“Death is difficult under any circumstance. The death of a friend you only knew via the internet is something that this generation is just learning how to deal with.” — Matthew Miller, in an article posted on mmorpg.com, 6/25/2013
At NCPH 2015, I participated in the working group about play organized by Mary Rizzo and Abby Perkiss. It got me thinking a lot about gaming, virtual worlds, and how digital space relates to fundamental aspects of public history. Specifically, I am interested in how real people create digital memorials in virtual space. There are similarities between “real-world” memorials and those in “virtual” worlds, and digital memorials generally serve a similar purpose to their “real” counterparts. But simply assuming they are one and the same ignores that digital spaces have distinct social norms, communities, and culture. These are important to recognize and understand.
While digital games may not affect our lives as much as “real life,” it is important to remember that millions of people play these games for lengthy periods of time. The most popular of these games, World of Warcraft (WoW), has around 10 million subscribers — and the game is entering its eleventh year of existence. Dozens of other games with persistent worlds also exist today with millions more individuals playing these games collectively. Digital, in-game events can have a great effect on the lived realities of the “real life” individuals. People identify closely with their digital identities (also known as an avatar or character). Some identify more closely than others, and there is a growing body of literature on the phenomenon of digital identity.
Before I go any further, I should outline a few parameters. The games I am talking about are massively multiplayer online role playing games, or MMOs. In these games, the player takes on the role of a player-created character (PCs) and enters a world with tens, hundreds, and sometimes thousands of other PCs. The gaming world is a persistent place, populated with diverse environments, buildings, homes, and so on. The world is also populated by non-player characters, or NPCs, which are controlled by the game’s artificial intelligence and serve many purposes. Finally, while every game is controlled in part by the community of players, ultimate controls lies with the company who creates, owns, and manages the game.
I am particularly interested in the overlap between real and digital space. A cascade of questions emerge: what happens to a digital presence when the real person is no longer around? Specifically, what happens in MMO communities when people die? How do their in-game friends react? How does the company react? Thousands of books exist about memorials, mourning, monuments, and other “real life” ways of honoring the recently departed. But what of the digital life? What does memorializing looking like in a society of people who have never met, seen one another, or (in some cases) even heard each other’s voices?
A prominent example comes from a famous person in this world — Gary Gygax, a creator of popular pen and paper game Dungeons and Dragons. Gygax died in 2008. Today, players of the game Dungeons and Dragons Online (D&D Online) can still complete quests narrated to them by Gygax. In 2010, a rumor spread throughout the D&D Online community that Gygax’s voiceovers were to be removed from the game. Fans reacted with significant outrage. One online comment read “I cannot bear this change. You can remove the dice descriptions, you can nerf everything, you can change all the UI you want, but you cannot remove Gary Gygax’s voice.”
The Gygax examples raises more specific questions: what does it mean for the memory of Gygax that his voice is still readily accessible in an online world he, in a way, helped create? Why did players react so outraged when rumors began? Are his voiceovers considered a memorial? How does Gygax’s voice help players understand the digital and “real” lives? And what about memorializing people who are not known to the entire community? So many questions arise within these digital worlds, and only within the past few years are scholars considering the possibilities raised by digital worlds and the connection between living people and their digital characters.
As a quick note…this short post is not meant to be any attempt at an exhaustive list of digital memorials, but simply an effort to understand the meaning, purpose, and characteristics of such memorials through a series of examples.
In-game community-run funerals for real-life people are relatively common in MMOs. A recent example is when Final Fantasy XIV gathered in-game to quietly pay their respects to a fellow player whose health was failing.
Another example — and likely the most well known — comes from EVE Online and the death of well-known player Vile Rat (Sean Smith in “real life”). Smith was an employee of the US Foreign Service and one of four Americans who died in the 2012 Benghazi attack on the US Consulate. Since, EVE Online players have renamed dozens of locales and held memorials in Vile Rat/Sean Smith’s honor. Smith’s former in-game colleagues actually crossed into the “real world” to memorialize, holding a benefit for Smith’s family and ultimately raising $127,000 toward his children’s college fund.
Goodman/Frank Campbell & Ultima Online
One memorial is rather unique in its spontaneous organization and long-term resilience — the Goodman Memorial on the Atlantic shard of Ultima Online (UO).
Goodman — real name Frank Campbell — managed a rune library in game (don’t worry about what a rune library is). His rune library required a great deal of upkeep, including regular building maintenance, “rent” payment, and community relations, much like a “real world” library. Goodman/Campbell died on August 30, 2005. Upon his death, Goodman’s UO friends, in effect, embarked upon a digital historic preservation project. They took over maintenance of the rune library and converted the roof into a memorial rose garden. In the garden, players leave objects and sign books with their memories of Goodman/Campbell’s life. In addition, every year on August 30 (or thereabout), players meet on a nearby beach for an in-game memorial service to remember Goodman and others who have passed. The 2010 service is on Youtube.
Over the 18 years of UO’s existence, many other players have died. The community and company recognizes this: the largest UO community forum site — Stratics — has an entire subforum dedicated to player memorials.
Ribbitribbit & Everquest II
Another spontaneous example comes from Everquest II (EQ2) and the story of Ribbitribbit — a character played by a six year old boy. The boy’s mother posted on the EQ2 forums asking that the community help Ribbitribbit decorate his house, because that was the thing he enjoyed most in-game and he honestly did not have much longer to live.
Individuals from across multiple EQ2 servers came together — about 360 in total — to decorate this home. While some SOE employees joined in the cause, this effort was entirely player and community driven. For some more details on the efforts of this group (named the Lillipad Jungle and later the Fairy Godfroggers), there’s a great write up on Engadget. The family of Ribbitribbit also posted a series of videos documenting the boy’s reactions to his newly decorated home.
Since these events in 2012, people gathered annually on Ribbitribbit Day (March 9) to, as an organizer put it, “celebrate not only Ribbitribbitt, but all the friends we have lost along our adventures. And we want to celebrate the friendships we have made that are still going strong. Myrose, Ribbitribbitt’s mother, and I would like to invite you to this celebration.”
Company Memorials: The Example of Blizzard Entertainment
In many ways, digital memorials allow for new ways of remembrance, such as moments where gaming companies memorialize their employees and players of their game (or consumers of their product, if you want to get cynical). Probably the most famous examples comes from the story of Ezra Chatterton and World of Warcraft (WoW), a game developed by Blizzard Entertainment.
Ezra was a boy from California who had brain cancer. In 2007, the Make-A-Wish Foundation granted Ezra’s wish to visit the Blizzard offices, where Ezra worked with developers to create a new in-game material, including an NPC named Ahab Wheathoof and a new quest “Kyle’s Gone Missing!”
Ezra passed away in October 2008. There were two responses to Ezra’s passing: one from the community and another from Blizzard. In the days after the news became public, thousands of players traveled to the rarely visited area explicitly to complete “Kyle’s Gone Missing!” as a tribute. Blizzard followed with their own tribute the following year, permanently changing the name of an in-game NPC from Elder Proudhorn to Elder Ezra Wheathoof.
This continued a long-standing Blizzard memorialization tradition, as Blizzard has a unique connection to such tragedy and memorials. One of their own, Blizzard employee Michael Koiter, died during the game’s development. A location in game, The Shrine of the Fallen Warrior, is a monument to Koiter, and it has occasionally been a location of other spontaneous memorials. A few years before Ezra’s story, developers named an NPC (Caylee Dak) after a player (Dak Krause) who died of leukemia. There are far, far more than these memorials in the WoW universe.
More Company Memorials
Other game developers have also built monuments to fallen players, most notably ArenaNet in their game Guild Wars 2. About a year ago, an active community member died, and ArenaNet created a new grave in an in-game cemetery. Further, the online wiki she helped curate became a place of spontaneous remembrance. ArenaNet memorialized another player just this month when they added a second in-game memorial, this time creating a new NPC in honor of a female player who tragically died during childbirth.
Numerous companies also memorialized the aforementioned Gary Gygax in a multitude of ways beyond the preservation of his D&D Online voice. EQ2 introduced an item, the Stone of Gygax, that players can place within their homes; UO created and named a new room within a pre-existing dungeon after Gygax; and D&D Online also created a digital shrine within a pre-existing “tomb.” Many other games, including WoW, explicitly mentioned Gygax in their official notes and mourned his passing.
Dying Worlds & A Call for Preservation?
Virtually every MMO contains a memorial in some way. I’d like to mention three more: Star Wars Galaxies had the Freeman Memorial, a room dedicated to the memory of an SOE employee, and City of Heroes had the tutorial NPC Coyote, named after a person who suddenly passed and went by the forum name of Kiyotee; and Warhammer Online players organized in-game memorials after well-known player Sugbis died while actually playing the game.
The three examples in the preceding paragraph have one thing in common: none of these online worlds exist any longer. The Star Wars Galaxies digital world shut down forever on December 15, 2011; City of Heroes on November 30, 2012; and Warhammer Online on December 18, 2013. A memorial in physical space is generally assumed to exist in perpetuity, but digital memorials are ephemeral by the very nature of online video games. This ephemeral nature is best exemplified by the three examples in the preceding paragraph. All that’s left of each memorial is a wiki page, player memories, and a few videos.
Unlike the “real world,” it is impossible for individuals to control the digital space of MMOs. They can petition game companies to create memorials, beg for an extension the life of the game servers, or attempt to create semi-legal player-run servers…but ultimately gaming companies exclusively control the digital world. Even games with the most detailed levels of digital property ownership are still ultimately controlled by the game company, and when the company decides a game world is to be shut down… then it simply shuts down.
I see it as rather sad — possibly even tragic — that these worlds get shut down permanently. Digital memorials contribute to how individuals make sense of their digital and “real-world” lives. A company shuts down a game and it takes down its intellectual property, but it also takes with it memories, stories, and these memorials with it. These stories and memories mean a great deal to people. Without the digital space, then all that’s left is memory. As evidence of the power of these memories, there are still several very active online forums dedicated to the memory of MMO communities even though what brought them together — the MMO itself — has been dead for years.
So what can public historians do? I think we need to start thinking of ways to document, archive, and preserve these moments. There are many roadblocks to preserving, for example, the digital world of City of Heroes. For one, NCSOFT still owns the intellectual property rights. I understand that securing the rights to any game would be a huge hurdle for any archive to overcome…but I also imagine that educational fair-use arguments could open some doors. Another huge problem is technical. MMOs require both a client computer and servers, and most places with archival or preservation aspirations simple do not have the technical budget or expertise to maintain such a project. Some former developers have suggested releasing client-side “exploration-only” versions of dead games, but still — game companies hold all the power here.
That said, a number of archives do a very good job of preserving other video games, such as The Strong, the University of Michigan, and the University of Texas. At least one scholar has called upon the Library of Congress. It would take a lot of effort, but an institution such as these could organize an MMO preservation project. For all I know, at least one of these institutions may already be on the path. I hope they are, because MMOs are more than just games to some; they have become places of commemoration, remembrance, and even mourning. These are places where people making meaning for their real lives as well as the digital, and I believe that scholars of memory, memorials, and public history should take note.
 For example, see Nike Yee, The Proteus Paradox: How Online Games and Virtual Worlds Change Us — and How They Dont’ (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014); and Jim Blaskovich and Jeremy Bailenson, Infinite Reality: The Hidden Blueprint of Our Virtual Lives (New York: William Morrow, 2011).