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Part III: Virtual Worlds beyond Death

Chapter 9, Erica Hurwitz Andrus’s “Remembering Laura Roslin: Fictional Death and a Real Bereavement Community Online,” pushed the limits when it comes to memorialization and specifically, the composition of the corpse. Laura Roslin, a character from the television show Battlestar Galactica who dies from cancer, is memorialized on a LiveJournal website entitled RememberLaura. As such this chapter became the first to deal exclusively with the death of a fictional character and also drew some striking similarities to the mourning of nonfictional people. This chapter asked the question of where the corpse’s body begins and where our cultural imagination ends, ultimately arriving at the conclusion that since “fans form emotional bonds with people who cannot reciprocate because the relationship is formed through the medium of television” (171) the mourners and fans feel it even more important to memorialize online. Interestingly, fans on this site largely focused on reimaging Laura’s life and other speculation about how her story might have played out in a quasi-roleplay situation. This reimagining is mirrored in some ways in the mourning of nonfictional people. Posters on Facebook walls and social media create and recreate the life stories of their deceased just as vibrantly as they do fictional characters. Andrus’s example could very well lead to discussion centering on how the corpse matters to us as a society while also challenging the very definition of the corpse itself. It is in this overlap that the impetus for this collection seems to lie. It is not just mourning that we do in a digital nature, but sometimes it is also the very corpse itself, and we seem (at least according to this chapter) to grieve the death of fictional characters just as passionately as we do our nonfictional deceased.

black and white image of woman in black dress holding a skull
Widvey, Anne Marthe. Ectoplasm I. Flickr, 12 July 2012, https://flic.kr/p/dyoQ3S

In arguably the most theoretical and dense chapter of the collection, “Necromedia: Reversed Ontogeny or Posthuman Evolution?” by Denisa Kera, we begin to see some solutions for the problems faced by death’s presence on social media. Kera interweaved her argument with literary analysis of Vladimir Nabokov’s The Original of Laura and Denis Diderot’s D’Alembert’s Dream, serving to explain the argument that necromedia necessarily involves the combination of death and design “to transform our fragmented bodies and lives into changing and often monstrous units and networks” (p. 183). In this way death and digital technologies are causing an evaluation of the relationships between the recently deceased and the “body, family, society, media industry, [and] cosmology” (p. 183). Kera accomplished this through the use of Diderot’s “sensitive networks,” defined as “biological and political units (human bodies, but also political systems) developed in terms of boundaries between normality and monstrosity” (p. 184). The author arrived at the conclusion that “death [is] something that does not signify an end but a novel organization of parts defined by some emergent scientific insight or technological possibilit[y]” (p. 185). These parts, Kera explained, are both biological and political and form entirely new units consisting of both parts and the added form created by the combination of them.

In this way, websites that reimagine death and the corpse become “fantasy playgrounds” (p. 186) in an attempt to search for solutions “that will preserve online lives, and resolve the anxiety we feel about the degradation of our physical bodies” (p. 187). As pieces of the puzzle, cogs in the machine, we are always perpendicular to other collective communities and organizational strategies which in turn help us “develop the fantasies of pleasurable and entertaining forms of death in which we imagine or slowly experience and discover our inorganic ‘heritage’ in terms of molecules and physiology that are doomed to return to their origins” (p. 188). It is these divisions that imbue the corpse with its power. Instead of simply rotting away beneath our feet, the corpse is in a constant state of becoming, transforming into simply its next iteration as one of these tangential organizations to larger organizational strategies (p. 192).

bedside table with lamp and digital clock with red numbers spelling TIME
Evan. Time. Flickr, 26 December 2010, https://flic.kr/p/97wZ8v

Stephen Mazzeo and Daniel Schall’s “Infinite Gestation: Death and Progress in Video Games” introduced the concept of “permadeath” into our discussion of the fictional world of death and dying. This, as it sounds, is “the permanent loss of a player’s character in a video game” (p. 197) and can be a huge selling or rejection point for video game players. In this chapter they reviewed not only the business model on this topic but also the psychological factors that play into games with notoriously “catastrophic progress loss” (p. 198) in regards to permadeath. Their claims focused on player’s experiences in these types of games (those in which the player’s character experiences a permadeath) and tie in nicely with some of the major themes of this collection. For example, identity formation in online memorials is a thread that runs throughout this book and yet it is most obvious in this second to last chapter. The player literally creates the identity which they would like to play as in the game and make decisions for that character to play out on the screen. When that character dies, then, there is a psychological toll exacted from the player not simply because of the work put into creating the character but also because of intricate connection formed in the formation and controlling of the character throughout their in-game lifetime. Their chapter is largely technical as it pertains to the interworking of gaming and video games in particular, while also being woven by the threads of power, identity, loss, grief, and just a touch of magic.

The final chapter in this collection, William Sims Bainbridge’s “The Death of Digital Worlds” continued in the vein of video games and death and dying rituals therein. This time, though, Bainbridge discussed multiplayer online role-playing games. So, whereas Mazzeo and Schall focused on the singular psychological effects of character death, Bainbridge sought to understand how this is complicated and complimented by the presence of other online players. Specifically, avatars were a main focus for this chapter as it relates to character and player identification. Similar to the previous chapter, Bainbridge's research and findings revealed another layer to the intricacies surrounding digital corpses in a digital world.