Death in the Metaverse: Mapping Uncharted Social and Legal Territory

Pixels and Policy normally approaches the interplay between virtual worlds and some aspect of business, culture, policy or politics. However, there is one issue that transcends these areas not because of its easy definition, but because it is such a hazy concept.

Can the virtual world change the way humans deal with death? And what happens to our virtual goods when our earthly bodies pass?

A Death in the Virtual World

Death defies easy description. Is it a policy issue? Of course. Governments take death into consideration on a large scale of social programs, law enforcement actions and military initiatives. But for the purpose of this article I speak about death on a more personal level.

How do we deal with death on an individual level, and how are virtual worlds likely to alter our response mechanisms? 

How deeply do our emotional connections to the virtual world run? In The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier, virtual communication pioneer Howard Rheingold points out that users of the early newsgroup The Well responded to the death of a prominent Well user with varying levels of grief and community remembrance. 

In a paragraph describing how the Well's virtual community came together for both a real and virtual funeral for user Blair Newman, Rheingold says:

Death seems somehow more real, even if your only participation is in the virtual funeral. How could any one of us who looked each other in the eye that afternoon in the funeral home deny that the [virtual] bonds between us were growing into something real?

Are immersive graphical worlds any different? Friendships and relationships are established and maintained over years, until social connections we've never met in the real world become as valid as face-to-face work or school friendships.

We memorialize virtual friends in ways they would enjoy, just as we speak of how real-world friends would "like to be remembered." Sometimes, in the case of prominent fantasy MMORPG players passing, funerals can take on a great deal of spectacle, incorporating humor and entertainment into an assembly of grief. We acknowledge their role as a member of the fantasy community, and respond with an equally fantastic send-up for their former avatar.

The Blurring of Social Relationships

Do we take the death of our closest virtual confidante any differently than the death of a childhood friend? Should we? There have been no studies done on how individuals respond to the death of a virtual friend as opposed to a friend with whom they interact closely, but my suspicion is that the grief in both cases would be nearly identical.

Little did I know when starting this piece that Dusan Writer wrote an eloquent post on the topic that addresses the fact that, for an increasing number of us, friendships exist in both the physical and virtual spheres. 

There is little call for a  virtual environment where avatars visibly grow old and frail and fall to disease, partly because this ruins the fantasy of creating your own vital, chiseled ideal character. But there's something more to that. We are uncomfortable with death, frailty, aging and degrading. As Dusan notes, virtual worlds persist in a pristine state regardless of how many avatars flow through them.

Whatever the case, the death of a virtual friend is no longer an anomaly in the virtual world. Second Life has seen its share of virtual funerals, as have fantasy games like Ultima Online and World of Warcraft. Real people are behind these events, and real people are the focus.

Perhaps virtual worlds are augmenting our grieving process by allowing users the capability to turn deaths into large-scale community remembrances without any actual financial expenditure. In this way, every memorialized individual receives the full measure of remembrance and pomp, elevating a death to pageantry and ritual.


Goodbye Cruel (Virtual) World

The New York Times recently took a look at the hazy legal area that covers what happens to our virtual items and property when we die. It raises interesting questions about the legal status of many of the profitable virtual trademarks residents of Second Life spend years amassing.

From the engaging article:

Off-line, the post office does not send someone to burn your
correspondence after an obituary appears in the paper. The deed and
title company does not send a crew to tear down your home. But online,
under the agreements that users accept, that can be the default setting.

The legal position is tougher because, in many cases, the islands and
mansions deleted by Linden Lab and the accounts scrubbed by Blizzard
have an easily discernible cash value. The island and all items on it
can be compared against the Lindex. Blizzard can look at monthly fees
and the black-market value of items.

A user's account doesn't pass
down through law despite the account and objects within it having
real-world value, but external LLC's created to operate in the virtual
world (think Stroker Serpentine's Eros LLC) do.

This seems like an egregious hole
in the law, and as more and more users log into virtual worlds and
spend a significant portion of their lives inside the Metaverse,
developers run the risk of erasing vast swaths of a person's life.

Current trends, as the article
states, are moving away from strict privacy on accounts. Families are
increasingly able to exert leverage in gaining control of the e-mail
accounts of deceased relatives. The virtual property of the deceased is
slowly becoming accessible to next of kin. But there is much more to be
done.

Building a Comprehensive Virtual Ownership Law

Worlds
like Second Life that provide ownership of content created by residents
should be the first to recognize that the property purchased and
content created is no longer Linden Lab's to delete.

Yes,
they provide the space in which creation takes place, but the right of
deletion transfers when a resident takes on the monetary obligation of
maintaining land.

The footwork of
designating virtual assets as more than passing creations will
ultimately fall on the creator and owner. As Devan Desai of the Center
for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University said:

There are a couple of ways to resolve the question of who has access to
what when a person dies. One is for everybody to name a digital
executor, who will receive a person’s latest passwords when a death
occurs.

At the Digital Beyond, a clearinghouse for information about
what happens to virtual assets posthumously, the array of services that
help pass on one’s digital traces is visible, and growing.

For those willing to pay the
fees related to virtual executors, their virtual houses and Second Life
plots can live on even after the death of the creator. Pixels and
Policy wonders whether or not this might be bringing a bit too much
real-world litigation into the virtual world, as competing parties
fight over the virtual couches and IP rights of successful virtual
companies.

What do you think?

One thought on “Death in the Metaverse: Mapping Uncharted Social and Legal Territory”

  1. Bettina Tizzy is, of course, touting her “Will Your Work Day”, to be held on May 18, as a means of drawing attention to the issue at the individual level of concern. I encourage folks to participate… however …
    The problem is significantly bigger than just the individual. Governments, educational institutions, and corporation/businesses are heavily involved in virtual worlds and there are legal requirements governing the creation and security of records that do not appear to be met in their activities in these environments. While there are some asset management tools (the “inventory” tools, for example), these do not really capture or document the full context of activity that may be legally required for archival compliance in the outside world. And therein is part of the problem, vis-a-vis Second Life, as Linden Labs has hamstrung efforts with the details of the ToS, which essentially say, “What happens in SL, stays in SL.”
    I’ll say it again: RL records managers and RL archivists need to be looking at this iceberg and get engaged in negotiating solutions that will provide a seamless integration across both worlds.

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