Spiritual Expression in a Single-Shard Virtual World


The possibility of religious and spiritual expression in the world of Seed has been brought up by some members of the player community, and whether it would be player-created or designed into the game as an official feature. While it's still uncertain whether it will become an official gameplay mechanic, it's likely religious belief will arise simply due to Seed's unique server architecture as an MMO.

Single-Sharded Worlds Foster Shared Culture

“Massively multiplayer online” is almost always a misnomer, because there is rarely anything massive about the number of players online in any given MMO. You began your days as a gamer enthralled by the idea of joining millions of people in another world, simultaneously warcrafting or elder scrolling together -- then swallowed disappointment when you learned the world you’re exploring is just one “shard” of many, copies of an original that maybe a few thousand people at most share at any one time: you learned that different shards often have different rules, and as such, tend to attract different players.

Seed, by contrast, is single-sharded, meaning the entire player base inhabits the same simulated world. Very few MMOs have this architecture. There are many advantages to a game that’s single-sharded. Chief among them, what game designers call “emergence”: The unexpected, unplanned, and often delightful interaction of gameplay variables within the same simulation. But emergence isn’t just about NPCs or physics -- emergence is also social, evolving from the serendipitous interaction of players. Single-sharded worlds help cultivate the emergence of a shared culture among players -- including something like religion.

For example, take Linden Lab’s Second Life, an early pioneer of single-sharded MMOs. In its first few years, the entire virtual world of Second Life was laid out on a network of interconnected servers, so that it was possible to walk your avatar, uninterrupted, from the edge of one shore to the edge of the other. This created a tangible sense of shared reality, with common reference points. I saw first hand how this contributed to an emergent culture in my days as an “embedded reporter” in Second Life.

In a sharded MMO, when one server goes down due to technical reasons, users shrug and jump to another; when a single-sharded world goes offline, or undergoes a painfully flawed update, the entire userbase shares the pain. It quickly became common for Second Life players to speak about “the Lindens” like they were Greek gods, overturning the world order for sheer spite or caprice (avatar-based appearances of Linden staff in the world itself were treated like saintly visitations). Yes, this was all playful and ironic, but it became deeply ingrained in the culture of the early userbase. Many players built “shrines” to honor the Linden Gods.

Open-Ended Worlds Encourage User Creativity -- Including Spiritual Expression

Sharded MMOs tend to keep much tighter control over the player experience, to the point of shunting players into highly regimented instances with the same characters and story arc, and programmatic quests that players experience more or less the same way. This is probably why players of sharded MMOs build their shared culture within the constraints laid out by the game’s designers. The exceptions tend to operate outside the structural context: Take the “Leeroy Jenkins!” variety of VOIP-driven player chaos, or on the darker, trollier side, the infamous WoW raid which wiped out an in-game memorial to a fellow player who just died in real life.

By contrast, a single-sharded world nudges players to improvise, experiment, and create new stories about the world that they own. Inevitably, that includes narratives with a spiritual bent.

In EVE Online, another groundbreaking single-shard MMO, users founded a Church of Bob, dedicated to “a vicious deity who requires appeasement in the form of deaths, particularly those who transgress against the non-player characters (NPCs) in his realm.” The player community even wound up electing a “Space Pope” who gave weekly sermons, was made figurehead for a religious crusade which conquered half the galaxy, and showed up to a player con cosplaying in full papal regalia. These EVE-borne religious phenomena emerged from users riffing and joking with each other in shared chat groups during downtimes between conflict. In a very real sense, socialization within this single shared world created a need for shared symbols, beliefs and in-jokes that were unique and exclusive to the users.

That’s the positive outcome; less positive, at times, is another unintended consequence of the single-sharded simulation.

International Player Bases Bring Their Real Life Beliefs With Them

With everyone in the real world sharing the same online world, players tend to aggregate into sub-groups based around their nationality, or language. While English is more or less the standard secondary language around much of the globe, we still tend to see more discrete socialization around nationality, or among users from countries where English fluency is less standard.

Which is to say this: A single-sharded virtual world will inevitably wind up with recognizable groups which are identifiable by their real life nationality, ethnicity, or culture. And because many of these groups place a prime value on religious belief, they are likely to bring symbols of their spirituality to this new world.

But religious divides can also follow users into the virtual space. One high-minded Second Life group founded its own interfaith metaverse religion called The Avatars of Change, announcing, “We are an ecumenical religious and cultural order, united by the Avatarian Way.” However, when disagreements over the members’ real life doctrines emerged, this new religious group quickly fell into chaos.

Seed is not just a single-sharded world. Within the fiction of the world’s narrative, it’s also a colony and home for earth’s descendants. Some may bring to it a missionary zeal, others may resist religiosity just as fiercely. And while this would be a cause for much conflict and community policing, it would also be a sign of success: If Seed truly seems like a new world to its players, many of them will want to bring their old gods with them during the move.

- Wagner James Au