When Leonard Nimoy died on February 27th, response to his passing was swift as the news sent shockwaves through many online communities. A thousand players of the game Star Trek Online congregated at the planet Vulcan, homeworld of Nimoy’s character Spock, as a means to pay respect to the actor. Star Trek Online officially announced an in-game tribute was forthcoming with their next update, as along with being based on the Star Trek franchise, Nimoy also contributed voiceovers to the game. Producers of the space exploration game Elite: Dangerous stated they would create a Nimoy Memorial Station while a community manager of the crowdfunded Star Citizen, still in development, revealed that a tribute to Nimoy will also be included at launch. The different memorials to Nimoy continues a small but growing new tradition of honoring departed players and notable figures in the persistent worlds of online games.
Online worlds have found different ways to remember players, both officially and through the actions of other players. The highly successful massively multiplayer game World of Warcraft has over two dozen in-game memorials to deceased players, developers, and friends of Blizzard, the company behind the game. Most of Warcraft‘s memorials come in the form of a non-player character named for the player or the player’s character. One memorial is that of a ghostly paladin named Nicholas Garabee who roams the graveyard of the city of Stormwind, a tribute to a player of the same name who died in a motorcycle accident. Other players may not have a digital analogue, but a place inspired or designed by them. Actor Robin Williams is remembered with a small island decorated with items that call to mind his major roles, including the character Mork from Mork and Mindy. A lamp on the island, when interacted with, reveals a genie named Robin who quotes two of William’s lines from Aladdin. Two players have had a hand in the creation of in-game elements that have become their memorials. A gamer named Brian “Owen” Wicks visited Blizzard through the Make-a-Wish Foundation and designed an interactive wishing well. Another young player, Ezra Phoenix Chatterton, designed a quest, weapon, and non-player character during a visit to Blizzard, also through Make-a-Wish. Both Owen and Ezra passed away from cancer, yet their creations still exist in Warcraft’s virtual world. After his death, Ezra was honored with a new character named Ezra Wheathoof.
The 2012 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi claimed the life of Foreign Service officer and avid Eve Online player Sean Smith. Smith, who went by the name Vile Rat in-game, was a well known player and a member of Eve Online’s player-run Council of Stellar Management. In his memory, members of Vile Rat’s corporation (Eve’s term for a player guild) Goonswarm organized a yearly mass battle called “Not Purple, Shoot It” with the latest event running on September 11, 2014. Another memorial involved players spelling out a gigantic, “RIP Vile Rat” in space. Along with the large scale tributes, several outposts in the game were renamed for Smith. In 2014 the developers of Eve Online announced a real world sculpture to be built in Iceland and inscribed with the names of player characters. The memorial was only open to players with active, paying accounts as of March 1st, 2014. Aware that some members of the Eve communities had passed and would be unable to have their names added to the memorial, a special provision was included that the heads of corporations could submit names in their memory. Vile Rat’s name was added to the memorial, a work which artist Sigurður Guðmundsson stated, “simultaneously mirrors the larger world fostering the two worlds and the identities within, joining them into one.“ Although not strictly an in-game memorial, the sculpture is emblematic of an increasingly pervasive digital space and the duality of players’ lives.
Official memorials are often done with the cooperation and input of family members, and pains are taken to ensure the commemorations are in good taste. Player-led commemorations tend to follow that example as they are run by friends of the deceased, although without the assistance of gamemasters they are subject to interference from others. Generally other players have respected the desire to honor a lost comrade, but at times the sentiments are not reciprocated. In 2006, a World of Warcraft player with the character name Fayejin died and her guild planned an in-game funeral for her. The virtual funeral was publicly announced on forums for others to come and pay respects if they so chose. Predictably, some players took the news of the event as an opportunity—not to pay respects but to stage an attack on a large group of unsuspecting and poorly prepared players. As the participants in the funeral were not expecting combat, they wore cosmetic items, eschewing the armor and weapons that increases strength and combat ability. A large group of players from the guild Serenity Now attacked the funeral procession, disrupting the event and repeatedly killing the participants’ characters. Under the rules of the game-world, nothing that the Serenity Now players did was illegal or against the terms of service. Nine years later, opinions on the event remain sharply divided. Some believe the attack was a callous action, while others thought the mourners should have expected no less. Recent comments on a YouTube video of the attack on the funeral shows the incident has neither been forgotten nor have the underlying sentiments changed.
The attack on Fayejin’s service was an example of the unpleasant side of human nature and the relatively consequence free morality of online gaming, but other events have proceeded without unplanned disruption. When Warcraft player Kimilyn died of cancer, her guild Forged in Flame held a month long vigil to control a town in the game, defending it from players of the opposite faction as Kimilyn enjoyed the player vs player combat aspects of the game. Kimilyn was eventually given a memorial character by Blizzard. When a Final Fantasy XIV player with the character name of Codex Vahlda died of cancer, players paid their respects by visiting his guilds’ home. Players on other servers also joined in holding small memorials.
What memorials in massively multiplayer persistent worlds represent is one aspect of a new need to deal with death online. For many of the people memorialized in online games, the virtual worlds were their second home, a place where they spent a great deal of their time. Friendships were created online and in-game, which meant some only had the virtual world in which to pay respects. The dual nature of an online and offline existence makes it understandable that others would wish to remember them in the virtual world as well. Popular culture has already begun to explore the idea of virtual commemoration. The 2014 anime series Sword Art Online had a plot arc dealing with a group of terminally ill players attempting to get their names inscribed on an in-game memorial as a way to leave behind something of themselves and mark their time together. Although the memorials to departed players will only last as long as their online worlds, these virtual commemorations provide a glimpse into how people are attempting to find new ways to cope with death and loss in a digital world.
Some links NSFW due to language
Serenity Now Bombs a World of Warcraft Funeral
The Eve Online Monument
Marty Rathbun\ (Link no longer available)
A guide to World of Warcraft In-Game Memorials
Eve Online: Vile Rat Tribute
FFXIV Community Holds Massive Vigil for a Dying Player
Star Trek Online Players Pay Their Respects to Leonard Nimoy
Kimilyn and Forged in Flame