Death of an avatar – death in virtual worlds
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Death of an avatar – death in virtual worlds



Presentation from the Death, Dying and Disposal 11 conference held at The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK, in September 2013. The presentation considers the implications when death is introduced ...

Presentation from the Death, Dying and Disposal 11 conference held at The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK, in September 2013. The presentation considers the implications when death is introduced into an immersive environment. It draws on a virtual ethnographic study carried out over four years in Second Life and Teen Second Life™. It shows that there are different types of death within virtual worlds, some permanent and some transient, some wholly virtual, others reflecting a situation in the physical world.



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  • This four-year ethnographic study was a sideline to educational work in virtual worlds – Second Life and Teen Second LifeIt therefore has educational focus, but the typology of death it presents is more generic(Pic shows a funeral held by Global Kids for Teen Second Life – one comment from the funeral ‘'Teen Second Life was in a category by itself, becoming one of the largest youth-led communities the world had ever seen, online or off, in charge of its own activities and economy.’ )
  • What are virtual worlds?Well known examples are Second Life, World of Warcraft and Minecraft.They are persistentPeople are represented by avatarsAs in real life – there is no Control-Z option
  • May seem counter-intuitive to make death in a virtual world significant. Three reasons for this research. The intrusion of physical death into Second Life came as a shock it prompted practical responses to the situation, reflection and discussion, events that united sections of the community, the loss of other members of the community, emotional exchanges and the creation of artwork and machinima. Mourning the loss of a friend and teacher whom they met most evenings. Their family and friends, however, found it difficult to understand their need to grieve for someone they had never met in the physical world and whose real name they did not know. Two teenagers who wanted to attend were not able ‘What are the educational implications of death in the virtual world of Second Life?’
  • A second reason is that death in virtual worlds has real-world impact, and this impact is growing.One reason for this is engagement over time – people build up relationships and emotional attachments.The second is economic – many people have a lot invested in virtual worlds
  • Philosophical – we live our lives in the knowledge that we will die, and our awareness of this shapes how we live our lives.
  • I’m going to divide this talk into two parts.The first will take a quick look at various issues associated with death in virtual worlds, demonstrating some of the different ways in which it is significant. I hope some of these will resonate with everyone in the audience.The second presents a typology of death in virtual worlds, and shows how this can be used in one subject area – in my case education – to reach insights about reasons for engaging with virtual worlds.So my first example is significant loss. Things of value are lost for ever, and we as a society need to take note and consider whether some of the things at risk are worthy of preservation, and how we might go about doing that.
  • A second issue is how we deal with bereavement in these environments.How do we mourn for people that we only know through a game or through a fictional environment?How do we persuade others to take that loss seriously?
  • A complex issue in relation to this is – how do you know someone is actually dead?To what extent does it matter that they are actually dead?
  • That case raised ethical issues, and so did this.A notorious case in World of Warcraft, where a funeral to mark a death in the physical world was attacked.Opinion is still strongly divided as to whether this was hilarious or brutal.
  • People devote time, commitment and money to the creation of memorials for players or residents who have died.
  • And, as behaviours in virtual worlds often mimic those in the real world, it is sometimes possible to study things that would not be possible in the real world.
  • So that over view showed there are various significant issues tied up with death in virtual worldsThis is the typology I developed from my research.There are four main categories of death in Second Life – each of which has a permanent and a temporary form.(The typology does not take religion into account – reincarnation and resurrection would add extra complexity)
  • I shall take a closer look at those categories, giving examples.Note that I refer to physical life, in preference to real life. This is because activity in virtual worlds is also real. It takes time and money, and it shapes our identities and how we uncerstand the world.
  • These are the forms of death associated with virtual life. Again, they have four forms.The final form – virtual life / virtual death / temporary is the one we tend to associate with computer games
  • A person or people who have lived and died in the physical world are celebrated or memorialised in SecondLife. Examples are the Vietnam War memorial, the Iraq War Memorial, and numerous memorials to 9-11 – currently very active as people mark the ten-year anniversary.This provides opportunities for field trips that would otherwise be impossible, for the exploration of big issues such as patriotism and terrorism, and can be a stimulus for creativity (eg poetry and art)
  • This category is concerned with fictional representations of death, developed in the physical world for consumption in the physical world, but now reproduced or re-enacted in Second Life (for example, Romeo and Juliet). This extra level of mediation reduces richness and realism and, as a consequence, adds a sense of distance and emotional safety. The in-world representations do not have the same emotional pull as the physical-world works of art.Again there are opportunities for field trips and prompts to creativity – and these representations of death can prompt detailed consideration of works of art and literature.
  • Bots bring to life people who have lived in the physical world in the past.
  • This is the form of death most common in computer games.Here it is used in ‘serious games’ to help people to deal with dangerous situations
  • The previous slides show forms of education that we have been engaging with in the physical world for many years.The following slides point to issues we may not have had to deal with in the past.
  • In this case, people remain alive in the physical world but their avatar no longer exists – as in the case of the Linden Lab staff who were made redundant, thus ending their access to avatars with the surname Linden. The graveyard constructed by Codebastard Redgrave for these Lindens was a site of intense activity, and many avatars left mementoes on the graves.This form of death is associated with a sense of community that can provide a rich environment for learning, it can provide grounds for discussion of big issues around life and working practices, and can provide a stimulus for discussion of digital practices and new literacies. If our avatar is the money earner, what does it mean for our employment propsects if we lose access to that avatar, or to the world in which that avatar acts?
  • A more humorous treatment of death – acting out a role of death within the virtual world, but then returning. This can add richness to the environment, but little other social presence.Again, a stimulus for creativity, for discussion about death, but also for discussion around genres such as Gothic, horror, zombie and undead.

Death of an avatar – death in virtual worlds Presentation Transcript

  • 1. Death of an avatar Rebecca Ferguson IET, The Open University
  • 2. Virtual worlds have no Ctrl+Z
  • 3. Personal experience
  • 4. 2009: The gross revenues of the third-party gaming services industry were around US$3 billion 2009: Around 100,000 people worldwide earned their primary income by harvesting virtual resources and providing in-world services 2011: Residents of Second Life held in-world assets worth US$29.3 million 2013: About twice the population of Gibraltar Lehdonvirta, V., & Ernkvist, M. (2011). Knowledge Map of the Virtual Economy, The World Bank Virtual futures
  • 5. Personal experience Awareness of death affects how we live our lives
  • 6. A A eulogy for ‘one of the largest youth-led communities the world had ever seen, online or off, in charge of its own activities and economy’ Significant loss
  • 7. SBereavement “She was like a mother to us”
  • 8. New issues for counselling “People don’t want to acknowledge the possibility that they’ve been duped because to do so would be to face the possibility that someone in whom they invested a great deal emotionally was a liar, a cheat, and a fraud […] I have a great deal of sympathy for the ‘bereft’. They're being put through emotional hell, when it’s becoming increasingly likely that someone they loved is more interested in filling that lonely void in their own lives than the feelings of others.”
  • 9. Ethical issues
  • 10. Memorials Ezra died October 2008, at the age of 12… his pet dog remains well fed and cared for by the passing community of World of Warcraft players
  • 11. Medicine
  • 12. Typology of Second Life death Physical-world life – Physical-world death Permanent / temporary Physical-world life – Virtual-world death Permanent / temporary Virtual-world life – Physical-world death Permanent / temporary Virtual-world life – Virtual-world death Permanent / temporary
  • 13. Physical death Permanent People who lived and died in the physical world are memorialised in the virtual world Physical death Temporary Fictional characters such as Hamlet, who have lived and died many times in the physical world, are celebrated within the virtual world Virtual death Permanent Avatars are deleted against the wishes of their owners – eg when a virtual world closes Virtual death Temporary Individuals stage the death of their avatars for comic or tragic effect, but can revive them later Physical life
  • 14. Physical death Permanent A iving person animates the avatar of a dead individual, perhaps to claim virtual-world cash or resources Physical death Temporary Dead people are brought back to life as non-player characters or bots, eg in historical simulations Virtual death Permanent Avatars are created to play the part of dead bodies, as in emergency training Virtual death Temporary Non-player characters are placed in simulations where they may be killed whenever the simulation is run Virtual life
  • 15. Physical-world life Physical-world permanent death Field trips Exploration of issues Prompt to creativity
  • 16. Physical-world life Physical-world temporary death Field trips Exploration of art and literature Prompt to creativity
  • 17. Virtual-world life Physical-world temporary death Field trips Helps bring sites to life Different perspectives
  • 18. Virtual-world life Virtual-world temporary death Simulations Emergency training Familiar from games
  • 19. New challenges for education
  • 20. Physical-world life Virtual-world permanent death Death of an avatar is significant if that avatar is the family breadwinner
  • 21. 4. Physical-world life Virtual-world temporary death • Stimulus for creativity • Meanings of death • Gothic literature • Horror genre – but also raises questions about the identity and real-life existence of the avatars we meet
  • 22. Virtual-world life Physical-world permanent death What are the ethics and etiquette associated with death? How do we claim an avatar’s resources when its owner is dead?
  • 23. Death in virtual worlds Raises issues connected with • Loss • Bereavement • Counselling • Memorials • Medicine Poses new challenges in relation to • Ethical behaviour • Property rights • Employment rights • Protection of information
  • 24. Ferguson, R. (2012). Death of an avatar: implications of presence for learners and educators in virtual worlds. Journal of Gaming and Virtual Worlds, 4(2), 137-152. Gibbs, M., Mori, J., Arnold, M., & Kohn, T. (2012). Tombstones, uncanny monuments and epic quests: memorials in World of Warcraft. Game Studies, 12(1) Klastrup, L. (2008). What makes World of Warcraft a world? A note on death and dying. In H. G. Corneliussen & J. Walker Rettberg (Eds.), Digital Culture, Play and Identity: A World of Warcraft Reader (pp. 143-166). Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press. Lombard, M., & Ditton, T. (1997). At the heart of it all: the concept of presence. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 3(2), 1-42. Relevant reading
  • 25. Second Life: Marie Arnold Fox Phlox