Public history and video gaming: Spontaneous digital remembrance
02 June 2015 – Josh Howard
“Death is difficult under any circumstance. The death of a friend you only knew via the internet is something that this generation is just learning how to deal with.”–Matthew Miller, MMORPG.com
At the 2015 National Council on Public History (NCPH) annual meeting, I participated in a working group titled “Can Public History Play?” organized by Mary Rizzo and Abby Perkiss. It got me thinking a lot about play, virtual worlds, and how digital spaces–and the history of digital spaces–relate to our “real” lives. In many ways, digital worlds are designed to be spaces of play, but many also bring people together in new and sometimes very serious–even somber–and emotional ways.
Based on my personal experience, one of the serious ways gamers come together is through the creation of virtual world memorials dedicated to people who pass away in “real life.” What happens in digital communities when people die? What happens to that person’s digital presence? How do their in-game friends react? How does the company react? What does memorializing look like in a society of people who have never met, seen one another, or (in some cases) heard each other’s voices?
There are similarities between “real-world” memorials and those in “virtual” worlds, but simply assuming they are one and the same ignores that digital spaces have distinct social norms, communities, and culture. A growing body of literature argues that people identify more closely with their digital identities than previously thought, and digital events deeply affect “real” lives. Quite simply, virtual worlds are worthy of public history attention.
Exploring the digital worlds of massively multiplayer online role playing games (MMOs) reveals many instances where a public historical perspective could lead to illuminating and productive insights about digital identity, memorialization, and the power of place. The most popular of these games, World of Warcraft, maintains between five and ten million global subscribers and is entering its eleventh year of existence. Collectively, millions of individuals play dozens of MMOs today. In these games, a persistent digital world consists of diverse environments, buildings, homes, and so on. Individual players enter the game by taking on the role of a character and playing alongside tens, hundreds, and sometimes thousands of others.
Likely the most well-known example of memorialization in a digital world comes from EVE Online. The death of US Diplomat Sean Smith (who went by Vile Rat in game) resulted in spontaneous memorials, the renaming of in-game locations, and the raising of $127,000 toward his children’s college fund. Another memorial is rather unique in its long-term resilience and community organization–the Goodman Memorial in Ultima Online (UO). Goodman (Frank Campbell, in real life) managed a rune library in game (I won’t explain what a rune library is, but suffice it to say that it required a lot of community outreach and digital upkeep). Frank Campbell died on August 30, 2005. Upon his death, Goodman’s UO friends embarked upon a digital historic preservation project. They took over library maintenance and also converted the roof into a memorial garden where players can leave objects in memory of Goodman/Campbell’s life. Every August, players meet on a nearby beach for an in-game memorial service to remember Goodman and others who have passed. The 2010 service is on Youtube.
There is no way to mention every memorial here, but I’d like to note three more: the Freeman Memorial of Star Wars Galaxies, a public space dedicated to the memory of a company employee; the character Coyote in City of Heroes, named after a person who used the name “Kiyotee” and who passed suddenly; and memorials in Warhammer Online created after well-known player Sugbis died while actually playing the game. These three examples have one thing in common: none of their online worlds exist any longer, and none of these memorials are accessible. All that is left of each memorial are archived webpages, players’ memories, and a few videos. Based on community responses, it’s rather sad–possibly even traumatic for some–when these worlds are shut down permanently.
So how does public history relate to any of this?
Public historians need to document, archive, and preserve these digital moments. There’s already some activity, most notably the Library of Congress-funded Preserving Virtual Worlds report, published in 2010. This report found many preservation challenges: hardware and software obsolescence, intellectual property law, and financial requirements. Since release of this report, companies seem more open to preservation. One company floated the idea of a static exploration-only server, while another actually signed a contract with a fan preservation group. Preserving digital worlds may not be so far away.
But even if these challenges can be overcome, preserving just a digital world itself does not capture the history of those who once populated it. Digital preservation may save Goodman’s house, but it doesn’t capture its importance. Imagine a perfectly preserved historic house with no ownership record, no furniture left behind, and otherwise no clues left about the people’s lives. The house would likely be a skeletal remain with little story to tell.
To solve this problem, public historians could turn to the body of literature on the meaning of spontaneous memorials, such as those commemorating September 11, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the Vietnam War. These scholars show that these memorials are specific to time and place, and efforts to recapture, recreate, or display these moments almost always fall flat. In the case of virtual worlds, extensive contextual materials exist outside of the game in the form of forums, wikis, and so on. Most of these are still preserved online.
A number of archives, such as the Strong Museum of Play, the University of Michigan, the Library of Congress, and Preserving Virtual Worlds 2 project, already do a good job of preserving some video games. Despite the Preserving Virtual Worlds report, it’s not readily clear, however, that any of these projects are taking on the task of MMO preservation. I hope there are public historians out there willing to take on this challenge. MMOs are more than just games. They have become places of commemoration, remembrance, and even mourning. These are places where people make meaning for their real lives as well as their digital personas, and the loss of these digital spaces can rupture, and very likely destroy, communities. And here I thought a working group about play would be all fun and games.
~ Josh Howard is a PhD Candidate in the Public History Program at Middle Tennessee State University. His dissertation investigates the uses of informal data collection, survey scale development, and historical empathy for museums. Josh also works with sports history, most recently completing a web exhibit and archive on behalf of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. He can be reached via his portfolio website or on Twitter @jhowardhistory.