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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 January 2007, 16:12 GMT
I think therefore I am a Tauren Druid
Paul Mason, BBC
By Paul Mason
BBC Newsnight business correspondent

In a bid to understand how access to online worlds are changing our notions of spirituality, Newsnight correspondent Paul Mason swaps his body for a variety of online selves.

Wow avatar being resurrected, (Blizzard)
Death is common place in games such as World of Warcraft
Where am I when I am online? It's a question I have often asked myself.

Little did I realise it's a question that's been doing philosophers' heads in since Plato. It turns out that, far from being sad, inadequate losers all those people who spend a lot of time in online worlds may actually be the forerunners of a new human type.

Let's start with Malion. Malion is, or was, a character in the online game World of Warcraft (WoW). It was a "Level 60" character (the highest it can be), whose owner could not improve him any further.

Malion's creator filmed the process of him dying. Not a casual in-game death, where he will wake up a few seconds later. He's to be deleted. So his owner decided to give him an online funeral.

Dr Lizbeth Klastrup, a Danish academic studying "death in online worlds" says it's a growing trend: "For many players is it is an emotional experience to delete the character you have invested so much time in. so this guy has filmed the death of his character - he strips himself of all his belongings and his clothes - that's the final termination."

Klastrup (who plays a Tauren Druid herself in WoW) thinks the heightened emotions and attachments players form in online games are not the product of psychosis but, in some ways, a reinvention of lost traditions, rituals and attitudes to death:

"In the great epics of western society you have the valiant hero who dies to save his people, group or country - in the game world, the movies players make about their experiences, they tell hero stories where they cast themselves as the valiant hero who dies in order to save his group and make them successful - in a way that is not possible for people to do in real life."

Digital faith

Now, I am seeing a pattern here. You perform magic, you die selflessly to save your fellow human beings, you are resurrected, you follow a moral code, you experience intense emotions, could it be that the internet is beginning to fulfil a religious need?

We've Disneyfied the supernatural
Margaret Wertheim
Margaret Wertheim saw it all coming. In 1998 she published a seminal book called The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace, where she argued that much of the hype about the internet becoming a place for spirituality was, in fact, a reflection of a deeper change in western society - a change as significant as the scientific revolution of the 17th century.

The theory is that before science, philosophers divided the world into two realities: the physical and the mental, the latter which they thought was where the soul resided.

Rene Descartes (of "I think therefore I am", fame) said the world of the mind, or soul, was unknowable by science - but over the centuries science has driven out the idea that there is an unknowable, separate reality based on the human essence or self:

"Ever since the erasure of spiritual space," says Wertheim, "the western world has been in psychological trauma - we have a fantastic way of talking about our body and where our body is - but no way of talking about where our souls or selves are in the world."

Until now, that is.
Nun praying, AP
Are online spaces taking over from churches?

She believes the intense emotional interactions of online worlds and gaming, and even social networking sites like MySpace, are letting us get back in touch with a side of human experience most of us have lost.

Cyberspace is giving us an experience of other spaces of being than the physical, material world.

"When I'm sitting on my chair - but I'm in a chatroom or social network or multi-user game - my body is physically in the room but there is a very real sense in which I myself am in another space of being, intersecting in some fantasy world. Those experiences are very real and what we are seeing now - is that the notion of what is real is not tied to the physical body."

For Wertheim the emergence of this new kind of human experience is the antidote to a 300-year trend in the philosophy of nature:

She wrote: "Cyberspace is a threat to the hardcore materialist idea of reality that has been proselytised so strongly throughout the 20th century. You can try to suppress the magical - but it will come bubbling back.

"It's ironic that telecoms are the way we are re-imbuing our world with myth. People can now slay dragons. And in a sense what we've done without moral trappings of a religion - we're giving people a religion - but sadly divorced from overall moral responsibility - we've Disneyfied the supernatural."

In Part Two of this investigation Paul Mason goes online to see if his spirit is moved by his fellow avatars.

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