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Matt Miller: A Death in the Family

Column By Matthew Miller on June 25, 2013

This article is not the one I intended to write this week, but events have prompted this.

I learned this morning that a very well beloved player of City of Heroes passed away. Sometimes dealing with the digital world so much you forget that there is a real person behind an avatar, one that doesn’t get to respawn in the hospital when they die. In this case the community member was held in high regard by the team at Cryptic and Paragon for his utter love of the game and his dry wit humor he wove into the story of Paragon City.

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Tre Chipman was known to City of Heroes players as Ascendant (yes, d-a-n-t). He first hit the spotlight on the forums when players spotted his character standing next to the phone booth in Atlas Park hearing one side of a telephone conversation with his agent, Saul. It’s a classic bit riffing off a Bob Newhart routine, but Ascendant made it his own.

http://paragonwiki.com/wiki/Ascendant-O%27s (Sample)

Ascendant: Hello, Saul, it's Ascendant.

Ascendant: No, the one with an A.

Ascendant: I'm glad you asked. I've been going over these products you've sent me—

Ascendant: Right, for the merchandizing campaign...

Ascendant: Well, no, they aren't. That's why I'm calling, actually.

Ascendant: I'm not really happy with them.

Ascendant: Well, for starters, there's the breakfast cereal.

Ascendant: Right, Ascendant-O's.

Ascendant: Ok, it says here on the box, "Includes Xenonite, the Secret Source of Ascendant's Power."

Ascendant: Well, for one thing, Xenonite is NOT the secret source of my powers.

Ascendant: No, Saul... No, it isn't. Trust me on this.

Ascendant: Saul, Xenonite TAKES AWAY my powers.

Ascendant: Yeah, it does. In fact, if I'm exposed to it too long, it could kill me.

Ascendant: I dunno. It's got something to do with radioactivity, I think.

Ascendant: Anyway, I poured a bowl of Ascendant-O's yesterday to see what they taste like and nearly died before I could finish adding the milk.

Chipman had these lines macro’ed up and became a living atmospheric spawn for anyone walking by. Soon after the forums discovered this, Chipman posted the entire transcripts, and the developers howled at the humor and loved the fact that someone really loved City of Heroes enough to go through the effort to do such a thing.

I met Chipman at either San Diego ComicCon or PAX East (I can’t remember which, sorry). I must admit, I got giddy and fanboyish meeting him, probably almost as much as him meeting me. I told him that everyone on the development team loved his work. He really made an impact with everyone. He was one of those players who never complained, saw all the good that the developers were pouring into the game and then took that and made something truly special out of it.

I am going to miss you Ascendant, may you rest in peace.

One thing that always came up at times like this was players wanting some sort of memorial for their friends be put up inside the MMO where that player was famous. I learned early in my MMO career that this was a dangerous move. Some games had done it and then suddenly dozens of players “died” and their friends asking for them to be remembered in the same way. All they really wanted was for their character to make a permanent mark on the game, so they faked their own death. Appalling to say the least. Developers were not even allowed to post into threads detailing these passings, for the possibility of being duped. Only when we had confirmation could we pass on our condolences. This has impacted me to this day. I did due diligence into Chipman’s passing before sitting down to write this.

This is why you don’t see it happen more often in games. It does happen, but it usually is rare and special circumstances; someone who touched the hearts of the developers as well as the players. And in the end, 99% or more of the players of the game will not be aware of the homage or memorial. One player in City of Heroes was immortalized in the original tutorial, as thanks for his tireless devotion to helping out newbies in the closed beta for City of Heroes. I would be willing to bet that most people who played in Paragon City back then didn’t realize that Coyote was such a character, it was simply the last contact they spoke to in the Outbreak zone before beginning their career in Paragon.

For many players of MMOs, a death like this might be their first exposure to the death of someone they call a friend. What makes it even harder for MMO players is that they don’t usually have any personal contact information for the deceased or their family to send condolences, yet they may have touched their lives more than the family members’. This makes the grieving process harder. You have no funeral to attend, or gravesite to visit, just a game to log into and a name on a friends list that has an eternally increasing “time since last login” date. The question remains, what can you do?

I can only offer suggestions and advice. Find other players affected like yourself. Hold an in-game wake where you can talk about all the good that the person brought to your life, just as you would in real life. Honor their memory on the internet through social media like Facebook and Twitter. Talk to the moderators of your game’s forums and ask to start a thread. Now the mods will likely ask for proof, but do not take offense at this! They are just doing their job, and there is no offense intended.

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.


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Matt Miller
In this bi-weekly column, Matt "Formerly Known as Positron" Miller of City of Heroes fame seeks to clue MMO gamers in on the minds of developers, their decisions, and what it's like to craft these massive games.
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