In September 2011, I travelled to the University of Wales to attend Creating Second Lives 2011: Blurring Boundaries.
FERGUSON, R. Death of an avatar: presence and learning in virtual worlds. Creating Second Lives 2011: Blurring Boundaries, 2011 (8-9 September) Bangor, Wales.
Death is a common feature of online environments. Comically or tragically, predictably or unexpectedly, our characters and those around us are destroyed. In most cases there is the option to rebirth, reboot or respawn at the cost of power, position or points. Reincarnation is the norm, death is rarely terminal.
A price we pay for inhabiting and committing to long-term engagement with virtual worlds is the introduction of deeply felt deaths that can end and overshadow our lives.
This ethnographic account of Teen Second Life considers the implications of the boundary between life and non-life becoming less permeable. Pseudonym, one of the author’s avatars, is currently a shadowy figure who has survived the destruction of her world but has not yet been admitted to the next. Over the past years, she has joined her community in mourning real-world losses and in-world losses, and in memorializing the real, the unreal and the virtual.
This account draws on three intertwined elements: reactions to the permanent loss of an avatar, reactions to the permanent loss of a community member, and reactions to the real-world death of a community member. Pseudonym – or her ratava – felt these losses deeply. She draws on her personal responses, and on the accounts of other community members, to develop an understanding of what it means to introduce death to a world whose inhabitants have believed themselves unlimited by physical constraints. She considers the ethics of comparing the death of a human being with the non-appearance of a certain combination of pixels. She reflects on realism, identity and community – and on whether these are trivial, or even possible, in the absence of death.