important note: I'm not yet in the industry (still in school), and I offer only observations and opinions - I seek the wise counsel of seasoned vets!
Going old skool - Alfred North Whitehead states, in Religion in the Making (1926), that ritual is the basis of religion - nothing new there. Religion is ritual that results in serious emotions - awe, fear, guilt, redemption. He also states that Play is ritual (here we go...); specifically, Play is ritual behavior that results in fun.
For Whitehead, Ritual IS Culture: the aesthetic responses inspired in the individual by the rituals of their culture are the driving force behind that culture's longevity, adaptability, morality, etc. Thus Play and Religion, and the hybridizations that occur, make up the foundation of society. For those who might dismiss his thought out of hand, based on the state of the sciences in his time (especially the neurological and social), let me say that while Whitehead didn't know the exact mechanisms and structures involved, he had a very modern understanding of the priniciples of neurochemical feedback and social construction - check it out sometime it's worth it.
It would seem that many, in both the design and the player communities, have long thought that videogames hold an underappreciated place in the esteem of Western culture. I disagree - "Heartland America", whether embodied in West Coast Soccer Moms, East Coast WASPs, or Midwestern Farm Folk, has displayed fear and revulsion in response to any number of videogames. No one fears the weak...
To put it bluntly, Columbine murderer Eric Harris spent much of his time doing level design work - but given the rubric above, computer simulation was a religion for him, not play: a religion of hate and bitterness, which he preached on til the sickening and tragic end. Much is made of society's role in shaping the monster he became; but I among millions of others enjoyed playing DOOM as an angsty teen without becoming so horribly deviant. Surely, a confluence of factors such as powerful psychotropic medication, corporate sponsorsed celebration of Angst, and peer harrassment contributed to his personal religion of anger. However, his seeking out of immersion within a simulated world, to the point of designing it to his tastes, cannot be overlooked: he wasn't trying to create a Walled Garden, he was creating his own personal Hell.
Designers hope to create a world wherein the player has experiences that coincide with the designers' intent. The actual way in which the player interacts with the simulated environment, most especially when the player has some measure of freedom to redesign that enviroment, can never be fully predicted. Each individual brings a unique physiological and psychological makeup to the game, and invariably some will ritualize intended Play into Religion. I guess what I'm saying is that it's a colorful world out there, from black to white and everything in between: Designers play an incredibly important social role, the creation and sustaining of Culture (!) - yet the individual is free to ritualize the game as they choose. So maybe I've said nothing, really...
The thougths of those who are already "in the trenches" would be greatly appreciated!