Tag Archives: death

Demon’s Souls and the Meaning and Import of Virtual Death


  1. Bad is Good and Good is Bad

The problem with video game writing is that it tends to be written by fans of video games. The corruption and stupidity of games journalism are not isolated quirks of the system but symptoms of a flawed approach to the medium. Fans, by their nature, approach their choice of medium wanting to fall in love: Good games are filled with good things; bad games are filled with bad things. Love the good things. Hate the bad things.

While I think that this approach to art can be intensely rewarding, I also think that it has its weaknesses and the most obvious weakness is a failure to recognise that bad things can sometimes be good.  They can be good because these bad and un-fun things make the good bits glow that much brighter, and because even painful and unpleasant experiences have meaning and importance. This is a column about the role of death in video games and how a more sophisticated appreciation of one of the least fun aspects of the gaming experience might unlock the door to a world of new themes and experiences. Continue reading Demon’s Souls and the Meaning and Import of Virtual Death

Digital effects: death and the internet

Lots of people have been linking this New York Times piece about the things we leave behind when we die, which increasingly include a swathe of online material archived on blogs, social media and the other ill-defined platforms of the intertubes. Poignantly, the article uses the late Mac Tonnies – who, among many other things, was a columnist for this very blog – as its main example, documenting the work of his friends to collate and archive his online presence after his untimely and unexpected death back in October 2009.

Even before my father passed away I had an uneasy relationship with the traditional methods of mourning, which tend to focus on elevating the geographical location of the physical remains to the status of an emotionally sacred space. To be clear, I feel there’s nothing wrong with that; it’s just never made much sense to me. I’ve not visited my father’s grave since the day of his funeral. I won’t find him there.

To be honest, I find I’m brought closer to him by some of the more mundane possessions of his I kept, some for sentiment, some for practicality. The thing that reminds me of him most is probably the aging 60s-vintage handbook of engineering constants and equations that sits among my non-fiction books, though there’s another sense of closeness I get when I use one of his old tools, worn by his hands over many years – tools I can remember watching him use.

All of which is to say that I feel closer to my father by considering the things he did and thought about than I do by, say, looking at a headstone with his name on it. The NYT piece is interesting to me because it seems to show a similar connection among Mac’s friends and family with the digital detritus he left behind, like a map of his mind captured – albeit imperfectly – in four dimensions. By returning to his writings, or even just the juxtaposed sets of photos he’d post from time to time, they can partake once again in the sort of person he really was, as opposed to the idealised gloss of a professional eulogy.

It’s not something I’m proud of, but I actively wanted to punch the priest who buried my father in the face; he chuntered out a list of mealy-mouthed one-size-fits-all platitudes that did nothing except demonstrate he’d never met the guy. I realise in hindsight that the old cliche is true, and that funerals are for the benefit of the living and not the deceased, but there was no comfort for me in hearing my father reduced to a series of vaguely pious middle class attitudes and interests. Like all of us, he was a flawed man, but what made him who he was were his efforts to balance those flaws with the demands of the world around him. To pass over that struggle, to replace it with a checklist of cheap virtues, felt like an attempt to erase the man who left the name behind him; it was more of a death than his dying, or so it felt to me.

Compare and contrast with the memorialisation of Mac, which seems to me to be something far more authentic and true to the person he really was:

This outpouring of digital grief, memorial-making, documentation and self-expression is unusual, maybe unique, for now, because of the kind of person Tonnies was and the kinds of friends he made online. But maybe, his friend Rita King suggests, his story is also a kind of early signal of one way that digital afterlives might play out. And she doesn’t just mean this in an abstract, scholarly way. “I find solace,” she told me, “in going to Mac’s Twitter feed.”

Finding solace in a Twitter feed may sound odd, but the idea that Tonnies’s friends would revisit and preserve such digital artifacts isn’t so different from keeping postcards or other physical ephemera of a deceased friend or loved one. In both instances, the value doesn’t come from the material itself but rather from those who extract meaning from, and give meaning to, all we leave behind: our survivors.

The most remarkable set of connections to emerge from Tonnies’s digital afterlife isn’t among his online friends — it is between those friends and his parents, the previously computer-shunning Dana and Bob Tonnies. Dana, who told me that her husband now teases her about how much time she spends sending and answering e-mail (a good bit of it coming from her son’s online social circle), is presently going through Posthuman Blues, in order, from the beginning. “I still have a year to go,” she says. Reading it has been “amazing,” she continues — funny posts, personal posts, poetic posts, angry posts about the state of the world. I ask her if what she is reading seems like a different, or specifically narrow, version of her son. “Oh, no, it’s him,” she says. “I can hear him when I read it.”

My father was not given to introspection… or, if he was, he left no record of it. What would his Facebook page have looked like, I sometimes wonder; or his blog, had he written one? And what would people make of my own digital effects, were I to die suddenly like Mac did? Maudlin, certainly; narcissistic, quite possibly. But speaking as an atheist, I think the only immortality anyone can truly achieve is the impression we leave behind in the minds of those who knew us.

How social media will change the shape and depth of that impression remains to be seen: will it become easier or harder to idealise the dead when the digital ephemera of their true characters – flaws and bad days and irrational prejudices captured in real time, dropped with no thought to their permanence or lack thereof – can be collected and saved after they’ve died? And what responsibilities – if any – should social networks have for ensuring that these leavings are preserved or destroyed in accordance with their wishes, or those of their survivors?

The Facebook graveyard

metaverse tombstoneThis week’s big social network story is Facebook’s announcement that they now allow the user profiles of people who’ve died to be “memorialised” – frozen in perpetuity (one presumes) so that you can still visit them, like some digital tombstone or memorial bench. [image by moggs oceanlane]

As that blog post makes clear, Facebook are obviously reacting to a genuine human need, though it would be easy (if highly cynical) to suggest that they’d like a slice of the growing traffic for online memorial sites, as mentioned earlier this month. But questions remain – who will maintain these profiles, and for how long? Will they drop out of the system when their last friend connection is severed (assuming, of course, that any social network platform lasts long enough for that to happen)? Will those memorial profiles be any more or less transferrable to new networks than those of the living? Will the memorials still have adverts surrounding them, like a normal Facebook page, and is that a morally acceptable price for their maintenance?

The biggest question is obviously “how much checking will Facebook do to ensure that the person really is dead?” Internet “pseuicides” aren’t a new phenomenon, and it’s not clear whether the Facebook crew have a procedure in mind to prevent a group of friends faking a death, be it in collusion with the owner of the profile in question or otherwise. Given how easy it is to hack many people’s public email accounts (poor password choices, easily reverse-engineered ‘secret questions’, etc.), unless they demand some sort of legal confirmation from the state that the owner has indeed passed away it could be a relatively simple scam to declare a living person to be deceased. Indeed, that might even become a popular black economy service, alongside fake IDs and new identities.

Tombstone2.0: the Grief Olympics move online

remembering the deadThe Guardian has an interesting article about the recent rise of memorial websites and online tributes to the dead – a phenomenon which, until now, I was largely unaware of. Perhaps because it’s a fairly new thing… [image by kevindooley]

The blossoming of memorial websites is a relatively new phenomenon. “I think there were two things that happened,” says Jonathan Davies, who founded memorial site Much Loved.”The death of Diana brought about a change in how we grieve publicly, and then the internet connected people and provided a place for it. Two or three years ago, when we launched, we were quite unusual.” Now there are lots of host sites, he points out, as well as families and friends starting their own pages.

Davies set up his site, which currently has around 12,000 memorials, in 2007, 12 years after his brother died suddenly at the age of 21. “It was a drugs-related death and I think this was one of the reasons why his friends didn’t get in touch with our family – there was a police investigation, and I think his friends were worried about how we would react, which led to this wall of silence,” he says. “I think that actually made our grieving period worse. I felt a website would have opened up the channels of communication.”

So far, so reasonable – setting up a website to honour a deceased relative is surely no weirder than setting one up for your hobby or community group. Far cheaper and more accessible than a physical memorial, too, when you consider that Joe Average is unlikely to have thousands of people wanting to pay tribute at his final resting place, digital or otherwise… but that mention of the Princess Di episode flicked the edge of my alarm bell. Back to Davies:

Does it say something about us as a society, that something so private as grief is now often done so publicly? “I do think grief is becoming embraced more by communities – by that I mean people outside the immediate family. I remember in the mid-90s, when my brother died, people would ignore us because they didn’t know what to say. That’s beginning to change now.”


But is this outpouring of grief, often for celebrities, but also for those in the news, such as Lafferty and Rowe, people the mourners might never have met, actually genuine? “It is, absolutely,” says clinical psychologist Oliver James, “because they are talking about themselves. What is happening is that instead of gaining insight, they are acting out. Instead of properly apprehending their own difficulties, a large proportion of the people who leave these messages are identifying with the difficulties of someone else and emoting. Although the feeling is authentic and truly felt, there is a histrionic dimension to it.

No kidding. People have always been weird about celebrity deaths, but the whole Diana business marked a sort of sea change or tipping point whereby it became fashionable to don one’s hair-shirt. And while I stand to be accused of cynicism, I’m resolute in my belief that this is less a manifestation of increasing compassion in the general public than it is a carefully developed and sustained type of media-generated hysteria.

There’s always been ways to make money out of the dead and those who mourn them, but modern communications media makes it easier to amplify and sustain the perfectly reasonable sadness felt when a person you admire from a distance shuffles off this mortal coil – and the longer you can sustain that grief, the more special edition newspapers you can sell. It seems I’m not alone in my cynicism:

Much Loved is run as a registered charity, aimed at helping families to set up their own sites, but you can’t escape the feeling that other sites might have more cynical motives. On Lasting Tribute, which is owned by the Daily Mail newspaper group, there is a shop where you can buy personalised candles, benches and jewellery. For £1, you can also leave a virtual “gift” on people’s pages – these include pictures of teddy bears, flags, a pint of beer or a heart. The site set up for Georgia Rowe – which, at the time of writing did not have any tributes, includes a link to the local newspaper’s report on her death. A newspaper owned by the Daily Mail group.

Well, what do you know…newspapers have always profited from the misery of others, so I guess it’s no great surprise to see the Grief Olympics moving online as print withers and television fragments. And while it’s nice to think that families and friends can find a way to express their feelings about the dead, the prospect of the web becoming increasingly clogged with cloying sentiment and histrionic wailing over the deaths of marginal and/or faded celebrities is not one that fills me with contentment. There’s something grotesque about it, something vicarious and hollow… but maybe that’s just me seeing my own faults in others.

Can you think of any science fiction stories that have dealt with this topic? The only one that leaps to mind for me is”The Grave of My Beloved” by Ian Watson and Roberto Quaglia, which wryly highlights the financial trap of renting a digital memorial before trekking off into traditionally Watsonian weirdness…

Who owns the dead? Guitar Hero, Kurt Cobain and publicity rights in a digital era

Screenshot of Kurt Cobain avatar from Guitar HeroI’m guessing you’ve probably caught wind of Courtney Love’s lawsuit against Activision regarding their reanimation of the image of Kurt Cobain in the latest edition of Guitar Hero. I’ve not seen it myself, but friends have told me it’s a bit tasteless, and this particular lawsuit may be one of the more sane things Love has done in some time (even though there are protestations from Activision that she actually signed off on a contract that gave them permission to do it). [image ganked from Kotaku post under Fair Use terms; contact for immediate takedown if required]

Specifics aside, though, this raises the spectre of an issue that is only set to become more complicated – the use of someone’s image for marketing purposes when they’re no longer around to give their permission. Take it away, TechDirt:

[…] that issue is getting more and more complicated as technology gets better and better. In the last few decades, for example, there’s been a growing trend to use famous dead people, such as John Wayne, Lucille Ball and Fred Astaire in commercials. But those mostly involved taking clips of those actors from existing films/TV and splicing them into a commercial (with permission from their estates). However, as some lawyers have been noting, with better and better digital technologies, this issue is becoming more important as it’s now possible to digitally recreate someone for the purpose of film. Or, say, a video game.

Or, say, a life-size photorealistic face-mask. I’d be the first to concede that making money from the dead is a bit crass – especially from as tragic a figure as Cobain – but is Activision being any more crass than Love and the Cobain holding companies she controls? Who gets to decide what’s appropriate, what’s tasteful?

There’s always going to be a price at which someone’s moral stance becomes less rigid, after all, and the dead can’t hang around to complain… not until we’ve cracked personality uploads or Turing-compliant simulations, anyway. And even then, would the electronic personality be considered legally the same person as the no-longer-living meat-machine?

And just to add an extra fillip of weirdness, consider the results of a recent experiment at Warwick University here in the UK, which shows that doctored video footage can easily persuade eyewitnesses that they saw something which never actually occurred. [via FuturePundit]

The legal implications are a bit nasty – especially in a country as saturated in CCTV cameras as this one – but let’s look at the light side: how much fun would it be to convince your best friend that he was so steaming drunk at his own birthday party that he missed Kurt Cobain wandering through the front room trying to bum cigarettes from people playing Guitar Hero?