If you were to die – oh no, of course you won’t! – but if in some freakish turn of fate, you did – what would happen to your avatar? And all your virtual worldly assets? And who would inform your avatarian friends, and the very real human beings behind them? Death happens inside a single moment in physical life. Avatars, on the other hand, tend to linger. And grief – on both sides of that great Reality Divide between the virtual and the physical – it lingers, too.
When the person behind an avatar you care about dies in real life, it can be a surreally painful experience. Painful, because although the avatar is virtual, your relationship is real, and the grief is very real, too. And surreal, because you may have never met the person behind the avatar, and you likely do not know the real family who is now handling all the end-of-life arrangements and memorial services to which you, the avatar, are not invited. How could you be?
I have had this happen three times now in Second Life, where I have lived on my little rented parcel of land for four years. I live a life there similar in a lot of ways to physical life: a house, 50 or so friends, and probably another hundred or so acquaintanaces with whom I share my virtual life. I build 3D Poem Parks where avatars can walk through the landscape of famous poems. And I talk to people. I get to know them. We talk freely without the worries of “Where is all this headed?” or “What might happen here?” Can you imagine living without fear? There is no real danger in Second Life, so everything can be out in the open. It is amazing how close you can get to someone, how much joy you can feel when you see her avatar walking up to your house or teleporting into a dance.
How different it is from physical death
Each time an avatar I care about in Second Life has died in real life, I have attended virtual memorial services and grieved with other avatars inworld. But it always feels strange, incomplete. How different death is from the virtual viewpoint! In the real world, you bury a physical body and grieve with physical people who touch you and make tea for you, tuck you into bed and stay overnight with you. When my Dad died last year, the military held a memorial service for him; they flew the flag at half-mast and gave me a flag folded with military precision. The moment when the Honor Guard handed me the flag, looked into my eyes, and thanked me for my Dad’s service is one I will never forget. It was visceral, tangible, tinged with the scent of last night’s rain.
There is nothing like this in a virtual world. How could there be?
The murky dissolution of an avatar
When the human behind an avatar dies, you may not know immediately inworld. It may take some time for the news to filter from the real to the virtual. Maybe the person behind another avatar had known the person who died in real life, and so he hears the news; and, knowing how much the avatar meant to other avatars, he passes the news on quickly. But maybe not. Maybe no one knows the avatar’s person in real life, and vice versa. It can take days, weeks, months – and then you might find out in a blog post. And there is sometimes the anguished period when people question whether the death really happened. People have been known to fake their real life death to get their avatar out of difficult virtual situations.
It’s a murky event, this dissolution of an avatar. And it doesn’t happen all at once. Upon its human’s death in real life, a Second Life avatar can remain an “account” indefinitely. A Premium account is suspended eventually when payment lapses, but a Basic account ticks along indefinitely, as near as I can figure, unless someone deletes it. All the avatars I knew who died IRL have current Profiles in Second Life, even many years later in one case. The same applies to a Second Life inventory, which remains in a sort of limbo state. Avatars say it deteriorates over time, but no one knows for sure. How could they?
You can bequeath your Second Life account
Linden Lab allows you to bequeath your Second Life account, including your avatar, to another upon your death. This has to be arranged ahead of time, of course. However, it is not an easy process, even if you follow all of Linden’s instructions. After your death, the beneficiary must provide Linden with a valid testamentary letter or order, a copy of the Death Certificate of the person behind the avatar, a copy of the will, and a government-issue ID identifying himself or herself to Linden Lab.
Another more clandestine arrangement is the sharing of Second Life accounts, which surprisingly Linden Lab allows in its Terms of Service. But it makes clear that as the account holder, you are responsible for all activities of others sharing your account. And under no circumstances may you transfer your account to another, while you are still alive IRL. But if someone were to share your account while you were alive, that person could conceivably continue to do so after your death without violating Second Life TOS. But this last possibility is a sketchy hyphothesis of mine, and I’m not sure anyone has tested it. How could they?
What is an avatar anyway?
Contemplating this murky marsh of avatarian existence after human death led me to wonder what an avatar is anyway. What is it that continues as an account, once the human is gone? Memories for sure. Being able to see a loved one’s picture, groups, picks, and Profile comments are a great comfort for other avatars and humans left behind.
When the human behind the first avatar I ever cared for deeply died IRL, I wrote a poem called Second Love, in which I asked: What is it that we love, when we love an avatar? My conclusion was:
“They say that eyes are windows that open on the soul,
That by gazing in the eyes, the inner lands behold;
Likewise, I think an avatar can be a sort of peephole,
Through which the heart can look, to spy upon the soul.”
What do you want for your avatar if you die?
I have been wondering what I would want for Bay, if I were to die IRL. I think I would want her account (and therefore her “life”) to die too, or be “deleted.” I don’t think I would want a twilight sort of unactivated existence for her. Death is a part of life, both real and avatarian, I think. The conundrum is that I don’t think I could ever bring myself to “delete” Bay, so I’m not sure anyone else could either. How could they?
In a post on Gamers Anonymous entitled “Struggling to Let Go of My Avatar,” a former Second Lifer who calls herself Buttercup describes the anguish she faces at deleting her avatar. Buttercup feels she is addicted to Second Life, and the only solution is to go cold turkey and delete her account. But she is ambivalent and cannot bring herself to hit the “delete” button. “How can I kill my avatar off?” she writes. “My creation? Everything I ever wanted to be?” Though Buttercup is dealing with perceived addiction, the same anguish at deleting an avatar, I think, would exist for us all.
But assuming Bay’s account were deleted after my death, I would still very much like her creations to remain accessible, such as her poetry, blog, YouTube videos, Flickr photos, as well as various comments she has made on other videos and websites, any remaining chat or IM logs, and a memorial sort of Facebook page that makes it clear that while Bay is gone, here are some of her posts.
Managing your virtual assets
The question is, how would all this happen? I would have to arrange it all ahead of time, just as humans plan the passing of their tangible assets IRL. Many real life Estate Planning attorneys today suggest preparing a Letter of Instruction for your digital assets, included as part of in your real end-of-life documents, that lists all your online accounts, passwords, and specific wishes for the disposition of those accounts – as well as who you want informed of your death, both virtual and human beings. Without such a document, no online service provider will release any account, or its assets, to anyone on your death. And without the password, even if the provider does release the account, your beneficiary won’t be able to access it. They advise you to make a list of all your accounts and passwords, and put it in a safe deposit box. And tell someone where it is, preferably your lawyer.
There are so many virtual assets to consider: all creative content either existing or for sale as part of a business in marketplaces inside virtual worlds; Flickr, Facebook, and Twitter accounts; websites, blogs, iTunes and YouTube accounts; untold creations sleeping on computer hard drives, clouds, and various sticks and external drives; as well as online banking, investment, e-mail, and various bill payment accounts. The amount of activity each of us conducts digitally, both human and virtual, is staggering.
The emergence of virtual estate planning
Both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times have both published articles on end-of-life virtual estate planning.The Times piece points that although what we do online still feels somehow novel and ephemeral, it is anything but. There is a site called The Digital Beyond that offers comprehensive plans and advice for bequeathing your virtual assets. Their primary piece of advice: Before you die, appoint a Digital Executor. And they have other intriguing posts like “Digital Immortals: Preserving Life Beyond Death” and “What Happens to Your Facebook Account When You Die?” (did you know 375,000 people with Facebook accounts die every year?)
LIfe and death are both unpredictable. So help your avatarian friends out a bit. Plan for the inevitable now. Do it with legal oversight. And hug all your family and friends – real and virtual – close while you can.