Reality of a death saddens the virtual world
Sunday, March 05, 2006
By Gabrielle Banks, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
When a character dies in the virtual world, the gamer controlling his movements may lose points or be forced to start a game over. When a virtual gamer dies, there are no second chances.
And if a beloved gamer dies in the perpetual universe of a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG), it could mean thousands of people are coping with the loss of a friend they have known for years but have never actually met.
Such is the case with Shiva Kumar, an 18-year-old computer science major at La Roche College who drowned Jan. 11 under somewhat mysterious circumstances in a shallow area of North Park's Marshall Lake.
His death and its aftermath illuminate a world many people don't know exists, a new world whose inhabitants form intense bonds distinct from those they form with their face-to-face friends. Outsiders, and even insiders, don't yet know quite how to describe those bonds or deal with what happens when a crisis leads to the intersection of virtual and real worlds.
About 75 teachers, classmates, neighbors and family members attended Shiva's on-campus memorial service. His younger sister, Purnima, also notified his instant-messaging friends, who posted notices in forums for his favorite online games, "Runescape" and "Age of Mythology Heaven." Shiva had taken on leadership roles at these sites since his mid-teens, planning virtual group activities, moderating discussions, acting as Webmaster and offering guidance to new players. Thousands of players attended his "Runescape" events and more than 9,600 users downloaded the gaming scenarios he designed for "HeavenGames Age of Kings" -- "Cincinnatus: The Liberator of Rome; Hostile Nations!" and "Assault."
Over the last month and a half, pages have begun to fill up at online bulletin boards and a memorial guestbook with tributes to the longtime North Hills resident. They come from shocked and saddened friends in places like Rapid City, S.D.; St. Mary's Bay, Newfoundland; Brisbane, Australia; Belfast, Northern Ireland; Rotterdam, Netherlands, and Dover, Singapore. Condolences also came in Spanish, Polish and Latin.
One player wrote: "im speechless, im crying right now."
Another wrote he did not know how to mourn "the loss of my best friend in the virtual world."
Yet another said that, in two years, he and Shiva had generated the equivalent of more than 400 printed pages of dialogue chatting online.
A player with the username Spitfire_23 wrote on one of the boards: "It would take 76 pages to print out essentially everything that made up his personality and life to me. So yes, I've lost a friend. I don't think I ever saw a picture of him, or ever heard his voice, but still, I've lost a friend. I'll treasure the moments we had together for the rest of my life."
A couple of friends discussed constructing a virtual monument to Shiva in the fantasy world. Others wondered whether it would be appropriate to send flowers to his parents.
Virtual mourning may be a post-modern phenomenon, but the bonds formed by online gamers are rooted in primal human behavior, said Jesse Schell, an entertainment technology professor at Carnegie Mellon University. He said the reaction to Shiva's death brings to mind something Plato wrote in "The Republic": "You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation."
Playing a game like "Runescape" might mean organizing a quest to slay a dragon, staging a war or conquering a kingdom. A group of players who classify themselves as "elders" gets together regularly in the game's medieval-mystical world angling to get killed in "death marches" through the wilderness, where they are fair game for poachers, said Dan Hitchcock, 48, a player in Canton, Ohio, who knew Shiva from a support site where they both volunteered.
A player dressed like a peasant might meet a woodsman friend in the forest to fell trees and then chop wood and cook dinner together at a campfire. Or a group of gold miners, outfitted with all the requisite tools, might team up to go foraging for raw ore in a bewitched underground cavern.
"You can develop very powerful and real relationships that have meaning," said Drew Davidson, another professor of entertainment technology at CMU. "People who might be shy can be a little more extroverted online. Some types of players enjoy the social life. Some are motherly. Some are hunting for players to give them a hard time. It plays out a lot like high school and middle school," he said.
Both Shiva and his avatar Anarith (a knight on a winged horse) were sharp, gracious, funny and patient, friends' testimonials said. If you needed to vent, they said, Shiva/Anarith was a great listener.
On average, MMORPG players like Shiva and his friends put in between 15 to 21 hours per week wandering through scenes in a game, according a group of scholars at the Human Computer Interaction Institute at CMU that observed how groups of players bond, communicate and play together. More than half of the test group they tracked regularly talked about their personal lives with other players.
"There's a very seductive combination of intimacy and anonymity in these games," said Amy Jo Kim, a software designer in California. In her book "Community Building on the Web," Ms. Kim tracked online graduations, weddings and "several really elaborate funerals" within a MMORPG game called "Ultima."
"Game masters created a statue" online to honor a player who died in a 1998 motorcycle accident, she said, "They had a big parade. People left flowers. They left scrolls and poems."
Players under 25 who grew up with the Internet don't differentiate between online and offline relationships, she found.
But dealing with the loss of this long-distance electronic bond is still new territory. One person, with the username Elpea, wrote: Shiva "was a very close friend of mine, and frankly I have no idea how to deal with this. I wish I could've been there, I wish I could talk to his family somehow. ****it, I don't know how to deal with death -- never had to..."
"This is indeed very very sad news....Its just so weird." wrote an "Age of Mythology" player nicknamed Vandhaal, "but although this is all just a virtual community... news like this has a heavy impact on me."
Many players didn't believe Shiva had died, because hoaxes are so easy to pull off. One gamer seemed particularly jolted that Shiva's body was found with his wallet and money intact and the Allegheny County Medical Examiner found no signs of foul play. "The Internet is suppose to be place to escape reality, not confront the uglier aspects of it."
Faculty members who attended Shiva's memorial at La Roche said his cremains were to be interred in his native India. His official cause of death is pending: officials are awaiting results of toxicology tests, which can take up to 22 weeks to process.
After the La Roche memorial, campus minister Father Peter Horton said, guests passed through a greeting line, offering condolences to Shiva's family. "It brought a sense of closure here," he said.
Hundreds of Shiva's online acquaintances did not have that luxury.
"We don't have a ritual for [the death of a gamer] so it leaves people feeling this odd, open way. I know people are making up some of their own rituals," Mr. Schell said.
Someday soon, he expects, these online rituals will be assimilated into the culture as widely accepted traditions.
(Gabrielle Banks can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1370.)
Edited by: lizwool at: 5/11/06 7:38