifest through the effort and emotional power of the community. The community holds great power as a collective whole, which gives emotional intention to the stories they are creating. This is recognized in the effect of the Tulpa, whether truly believed to be true or referred to as such to increase the effect of the story being told.

So once again, we’re brought to the physical manifestation of supernatural beings in the Iron Druid Chronicles: the physical creation of gods and other immortal beings through the sheer will of the faithful gives an essential level of agency to the believer. As the widow says in her conversation with Atticus: sense it’s we with faith who create gods, not the gods who create us.

The approach shifts the typical flow of conversation to something the anthropologist in me can more easily grab a hold of: the emotional experience of creating for the individual and the community. The connection between the faithful in the Iron Druid Chronicles and the Slender Man are not just similar in the fact that they are both Tulpas, in a sense. Rather, the importance of these two popular culture references are that they reveal something important about the community sharing and reading these stories: the community and the individual is the ultimate source of power.

We, as people who tell stories and listen to stories, hold the true power of creation. This power does not rest with gods, for the gods are only thoughtforms – given a reality based on the stories we have created for them. Slender Man’s great supernatural power, which is horrifying and gives its readers a small startled jump whenever a tree brushes against their window, is only given true form and shape due to the narrative power of Victor Surge and all those that have come after. This social focus brings great attention to not only the creative power of the individual, but also the relationship the individual has to the others around their digital campfire. It’s not about whether the physical form, the Tulpa manifest, of the Slender Man is fictional or real – it’s about the simple idea of this thoughtform existing and how this proves the power and importance of the community.

And that, as academically as I can put it, is pretty cool.

Site Updates

Bit of a boring post today, sorry. But expect a new blog post concerning Tulpas, gods, and Slender Man soon!

Bit of housekeeping notes necessary, but I'll keep it short. You may have noticed that there's an extra tab on the page labelled "Videos". The first video currently there is one which was recorded back in July for the ASA Conference, which I discussed in an earlier post about pilgrimage and Journey. Enjoy it, leave comments that either call us all idiots or whatever you want. The point is to keep the conversation going online now that we're no longer at the conference. (I also apologize for some of the audio issues - it was the main reason it took so long to edit in the first place).

That tab is also where I'll be trying my hand at video essays in the future. Give it a few months before you expect one, but I'm just seeing how it goes. Let me know if you like it or hate it.

Anyway, that's it for now. Told ya it was short today. I'll be back to posting about religion and pop culture soon.

Theological Debates in the Dragon Age

Often our complete understanding of narratives in popular culture can be foggy due to our social contexts influencing the way we interpret and experience these narratives. One example of this can be found in Dragon Age, and the theological debates which occur within. BioWare’s Dragon Age series takes place in a world with magic, elves, dwarves, and, of course, dragons. These games are open-world RPGs, and the player creates a character they can fully control, even in how they respond in dialogue to the other characters around them. These choices are often met with repercussions of approval or disapproval by these allies. The games also involve a lot of time to complete. And I mean a lot of time. Often it takes over 60 hours just to finish the main story, and even more time to do any and all side quests involved. I’m currently in the middle of playing Dragon Age: Inquisition, the third in the series, but will not disclose the number of hours currently played for fear of my supervisor reading this. Safe to say, I’ve put in more than enough hours to write a short post about it.

Quite a large percentage of the gameplay in Inquisition, and the other Dragon Age games, is player interaction and conversation with non-playable characters (NPCs). The player can choose from a wheel of dialogue choices, and each choice impacts the way these NPCs accept your character. Some may approve of the way you responded to a question, or choices you made, while others disapprove of the same action. These conversations involve more than simple commentary on how badly you kicked that dragon’s ass. In fact, many of the social issues addressed in these conversations are ones frequently debated outside of gameworlds as well: questions of terrorism, the culturally oppressed, poverty, war, and even theological concerns.

There are multiple forms of religiosity which can be found in this world, and often they are designated by race, though not always limited to racial boundaries as conversion occurs. Many of the elves, which are also the culturally oppressed peoples, attempt to keep to their older polytheistic religion. The dwarves are ancestor worshipers. The Qunari, a tall and physically robust peoples with horns, have a very politically and philosophically based religion involving the Qun (of which could be entire discussion itself). And humans tend to be monotheistic.

The monotheism of humans, which has also spread to some of other races, is remarkably similar to Christianity. There is only one god, called The Maker, regarded as the one who created the world and all in it. But, The Maker has turned away from his creations due to their great many sins and mistakes. This religion also has a messianic figure in Andraste, a woman who attempted to give Earthly creations another chance to prove their love and worth to The Maker, but was ultimately betrayed and killed.

Dialogue wheel choice when questioned whether a particular elvish temple was "filled with lies" or not.

Dialogue wheel choice when questioned whether a particular elvish temple was "filled with lies" or not.

But this post isn’t just about this resemblance – mostly because anyone who’s played the game can acknowledge these similarities. What makes this connection significant is that the player often engages in theological discussions. The theological debates which occur are not wholly dependent on just choosing one of the many options of religion available – nor are these options limited to which race you have chosen for your character. Let’s say, for example, I was given the question of whether or not I (as a character) believe in The Maker. My options are not set due to my character choice of dwarf. My options are not just yes or no. Or not only yes, no, or maybe. I am given the choice to believe, but not to worship. I am given the ability to see someone who believes in the power, divinity, and presence of the Maker, and use this power to raise another character from the dead during combat, and still question.

So how? And why?

Our character, or other characters in the realm, can have one of the two somewhat related forms of theistic belief: dystheism or misotheism. Dystheists believe in the divine’s (God, goddess, or multiple gods) existence, but that this god is not wholly good, as is often believed by the Abrahamic faiths. Misotheists have a “hatred of God” or “hatred of the gods”, and they do not worship God regardless of their belief in His/Her existence. In fact, it’s rather difficult to hold a hatred for something you don’t believe exists (though that’s more of a personal opinion than the result of any outstanding research).

So now there are more detailed theological questions to ask yourself of the Dragon Age world – as well as the non-gaming world: do you believe in the existence of a god? And is that God you believe exists worthy of worship? This second question may seem blasphemous to some, but is a valid question, and can be found in multiple places in popular culture.

The famous Warriors of Sunlight in the Dark Souls series, as one such example, are followers of Lord Gwyn’s firstborn, and is the former god of war. He’s a former god, because due to questionable actions (of which, I admit, I am unclear) he was punished and stripped of his deification. Thus, lore-wise, it seems the question of whether or not this god of war deserves to be worshiped was regarded as a whole-hearted no. The Warriors of Sunlight, however, disagree and still worship and follow him. In the case of the Warriors of Sunlight, then, the overall theological stance is that this god of war is in dystheism; he is not wholly good and thus does not deserve worship, while the Warriors of Sunlight do not have such a stance.

A Warrior of Sunlight praising the sun

A Warrior of Sunlight praising the sun

For Dragon Age, this theological quandary does not rest in the atmosphere or embedded lore, like Dark Souls. Nor is it in who you do or do not encounter or choose as your character. The question of a god’s existence is not always wholly answered in the power one wields, as magic is found in many areas of this world. Theological answers are found solely in how characters interpret the events unfolding in the game and the world around them. When your character miraculously survives a cataclysmic event, or a physical trip through the spirit world, it may not be due to divine intervention. Or maybe it was divine intervention, but for a nefarious reason. These answers must be sought in only your character’s own questioning and interpretation of the world around them, and in their experiences of them, in much the same way we, as humans in a non-magical world sadly devoid of dragons, must also do.

But the character does not do so autonomously. We as players do, acting through our character. We are not just playing at magic and dragon slaying, but also playing with various theological stances which would have large and more permanent effects if played with outside of the game world. Although multiple choices are present, it is still limited by a dialogue wheel. We are also alerted of various NPCs reaction to our choices, based on their own beliefs and personalities. Dragon Age allows us to play with these decisions and consequences without repercussions from those around us in the non-virtual world, while still impacting us in a very real sense. Its play which engages us, and demands us to think critically about the world around us, and how we interpret it.


Images from Dragon Age Inquisition taken from my own playthrough. Dark Souls 2 image of Praise the sun can be found here

A Pilgrim's Journey in Journey


In about a month, my wonderful (and very patent) supervisor and myself will be presenting a lab at the Association of Social Anthropologists conference, in which a room full of anthropologists will collectively play the game Journey in order to experience and discuss virtual pilgrimage in a video game. But I feel the need to delve into this concept a bit farther: what about this video game can be comparable to religious pilgrimages?       

In the professional need for anthropological reflexivity, I must first admit something: I have a deep seeded love for the game Journey. First released on the PlayStation 3, thatgamecompany’s Journey is an interactive art piece about a pilgrim on a spiritual and physical journey. If you can and haven’t, you should play it (it’s available for both PS3 and the PS4).

When we examine experience stories about video games, it’s hard to bypass Journey. Conversations about the game contain very few – if any – negative commentary (although there are quite a few begging for it to be available on more platforms). I’ve seen countless explaining the emotional connection to their mysterious co-op partner, with whom you can only communicate through symbols and chirp-like sounds, while others recount the intense joy of finally ascending the mountain at the end. But why would a game which takes only about an hour and a half to complete fill the player with such a sense of emotional investment, especially when compared to contemporary open-world role-playing games such as Fallout 4 and Witcher 3 which require over 60 hours (and sometimes over 100 hours) to complete? Why would time investment not always equal emotional investment?

One particular quote I found on a reddit thread stood out to me:

“Perhaps more than any other game, Journey installed a sense of faith in the player. I'm pretty much atheist myself, but that game gave me a sense of spirituality that other forms of media have failed to ever do.”

Whoa.

This comment, and similar statements, are powerful and the emotions behind them are even stronger. But how can a game cause such powerful sentiments? We are often taught to understand fiction as fake and entirely separate from reality. Even some scholars in game studies see games as entirely separate, functioning as Huizinga’s magic circle, such as Espen J. Aarseth. The magic circle understands the game as an island, away from the society and culture which both create it and play it: “Play lies outside the antithesis of wisdom and folly, and equally outside those of truth and falsehood, good and evil. Although it is a non-material activity it has no moral function. The valuations of vice and virtue do not apply here” (Huizinga 1955: 6).

But the comment of our moved reddit user, as well as many of the other player responses to Journey and other games, demonstrates this not to be the case. The games we play can greatly affect us outside of the so-called magic circle of play.

To attempt a better answer, let’s try a different approach – that of Victor Turner. When we look at Journey specifically, we see a game about a pilgrim – sometimes encountering other pilgrims on their own journeys. Pilgrimage and video games have both been described as a liminal place (Turner 1974; Dovey and Kennedy 2006: 35). Turner’s concept of play is also often tied to his concepts of liminal and liminoid. So in lieu of enrolling you in a Vic Turner’s Concepts 101 course, I’ll break it down for you in a brief synopsis.

The liminal type of play or ritual is often seen as compulsory, such as community gatherings or socially essential “rites of passage”. And while the actual process of these events may involve a shifting of power status or social roles, they are seen as securing the status quo. After the event, the participant comes out of the liminal ritual space with a renewed sense of his or her place in the social order. In contrast, the liminoid type is more individualized. These are developed and experienced in the margins of mainstream society and thus don’t reflect the typical social order. They’re more pluralized, fragmentary, and experimental in character.

While both liminal and liminoid types of play are the “seed beds of cultural creativity,” (Turner 1982: 58) the liminoid is the one which has the power to transform mainstream societies and “traditional” beliefs through radical ‘manifestos’ and critiques. The liminoid is the source of creativity and can generate alternative social orders, political interventions, or even conjure images of a different utopia.

So let’s turn our attention back to video games. A video game can be seen as a liminoid space in which players actively play within prescribed roles, which have a generative, creative, and playful relationship to the offline non-virtual world (Dovey and Kennedy 2006: 35). So when we sit down, alone on a couch, to play Journey, we are entering a liminal space in which we are not quite as separated from the social and power relations of the non-virtual as we may think.

These liminal spaces are marked by something familiar to both video games, and more specifically Journey. Entities in liminal spaces are marked by their sexlessness and anonymity, comparable to how the pilgrims in Journey all look similar, and no gender or other distinctions between them can be easily drawn. The players behind them are also kept hidden and anonymous. If you encounter another player, their only differentiation is the symbol which appears above their head when they sound off a “chirp”. It is not until you finish the game, beginning to re-emerge into the structured world, and away from the liminal experience of the game, that the players encountered are identified by their PlayStation account names.

A pilgrim "chirping" in Journey

A pilgrim "chirping" in Journey

This experience bonds the players together by strong social bonds which Victor Turner calls communitas. Communitas is seen as a communal bond which transcends the structured society with its class, gender, and racial hierarchies. It’s almost like a utopian social connection. This connection is revealed only in liminal processes, as these rites are both “in and out of time” (Turner 1995: 96). But these bonds and liminal spaces must be temporary. If they persist, then social hierarchies begin to form within the group, and the communitas then ceases to exist.

So now we can begin to grasp some understanding, however small, on why Journey is so special. Its short playtime of only about an hour and a half, or two hours, is the perfect liminal stage in which social bonds of communitas can form with other players who are just as anonymous as you.

But this is just a theory, primarily one based on my own personal experiences with a game I love. Theories need practical knowledge, solidified by how actual people interacting with a game. This is where the stories of those who play the game become of the utmost importance, such as our reddit user.

The only way to create more stable insight would be to look into actual experiences, and the stories the people who played it share. And after the ASA lab, there will be more voices added to the player stories of Journey, some voices which may never have even picked up a controller before. I’m excited to hear these stories.

See you in July!


Dovey, Jon and Helen Kennedy (2006), Game Cultures: computer games as new media. New York: Open University Press.

Huizinga, J. (1955), Homo Ludens: a study of the play-element in culture. London: Routledge.

Turner, Victor (1974) "Pilgrimages as Social Processes," in Dramas, Field, and Metaphors: symbolic action in human society. London: Cornell University Press, 1974.

Turner, Victor (1982) From Ritual to Theatre: the human seriousness and play. New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications.

Turner, Victor (1995) The Ritual Process: structure and anti-structure. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

An Introduction to the Love of Pop Culture

So it seems I’m adding yet another academic blog to the existent stockpile. I do apologize. Though, I would like to think mine will be slightly more fun, as it will involve video games, YouTube videos, and forum posts, because I study religion and popular culture.

One of the greatest issues with studying popular culture is the speed of academic publishing doesn’t match the speed of popular culture. By the time we have selected what to study, done the study, written it, got it edited, resubmitted it, and run through the publishing gambit, the subject of our study may well have fled the purview of public interest. But perhaps I can bypass some of this by some of my interest being featured here instead of passing through some elaborate system which does not quite understand that the Internet’s interest is only about as long as one loop of a cat gif.

So as the obligatory introductory first post, I should sum up what my specific interest is. And its quite easy to sum up in one word: narratives. I like stories: stories people share; stories people tell about themselves; stories people find funny; stories people find sad; stories we consider myths, or legends, or folklore; stories we call fairy tales… I think you get the picture. Narratives are the closest thing we have to understanding the intangible parts of human life, like emotions or belief. And belief should not simply be tied to our common understanding of religious life, or what I like to call the Big Five (the five often dubbed “world religions”: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism), as belief is often more complex than this, especially when looking at contemporary belief on the internet.

There is a form of belief which must happen for communities to exist online in the first place. We run into many ideological issues when we (and not just the academic community, but often the online community as well) dub the physical world as the “real” world. This automatically positions the online community in strict opposition to the physical, not on a virtual/physical dichotomy, but on a real/imaginary dichotomy. The communities formed and experienced virtually are thus considered not real, but are often felt as so much more real than their physical counterparts. And belief can happen temporarily, or partially. I can in some ways believe in the land of Hyrule, and the evil which plagues it, without believing in its physical existence. I can believe in the Triforce and what it stands for without believing in the truth and accuracy of the existence of the three goddesses.

When arguing about the academic tendency to focus on definitions of legend and myth involving the community to believe in the absolute truth of the narrative, I frequently use the best example I have in my own narrative repertoire: my mother. When I was a child, my mother told me a story of a Buddhist monk. The monk was walking through the woods. A rabbit jumped across his path. Very soon after, a hunter ran by the monk, and asked the monk if he had seen a rabbit. “Why do you need to know of this rabbit?” the monk asked. “I am a hunter,” the hunter explained. “If I do not kill the rabbit, I cannot eat.” The monk was then faced with a difficult choice. If he told the hunter where the rabbit went, he would not be lying, as telling the truth is an important Buddhist precept, but a living thing would be harmed due to his action. If he chose not to harm the rabbit, he would be lying, and may harm the hunter, but a vulnerable life would be saved.

The story ended there, with no inkling as to which way the monk chose. When I pushed my mother on this, she shrugged and said, “Well that’s the point. Sometimes there is no right answer.” I was not satisfied, and demanded to know if the story was true, and if it was what the monk had chosen.  Her response was simple: the monk had not lived, but the story was true. It is true that at some point in life, you may have to make a choice between two paths which may go against your ethical stance. For my mother, the story of the Buddhist monk was not a historically accurate story, but it was still a true story, and one she believed in.

In a similar way, I can believe in the truth of the Hylian Triforce without believing in the historical accuracy of the story. The Triforce stands for an ideal balance in the human, a balance between power, wisdom and courage. I personally believe in this idea, and it has been a belief of mine since I played the games originally as a child. Despite this, I do not believe the Triforce physically exists, nor do I entertain ideas which clash with the fact someone in Japan created the Triforce for a video game.

In my mind, this is how popular culture works: it creates believable ideas in unbelievable places which stick with us. It makes us think about it much later when we’re supposed to be working on that report due tomorrow. It makes us smile when we remember it. It makes us dress up as those unbelievable characters who invoke those beliefs. It makes us seek others who feel as attached to those narratives. It makes us get tattoos of those symbols. And, yes, it makes us put more money into the hands of the creators. But it also makes us tell stories. And it makes us believe.

That is the power of popular culture. It makes us believe as a collective, as one community, in opposition to the idea that the ever digitizing world is making us grow apart. We tell our own stories in relation to those around us – to relate our own experiences to those we vicariously experience every day. We tell our stories of how our worlds were changed by experiencing these things. We tell stories of how others should pay attention. We create fan fictions, yes, but we also simply speak our narratives to those around us. Or we type these narratives to those virtually around us. The narrative which we could study alone, as a single forum post, or a single video game, is in reality only one small story in a network of stories, creating a narrative web where our own lives, and our own narratives, are woven with others.

And that’s why I love these narratives. They hold a large amount of power – the power to make us laugh, the power to make us cry, or the power to make us believe.

So this website is not meant for academics alone. Each post is written not to be published in some academic journal, but rather to be one of the many narratives in this web. It is meant to encourage dialogue between the well-sheltered academics (like the one who demanded a definition of the word ‘controller’) and people who, like me, love these narratives and live them as much as possible. It is not enough to study popular culture from a distance, but we must partake with those who believe as strongly as we do. And share our narratives with them.

So while this particular academic website may get lost in the shuffle of all the others, I hope that it may add, even if in a small voice, to the overwhelming number of narratives which exist all around us.