My name is Artemesia. I’m an avatar. For the past six years, I have lived, played and worked in the virtual world There.com. When I say “worked” I mean that quite literally. I did my Ph.D. “in” There.com, studying a group of refugees from the defunct MMOG Uru. I defended that Ph.D. in There.com, with the person who operates me, Celia Pearce, at my side. I am cited as co-author of her book, Communities of Play, and appear on its cover. I have given keynotes to hundreds of people on her behalf in foreign countries when she could not physically attend. If you go to her facebook page, or have her on your chat buddy list, you will see me. Less than three hours from now, I will be gone. And a piece of her will be lost forever.
One of the things I love about anthropology is that if you study cultures, what you find is that very few things that happen online do not have a real world precedent. The destruction of cultures is nothing new. For an ethnographer to suddenly find herself a historian is an-all-too common fallout of Colonialism. But this is a strange reversal: in a sense my friends and research colonized this world and made it their own. Over seven years, There.com’s incredibly creative players brought life to this place, and now that life is being taken away.
Over the past few days and nights we have been convening in groups large and small, having parties, exploring places we will miss, appreciating each other’s handiwork, sharing memories and feelings, and discussing where to go next. These moments feel less like a grieving than a celebration…we are celebrating all that we’ve accomplished together, the new cultures and artifacts we created, and the magical experience we all had in this cartoon world. For most of us, being an avatar allowed us to learn more about ourselves, to play, to exercise some freedom outside of our everyday lives, to explore new aspects of ourselves. One of my research subjects once said, “We make our avatars, and thereafter, our avatars make us,” borrowing from Marshall McLuhan’s famous comment about tools. This is perhaps one of the most profound statements about life as an avatar. She made me, and I made her, in an iterative feedback loop. While this is true of all of us, probably no moreso in our case: It was through me her real-world avatar became a Ph.D. and began her adventure as a college professor.
In the average MMOG, an avatar dies a thousand deaths, is resurrected, only to go into battle and die again. We were always told that our There.com avatars were immortal. We could fall from tall trees, shoot each other with paint guns, or jump off of “Avie Sacrifice” without no particular consequence except a few contorted animations. But it turns out we were not immortal at all. And this will be permadeath. In a few short hours, I will be nothing more than a pile of bits on a hard drive, asleep forever…unless there is a miracle.
And miracles do happen. The group of refugees I first studied have seen their “homeland” reopen not one, not two, but three times, the most recent of which was only a few weeks ago. Meanwhile, we are all looking for new places to settle, comparing the strengths and weaknesses of the alternatives: this one has nice avatars but is to buggy, that one is unplayable, this one looks the closest to There.com but appeals mostly to kids. Some of the creators have bought their own serves on a free virtual world development platform, and have taken things into their own hands, eschewing the slings and arrows of the outrageous fortune of virtual world companies, perhaps tired of being tossed willy nilly from place to place.
I am continually amazed by the resilience of my people; the Uruvians especially, they have been through this before. Their response, as always, is, well this sucks, what next? But it’s hard to say goodbye. To our avatars, to our history, to our culture, to all the things we’ve created. My friend and I built a massive and highly complicated treehouse classroom complex for our university. I only used it once—only a few hours before the announcement that our world was coming to an end. I was happy to have the chance to have used it if only that one time.
What will happen next? Who knows? I do know that my operator will miss me; I have become such an integral part of her life and her identity…even now, she finds it hard to imagine life without me. We will go into another world, inhabit other avatars, but Artemesia in There will always be “home,” even when she is nothing more than a ghost.
But like I said. Who knows? Perhaps a miracle could happen. In the words of Yeesha, the heroine of Uru: “The ending is not yet written.”