I lead a strange and interesting life! Just when I think I’ve seen it all, something surprises me!
I had an appointment with Frotin Silverspear the other day. (That’s not his REAL name, but his “on-line personality”.) The son of a good friend, he came to see me after a significant and traumatic loss, one I had ever dealt with before, or even knew existed.
He lost his MMORPG.
The young man recently had all of his characters deleted in the Massive Multi-Player “Lord of the Rings” Online Game, and is having a hard time coming to terms with his loss. So Frotin Silverspear is grieving the loss of a virtual relationship in cyber space.
He was involved in a MMORPG, a social phenomenon that has been rising in popularity throughout the world over the past decade, generating revenues which have grown from half a BILLION dollars in 2005, to almost $2 billion last year.
My first question had to be, “What exactly is a MMORPG?”
A MMORPG (Massive Multi-player Online Role-Playing Game) is a genre of computer role-playing games in which a very large number of players interact with one another within a virtual game world. As in all such games, players assume the role of a character, often in a fantasy world, and take control over that character’s actions. The game’s persistent world continues to exist and evolve even while the player is away from the game.
MMORPGs have become a central part of the lives of those who are involved in them, sometimes to the point of obsession and addiction. There are many games, the most popular of which has over 11,000,000 subscribers, with different interactions and social goals. That’s a population larger than many countries. The objectives and rewards are different for differing personality styles; extroverts are more inclined towards violent games, while introverts are more satisfied with team based games. Some claim there are positive psychosocial aspects to gaming, such as alleviating stress and negative feelings in their lives, teamwork, computer proficiency and basic economic skills; but others recognize that losing real life friends, addiction and degrading hygiene were some of the negative implications.
These immersive environments allow for the player to recreate themselves in new and often idealistic manners. They spend copious amounts of time creating and equipping their characters so that they can be effective for “group missions” that are all part of the various story archives. The amount of time that it takes to get a character to the level cap in a game varies, but it can take well over 150+ hours achieved over many months or years of playing.
Pooh-pooh it if you will, but what happened was a very real crisis for this young man and I suspect for the literally millions of people who invest in these MMORPG’s as their social network.
In order to try to understand the experience, I asked him to explain in detail what happened leading up to the deletion of the characters. Someone hacked into his computer and stole all his characters, wiping them out in what is known as a “raid”, (a permanent “kidnapping” of his characters and resources invested in the game). It was a predatory act, not supposed to happen and he was shocked by it.
To this young man it actually felt like he had lost his family, his friends and himself in one fell swoop. He talked about the vast emptiness he felt inside when he logged onto his account that day and found that there were no characters there. This emptiness was soon replaced by panic as he logged back in and found that this didn’t cause them to come back. Eventually this panic subsided into a sadness not knowing or understanding how, why or by whom his characters got deleted.
He recalled feeling lost and adrift, not knowing what to do or how to spend his time. It hurt too much to return to the game right away or to try to rebuild. He thought about the the work that he had put into his characters, and reflected on the maliciousness of the person who had deleted the characters.
I then asked him to share with me the meaning his characters had to him. He shared his memories of why he came to the game, and the creation of each of his characters. He also recalled different high points he had in the game with those characters. Whether I fully understood the implications of his loss, it was obvious to me that he was really devastated, and that he had not realized how emotionally invested he was in this game. He actually had a relationship with these virtual characters, and his loss was as real as they had been to him.
Slowly over a period of a couple of weeks he felt that although he had lost a large portion of his life, it was time to begin to rebuild, in real life as well as in the game.
As I hope is obvious, there is a great deal of attachment that goes into these MMORPG’s. The player associates with these created characters as if they were part of themselves. Philosophically, to some of us, the loss of a something as intangible as a videogame character may seem a bit silly. Why mourn over something that is just an electronic distraction after all?
However as Silverspear himself expressed it, the MMO world is designed to take full advantage of the human needs for adventure, social contact, importance, and meaning. When these things are taken away, the sense of loss can be significant.
When approaching a case like this, it is important to realize that the experiences of the griever are going to be largely unacknowledged by the rest of the world. This is only one of numerous situations where the majority of us simply do not understand the depth of the loss the person is experiencing. But it is very real for them.
This was a real grief process. The one thing I want to emphasize is that we need to validate the experiences of every mourner, whether we regard their loss as significant or not. In this situation, encouraging the griever to not only remember the experiences from the game but to allow them to shape who they are and integrate them into how they view themselves was an important part of the mourning process.
In other words, to the listening ear, what is being encouraged here is the idea that the game characters the mourner has created will more than likely exhibit idealized pictures of self. The person feels like they have lost part of themselves.
The other major loss that can come from the MMO world is the loss of the social construct. If a player’s “guild” (community) falls apart or if the player is forced out of a guild, the loss of friendships and value of the guild relationships is considered a profound loss as they grieve over the loss of the social context they once had.
Due to the loss of social network that this inflicts, the mourner cannot find the support among the people he has related to, while in real life those around will be somewhat baffled why the mourner may seem to be having such a difficult time. Accordingly the mourner will often replay the events that led up to the loss.
In such cases, one must recognize their loss as significant and mourn with them, whether we understand it or not. Over time the mourner must develop more social connections and join up with another guild or real group of friends. These transition periods are hard to understand, as the mourner is reconciling the loss of the peer group and the lost status from within the old social group.
This world of MMO’s is vast and deep, and one quite honestly I don’t pretend to fully understand. These products are built to keep people immersed in the game and therefore spending their money on the ongoing activity. They encourage play and character development, as well as social development in the game.
The process of creating this mass media product and allowing it to become part of one’s identity is something that is scary to me, but exciting to participants. Living out our lives on the internet is just as scary, and yet just as exciting to many. The idea that one can develop emotional connection to a computer based entity which is a virtual clone of themselves may seem a bit far out.
But this is happening in today’s world of technology and we need to be aware of the implications this reality brings to so many people’s lives. Perhaps it is time to look at the relationships these internet connections foster and consider the implications a bit more closely.