March 12, 2008

Spiritual Beings, Fleshly Bodies

Filed under: CyberLife,Loving Thy Neighbor — Katryna Starks @ 12:33 am

An article on called “Jerks of the Web” highlights the fact that our cyberbehavior is often worse than our real life behavior and that anonymity may be a factor in that. One of the featured stories involves a rather convoluted situation that brings up questions of real life vs. game life, real vs. fake, ceremony and solemnity vs. humor, and cultural situations vs. rules of life. 

The story is about a World of Warcraft player and her friends.  A girl, or young woman, played World of Warcraft (called “WoW” by enthusiasts), played WoW a lot and was part of a group, or guild.  In real life, she became sick from either a stroke or cancer, and she died.  Her family and friends had a funeral for her, but her in-game friends also wanted to honor her memory.  Many of these people played online with her, but had never met her in real life and lived very far away from her.  They decided to honor her by having another funeral for her inside the game.  There are several places inside WoW where people can gather and not be attacked, and other places are “pvp” zones (player-vs-player) where attacks are frequent and are to be expected.  The deceased had a favorite place within the game, and it is inside a “pvp” zone.  Since that was her favorite place inside the game, her guild members and friends decided to hold her funeral there.  They posted their plans in several in-game forums inviting everyone to the service and asking for people who chose not to attend to respect the service by not attacking.  The avatars (characters) in the game normally wear elaborate costumes with weapons and armor, but for the funeral they appeared in formal outfits that did not allow for weaponry, and were therefore defenseless.  One group of people from an opposing guild used this opportunity to ambush the funeral and kill all of the unarmed characters.

The ambush didn’t prevent the players from continuing the game, the avatars can be regenerated after being killed.  However, a debate raged about whether or not the actions of the opposing team were disrespectful or not.  The event is posted on YouTube, so it’s easy to read the reactions regarding the players actions.  I read through several pages of reactions and they are mixed.  Many people pointed out that the players gathered in a wargame, in a war zone, and were unarmed, and announced that they would be there, and therefore “asked for it”. Many were also flabbergasted that people would hold a funeral inside a game.  Some believed it was just a stupid idea, while others believed that funerals were somber occasions and holding one inside a game would be disrespectful.  Quite a few posters stated “it’s just a game!” and didn’t believe the ambush was wrong at all, while others remarked that it should have been treated as a funeral because the actual player died, rather than simply retiring a character.  Many spoke of a “fake funeral” while others remarked that a funeral was simply a way of memorializing a person and so even inside the game, it was real and should have been respected.

As a Christian, I was taught to believe that we, as humans, are primarily spiritual beings inside fleshly bodies, and that when we die, our bodies will decay, but our spirits will live on eternally in God’s kingdom or outside of it.  As we venture into cyberlife, I think this becomes more evident.  For instance, in the funeral situation, a real woman died.  Her friends in the game may not have ever seen her – only seeing and interacting with her game character – but they knew of her personality because of the way she interacted inside the game.  In essence, even though she played a character, there was probably a lot of “her” in it because it was a character she chose and designed (rather than an actor playing a preconceived part in a movie, for instance).  The in-game character was either an expression of her, or an expression of who she wanted to be.  The people in her guild interacted with her personality, or the “spirit” of who she was, even though they never got to know her in flesh. Is it right to say that the in-game funeral was “fake” when they were honoring the memory of a real person?  Is it “just a game” when the people behind the characters were aware of a real death and chose to ambush the memorial anyway.  Would it be different if the woman remained alive but chose to kill off her character and stop playing the game?  Would it be different if the characters at the funeral were computer-generated and there were no actual people behind them?  When in a cyber-world, should people, or their characters, act based on the rules of the cyberworld (it’s a war area, so we should ambush) or base on the rules of the real world (it’s a memorial for a human, so respect it as if you would in real life).  Do the interactions with the woman’s character “in spirit” count as much as interactions others had with her in flesh?  Do her cyber friends that knew her “in spirit” mean as much as the friends she had in flesh?  Do the actions of the ambushers count as game actions (game flesh) or should we consider the psychological ramifications of wanting to ruin someone’s memorial (in spirit) and hold them accountable in that way? How much does it actually matter that real humans were honoring the death of another real human, albeit in a cyber world?

I think that we, as humans and as Christians, will have to contend with these types of questions as video games and gaming takes over as a primary form of entertainment.  Perhaps it is our actions in the cyber world that will force us to define who we are in the real one.