Echoes of Purgatory in World of Warcraft: Shadowlands

I just published a paper in Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture (vol. 25, no. 4, Fall 2022). Sadly, it is behind a paywall. For those without deep pockets or connections: The paper reports on the similarity between the lore of WoW’s recent Shadowlands expansion and the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory. The conclusion is mostly a question: As religious ideas are increasingly marginalized in the real world, why do they keep showing up in video games?

Here are some excerpts.

Religion in Games

Gallons of ink have been devoted to different issues regarding the effect of games on society. One relatively under-studied aspect involves religion. Do games encourage or discourage faith? Are they more or less attractive to people of faith? Is there a type of religion inside games and how does it compare to real religion? This paper addresses the latter question, based on first-hand observation of a specific game.

To begin with, when considering video games as a whole, the author’s investigations over the years have revealed that religious themes are omnipresent in games. At a very minimum, all games have a robust and forceful expression of Good and Bad: The Good is to succeed against the game’s challenges and the Bad is to fail. Most games, however, transmute mere ‘bad” into “evil” in order to support a narrative. In games that have any element of myth or fantasy, the Bad is associated with spirits, gods, demons, monsters, and the like: Evil. Wherever magic is used, there are two major schools: Arcane and Divine. Arcane magic is essentially technology: Manipulation of elements and various unseen forces of the natural world, such as mana (which is not bread from heaven but a resource, like a mental energy, that a mage must spend to do magical things). Divine magic is essentially the intervention of immaterial beings: Devils, angels, or gods. The archetype spell in arcane magic is the Fireball: A huge ball of flame that lands on a spot and burns everything around it. The archetype divine spell is Heal: A wave of positive force that closes wounds and restores broken bones. Divine magic could be interpreted as a “love force” that goes from one player to another, helping the target through some otherworldly mechanism. The divine is present in games in architecture: many buildings look like cathedrals and the gothic arch has not been this popular since the 16th century. There are holy books and even more frequently evil books, books that no one should read (but that the player inevitably does). The demonic is let loose all the time and is all the time made the target of the player’s hostility. Even when player characters are designed to be morally ambiguous or even evil, they still receive quests to defeat ‘really’ evil beings, as when a necromancer whom the story paints as a fellow worthy of sympathy finds his cemetery threatened by an even more powerful lich. Games, unlike modern culture, could not do without robust notions of good and evil, and a divine ordering of value is central to their themes.

What is generally not present in games is specific religious doctrine. Games are littered with cathedrals, but the Cross of Jesus Christ is nowhere to be found.[1] One sees sacred books, but not the Bible. Nor the Quran or Vedas or any other actual religious text. At a deeper level, one sees story arcs that draw on themes that religious people recognize, but only implicitly. The hero commits a sin and then redeems himself by saving the town. The player gets the sensibility of redemption but it is not articulated specifically. No character in a game says, “Through the Grace of the God and the sacrifice of His Son, your sins are forgiven.” Themes of cosmic justice abound and the evil forces are always defeated in the end. But nowhere is this tied explicitly to doctrinal ideas. No character says, “The ultimate defeat of evil is assured because it is the loving intent of the gods that this world should be Good rather than Evil.” Demons are merely nasty creatures that live on another plane of reality, not commanders of a Hell that may be the character’s fate if he does not abandon sin. Characters do bad things, but no character is said to bear an original sin. Rather, they are merely “flawed,” and the reason for the fallen state of the character and the world is tied to “the lore,” a story about other creatures who did things long ago.

To the extent that doctrines appear, they do so within the context of in-world religions. At best, fantasy religions reveal how little the writers and designers of fantasy understand about religion. At worst, games offer only a child’s view of what churches are all about. The character is positioned as someone who is superior and above the clerics and worshippers. An in-game priest might say that anyone who disagrees with him must be found and killed immediately. One of the more common types of enemies are “cultists” who mindlessly worship some sort of odd trans-galactic beings and believe that those beings want them to kill people here on earth. In this view, religious devotion turns a person into a robot. Or a cleric might be depicted as hopelessly naïve. The priest is a simpleton who follows doctrines that are clearly only viable in the context of his little village; the hero knows of deeper, darker things that would shatter the priest’s faith. Finally, there is the priest-as-doctor approach to religion, according to which holy organizations’ primary role is to cure diseases and heal wounds. There is only an indirect and rarely expressed connection to a divine being or order. The main thing is to reduce harms. This of course is simply an expression of today’s dominant moral ordering which insists that harm is the only standard of right and wrong. There are exceptions, but generally, fantasy religions are not the place to look for echoes of real religions.

Purgatory in Shadowlands

A person who plays Shadowlands will be exposed to a set of ideas that closely resemble the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory. The doctrine is not everywhere, however. Ardenweald concerns the creatures of nature rather than the status of souls. Maldraxxus is the odd duck, seeming to have nothing to do with the themes of the other zones other than a reference to the warrior afterlife. It seems likely that Maldraxxus was created to serve the specific (and commercially significant) demographic of adolescent boys, who love fighting, valor, goo, skulls, and all manner of icky things.

If we zoom in on the remaining three regions, Bastion, Revendreth, and the Maw, a coherent picture emerges that does look remarkably like Purgatory. In these regions, the story of a soul is this: After death, the Arbiter mentioned above sends a soul to one of three places. If the soul desires to become perfect, it is sent to Bastion as an aspirant. There, the soul works with kindly angelic mentors – the Ascended – to cleanse itself of sins. Eventually the soul may become one of the Ascended, and after that, it may be released via the rising stairway at the Temple of Wisdom into some higher state. Some Aspirants become frustrated and turn from the path; they are sent to Revendreth.

A soul that has some hope of redemption but does not desire it – either because it rejected Bastion or was irascible from the start — is sent to Revendreth. There, the arrogant Venthyr will apply their tools of persuasion until the soul finally admits its sins, or until the case appears hopeless. Those remaining incorrigible are sent to the Maw.

The Maw is the final station for souls that are not redeemed. Once a soul enters the Maw, it cannot be sent elsewhere. The soul belongs to the Jailer forever. The Jailer’s attendants and warriors look very much like dark versions of the Ascended. These Mawsworn are former servants of Bastion who have given their allegiance to the Jailer, much like fallen angels.

The lore here is not entirely consistent with specifics Catholic doctrine. For example, once a soul enters purgatory, Holy Mother Church teaches that she is saved with absolute certainty. No one in purgatory is ever cast into Gehenna. Nonetheless, the lore contains much that is quite Catholic, and we would not be surprised to find it in Dante. Dante’s vision is different, but it is of the same kind: A tale of the soul’s journey from this world through the afterlife into eternal bliss or eternal torment. Beneath this surface similarity, moreover, there is much detail to the game’s purgatorial vision. It appears to be more than just a gloss put on otherwise ordinary video game experiences.

The depth of Shadowland’s expression of Purgatory can be seen in the many ways it appears. A player might open a chest to find an item called Emotional Residue which seems to something purged from a soul. It can be sold to Brokers, who are apparently a sort of metaphysical Hansa trading in all kinds of ethereal goods. Other items one might find are named Virtue of Penitence or Manifestation of Regret. In Bastion, the angelic region, there are temples dedicated to various virtues: Humility, Wisdom, Purity, and so forth. There are bells for each virtue; the bells are known as Vespers.

Insight: Shadowlands does not seem to be the work of catechized people.

Calling bells “vespers” is of course incorrect, strictly speaking. The word vesper is derived from Latin via French and means “evening;” its only connection to bells must come from the monastic practice of ringing bells at prayer time, with Vespers being among the most prominent. Now, perhaps the developers are sophisticated religious thinkers, inviting the player to analogize the liturgy of the hours with the tolling of bells. Or perhaps they are not; perhaps a junior game developer, during an internet search for “bells,” came across a recording of monks being called to Vespers. Hearing the bells and seeing the name of the recording as “vespers,” she simply assumed that religious bells are known by that name.

Elsewhere in the world, the player may encounter an item that looks like a candle but is named “Voltive Candle.” There are similar slight misnomers through Shadowlands, suggesting that the people who made the game are probably not licentiates of sacred theology. This becomes important when we consider the motives for putting this stuff in the game, a subject to which we return in the Discussion section.

Though not fully formed in doctrinal terms, the experiences in Shadowlands are not without religious wisdom. A quest in Bastion makes the player light four different pots of incense and meditate on each one. The incense of Judgment is the one that yields the reward, but in order to meditate on that one the player must meditate about three others in the correct order:

  • Insight to choose
  • Knowledge to gain perspective
  • Patience to learn

Dear reader, what is your guess? In what order must these things be done so as to make good judgments? The answer is in the footnote.[1]

The clearest expression of purgatorial themes comes from the dialogue of non-player characters (NPCs). NPC dialogue is an atmospheric feature. NPCs will talk when giving quests (jobs for players to do), handing out rewards, or describing a situation. NPCs will often talk to each other, for no reason at all. The statements they make are typically repeated quite often. Every time a player runs through the market, the merchants there will call out their wares by drawing randomly from a set of scripts. Over time, the player may hear these scripted dialogues dozens of times. The themes seep gradually into player awareness. Knowing this, the developers craft NPC dialogue carefully. Much of it is trivial, discussions of the weather. But within the stream of trivialities, important clues are dropped. From NPCs, players learn the backstory behind certain events, or rumors about the motives of important figures in the lore. And in the case of Shadowlands, players learn about Purgatory.

Even the more in-depth elements of the lore support these purgatorial themes. The tale of Kael’thas Sunstrider is a perfect example of the Catholic view of purgatory. He is a once-powerful king whose pursuit of the good led him to commit terrible atrocities. In Shadowlands, there is a lengthy story arc in whichhe undergoes suffering in order to be cleansed and redeemed. Aquinas would be pleased.

Discussion: The Social Significance of Echoes

This paper has argued that an ancient doctrine of the Catholic Church has somehow made its way into a modern video game. That game was not made by Catholics. The developers appear to largely uninformed about Catholic life and practice – Catholics know that Vespers is a liturgy, not a musical instrument, and they know that special candles are about prayer (votive) not electricity (voltive). Yet somehow these uncatechized game makers stumbled upon a fairly sophisticated understanding of the doctrine of Purgatory, and they put it into the game.[2] Apparently, they soaked up ideas about redemption in the afterlife from the common cultural inheritance of the West, those distant echoes of the Christian past. It is an astounding occurrence but not rare in game design. On the contrary, many features of Western Civilization that are poo-pooed by modern society are prominent in videogames: The ideal of the Hero; the clear distinction between good and evil; society as a corporate body with parts (guilds, etc.), including a head (kings, queens, nobles, priests); integration of the person into a moral community; quests – see MacIntyre (1981, chapter 16); metaphysical reality (spirits, demons, and manifestations of virtues and vices); and religion itself: almost every role-playing game has its gods and its churches.

The sustained prominence in the virtual world of things that are being lost in the real world is a surprising development. Its oddity only deepens when we consider that the developer’s motive in all this is not conversion of souls but simply fun. Yes: Purgatory is apparently fun.

The idea that even a so-called “miserable religion” makes the world more fun has been discussed in some length elsewhere (Castronova, 2020). It is not so much that Purgatory itself is enjoyable. Rather, the existence of a Purgatory and its costs make all choices more meaningful and therefore more engaging. Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory make the game of life worth playing and playing well. Having meaningful choices is satisfying; making the right choices feels very good; playing God’s game is fun indeed, much more fun than wandering around in the empty voids of a Sartre or a Foucault.

Video games are fun; they also contain and carry forth ancient religious doctrines. What does this mean for social science?

When Rome fell, its knowledge passed into strange hands: Not those of thinkers, bureaucrats, or generals, but of monks. Classical learning passed into our hands via the very un-Roman institution of the Christian monastery. Monks decided for some reason that they should be about the business of copying books, all books, not just religious ones. Thus, almost everything that was known about the Classical world, for many centuries, was just that which Christian monks thought was worth copying. The monks were not bibliographic experts or careful scholars; much was distorted, much was lost. Yet some ideas survived, and so civilization was saved “by the skin of our teeth,” as Kenneth Clark (1969) put it.

Today, ancient doctrines that are gradually being forgotten by our civilization are appearing in video games. Perhaps video games are doing for us what the monks did for the Romans.

[1] According to the game, the right order is 1) Patience to learn, 2) Knowledge to gain perspective, and 3) Insight to choose. A reasonable person might quibble, but quibbling does not get the reward. The players have to do it in this order.

[2] Perhaps the developers independently derived the doctrine of Purgatory from scratch. If so, this would be strong empirical evidence in favor of a Natural Law explanation. Perhaps Purgatory is just another self-evidently true feature of our existence.

[1] The exception is games with a specifically historical focus, ones that depict some aspect of Christianity as part of historical storytelling.