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Virtual Pilgrimages

May 18, 2007

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Image courtesy of Foton

I have a huge backlog of stuff I want to write about, much of which is a little out of date, but I’m going to post a few of the more interesting bits.

One of the MMORPG blog posts that caught my eye was by Foton over at AFK Gamer where he explains how hard it was to get a glimpse of Strider in Lord of the Rings Online . I think we’re well used to the idea of ‘pop culture tourism’ and ‘secular pilgrimages’ but the idea of a ‘virtual pilgrimage’ runs particularly hard against the grain because of it lacks what is traditionally thought of as the essential attribute of a pilgrimage – authenticity.

Relics, the graves of dead rock stars etc. are revered because they are strong material links to a famous individual or cultural phenomenon, they’re power lies in their assumed authenticity and they give people the opportunity to get close to somebody or something that would normally be out of their reach. In his essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ ,Walter Benjamin referred to this authenticity as the ‘aura’ that came from something’s unique presence in space and time. But with fictional characters or places there clearly  is no original. Authenticity has to be constructed so the fact that LOTRO Strider bears a strong resemblance to Viggo Mortensen’s portrayal, undoubtedly the most universally accepted face of Strider,  surely has a strong influence on this sense of authenticity . Likewise the fact that Turbine have rights to the official Lord of the Rings Online name lends them more authenticity than if it was a fan-made unofficial game.

LOTRO isn’t the first virtual world to bring fans close to their heroes, MTV’s Virtual Hills and Virtual Laguna Beach, Virtual Worlds modeled on the MTV TV shows of the same name. In these VWs players can hang out by the same pools and shop in the same shops they see on TV, and occasionally even meet the ‘cast’ of the show in avatar form. Interestingly enough I use the word ‘cast’ in parentheses because both these shows are ‘reality’ shows, so the ‘characters’ are in fact real people who have allowed cameras access to portions of their lives (I’m not going to get into the ‘are they acting or aren’t they debate’ here), but in adopting avatars they allow for a degree of accessibility for fans of the show that would wouldn’t normally be the case .

I believe that many brands who want to get involved in the whole virtual world phenomenon need to take note of how successful LOTRO and Virtual Hills and Laguna Beach are by giving access to places and people that appeal to their fans. Many brands have iconic adverts that could easily be recreated in a VW such as Second Life, in fact players could actively participate in an advert as I suggested in my MRS presentation. There have been some attempts to do similar things already, for example as part of the promotion for the film 300, Spartan style weapons and armour were made available to Second Life residents so they could re-create scenes from the film in their own particular way and the L Word’s Second Life presence seems to be doing pretty well if the numbers of visitors are anything to go by, so brands that desire a more intimate relationship with their customers should take this approach to marketing very seriously, even if it does require a bit more time and effort.

Anyway, it’s early days for virtual worlds in the eyes of mainstream media, so hopefully we’ll see more of this in the future.

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