My Avatar, My Soul: When Mystics Log On

Last month I headed to Las Vegas for a conference, this month it's Los Angeles, California (USA). Ah, the cosmopolitan life of a medievalist, eh? This dizzying international pinball is obviously what life is mostly like as a medieval scholar, just popping over the pond every few weeks to another academic shindig. Yeah, no. This is highly irregular - but utterly lovely, darling - scheduling for me. I'm looking forward to the sun (if not the wildfires) in LA, and the chance to share some material from my book. I'm presenting excerpts from Chapter 4 of Medieval Saints and Modern Screens, which considers medieval visions in terms of twenty-first-century experiences online. The blurb below covers the Chapter's main contours, which I'm abbreviating for the LA conference. In this paper, I'm focusing more squarely on the way in which the figure of the avatar - understood simultaneously as the online embodiment of the user's offline personhood and a manifestation of the divine  - works as a means to think through key issues in the material from both eras. Scroll to the bottom of this post to leaf through the slide deck I'll be using for the paper.  

Chapter overview:

The medieval saint interacts with God in her mind, in mystical vision space – yet these mental experiences are figured as having meaningful corporeal consequences and tangible outcomes in the earthly realm. The online environment of Second Life (SL) offers parallels of modern Christian worship to meditative medieval piety. SL is a three-dimensional online virtual environment designed to allow users to live out a simulated version of life via their avatar. The avatar is a visible version of the self that is wholly controlled by the offline user. SL Christians participate in recognisable religious rites in the intangible (‘meditative’) space of the internet, and these rites significantly affect the user’s offline body. I argue that SL Christians’ modern worship experiences shed light on the experiences of medieval mystics, and vice versa. 


Seeking Second Life Christians for Research Study

Are you a Christian Second Life user? Have you engaged in some form of religious worship online in the past 6 months? I would like to talk to you!


•    My name is Alicia Spencer-Hall and I am a researcher in the French Department at Queen Mary, University of London (UK). I am conducting a study into the religious practice online and offline. I want to find out how Christian Second Life Residents worship both within Second Life and offline in the real world. I also want to hear how Residents understand their worship practices in their own words, and what role they think their avatars have in worship.

Screenshot of the researcher's SL avatar from the 2011 study, "Pixelated Prayers 1"

Screenshot of the researcher's SL avatar from the 2011 study, "Pixelated Prayers 1"

•    I am looking for volunteers for 45 minutes interviews, to be conducted in Second Life over IM (Instant Messenger) in private. All volunteers need to be over 18, self-identify as Christian and have engaged in some form of religious worship online (any activity you find to be meaningfully spiritual) in the past 6 months. 

•    This study is a follow-up of an earlier study undertaken by the researchers in 2011, “Pixelated Prayers 1”. We are very appreciative to participants in this earlier study. However, in order to not double up on responses, individuals who took part in the 2011 study are not eligible to take part in this study.

•    The only personal data I will be collecting is: age, sex, offline country of residence, religious beliefs and behaviour (online and offline) and Second Life username. I will NOT be collecting any other identifiers such as your offline name, address etc. Please be reassured that all interviews will be completely confidential, and all research data will be maintained under the British Data Protection Act of 1998. Your Second Life username will NEVER be revealed in the research findings report(s).

•    Participation in this study is completely voluntary and you will be able to pull out of the study at any time, without any disadvantage, if at a later point you do not wish to complete the study.

•    Please also read my Information Sheet (below) for more details on this study.

•    Please feel free to email me at a.spencer-hall [AT] if you have any questions or queries, and/or wish to join this study. Equally, please feel free to get in touch in Second Life with my avatar for this study, “pixelpray”. 

•    This study has been approved by Queen Mary, University of London (Ethics of Research Committee Ref: QMERC2015/77 ).


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