Do androids dream of electric rabbit feet?

Superstition seems a quaint old thing, more suitable for old grannies or the illiterate, but it’s alive and well in the information age. Online computer games, such as World of Warcraft and UltimaOnline, are full of examples of this:

[…] facing in certain cardinal directions would affect how your crafting came out. […] Many people, if they were successful over-enchanting an item at a certain spot, will return to that spot every time they need to over-enchant.

Or, to get monsters to reappear, little dances could develop (note the similarity with Skinner’s pigeons):

Some [characters] would sit and stand rapidly while strafing back and forth. Others would crouch and run in circles or figure-eight patterns. Jumping seemed also to be a common theme.

and sometimes it would go as far as "saying some ritual phrase out loud (in real life)."

In the real world, superstition is often justified by ignorance: people don’t know the rules of the universe, so they develop superstitious beliefs. But in the online world, there are some people who do know the rules: the game programmers. But players cling to their superstitions in the face of direct contradiction from them:

[…] players were CONVINCED that if you used the diplomacy skill on a chest it would improve the loot you got. No matter how many times we posted on the forums that this was a myth and it doesn’t do anything, they kept doing it. Finally we made chests an invalid target for the diplomacy skill, then players whined that all the points they put into diplomacy were worthless because we "nerfed" the skill!

Online superstitions are similar to offline ones; low cost actions, socially reinforced by the group, indulged in by people who don’t believe in them because "it can’t hurt".

In the real world, we could always hope that the march of science could replace superstitious explanations with truer ones. But the truth is already out there in these virtual worlds, and is ignored. If these games are the shape of things to come, it might well be that the zenith of rationality is already in the past.

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