Unitarian Universalism as a Multiplayer Role-Playing Game

UU World recently published a piece asking Is Religion Broken?, in which the author, Doug Mulder, describes a global movement that instills participants with four enviable traits:

  • Urgent optimism - willingness to address problems immediately and maintain hope of success;
  • Tight social fabric - trust that fellow members share overall goals and willingness help each other;
  • Blissful productivity - feeling more happy and fulfilled while working hard than while not working;
  • Epic meaning - belief that we are protagonists in a grand story, in service to an awe-inspiring quest.

Mulder says this movement encourages folks to care more about the satisfaction of doing well and/or good for its own sake rather than for fame and fortune, to remain resilient in the face of setbacks, and to cooperate selflessly with others towards much larger goals.  It's everything that we would want in Unitarian Univeralism. Only, this movement isn't any religion (unless perhaps you're Paul Tillich) - it's massive multi-player role-playing online games (MMORPGs).  He challenges us to reconsider what religion is for, with the lessons of MMORPGs in mind - that is, religion isn't about describing reality, but rather about helping folks find meaning in their lives.

As someone who plays online games I agree with Mulder in his characterization of how players generally behave online, but there are significant limitations in applying this to the real world. The immense attraction of these games is precisely because we know that these virtual realities are created by developers, and thus unlike the real world.  (Unless you believe in an omnipotent God who is playing the part of game developer, which most of us do not.)  I know that the game is designed such that, no matter how challenging it might be, no matter how many times I fail, success is ultimately possible so long as I keep trying.  But there are no such guarantees in the real world.  I know that I can trust fellow players because games usually involve players uniting against a shared enemy and it’s in our mutual best interest to cooperate; it's not at all unusual to behave selflessly towards members within our perceived group. But in the real world perceived enemies are usually far more numerous and complicated making perceived groups more numerous and complicated too.  I know that in the game world there are only a limited number of goals at any given time, and that if I apply time and effort, I can take satisfaction in visible progress.  In fact, I have stopped playing games that grew so big and complicated that “progress” was no longer readily apparent, making them more of a chore than a "game."  And in the much larger real world, the number of problems and obligations impinging can be overwhelming, it’s often unclear where to focus our energies, nor can we be certain whether our efforts make a difference. I know that in the game world the "good guys" are good and the "bad guys" are bad, and that the "bad guys" are usually NPCs (computer generated non-player characters) for whom I do not need to feel empathy. I do not stop to ponder whether the monsters are really just "misunderstood" nor how it is that the bad guys got to be how they are, whereas that is something that I think about a lot in this real world, making “epic meaning” much more ambiguous.

A small, limited world where choices are constrained by design and people are united around a common enemy who is often viewed as a "monster," and morality is black and white is something that liberal religion could never re-create, nor would we want to.  (In fact, in some ways it sounds more like conservative religion, and maybe that accounts for some of the unity and enthusiasm on the conservative side that is often lacking in liberal religion.)

These concerns stated, I am actually not against trying to reframe religion to more of a gamer's mentality. In fact, I think it might be a good thing to do.  For one thing, it would certainly be great if we could get folks to stop arguing over whether Jesus “really” lived and if so what he “really” said.  As Mulder points out, no one argues over whether the world in World of Warcraft is "real." Everyone knows that it's created, and yet folks are still devoted to it, and derive meaning and satisfaction from it.

What else can we learn from online role-playing games? 

In games (unless you’re playing PvP, player-versus-player), cooperation is rewarded and competition gains no benefit.  This is built into the system.  In our social justice work I often hear activists complain about how selfish people are, how they don’t do the things that they’re supposed to do.  But if we rely solely on guilt and judgement to get people to behave in more beneficial ways, we’re never going to accomplish our goals.  Instead, it makes more sense to find the ways in which our society rewards competition and penalizes cooperation, and work to make systemic changes towards the opposite.  Create financial and social incentives that favor cooperation.

In games small successes along the way are rewarded with obvious cues - visual banners, bells and whistles - providing gratification for achievement.  Players “level up” once they’ve achieved a certain amount of experience.  They earn different titles and ensuing privileges.  Imagine maybe the real-world equivalent in our homes, congregations, and organizations in terms of small rituals of recognition.  In fact, we already have some of these rituals - for example, the 'Coming of Age' ceremony.  But maybe we don't have enought of them.  Maybe we don't take enough time to note them as a community.  And what kinds of recognition and privileges come with them? 

In games the developers maintain a careful balance between making players work for achievement so that it feels earned (and thus we can feel satisfaction in earning it), and parsing out large challenges into a progression of smaller goals such that they feel manageable and worthwhile.  I remember attending a Leading Edge Conference at Middle Collegiate Church where we addressed how to get folks in congregations motivated for change (instead of fearing it). The suggested solution was to frame the stories that congregations tell about themselves such that the change in question is the next logical step in what they've already accomplished.  NOT, “We’ve been all wrong and now we’re turning 180 degrees,” but rather “This is who we are as a people, this is what we’ve already done, and this is the change that will lead us towards being even more fully what we are.”

Speaking of stories, and framing… Lastly, in multi-player online games we know that we’re heroes of the story, and yet there are other players who are just as much heroes too.  Two GAs ago, I had the honor of presenting as part of a panel at a workshop on how to motivate people to action on social justice. The challenge that I struggled with was how to get each of us to see ourselves as the hero in our own story while at the same time acknowledging that everyone else is a hero in their story as well. Honestly, I was afraid that someone in the audience would take exception to the word ‘hero’ and remind the room of the many times that we have frankly failed to be heroic.  I know that the castigators mean well, wanting to ensure that we don’t get too full of ourselves and take up too much space. I lean towards critique myself.  But there is nothing more demoralizing than doing the best that one is capable of at the time, given the imperfect knowledge and skills that one has at the time, only to be told that “You suck.” If the goal is to motivate towards action, towards “urgent optimism,” then we as Unitarian Universalists need to tell our stories of ourselves in which we are the protagonists in an epic story, where our actions do matter, where our participation is essential, where we are heroes, and yet at the same time recognize that we are part of a massive multiplayer world where other folks are every bit as much heroes too.

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