Earlier this year, I received the news that a member of the steampunk community in Second Life had passed away; the typist (i.e., the person behind the avatar) had declined and passed away due to a form of cancer.
I did not go to the funeral.
First off, the typist in question had been from England - he was a proud Englishman both in Second Life and outside of it, and I could not afford to fly out. Besides, the real world funeral was for his family and friends there - so what could the friends and acquaintances he had made in Second Life do at all?
There was a memorial service in Second Life, also.
I did not go to that, either.
Not because I didn't mourn. I remember, in my days as a DJ in the steampunk neo-Victoriana community of Caledon in Second Life, doing a set for him before his diagnosis - to all everyone knew, he was quite well, if obstinate. And he was pleased that I had done a set themed around him, even though we had only talked in passing; after that, it led to asking how I was doing, how me-the-typist was doing, I talked with him even over Skype a couple of times. The avatar taught my avatar - and me behind the screen - how to craft tiny, tiny virtual jewelry using the basic building "blocks" called "prims" that made up user-created content in Second Life. It took patience, and attention to detail, but he was patient.
So I mourned. But I mourned in private, wanting to hold on to my memories of him as he had been, a crotchety but good-hearted yellow-haired avatar with a jewelry shop known for crashing entire regions. It is only recently - months after the fact - that there is a need for sharing in this as well; that we are not alone in our mourning.
But what is it to mourn someone whom we know from a game? People interact all the time in massive multiplayer settings: from World of Warcraft to EVE Online and more. And in MMO settings, especially those with a high emphasis on user created content, guilds and corporations and players occasionally hold fundraiser or charity events to help fellow players (whether personal events or organized through charities like AbleGamers), or even memorial services for fellow players who had passed away.
It's not just MMOs, either. We interact on Twitter, we interact on Tumblr, we interact on Twitch and YouTube and other social media channels, often with people we know only through digital means - digital recordings of themselves, or avatars, or a social media / game handle. When it is someone we do know more, we try and search for ways to come together; when all these factors combine, it seems that online memorials and ways to celebrate lives online would be easy to find.
But they aren't. Not yet.
We try, though. Dealing with loss is nothing new.
Dealing with loss - in an increasingly digital context, with people we may have only interacted with through a digital lens - is, however, something that we have to find ways to deal with, ways to approach, new rites and rituals of memory and moving on.
We'll try. We are human - we'll find a way to meet a human need.
Until then, celebrate and love those around you.
Dedicated to the memory of Alistair, who was always a gentleman.
For more information, check out:
How MMO Communities Memorialize
After a Death, Celebrating a Life Online (Wall Street Journal)