The Real and the Semi-Real

“I weep for the future.” –Ferris Beuller’s Day Off

I’ve been following this thread over at the GAF about a guild who crashed a virtual funeral in World of Warcraft, and it makes me sad. Basically, what happened is this: A member of a WOW guild suffered a stroke in real life and died. Her guildmates, knowing her only through the game, but nevertheless wanting to offer some remembrance for one of their own, decided to hold a memorial service in the game. A rival guild decided that would be a great time to show up and kill everyone. Hilarity ensued.

Now, is it sort of creepy and vaguely sad that a group of people elected to hold a virtual funeral? I’d say so. It lends a depressing weight to the stereotype of basement-dwelling gamers who can’t function in the real world. In my opinion, it trivializes the real loss that this person’s real-life loved ones feel. But saying gamers aren’t the most socially adept subculture isn’t going to surprise anyone, and the fact is, these people did have a relationship with the deceased, however unorthodox. You can’t criticize someone for feeling grief simply because they haven’t met the deceased in the physical world. You can criticize their method of paying their respects, but I don’t see how you could criticize their right to do so, or the validity of their desire to do so.

And so this rival guild storms in, in a very well-planned strike (and yes, it’s pretty comical if you don’t think about it too hard), sending virtual mourners scurrying and leaving a trail of virtual bodies in their wake. Were they within their rights as WOW players to choose this moment to strike against a rival guild? Oh, absolutely.

But “within your rights” does not equal “right.” Fred Phelps is acting “within his rights” when he pickets the funerals of servicemen, trying to convince people that God is killing soldiers because America harbors homosexuals. The KKK is acting “within their rights” when they hand out their entertaining little photocopies (as an aside: for a good time, ask a Klansman what race Jesus was).

These phenomenal fuckwits who thought it would be funny to take advantage of the (admittedly naive and perhaps misguided) funeral proceedings to boost their stats — or even just for entertainment’s sake — were certainly within their rights. They’re also a bunch of gaping assholes.

“But wait!” you may say, “It’s just a game! How can you criticize this but defend killing hookers in GTA?!” The distinction is quite simple: The hooker is not a virtual representative of a real person. A game is “just a game” when it has no impact on the real world. But you put another person on the other side of the equation and things change. Is killing a person’s avatar the same as killing a person? Of course not. It’s not close. But it does have a real effect on that person. You are inflicting suffering upon someone else, even if only putting them through the tedium of building up another character. We have ways to describe people who get off on inflicting suffering on others. One of them is “sadistic.” Another is “evil.” (Another is “gaping asshole.”)

The important distinction here is that for many (perhaps most) players of MMORPGs, the game is just a medium for socialization. It’s one step removed from instant messaging…which is one step removed from telephone interaction…which is one step removed from face-to-face contact. It’s different only in degree, not in substance.

The amazing, anonymizing internets have made it easy to forget that there is a real, living person on the other end of your messageboard diatribe or your Fark flamewar. (And please, before you hash out a comment along the lines of “ZOMG YOU HYPPACRIT YOU ARE DISREPECTING SERENTY NOW BY CALLING THEM GAPPING A$$H0ELS!!!111!” understand that these guilds forfeited their right to be treated with respect when they acted like gaping assholes.)

As socially inept as these virtual mourners may be, let me ask you…who is behaving with more social grace? The gamers who chose to pay in-game respects for a real-world loss, or the ones who used a real-world loss to gain an in-game boost? Who’s more in touch with the real world? Who would you rather have living down the street?

Am I alone in thinking this way?