Death of an avatar – death in virtual worlds


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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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Death of an avatar – death in virtual worlds

  1. 1. Death of an avatar Rebecca Ferguson IET, The Open University
  2. 2. Virtual worlds have no Ctrl+Z
  3. 3. Personal experience
  4. 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. 5. Personal experience Awareness of death affects how we live our lives
  6. 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. 7. SBereavement “She was like a mother to us”
  8. 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. 9. Ethical issues
  10. 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. 11. Medicine
  12. 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. 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. 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. 15. Physical-world life Physical-world permanent death Field trips Exploration of issues Prompt to creativity
  16. 16. Physical-world life Physical-world temporary death Field trips Exploration of art and literature Prompt to creativity
  17. 17. Virtual-world life Physical-world temporary death Field trips Helps bring sites to life Different perspectives
  18. 18. Virtual-world life Virtual-world temporary death Simulations Emergency training Familiar from games
  19. 19. New challenges for education
  20. 20. Physical-world life Virtual-world permanent death Death of an avatar is significant if that avatar is the family breadwinner
  21. 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. 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. 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. 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. 25. Second Life: Marie Arnold Fox Phlox