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  • Writer's pictureDaria Ivans

my heart gets so confused over virtual mortality: a project on deaths and afterlives of MMOs

Keywords: 


mapping, user-generated, different chronologies, memory as dispersive scrapings and raw structures; digital archives from quantities to intensive microtemporalit(ies)

 

Abstract


Numerous virtual worlds have ceased to exist. Everyone can name at least some of them: remember Club Penguin? What about Webkinz? How about certain places in Second Life whose names you don’t even remember, but where you used to hang out with friends? This subject is rich, subtle, and less explored than it could be. It certainly invokes sociopolitical and economic dimensions, along with ontological statuses of collective memories. How much does it cost to extend the life of an MMO? Who maintains its contents? There are projects that position us as silent visitors to mummified worlds, and others that allow us to experience what developers and fan communities feel when it seems like everything is over. High-profit companies now claim to decentralize web by centralizing 'metaverse' platforms and gaining control over communities of users and creators, fitting them into more profitable and unified frameworks. Our research for the project aims to consider all the paths that MMO developers and communities take to extend life and preserve its remains in all the different forms it may take. However, the project itself makes these categorizations vulnerable - - how can we access memories beyond emulation and museumification?



 

Digital traces possess a fundamentally different structure within virtual realms. They remain in a space-as-place that critically rethinks the differences between the two. Nicolas O’Brien writes about this essential amalgamation:

 

When presentness is mitigated through computational simulation and screen technology, some of the original affect of location works is inherently lost. That being said, there is also a new vein of presentness that is gained, as well as a new understanding of what location means for viewers and makers in establishing place. This complication provides potential for artists to more readily overlap space and place since this initial division is traditionally based on the presentness of participants/viewers. (O'Brien, 2022)

 

Changes in the structural aspects of place within virtual worlds alter how we interact with digital artifacts across digital and beyond the digital realms. Virtual presence is akin to an ongoing exploration of ruins, not static and museumified ruins, but dynamic intersections of online mutual presence. And as long as these remains, the ruins of past MMO lives, are visitable, they remain processes of rewriting and adding multiple micro-histories, rather than adhering to a single line of technological improvement of virtual realit(ies).

 

When writing an introduction to Wolfgang Ernst’s Media Archaeology, Jussi Parikka underscores the significance of microtemporal and procedural memory in the digital environment:

 

Ernst wants to see media archaeology as an investigation into intensive microtemporality that forces us to reconsider cultural memory combined with an understanding of technical memory as an active process instead of stable, permanent memory. Memory itself—as a term that refers to human capacity as well as the social institutions of memory—is problematic because the technical grounding of “memory” functions differently. In Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s words, what characterizes our approach to memory in digital culture is its conflation with storage, which produces the odd, almost paradoxical idea of enduring ephemerality, of the intimate coupling of degeneration and regeneration that is at the core of how memory functions technically as well as culturally. Even in relation to a cultural heritage that has been formed around processes of stabilization and preservation, the dynamic nature of computers is a problem. Memory is not so much a place of rest but part of a wider setting of calculation—working memory—claims Ernst. As every museum and archive knows (or should), the labor of how culture remembers and retrieves from memory is shifting from the official institutions to everyday media environments—social media or, more generally, the way in which data are transmitted and stored, even if fleetingly. (Ernst & Parikka, 2012)

Virtual shrine: building an ever-expanding map of collective memories


First part of the project is what we call a "virtual shrine". Here we gather fragments of the virtual ruins—memories, both personal and collective—under a constantly evolving map of virtual worlds. While still in development, our website aims to provide a map, that:


(1) categorizes different MMOs by a variety of traits and functions,

(2) offers brief information, archival resources, client access, and user-upload capabilities for multimedia content.


This platform acts as an expanding and self-regulating archive, driven by community contributions.


(3) all the materials uploaded to the site will be automatically transferred once a week to a separated virtual space (for example, an open platform for creating webVR spaces).


It enables users to freely store and share data related to their favourite and/or forgotten MMOs, creating an interactive repository that grows alongside the memories it houses within generatively constructed spaces.



work in progress: design and typologies for a base map structures

A series of videoart on virtual (im)mortality


Our journeys through virtual worlds inevitably accumulate their own archives. Together and individually, we encounter how creators and visitors of the spaces describe their fears and observations of their fading. Users pass away or move on to other MMOs, leaving behind sites of memory (digital graveyards) and links to their other internet resources (abandoned Geocities and Tripod pages, Flash-based animation).



In our videoart series, we work with texts and graphical interfaces of abandoned worlds (Active Worlds, Worlds.com, Love City 3D, Club Cooee, IMVU, Trinity, Club Penguin, and many more) to create a series of expanded videoart pieces about memory and dispersion, exploring alternative (non-techno-positivist and non-transhumanist) representations of post-biological forms of life.


In "Your Digital Afterlives", Eric Charles Steinhart writes:

On the one hand, you have natural disintegration with no continuity at all: you have death as extinction. On the other hand, you have artificial disintegration with virtual continuity: you have death as disruption. (Steinhart, 2014)

He considers it rational to choose the second option (death as disruption, artificial continuity). But this type of continuity has various contradictions that go far beyond the idea of transferring yourself into a digital realm. The juxtaposition of bodily extinction and digital continuation presupposes the existence of some integrity (me-as-a-system) to execute this potential act of transfer. Can I be fragmented into numerous digital imprints and stretched across various internet protocols that are also inclined towards extinction? I'd rather be an imperfect and reassembling (thus, decaying, incorporating, micro-temporal) archive than a trained AI model of myself, a recreated program. And here we return to the idea of non-wholesome memories, ever-changing flow of micro-narratives that constitute the experience within a virtual space.


In terms of 'expansion,' our vision involves presenting each videoart piece beyond the screen, utilizing formats that may include VR fragments and segments that offer various film development options, akin to graphic novel formats. The script for the series is designed to be a collaborative effort among artists/travelers and the virtual spaces they inhabit. We aim to capture not just the visual aspects of MMOs but also delve into the layers beyond—such as snippets of conversations with NPCs and other users, discussions on external websites (such as Flickr and Reddit) regarding the experiences of exploring specific MMOs during their inception.


lalaru> I was born in a place vacant of cycle and rhythm, time and temperature, celebration and mourning. I awaken on a moment not unlike the last. I turn to face the outside.

lalaru> My head is heavy. I hear humming. Perhaps I should take a walk.

lalaru> A familiarly vast expanse extends before me. Buildings flicker in and out of view. The sound of static seeps from all angles. I pay no mind.

lalaru> I recall echoes of birds and streams.

lalaru> If the closest one may come to death is hypnagogia, is it not natural for them to eventually be drawn to such a state?


(a fragment of a space within Worlds.com interacting with the user)




We're currently assembling and reorganizing our own and others' archives, akin to keeping a collective diary or playing a surrealist game of “exquisite corpse.” This involves sorting through user-generated material on third-party platforms and crafting it into curated in-game photography projects (as demonstrated in one of our are.na channels).


The value of this project lies in its potential reach when we share a regulated virtual map of worlds and associated materials with diverse communities across different MMOs. It extends beyond our curation control and into various environments, offering new possibilities for storing and distributing files and stories.


Additionally, the videoart series appears as endlessly transforming fragments of never-ending journeys, whether undertaken by us or by someone else. 


Links to our archives on the project:


1) fragments of flickering MMOs (+ subchannels) (P.S. We couldn’t pay for the are.na premium subscription from Russia due to sanctions, so we had to create multiple accounts to keep our archives growing.)



List of literature:


1) Ernst, W., & Parikka, J. (2012). Digital Memory and the archive. In University of Minnesota Press eBooks.https://doi.org/10.5749/minnesota/9780816677665.001.0001

2) Finding Place in the Digital by Nicholas O’ Brien. (2022, August 10). OFLUXO. https://www.ofluxo.net/finding-place-in-the-digital-by-nicholas-o-brien/

3) Richard Bartle’s archive https://mud.co.uk/richard/hcds.htm

6) Wertheim, M. (1999). The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

7) MacCallum‐Stewart, E. (2014). Online games, social narratives. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315763750

8) Guins, R. (2014). Game After: A Cultural Study of Video Game Afterlife. MIT Press

9) Steinhart, E. (2014). Your digital afterlives. In Palgrave Macmillan UK eBooks. https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137363862

10) Parikka, J. (2015). A geology of media. https://doi.org/10.5749/minnesota/9780816695515.001.0001

11) Harbinja, E. (2022). Digital death, digital assets and post-mortem privacy. In Edinburgh University Press eBooks. https://doi.org/10.1515/9781474485388

12) Arnold, M. A., Gibbs, M., Kohn, T., Meese, J., & Nansen, B. (2017). Death and digital media. In Routledge eBooks. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315688749

13) Galloway, A. (2004). Protocol. In The MIT Press eBooks. https://doi.org/10.7551/mitpress/5658.001.0001



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