Virtually Meaningful
The Power and Presence of Meaning in Virtual Worlds
a National Science Foundation EAGER project
Robert M Geraci, PhD


The Virtually Meaningful project emerged out of Dr. Geraci's research into Second Life and World of Warcraft, which began with his first book, Apocalyptic AI: Visions of Heaven in Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, and Virtual Reality (Oxford, 2010). After doing research in SL for that book, he began researching in WoW and combined the two into a subsequent book specifically about how virtual worlds can be used in religious contexts (forthcoming).

When students heard of his research projects, many would approach asking "have you heard about [Game X]?" to which the answer was generally "no." The students would then discuss the philosophical or religious aspects of the games they knew and it became transparently obvious that their knowledge should be tapped to further our understanding of how religion and video games intersect.

The purpose of this project is to create a working group of young scholars who, under Dr. Geraci's supervision, will explore and analyze virtual worlds (massively multiplayer online games) and then share the results of their work with the broader scholarly community. In consultation with Dr. Geraci, each student will choose a virtual world to study and then spend nine to twelve months exploring how the design, imagery, narrative, and interactions within that world enable meaningful experiences for the residents/players.
game images

Brief Project Description

EAGER -- Virtually Meaningful: The Power and Presence of Meaning in Virtual Worlds

 

This project explores the ways in which massively-multiparticipant online interactions provide experiences of meaningful accomplishment and how this engagement may portend the social use of digital technology for mass persuasion and motivation. Use of distributed network gaming technology has expanded rapidly in all age and ethnic demographics over the past decade, and current predictions conclude that growth will continue.  As many of these online engagements and computationally produced virtual worlds explore idealistic themes or enable experiences of fulfillment, they could powerfully reshape the mores of modern life, especially given that it is the experiences made possible which account for much of their appeal. The principal investigator and four undergraduate students will examine a variety of such virtual worlds for the significant themes within them, such as the conflict between good and evil, a system of principles and adherents, development of personal meaning or character development, and individual identity expressed in heroic terms.  All researchers will conduct fieldwork, interviewing users within the virtual worlds, and surveys will be conducted online for the residents of one or more virtual worlds.  While shedding light upon the appropriation and modification of such experiences in virtual worlds, the project will also help clarify the ways in which cultural beliefs interact with technological development and, more importantly, the influence of technology on the public.

 

The results of this research will be disseminated through several publication efforts.  The principal investigator will mentor the students through the authorship of academic papers, which they will submit for presentation or publication. The students will thereby learn to carry out long-term research projects and develop their insights for an academic audience. An additional paper co-authored with the students will assess all of the findings and draw broad-based conclusions from the comparisons. The various publications will help the project reshape public and academic understandings of how digital technologies operate in public life, especially in their reconfiguration of ideas and practices.
 Further information to come



bottom right image courtesy of Botgirl Questi
(who gave me permission to use it in Apocalyptic AI
and hopefully doesn't mind that I'm doing so again)