The Relational Ontology of Virtual Community

A recent article from Digital Wisdom. This blog was written by Mike Langford.

Previously, I introduced the phenomenon of The Robloxian Christians (TRC), a church that exists in the virtual world of Roblox. We considered the impactful mission and dramatic growth of TRC; both would be the envy of any brick-and-mortar church. Later, we reflected on the question of if, in fact, TRC is a “real” church, which immediately begs the question of what “real” means. This led us to the thought of French philosopher Jean Baudrillard. His notion of hyper-reality describes a state of affairs in which reality and representation become indistinguishable; in fact, Baudrillard argues that, eventually, in our media-saturated societies, representation comes to replace reality as “true.” Most religions are naturally hyper-realistic in that they always deal in representations of a deep reality that is metaphysically beyond us. This is even more obviously the case with the increasing proliferation of information and communication technologies. Churches such as TRC simply make this fact explicit.

Many may balk at the idea that churches such as TRC are “real” congregations because they are virtual. But are the faith-based communities in that realm any more or less disconnected from “real community” than those of the physical world? There are, indeed, limitations to the way that TRC does congregational life and worship. “We can’t baptize people,” says Daniel Herron, the 18-year-old senior pastor of TRC. “We can’t see each other’s faces. We can’t give each other a hug.” The avatars viewed at the different TRC sites are, of course, merely representations of reality, yet the people behind them are quite real. And the relationships formed between those people are just as real. Is this any different from the relationships between my fellow congregants at Bethany as we communicate our very real-looking avatars to one another? We are always managing the “brand” we present to the world; the fact that we see each other “face to face” can become a fig leaf that excuses a lack of authenticity. At least in Roblox, there is no pretense that what is being represented stands, at least in significant ways, in front of the real.

Read more here.

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