By Peter Versteeg The virtual world as hereafter. Except as a space in which the impossible can happen and players can master dragons or conquer solar systems, the virtual reality of the ‘massively multiplayer online’ game (MMO) touches our imagination of eternity. It is the experience of virtuality itself that evokes images of the never-ending. Against that background people reflect upon the possibility to live on virtually, after death.
The experience of virtual reality is a special kind of consciousness. In virtuality people are in their own offline space, and yet at the same time in another, virtual space. Thus people are both in an everyday consciousness and an imagined consciousness. This imagined consciousness of virtual reality is more than just some animations from the realm of ideas; it is a truly dimensional space with all the characteristics of a world like our own everyday reality. Most important is the possibility to interact with a ‘material’ as well as a social environment. Players in this world are characters who can form and develop themselves through this material and social interaction. In this respect, the virtual world of the MMO is indeed as real as real life. However, it’s also a world that is simplified in comparison to our offline reality. In EVE Online, an MMO that is characterized by the great freedom that players get to construct their virtual lives, the universe’s dynamics is driven by a continuous flow of wars, skirmishes, scams and piracy.
Death is everywhere in MMOs. For players the most crucial question in this regard is: how do I avoid the death of my character, and, if it happens, how do I make sure that it turns back to life as soon as possible? Sometimes the remembrance of dead characters becomes a part of the virtual landscape, such as EVE Cemetery, a huge graveyard where player characters can be buried. Besides the temporary death of a character there is also a place for the real departed in MMOs. In EVE Online it’s not unusual to remember deceased players, for example, by disposing containers with memorial words in space. Sometimes groups of players organize memorial events for deceased game buddies. In EVE Online players have the possibility to carry biographical information on their characters that is visible for other players. Sometimes these bios contain references to friends that have died. In these forms of mourning and remembrance we see how offline reality enters into the virtual worlds.
A well-known sign of remembrance in Azeroth, the virtual world of bestselling MMO World of Warcraft, is the ‘Shrine of the Fallen Warrior’. It was constructed to remember Michael Koiter, a young developer who worked for this game in its early stages. The monument is an altar on a mountain. On the altar is a copy of the character of Koiter. Before the altar is a so-called ‘spirit healer’ who visibly carries the name ‘Koiter’. In World of Warcraft ‘spirit healers’ are angelic figures who bring back dead players to life. The sociologist William Bainbridge, who researched Azeroth as a virtual ethnographer, calls this monument a sign of religious hope of life after death. According to Bainbridge, MMOs can develop in such a way that they eventually become a real hereafter, in other words, a place where deceased players can ‘live on’ by copying the player’s character to a computer operated animation. Although the real death of a player discontinues the correlation between offline and online reality, in future virtuality the dead can possibly live forever.
Originally published in godschrift, in Dutch.
Peter Versteeg is Lecturer at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology of the Vrije Universiteit. His research includes ‘fictionality’ and world views.