by Natasha L. Mikles
A strange set of pictures has been circulating on Chinese messaging apps this week. The photos—stills from the video footage of an internet café in an unknown Chinese city—show an elderly Chinese woman kneeling to make offerings and prostrating herself before an impressive statue of a man dressed in fantastical armor with a giant sword. The statue is reminiscent of traditional portrayals of the Chinese deity Guan Yu (known also as Guandi or Lord Guan), a deified hero from the Three Kingdoms period. Despite its imposing stature, however, the statue before which the Chinese woman was making offerings does not depict a deity, but rather Garen—a popular character from the online MMORPG League of Legends. The pictures first entered English-language circulation on the expat gossip and news website Shanghaiist, where they carry a variety of tags including “old” “prayer” and “lol.”
The Internet community has gleefully proclaimed the woman’s mistake and commented on the situation with an exuberant “lol.” But for scholars who consider their field as “Chinese religions,” this episode presents an interesting case study. Is this woman actually making a “mistake” or is something else going on? We might also ask why exactly this situation is so funny? What underlying assumptions about religion does the “lol” reveal? It seems there are at least two possibilities: Either 1) the woman mistook the figure Garen to be the traditional Chinese deity Guan Yu or 2) she was aware that she was making offerings to a statue of a figure not found in the traditional Chinese pantheon and simply did not care. If the woman was legitimately mistaken, this case says something interesting about the religious function of computer games. If the woman was not mistaken, this case says something interesting about how lived religion develops alongside media.
It is not so unreasonable to mistake Garen for Guan Yu. Many video games have incorporated deities or myths from a variety of cultures to add a fantastic atmosphere to the game, sometimes generating accusations of cultural insensitivity. In fact, League of Legends features a specific Guan Yu “skin” available for purchase to modify your character’s appearance in the game. Notably, this skin is linked not to the character that the Chinese woman may have mistaken for Guan Yu, but rather to the Barbarian King Tryndamere—a fact online gamers have debated with a surprising amount of depth and reference to the Romance of the Three Kingdoms which first made Guan Yu famous. Furthermore, there is an emerging body of literature on the religious functions of digital games. In eGods, William Sims Bainbridge argues that MMORPGS like “World of Warcraft” have taken on sociological functions previously served by religion. Games—with their systematized cosmologies, ritualized behaviors, and rules both spoken and unspoken—can function as implicit religions by creating specific worlds for players to inhabit populated with model heroes, mythic histories, and “ultimate concerns,” such as saving the world or defeating the opposing horde.
With this in mind, we might turn the question on its head to ask why it is surprising or funny to see someone make offerings to a game character. In her recent article in the edited volume Playing with Religion in Digital Games, Rachel Wagner explores the common assumption that games are “fun,” while religion is “serious.” She suggests instead reformulating our understanding of this dynamic as “being earnest as opposed to being insincere in one’s engagement with the ordered world that religions and games can evoke.” To earnestly interact with this world in such a way that affirms and reifies its social rules and assumptions is to take part in it religiously. This Internet café chose to erect an imposing statue of a video game character outside its doors, deliberately drenched in all its mythic significance. Is it so strange, so “lol,” for a woman to earnestly, if mistakenly, make offerings to the video game character?
The second possibility—that the elderly Chinese woman knew this figure was not found in the Chinese pantheon but made offerings anyway—reveals something significant about the religious attitudes of the woman herself. While scholars of religion generally acknowledge that the lived realities of religious practice are seldom as neat and tidy as we pretend them to be, we are continually surprised at just how elastic the nature of religion can be. J.Z. Smith famously describes religion as “the quest, within bounds of human historical condition for the power to manipulate and negotiate ones ‘situation’ so as to have ‘space’ in which to meaningfully dwell.” In the twenty-first century, why should this quest not include offering incense to an imposing armored figure outside the Internet café?
If, as Robert Orsi has argued in Between Heaven and Earth, religion is a network of relationships between people and the variety of sacred presences—both traditional and nontraditional—they revere, then it is irrelevant with what manner of “divine” personage this Chinese woman entered into relationship. Orsi is clear that his re-positioning of religions as networks of relationships frees scholars from claims about religion as either good or bad; however, it also frees them from claims about whether a practice is authentic or inauthentic. Someone’s offerings to a large statue are not necessarily “mistaken” or “wrong” simply because they do not take place in the appropriate environs of a temple or to the appropriate figure of a Guan Yu.
As Clifford Geertz noted one cannot “see beliefs” and we can know very little about this woman’s motivations from some video footage. This is too bad because there is so much we could potentially learn from this woman. Would this scene have happened if the Cultural Revolution had not destroyed temples and monasteries, disrobed traditional religious practitioners, and broken the tradition of Chinese religious practice for over a decade? And what do this woman’s offerings reveal about my own practice of scholarship? These moments of “elasticity” and “ad hoc” religious practices show how fragile our identities as scholars and inhabitants of a discipline truly are. If a Chinese woman can make offerings—mistaken or otherwise—to a giant statue of a video game character from an American-developed game taking place in the mythical land of Runeterra, what does it mean to call myself a “scholar of Chinese Religion” or, even, a “scholar of religion?”
 Rachel Wagner, “The Importance of Playing in Earnest,” Playing with Religion in Digital Games, Heidi A. Campbell and Gregory Price Grieve, eds. (Bloomington: Indian University Press, 2014. pp. 193-213, 193.
 Jonathan Z. Smith, Map is Not Territory: Studies in the History of Religions, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978) 291.
 Robert Orsi, Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars who Study Them, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 2.
Natasha L. Mikles is doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia researching the relationship between Chinese and Tibetan popular literature and religious reform. She will be teaching a course on Chinese Religions at the University of Virginia this summer.