One set of virtual footprints: a collective cyber-pilgrimage

How is modern technology transforming our engagement with the sacred? Does life lived in symbiosis with cyber-simulacra divorce us from contact with Real? Or have new ways of being arisen from the ashes of the Victorian edifice of formal religion, facilitating the mass sacralisation of life.

Image result for journey screenshot sacred mountain

As academics, classically trained in the anthropological analysis of pilgrimage and mythology, we have become increasingly interested in the way that certain online platforms provide opportunities for the flourishing of what we are terming exoreligious encounters with the numinous in the modern world.  That is to say, powerfully felt experiences of communion with something beyond the limits of ordinary existence in a context that is not easily attributed to either common sense or traditional understandings of religion. Cyberspace (and the realm of adult play that lies within it) suggests itself as one (although not the only) arena for the fruitful exploration of these phenomena.   It is both obvious and well documented (Campbell, Hutchings, McWilliams) however that many sites of cyber-pilgrimage have a direct relation with preexisting offline religious communities and places. Nevertheless, it also seems probable that the cyber world does not simply augment the offline; rather, just as physical action is transmuted, so too sacred space is transformed.

At one end of this transformative continuum stands that gamecompany’s 2012 game Journey, which is a sort of cyber pilgrimage to a sacred mountain, that has deeply affected globally dispersed (and culturally divergent) people of all faiths and none.  This is captured wonderfully in an online discussion forum, where one player wrote “I’m pretty much atheist myself, but that game gave me a sense of spirituality that other forms of media have failed to ever do.”

Image result for journey screenshot sacred mountain

To explore this further, in early 2016, we stated a cyber pilgrimage project and (in June 2016) we ran a laboratory at the annual meeting of the Association of Social Anthropologists of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, which happened to be held that year in Durham. The laboratory aimed to communally explore and collectively debate the game Journey by directly experiencing it. The game-play and discussion were then recorded and offered to the global community through you tube – the journey therefore continues through this secondary, perhaps more passive engagement, which forms the next step of our experiment.

The full online video captures (in real-time) the blended collective movements of the workshop participants through the onscreen movement of a single avatar. At the same time the pilgrims’ individual voices can be heard weaving a collaborative understanding of the experience through reactive discourse. The shorter, highlights videos, explore the responses and transposed movements more thematically and represent a further movement of knitting both time (the individual moments of the pilgrimage) and personhood (the individuals present) into a single, cohesive, narrative.

If you would like to find out what the workshop participants did and how vocalisation entwined with digital movement on the pilgrimage trail then you are invited to  view the videos here;  if you wish to help form the experience then please feel free to inscribe the movements of  your own fingers onto the cyberspace of the comments box  and (in so doing) join this, ongoing, journey.

Jonathan Miles-Watson is Senior Lecturer in the Anthropology of Religion, Department of Theology and Religion, Durham University.

Vivian Asimos is a PhD Student, Research Assistant and Teaching Assistant in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University.

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