The virtual worlds we live in like to gloss over issues of mortality. In most MMOs, characters die and then can instantly respawn, either at a graveyard located not too far from the scene of their death or, in some circumstances, right at their freshly-fallen corpse. Even many of the game's heroes seem incapable of dying, coming back in a phoenix-rising fashion, while villains merely have setbacks. In order to preserve a perpetual world, MMOs offer a sense of perpetual life.
In a sea of anonymity, where even in the darkest world life is still pretty good for the player character, it can be easy to forget that somewhere beyond the renders and wild landscapes, beyond the outlandish armor and flawless persona, there are real people. This is an argument often brought up when players find themselves ruthlessly trolled, insulted, and harassed online by the anonymous crowd, a group of people who feel it's safe to say whatever they like because there are no real world repercussions. Set aside the crude behavior, however, and you'll find that every player is at some point guilty of showing a lack of human awareness for the person on the other side. This ignorance isn't usually voluntary; the nature of our gaming simply creates a wall that acts as any long-distance communication does. It prevents us from the face-to-face, non-verbal communication that proves crucial to human understanding.
Words like "cancer", "hospital", and "coma" have a draw powerful enough to bring a person out of their virtual sanctuary and into the realm where life and death situations are real. These are words I've had to deal with this week, as I received surprising news that a dear uncle of mine had cancer, was in the hospital in a coma, and wasn't expected to make it through the night. My uncle isn't a gamer, but his sudden plight - and the word "cancer," which chills me deep in my marrow every time I hear it - brought to mind the second person I loved and lost to cancer in my life.
I met Naganatae in Lord of the Rings Online. She was a deeply dedicated officer of the guild I had joined, and would spend her entire day working hard to help both the guild as a whole, and to help individual members. By all online appearances, she appeared to be one of those people who didn't "have a life"; the kind that lived off of Cheetos and Dew in mom's basement while spending all their time online. Given that "Naga," as we called her affectionately, was a very secretive, quiet person, it was easy for anyone to make assumptions about her and her lifestyle.
Over time, I got to know Naga better, and we soon became fast friends. She was still very secretive, but I found we had many interests and viewpoints in common. There were days when she would suddenly get upset and log off, or she would say she was feeling sick and disappear for a few days before returning. Every time she came back, however, she promised me she was okay. I believed her.
It wasn't until the last month I knew Naga that I found out "sick" meant cancer. She made me swear to secrecy; even our guild leader, a very kind and empathetic man, had no idea. There were only three of us who knew her condition, and only one who knew how bad it really was. When she disappeared from having ISP problems, and time passed into over a month, the one person who knew her best finally voiced his fears and said that he was sure she had passed away. It wasn't until a few months later that we received the obituary and I found out so much more about the friend I had lost; how amazing she was as a person in the real world as well.
You can call me a sap, but life in LotRO was radically changed for me after losing Naga. I tried to hold a memorial service for her with the guild, but plans failed to follow through. I fought with other guild members who hadn't been as close to Naga as I had, and didn't show the level of mourning I wanted them to in my own grieving state. My interest in the game faded fast, and I eventually quit. Even though I've returned to LotRO since then, I haven't been able to bring myself to the multi-game guild (which I'm still a member of) or even the server I once played on. It's as if I've been frozen in that emotional moment.
The loss of an online friend is nothing new, but something experienced on a larger scale when it happens in an MMO context. A player may have been known by hundreds in his gaming community, even though very few may have actually known the person behind the avatar. Not many people are forthcoming about their personal mortality in a virtual setting; it's as if we want to minimize our impact if we should "go." We want our lives to remain anonymous, even to the point of shielding some good friends from the truth.
When death strikes an online friend, it's hard to know exactly what to do. There are no established standards of etiquette or grieving for virtual worlds. Certainly many of the stages of grief are the same as losing someone you knew in person, simply because the understanding of another human being's identity crosses long-distance barriers. Some things, however, get lost in translation of distance and personal, physical connection. There is no attending funerals for closure, no connection with family and friends outside the virtual space, no easy way to obtain real-world information to pay a visit to a grave or send condolences to a family.
To the outside world, the grieving that online players suffer seems strange. Many grieving players have been told, "They were just an online friend - it's not like you actually KNEW them." The assumption is that online relationships have less value, less emotional meaning, than in-person relationships. While I'm not one to idealize text or graphically simulated relationships, there is plenty of evidence that online relationships can offer, at the least, the foundation for meaningful interpersonal relationships. That is to say that there is some essence of a "real" relationship when we speak with and get to know other people in cyberspace. Our grief, too, is real, even when the relationship developed had no in-person contact.
In order to cope with their loss, many players set up memorial services and role-played funerals. These events can be a great method of closure, but often end up experiencing a different matter of 'grief' as other players intrude on the ceremonies to disrupt and disturb them. Such acts are often a mix of intent to make other people miserable, and a political statement made to mock emotional attachments to virtual relationships. Funeral crashing is nothing new, however, and little can be done except to make ceremonies more private and to report offending players for harassment.
Closure is better found elsewhere when it comes to grief and loss in virtual worlds. Our virtual gaming communities are not geared well to cope with death, something that seems to result from the lack of in-person interaction that can offer physical comfort - a hug, a smile, and physical closeness that offers a specific psychological benefit. The best thing to do when confronted with loss is to turn to the people who can offer that physical closeness and comfort, to the same people you'd seek out when losing a friend in the "real" world. Then find a way to honor the person you lost, in a way you know best to do. For some, that may simply mean taking a meaningful action in-game. In my case, losing Naganatae made me take up supporting cancer research in her honor.
Death may be the hardest confrontation for any player. For all that have lost an online friend, and for all those that will, know that your grief is normal and that you are not alone. After all, there are people being the characters we meet, and some can touch our lives quite profoundly.