Cool Courses: Religion, Ritual, and Virtual Reality

PlayStation III and computer games aren’t common in most classrooms or on most syllabi. But in assistant professor Rachel Wagner’s Religion, Ritual, and Virtual Reality course, which was offered for the first time in spring 2008, these games are essential to the class’s research and are used to facilitate class discussions. 

The H&S Educational Grant Initiative funded the cost of a PlayStation III and religious-themed games, such as The Bible Game, Black and White, and Left Behind, which students experimented with in class. The class also has its own wiki and blog, where students post reflections and discussion questions weekly such as, “What makes a religious experience valid? Can one have a religious space in a virtual context? If so, does the virtual replication of a religious experience have real world consequences?”

Wagner acknowledges the difficulty in finding answers to these questions, but she believes these complexities raise the scholarship of the class: “One of the most rewarding things about the class is seeing how theory in one field can relate to another, which brings new and worthwhile insights to the classroom. I have never seen students so enthusiastic about reading classic texts in the theory of religion. As a result, the quality of writing, the level of analysis, and the enthusiasm has never been so high.”

Psychology major and religion minor Rebecca Zaremba ’10 describes her experiences in the class: “Being able to participate in discussion, hear what others think, and analyze theorists makes the class like a puzzle—a very complex puzzle—but still one that is stimulating and intriguing to try and piece together.” The research from the course is helping Wagner complete her book, Virtually Religious, which is due to come out next year.