To say that hardcore WoW players are fanatics is one thing, but to call them religious is another. That's what a graduate student at the University of Colorado is arguing, though.
Citing the French sociologist Danil Hervieu-Lger's definition of religion, Theo Zijderveld argues that though World of Warcraft isn't a religion proper, it certainly contains the four key ingredients: community, ethics, culture and emotion. The communal aspect, Zijderveld says, comes from playing with people and making friends within the game. As for the ethics, the rules of the game (and presumably the rules of the community) constitute that. "Thou shalt not ninja loot" being a rough equivalent of "Thou shalt not steal," I'm guessing. The rich Warcraft lore and mythos provide the culture, and the feeling of belonging that WoW players experience in-game provides the emotional dimension.
The act of playing a character in WoW, or in other virtual worlds like Second Life, Zijderveld argues in his paper "Cyberpilgrims," is a way of acting out a quest for enlightenment and spiritual identity in a supremely secular world. "You have to level up as a way of self-realization," he explained. "It can be very spiritual."
Though a virtual space like WoW is ultimately not real, Zijderveld would say that that very fact makes it even more like a religion. Religion is based in illusions and fictions, but the important part is that even though people may know it's not real, they experience it that way. "Though virtual realities are in fact not real, they are experienced as real," he writes. Like religion, "they offer a framework that makes sense by offering a narrative and rules of the game...People can experiment and develop their cyber-character, and thus contribute to sef-realization. In an enchanted virtual world, they can truly find a spiritual identity."