A Story About A Tree

This article, and much more, is available in my book Postmortems: Selected Essays Volume One.

May 5th, 1998

I’d like to tell you a story about a tree.

This tree grows in a different virtual world than Ultima Online–one of the many text muds that exist on the Internet. It grows in a Garden of Remembrance, and the ground around it is littered with flowers and boxes of chocolates and pieces of paper with heartfelt poems written on them. And there is a plaque there as well–“In memory of Karyn,” it reads.

The story I’d like to tell is the story of that plaque and that person, someone I never met.

Karyn first logged on to that virtual world quite some time ago. She was from Norway. She kept coming back, and brought friends with her–some of whom did not speak English very well, but for whom she served as an interpreter. She made friends. Eventually she ran a website all about that virtual world, and posted on that site pictures of herself, where all could see she had a lovely smile.

As her ties to the world grew, she started a guild. She called it the Norse Traders, and with a lot of hard work, she got it off the ground and developed it into one of the most popular and well-known guilds in the game. It was a merchants’ guild that also adventured together, and pretty soon the folks involved had made good friendships.

In March of this year, some of those friends started to notice that they hadn’t seen Karyn in a while. You know how it goes in the online world–people don’t leave, they just fail to show up, usually, and you never know what happened to them. But in this case there was her website to go to. So people went looking for Karyn.

A day later the news filtered out across the bulletin boards, via emails, and eventually onto the welcome message when you first logged in: Karyn was dead. She had died in a head-on collision while test-driving a new car. And it had happened two months before, in January, and none of us had known.

Her parents knew that she had friends on the Internet–they didn’t quite understand what she did online, or who those friends were, but they knew that there were people out there somewhere who might want to learn the news. It took them some time to find her webpage, and to learn how to put a message up. But they did it, and they attached news items about the car crash, in Norwegian.

The outpouring of grief on the virtual world was immediate. People who had not logged on in months heard about it from the game’s email newsletter. A memorial service was organized. And eventually, a Garden of Remembrance was created, and a tree planted in Karyn’s memory. Players made the pilgrimage to the garden in order to leave tokens of their grief. Code was changed so that items left in this manner became permanent parts of the world.

Throughout all the events, however, there ran a common thread. People could not get a handle on feeling grief for someone they had never actually met. They could not quite understand feeling a deep sense of loss over someone they “just played a game with.” When describing their loss, they had to resort to “I once formed a party with her and we went into a dungeon.” They couldn’t quite express the feeling that a member of their community was gone.

And it was that sense–the Norse Traders had fallen apart since January, and now they knew why. Because Karyn, the person at the center of it, was not there. In a very real sense, they came to realize that the strange unease they had felt about hearing of her death with a two-month time lag might have originated in the fact that the loss to the community was actually felt when she stopped logging in–not when the news finally came.

In the end, that garden and that tree served not only as a memorial to a well-loved and much-missed person, but as a marker of a moment, a moment in which the players of an online game realized that they weren’t “playing a game.” That the social bonds that they felt within this “game” were Real.

There’s a children’s book, The Velveteen Rabbit, about a stuffed plush rabbit which desperately wishes to become Real. And in the end, the love of the little boy whose toy it is makes this come true.

In the end, the social bonds of the people in a virtual environment make it more than just a game. They make it Real. Sometimes it takes a moment of grief to make people realize it, and sometimes people just come to an awareness over time, but the fundamental fact remains: when we make a friend, hurt someone’s feelings, suffer a loss, or accomplish something in an online world, it’s real. It’s not “just a game.”

Ultima Online was designed with a basic philosophy in mind: that we were providing an online world, one that could live and breathe and develop in new and unpredictable ways. We wanted to provide scope for players to develop online communities in a way that no other online world had done. It is amazing and gratifying to see some of the results today: volunteer police forces, roleplayer taverns, small-scale Olympics, and fledgling forms of government. And yes, sadly, a few places where funerals have been held, for in any community of this size, there will be losses.

The thing that we should never lose sight of is that we, by participating in this new sort of community, are breaking new ground that will undoubtedly prove important over the next decade, as the Internet acquires more significance in business, education, socializing, and other areas outside of gaming. The dilemmas that players of UO wrestle with every day in the form of how reputation should work, what to do about harassment, etc, are the key problems of virtual reality for the next several years. And we are only able to tackle them because you, the citizens of this virtual Britannia, are more than just players–you are a self-aware community that reaches beyond “game” and into the Real.

I am not going to let anyone tell me that the Garden of Remembrance isn’t Real, or that the grief we all felt over Karyn’s death was not Real. And I hope that UO players aren’t going to let anyone tell them that their experiences within UO aren’t Real either, that it’s “just a game.” It may be for some people, but we all know better, don’t we? For Karyn’s sake, and also for our own.

-Designer Dragon

This little essay is based on a speech given at the last Austin UO Players Lunch in March.


The saga did not end there, however. You should also read “Revisiting the Garden of Remembrance.”


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