Ancestor Veneration Avatars

Ancestor Veneration Avatars

William Sims Bainbridge (National Science Foundation, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-2211-1.ch017
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It is possible at the present time to create virtual representations of deceased loved ones, and inhabit them as a way of expressing reverence and of dealing with one’s own feelings of loss, as demonstrated by this study in which 18 Ancestor Veneration Avatars (AVAs) were created. Most obviously, this can be done in massively multiplayer online role-playing games and comparable non-game virtual worlds. The identity of any individual person contains fragments of other people, most especially members of one’s family. In addition, people play a variety of roles, adopting identities temporarily that are more or less distinct from each other. Furthermore, a number of social scientists and commentators have suggested that individuals have become protean or multiplex, as rapid social change, multiculturalism, and the division of labor have eroded the functionality of unified identities. Finally, secularization has undercut traditional religious ways of managing feelings toward deceased relatives. A remarkable deduction from these observations is that many people should consider playing the role of a deceased loved one through an avatar in an online gameworld, as a form of emotionally satisfying ancestor veneration.
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Social Science Background

A significant challenge for every human culture has been how to deal with death, not only one's own impending demise, but also the loss of friends and especially the loss of parents (Chidester, 1990). Anthropologists have found that what they call ancestor worship is a prominent feature of “primitive religion,” and some suggest that gods are merely ascended ancestors who have gradually lost their original identities (Fortes, 1961). As Weston La Barre put this controversial point, “A god is only a shaman's dream about his father” (La Barre, 1972, p. 19; cf. Freud, 1946). Other theories of the origin of religion exist, notably the view that religion evolved from earlier traditions of magic in order to compensate people emotionally in situations of loss, deprivation, and inescapable frustration (Stark & Bainbridge, 1985; 1987). Thus the term ancestor veneration may be more appropriate than ancestor worship for a wider range of social contexts and theoretical approaches, because it does not necessarily deify the ancestors, yet implies some continuing devotion to them after their deaths. Here the term refers to all deceased relatives, whether or not they were in the direct ancestral line of descent.

Individuals may differ on exactly why they might wish to engage in symbolic activities related to departed family members, because several distinct emotional and cognitive processes may be at work, in different degrees for different people. Some may feel guilt that they were not sufficiently kind to the family member when they were alive, and may even harbor nagging feelings that they might have prevented the death in some way. They might conceptualize a parent's devotion to them while a child as a debt that must be repaid. Others may have been emotionally dependent upon the departed persons, and unable fully to escape the sense of needing them. Many of the skills and intellectual knowledge of the venerator may have been learned from the departed one, and thus a memory of the departed is stimulated whenever those abilities are used.

One of the recent cognitive theories of religion derives belief in gods from the human ability to conceptualize the thoughts, feelings, and motives of other people (Boyer, 2001; Atran, 2002). Given how important it was for people to be able to understand the behavior of partners, prey, and predators in the East African homeland of humanity, this mindreading ability is very powerful and at times can become hyperactive. In particular, humans may read personality into complex natural systems, such as attributing thunder to Jupiter or Thor. A different result is the possibility that our minds contain semi-autonomous models of the minds of the other people most important to us, and these models will continue to function semi-autonomously after the death of the person from whom they originated. It is easy to exaggerate this cognitive phenomenon, but there is a sense in which we contain within us the souls of loved ones. It is more obviously true that humans have the capacity to play multiple roles, and some psychologists have even argued that this ability has increased in recent centuries, as a complex society and fluctuating conditions have eroded the basis for a stable, unitary self (Lifton, 1971; cf. Goffman, 1956; Erikson, 1968; Fuller, 1970). A protean self plays multiple roles over time, whereas a multiplex self plays multiple roles simultaneously.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Character: In the context of online communities, a computer avatar that possess some individuality in its own right, rather than merely being a representation of the user.

Human-centered Computing: The subdiscipline of information science that combines human-computer interaction studies, social computing, and similar research and engineering activities.

Mindreading: In modern cognitive science, the functions of a healthy human brain that allow it to model the behavior, intentions, and feelings of other human beings.

Multiplex Self: A mode of human behavior in which the individual plays multiple roles simultaneously, for example running two or more characters at the same time in a gameworld.

Protean Self: A mutable form of human personality that changes fluidly from situation to situation, perhaps pathological if it leaves the individual without a stable core of identity.

Ancestor Veneration: A variety of ritual and role-playing practices through which living people celebrate the lives of deceased family members.

Gameworld: A rich and complex virtual world, typically online and computer-mediated, marketed as a game.

Avatar: A Hindu religious term referring to a manifested aspect of a god or person, now applied to representations of persons inside computerized virtual environments.

Virtual World: A complex computerized environment that resembles a real world, often a persistent environment where many people can interact and where their actions have lasting consequences.

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