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Moral Cognition Empowers Spiritual Experience in Chinese World of Warcraft

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Part of the New Approaches to the Scientific Study of Religion book series (NASR,volume 2)

Abstract

How does a videogame—the Chinese version of World of Warcraft (WoW)—become “spiritual” (jingshen 精神) in the eyes of its players? The question is relevant to the cognitive science of religion (CSR) because in “WoW spirituality” a secular, foreign artifact comes to signify a quasi-religious specialness through processes operating largely outside of—and at times in spite of—the power structures (religious, political, familial) that would typically authorize such signification. It is therefore possible that players’ discourse on the spiritual value of gameplay draws upon a deeply intuitive, cognitively natural mode of human reasoning about inner spiritual phenomena and hence might have significance for CSR theorizing about emergent religiosity (nova religio). In this chapter I explore these possibilities as follows. First, I examine the gameworld as a site for positive moral experience—an essential component of WoW spirituality—and locate causal power in the game’s rich affordances for the intuitive moral reasoning systems identified by Jonathan Haidt and Craig Joseph’s “moral foundations theory.” Second, I align this causal power with recurrent themes in how players use jingshen to characterize gameplay, arguing that high levels of moral affect, engendered by the moral foundation systems engaged through gameplay, potentiate spiritual signification. Third, I suggest this moral affect is attributed spiritual significance when players use intuitive essentialist reasoning to interpret that affect. I argue that if essentialist reasoning is indeed directing moral affect into spiritual signification, this would help to explain several patterns in players’ attributions and rescindments of spiritual significance. In closing, I identify two contributions CSR can make to the study of emergent religiosity.

Keywords

  • Chinese World of Warcraft
  • nova religio
  • Moral foundations theory
  • moral cognition
  • essentialist reasoning
  • spiritual experience

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Notes

  1. 1.

    All testimonials marked T1 were collected in the first year of fieldwork. With the help of a research assistant, I distributed flyers to young adults in Internet cafes that invited WoW players (identified by our perusing the monitors in the cafés) to write testimonials about why they play the game and the roles they felt it played in the wider contexts of their offline lives. Participants received a WoW game card (value = RMB¥30, or approximately US$4.60 at time of fieldwork). The flyers asked for basic demographic information, but few players elected to provide any (hence age and sex are not provided alongside the T1 testimonials).

  2. 2.

    By “rarely” I mean rarely straightforwardly, in the sense of a debate which reveals the transitional criteria. In my experience, such public discourse on the spiritual value of gameplay was mostly confined to online forums, where it was uncommon save for occasions when an issue impacted the entire WoW community (e.g., in Summer 2009 WoW was temporarily shut down), and conversations about a few popular WoW machinima films, such as Warcraft Wisdom (see below).

  3. 3.

    A notable exception here is the popular machinima film Warcraft Wisdom (FalanorTheElf, 2010), to which my queries were occasionally forwarded. The Chinese translation of the film articulates a logic in which positive in-game social interactions empower players to be better people.

  4. 4.

    State media occasionally referred to WoW as “spiritual opium” (jingshen yapian), thereby associating gameplay with addiction and encroachment by Western powers. This association effected considerable interpretive constraint on player discourse.

  5. 5.

    For an overview, see Golub and Lingley (2008).

  6. 6.

    Even taking into account the lack of clear boundaries within the Three Teachings, the absence of particular authorizing discourses is significant here, as jingshen cannot always be used freely—that is, without contestation—beyond the aegis of such discourse. In this sense jingshen is comparable to its English counterpart, “spiritual.” In America, one might agree that playing basketball is conducive to the development of virtues championed by the Abrahamic traditions; yet to describe basketball as a “spiritual experience”—to say that basketball is “spiritual food” and the basketball court is your “spiritual homeland”—would typically fetch ridicule or a demand for deeper justification.

  7. 7.

    Following Taves (2009, p. 26), who argues “the idea of ‘specialness’ is one broader, more generic net that captures most of what people have in mind when they refer to ‘sacred’ ‘magical’ ‘spiritual,’ ‘mystical’ or ‘religious’ and then some.”

  8. 8.

    A supernormal stimulus is (1) an exaggerated version of a stimulus to which there is an existing response tendency that (2) elicits a stronger response than the original, unexaggerated stimulus. Barrett (2010) offers a list of manmade examples: “candy sweeter than any fruit; stuffed animals with eyes wider than any baby, pornography, propaganda about menacing enemies” (p. 4).

  9. 9.

    Haidt and Joseph note that this last moral foundation—for detecting and avoiding contaminants—likely did not evolve for social cooperative purposes but, rather, was later exapted to them (2004).

  10. 10.

    In recent years, legal cases wherein bystanders who tried to help an accident victim and who were later successfully sued by the accident victim have made headlines. As a result, many Chinese are wary about helping in emergency circumstances and my Chinese colleagues occasionally passed around online videos wherein bystanders watched but refused to help injured motorists or pedestrians.

  11. 11.

    S3 responses did feature discourse on fairness, though less frequently than the T1 and T2 responses.

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Correspondence to Ryan G. Hornbeck .

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Hornbeck, R.G. (2017). Moral Cognition Empowers Spiritual Experience in Chinese World of Warcraft . In: Hornbeck, R., Barrett, J., Kang, M. (eds) Religious Cognition in China. New Approaches to the Scientific Study of Religion , vol 2. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-62954-4_12

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