Trials, Triumphs and Trivialities Article
Series Info...Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #118:

Death & Loss in Virtual Land

by Shannon Appelcline

May 8, 2003 – My grandmother died just a week ago today. In a short time I'll be attending her funeral service. It thus might not be entirely a surprise that this week my mind is on death and loss.

At the same time I recently read an article by Tracy Spaight called Who Killed Miss Norway? It's well written and very interesting, and I suggest you go read it, especially since I'm expecting my own article to be short this week. Go ahead, just click through their Mazda ad; I'll wait.

In case you didn't read Tracy's article, let me summarize: he began investigating the death of a player a number of years ago on [[][LegendMUD]], to talk about how we can feel grief in our virtual communities when someone we only met virtually dies. The catch was that Tracy discovered that not only had the player's death been a hoax, but the actual player had been as well. (Not the first time, nor the last. I experienced my own "death of a virtual friend" back in 1991 or 1992, and even at the time I suspect it to be a hoax; in retrospective I'm now fairly certain that 'Casey' was a virtual crossdresser and the death was his/her way out.) Tracy's conclusion on the topic of Miss Norway was both interesting and, I feel, truthful: that it didn't matter that Miss Norway never existed, nor did it lessen the grief for those involved.

The Meaning of Grief

Let me sidestep for a moment and ask the question, why does death affect us? In both considering the topic analytically and in thinking over my own recent grief, I'd suggest that there are three main reasons.

First, there is the selfish little reptile part of our brain which would do anything to survive and loathes to admit its own mortality. Any death reminds us of the fallacy of that statement.

Second, there is the ordered, analytical part of our brain, which likes to make plans. It's thrown into discord by the suddenness of most deaths. To a certain extent our world is turned upside down, and it's no longer the same as it was the day before.

Third, there's the social, loving part of our brain, which interacts with other people for the sheer joy of it. And we suddenly realize that there's a gap here, a hole — an emptiness that will never be filled. We'll never again be able to talk to the person that's gone, to share our own soul with them, and learn more of theirs in turn.

Loss in Virtual Worlds

Given that outline of some of the ways that death affects us, and considering the hoaxed death of Miss Norway described by Tracy Spaight, it's worth asking the question: what does death mean in virtual worlds?

To be more specific, is it any less a loss when someone's character dies in a virtual world, if you never knew their true identity, and thus the person that you interacted with is gone forever? Or, alternatively, is it any less a loss when a person that you've interacted with for years in your favorite online game leaves it behind, and because you don't have any real-life connection to them, you realize that you'll never see them again?

If I were to write clearly and boldly In Memorium of Philo, Punzel, and Quigg (replace those names with three online game characters who have come and gone in your circle), might it not still bring tears to your eyes?

My answer to these somewhat hyperbolic questions is this: someone leaving a virtual community behind (or dying in-game) is clearly a less traumatic event than the death of someone we love offline, whether they were very close to us, or just a voice on the phone, like my grandmother. Still, in virtual loss there is grief involved — real sorrow. We might not feel the reptile fear, but still we miss the socialization, and are often shocked by the suddenness as well. When someone leaves a virtual community, it can be a "small death" to those who knew that person only there.

Designing Around Loss

And this leads us back to the topic of game design. What can you, as a game designer, do to help ease the burden of loss within a virtual world, where people will come and go in the span of years, rather than the decades that we enjoy in the real world?

I, again, have three suggestions.

First, you should make your games damned interesting. This is pretty much a given, I know, but worth stating because it's a real answer to this question. The more interesting your game is, the more you'll keep people around, and thus keep your little virtual community together.

And, since we're on the topic of people and socialization, I'll also say that one of the ways you can keep your game the most interesting is to really let your players shine. Give them true powers of expression and creativity and their inner essences will flow into the game and enrich it.

Second, you should remember those who have left. Our own Meridian 59 has a few shrines to those players who have died, as described in this post. There was likewise a [[][shrine]] in LegendMUD to the Miss Norway described in Tracy's article. However, I'm really suggesting something beyond that.

I'm suggesting that you should not remember just those who have died while playing your game, because as the Miss Norway story revealed, there is grief if the death is true or hoax. I'm suggesting that you should remember those who have merely left — passed on, as it were, from our virtual reality. A cushion with Punzel's name embroidered upon it? A portrait of Philo in the dueling room? The phrase "Quigg Big" carved onto the underside of a table in the refectory? They're all ways to remember fondly those people we once knew who are now gone.

And if players can themselves create these sorts of remembrances, your game will be that much more powerful because of it.

Third, you should create out-of-band communication. By this, I mean quite simply, ways that players can communicate with each other outside of the game, first so that the death of a character doesn't end the communication between players, but second so that ex-players might choose to stick around a community even if they are no longer playing within it.

Clearly most games start this out with an "OOC" (out-of-character) way to talk in-game. Then they follow it up with forums, such as those we have here at Skotos — but ultimately that usually doesn't stop a player from leaving altogether when he's done with a game; after all, would you want to keep reading the forums about a game that you decided to leave after much angst and heart-searching?

At Skotos, I think, we've done just a little bit more. First, we have not just one game but many, and thus people can flit from one world to another if they grow bored and the interpersonal connections that people create can survive this small transition. Second, we've expanded our community to cover not just games, but also discussion of the design of games, as can be seen in our articles forums. We also have "noise" forums for our games which tend to be about people instead of characters. And, finally, we're starting to consider ideas of how we might be able to let our players express themselves in more general ways, such as through Skotos weblogs. I think these all build our community, and help provide a broader scope for creating friendships than just within a single game.

Closing Notes

I'd classify this article as mostly a ramble, but you get carefully thought-out, analytical articles here, oh, at least 35 weeks out of the year, so I figure I'm due. In many ways I'm writing because that's my own way of dealing with grief.

However, at a higher level, I think I'm saying this: ultimately, we can't control when people leave our lives, but online perhaps we can do at least a little bit to keep people within our virtual worlds.


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