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Rachel Wagner - Friday, February 3, 2012 - 09:13

In my recently released book, Godwired: Religion, Ritual, and Virtual Reality, I look at a number of related themes all dealing with the intersection of religious practice and digital media. One of the key themes in the book is how videogames work like religion in their invitation to interactively engage with predesigned myth; in their ability to cultivate social cohesion; in the difficult questions they raise about symbolic violence; and in their nurturing of desire for entry into an “otherworldly” space where new, and usually very structured, rules adhere. Games, like many religious worldviews, can invite in us a strong sense of fascination with the way we wish things could be. At the same time, they invite us to consider new rules of play, allowing what might in other context be considered taboo behavior. Indeed, the parallel of game play with ritual performance is the most apt analogy, with all of the complexities of comparison it invites. In Godwired, I invite readers to think about how critical awareness of gaming’s ability to work as implicit religion obligates us to think also about the scripted structures in our real lives, that is, to examine how digital media is shaping what we think is possible in our own ordinary modes of communication, but also how societal structures are already “scripted,” and thus invite us, perhaps require us, to learn how to re-program those that are limiting of human flourishing. I welcome continuing conversation on these fascinating issues!

For those interested in exploring the intersection between religion and gaming, I would also recommend the following sources.

1. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan (eds.) (2004) First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. This book offers the best single introduction to gamer theory that I know.

2. Bogost, Ian (2007) Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Bogost’s compelling (nay, “persuasive”) book will show you what “procedural rhetoric” is in terms of new media, and make you want to immediately go apply it yourself to ritual theory.

3. Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman (eds) (2006) The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. This book contains essays by the most important figures in gaming theory, many of them with philosophical roots. After reading this, you’ll know exactly who you’d like read more about.

4. Salen, Katie and Eric Zimmerman (2004) Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. This book is foundational for anyone wanting to understand gaming theory. Salen and Zimmerman define the field for us and offer a number of extremely useful conceptual frameworks.

5. Schechner, Richard (2002) Performance Studies: An Introduction, New York: Routledge. The relatively new field of performance studies is another very important cousin to religious studies, communication studies, and gamer theory, and helps to bridge the gap between all of these and ritual theory.


Denis Bekkering - Monday, January 16, 2012 - 22:39

Many thanks to Drs. Stewart M. Hoover, Nabil Echchaibi, and everyone involved with the Center for Media, Religion, and Culture for hosting such a fantastic conference! As should be the case, I left Boulder with a full notebook and a buzzing brain, ready to return to my dissertation work with fresh insights on a number of topics. However, the one concept that has remained in the forefront of my mind since my first session on Friday is that of authenticity.

In his book "Culture and Authenticity" (2008), Charles Lindholm discusses how humans, individually and collectively, are rabid hunters after what is real and true, a quest heightened by the profusion of so much judged to be fake and false. Lindholm asserts that this is essentially a spiritual search, which is often accomplished through the purchase of “commodified authenticity”. I often chewed on this thought during my brief daily strolls around Boulder. While walking along Pearl Street, I noticed a photocopied check posted in the front window of a small book shop. The slip, signed by beat author Jack Kerouac, promised payment to a liquor store, and an adjacent note indicated that the “real” check, among other pieces of literary ephemera, could be purchased inside. Just down the street was the children’s store “Real Baby”. I am a new father, and am still trying to understand what the alternative might be. Queried for a late-night food and beverage recommendation, the front desk clerk at my hotel referred me to the pub next door, although she warned that it was part of a chain. I opted for the microbrewery a few blocks down to taste a “real” Colorado beer.

The importance of authenticity was also explicitly and implicitly reinforced throughout the sessions that I attended. Heidi Campbell opened her talk on Friday by describing her camping trip to a remote Florida island. Although she planned to “revel” in “being off of the grid” for a while, solar chargers and a new cellphone tower ensured active iPhones for the campers. While this situation nicely set up her discussion of our networked world, I wonder what her desire to periodically distance herself from the digital (which I am certain that many of us tethered to our laptops by the nature of our work share) means for our assumptions of what is authentic human experience. As well, while we are increasingly attuned to the “back and forth flow” between the online and offline in the religious practices of our research subjects, what can the desire to sometimes disrupt this flow in our own lives teach us about ourselves as observers and interpreters?

The most explicit discussion of authenticity came from Deborah Whitehead, who has examined issues of credibility in the authorship of evangelical “mommy blogs”. Whitehead offered the immensely entertaining example of the Denver Bronco’s star quarterback Tim Tebow, whose public displays of faith both on the field and off have spurred on considerable debate as to whether he is a genuine and dedicated Christian, or a manipulating opportunist who only performs his signature prayer stance when the cameras are rolling. Whitehead also discussed the central role of authenticity in how Christian groups and individuals process the enormity of the Internet, and the valuable religious work that is the investigation and identification of purported frauds.

During the session focused on video games, I sensed some anxiety about what it might mean to be an authentic researcher of media and religion. In-depth familiarity with video games, an insider status recognized as so valuable in other types of cultural studies, appeared to be something best kept under wraps. One participant “admitted” the importance of video games in the social life of his family, while another audience member “came out of the closet” to reveal himself as a fan of first-person shooters. Jeremy Stolow, speaking on Saturday evening, raised my own anxiety about the remarkable lack of thought I give to the unnatural space and time opened up by the common light bulb. “Electricity created the remarkable artificial world we live in,” he remarked, a concept taken for granted “until the lights go out”.

Of course, probing into the authentic is a central task of theology. Following Dr. Campbell’s keynote speech, a question was raised as to whether religious members of Second Life were just there to be “cool,” or to engage in “serious theology”. Paul Teusner and Ryan Torma asked: “What makes a meaningful religious experience for iPhone users?” Finally, Jeffrey Mahan, during Sunday’s session focused on fandom, offered some instructive and amusing thoughts on the subject. As a theologian, Mahan strives for deeper engagement with the authentic in his quest to fashion “purer and better religion”. For some, Mahan, suggested, this search results in unique assemblages of religious and popular culture fragments. As an example, he described an evangelical acquaintance who is also a practicing “Dudist,” a devotee of the slacker/stoner philosophy extolled by the lead character in the Coen brothers’ 1998 film, "The Big Lebowski". Mahan spoke in the voice of the critic: “Surely this is only a game!” Yet, this woman had presided over a “Dudist” marriage for her friends; I picture a dirty housecoat instead of a priest’s robes, a White Russian in place of a communion cup. Mahan recalled Mark Twain being asked if he believed in infant baptism. “Believe in it,” Twain is said to have replied, “Hell, I’ve seen it done!”


Denis Bekkering - Saturday, January 14, 2012 - 10:33

I am often struck by the interchangeability of North American cities at night. Although Boulder is new to me, while looking out the window of my shuttle bus late Thursday evening I was presented with a rather predictable combination of street lamps and store signs. However, as I left my hotel room this morning to start my cold, windy trek to the conference, I was greeted by the magnificent Flatirons, towering high over the assorted coffee shops and gas stations. This sight shot through my prized cynical shield, filling me with both unspeakable awe and a profound regret that I would only be able to appreciate them from afar, perhaps never to set foot upon them. An incredible backdrop to what I have already found to be a truly stimulating conference.

Although I unfortunately missed Thursday’s activities due to a flight delay, I certainly feel intellectually energized by the sessions that I attended on Friday. Heidi Campbell’s keynote speech reinforced her enviable ability to map out our area of study and locate productive pathways for future research. Her concept of networked religion highlights the necessity of exploring the complex and ever-shifting webs of religious associations that individuals forge both online and off. As demonstrated by studies of lived religion, this is time-consuming and messy work that often resists easy generalizations. Yet, it is crucial groundwork for building broader understandings of digital religion.

I found Campbell’s focus on storied identity and the public performance of personal narratives particularly intriguing and in tune with recent developments that I have observed online. For example, not long ago Facebook unveiled “Timeline,” a new profile template for users that promises them the chance to “tell (their) life story” (http://www.facebook.com/about/timeline). Whereas the old profile featured a small picture of the user in the left hand margin followed by a long list of “friends,” the new template fills the top of the page with a picture chosen by the user, and the number of friends listed on the main page is limited to six. The result is an increased emphasis on who you are as opposed to who you know, and it would be interesting to examine how individuals are using this new template in the construction of their public religious identities.

In the session "Motif & Symbol in the Video Game Context," Rachel Wagner asked the provocative question “is it possible to play religion like a game?” and outlined points of potential overlap including structured rules, a sense of purpose, and the requirement of “player” effort. Nathan Walter demonstrated that even in the goriest of video games, there are often opportunities for players to make moral decisions that they would unlikely face in their daily lives. Although not central to his discussion of Jewish computer games, I noted Vincent Gonzalez’s reminder to recognize the significance of “non play,” examining the motivations and contexts surrounding the refusal to participate in particular religious video games.

To open the session that I participated in, "Humor, Commentary & Consequence," Timothy Fallis argued that the Internet is a “safe space” for religious humor, which has often been denied a place on television and radio. I contributed with an overview of the “Farting Preacher” videos, a series of absurd remixes of the televangelist Robert Tilton that have made it difficult for him to start an online video ministry. As part of my presentation, I briefly discussed the concept of “Recreational Christianity,” coined by one of my interviewees to describe his use of televangelist programs and events for entertainment purposes only, with no spiritual investment. The existence of “Recreational Christians” warns us against assuming motivations behind particular practices that we may observe in the media. I invite you to watch the following clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vC3Xvo34ubY. What appears to be a genuine baptism is actually the infiltration of a televangelist program by an avowed atheist who detests the host and his ministry, and who views this video as a trophy of her conquest. I was also intrigued by Jeffrey Garber’s discussion of the complex theological themes explored by the mysterious author of the webcomic "Sinfest," and am wary of visiting the site (www.sinfest.net) for fear of getting hooked by yet another quality online product.

My day ended with "Online Christianity: Technologies and Spaces." Sam Han offered an informative overview of activity in the online campus of www.lifechurch.tv. While he suggested that the preaching and discussion on the site is certainly not “theologically robust,” there exists a sacred sociability among the gathered “worldmates” who chat, pray, and praise God with “written chat singing”. Finally, Tim Hutchings talk on “CyberBibles” introduced me to the wide variety of ways in which Christianity’s central text is being transformed in our digital age. From solar-powered mp3 Bibles geared towards the mission field, to mobile phone Bible apps particularly popular in the United States, these products offer a number of investigative opportunities surrounding issues such as materiality, evangelism, and even the surveillance of one’s devotional habits by online Bible study buddies.

Great stuff everyone! I look forward to the remainder of the conference and meeting more of you over the next two days.


Heidi Campbell - Wednesday, January 11, 2012 - 17:20

To celebrate the official launch of the Network for New Media, Religion and Digital Culture Studies website at the International Conference on Digital Religion at the University of Colorado-Boulder on January 14th we are running a membership promotion. Everyone who joins the network by 1 February 2012 and adds at least one new entry to the site bibliography will be entered in a drawing. In early February one lucky member will recieve a free copy of When Religion Meets New Media (Heidi Campbell, Routledge, 2010), a unique book on how to study religious communities engagement with new media.

Membership in the network enables users to contribute to the site bibliography, list their profile and add news items. To learn more about how to apply for membership, please check out the following link: http://digitalreligion.tamu.edu/join-network
And don't miss the opportunity to be one of the first members in this exciting collaborative space.


Heidi Campbell - Friday, October 28, 2011 - 22:29

New York University's Center on New Media, Religion and Digital Culture has launched a two year research project entitled "Digital Religion: Knowledge, Politics and Practice". The project will study how religion intertwines with the update of digital/social media in recent unprecedented social and political transformations–in particular but not exclusively in the Middle East, North Africa and Central and Southeast Asia–along with the implications of these developments for international relations. Supported by a grant from the Henry R. Luce initiative on Religion and International Affairs the project seeks host a number of events and develop an online journal for this growing research area.


Shawn Moore - Friday, February 25, 2011 - 10:01

The Social Science Research Council recently released an interesting report entitled The new landscape of the religion blogosphere.

According to its synopsis:

This report surveys nearly 100 of the most influential blogs that contribute to an online discussion about religion in the public sphere and the academy. It places this religion blogosphere in the context of the blogosphere as a whole, maps out its contours, and presents the voices of some of the bloggers themselves. For those new to the world of blogs, there is an overview of what blogging is and represents (section 1). The already-initiated can proceed directly to the in-depth analyses of academic blogging (section 2), where religion blogs stand now, and where they may go in the future (sections 3 and 4).

Some of the key survey’s respondents and noted bloggers have also been given space to respond online to the report’s findings and comment specifically on how blogs and new media changing both academic and public discussions of religion. I encourage you to check this out!


Shawn Moore - Friday, February 25, 2011 - 10:01

One statistic that caught my attention in the most recent Pew Internet and American life survey, is that 41% of respondents said they wished online news covered more stories on religion and spirituality. This ranked just behind the 44% who said they would like to see more on scientific news and discoveries online. So while this is just one of a number of finding in a report the primarily focuses on how the internet is effecting the news industry I find it striking that interest in religion seems to be growing or at least maintaining momentum, rather than declining as some have suggested.

Other interesting findings of the study are that in the USA the internet now ranks above newspapers and radio as American’s primary news source and that the people’s relationship to news is becoming portable, personalized and participatory.

For summary of the full study report see the Pew Research Website.


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