How do we grieve online gaming communities?

Videogames are fragile cultural artifacts. Though they do not lose in demand, they have been undergoing a steady process of physical deterioration. James Newman describes this extensively in his 2012 book, Best Before: videogames, supersession and obsolescence. The author notes a spread of contributing factors ranging from built-in inefficiencies of gaming consoles to commercial strategies. However, I’d like to focus on a parallel – if not larger – process of the deterioration of online gaming communities and its aftermath. This is one that couldn’t be any more threatening than to Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Games (MMORPGs), which are powered by the social network.

In this post, I’ll be focusing on games that disappeared suddenly, without a word (ex. Felmyst server of World of Warcraft) or with great fanfare (ex. Dungeon Runners) – so called, dead games. The factual circumstances for their disappearances vary, but they are always accompanied by a deep sense of injustice in the communities that were left behind to remember them. I will leave out games that organically, or circumstantially, fell out of popularity, as they are a distinct category in their own right. Tale of Tales’ multiplayer online deer game, The Endless Forest (2005), is a good example of a game that went beyond expectations, in that it had a continued nondescript life during standstills in development.

Deer in an endless forest, with no fixed goals and no easy means of communication.

Technology has allowed us to form real and meaningful relationships, virtually. There is a plethora of documentation on relationships that are fostered in game communities. There are games such as EA’s science fiction MMORPG Earth & Beyond (2002-04) which advocate for player community through design: by limiting player inventory space in relation to the amount of map fragments needed to be collected, the designers promoted collaboration. Then there are those like The Endless Forest that simply facilitate community, by creating spaces for them. Finally, there are games where communities are born against the odds. These relationships take online and offline dimension and the impact of these communities on our inner lives become strikingly, if not most obvious, with player death. Cybergrief is the deep sorrow caused by the irreversible loss of a virtual relationship. EVE Online, a space-based multiplayer game known for its far-reaching and persistent meta, must have seen the largest mobilization of players in mourning with the death of renown diplomat, Sean Smith (Vile Rat), in the 2012 US Consulate attack in Benghazi, Libya.

In memory of Vile Rat. Outposts renamed and dotted throughout the universe.

However, while the loss of online communities can elicit feelings of grief and the shutdown of games purportedly echo as demises – the more relevant term would be separation. Take NCSOFT’s 2007 MMORPG, Dungeon Runners. In 2009, the company published an end-of-life announcement, with the shutdown scheduled to take place at midnight of December 31st. A bomb with a countdown was placed in the middle of Townston. However, that was reportedly not the first step in the breaking of good game communities in DR: official fanbase forums cited the company’s marketing model change and appeal to retail box purchasers, leading to the reorganization and merging of servers.

Cyberspace offers locations and outlets to express sorrows over these lost relationships. One such method is for players to take their grief to other communities. A 2010 Reddit post describes Dungeon Runners players setting up a guild on Guild Wars, suggesting a larger community migration to other games of the genre. There, they have the space to remember, honor and to forget. After all, games remain a potent medium both in activities of fun and socializing, as well as coping (Anna E. Haverinen).

A parallel process to pain occurs during grief: those affected “foster a restorative focus on reconstructing their world” (Grieving in the Internet Age, Falconer et al.). We see these feelings crystallized into action: players find the need to establish or reestablish their lost communities. Closer research of Dungeon Runners brought me to Dungeon Runners Reborn, its revival project – which still seems to be active but in short spurts. Independent fan creators are in fact fearful of any media attention, due to the risks that those bring (Benjamin Burn). On the opposite end is the recently released World of Warcraft: Classic. For years, Blizzard’s fan community had discussed bringing back Vanilla WoW and have made many attempts at it with various legal and legal ramifications. Blizzard’s practice of filing and winning lawsuits against fan server creators can be traced as far back as 2010 (Burn). With the release of World of Warcraft: Classic in 2018, we see a return of the old but it could be argued that the authentic experience had been compromised – the game has only come so close to the notion of reviving that specific community. Let’s not forget that players of Vanilla either stopped playing, but more surely, continued into the expansions to see the game and themselves as players, change.

A main website for the initiative is hard to find.

Finally, we’ve seen these feelings power design. Understanding that games never remain static and that communities are transient, players wish to share and reconstruct values they’d learnt there. Games and the accompanying experiences we’ve had become our dialects – our tool sets – as players and game designers. Currently active MMORPGs have taken many lessons from their predecessors, while they grapple with shifting perspectives and fostering strong, healthy societies.

The questions that remain are: How can we celebrate our past communities? How can we reconnect with them? How can we work in the positive and meaningful experiences we’ve had to foster better communities?


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