One of the most fascinating aspects of Second Life is its culture of mourning. One of my PhD supervisors, Dr Margaret Gibson, has produced some excellent work on this subject. In my own fieldwork in Second Life I have found that some of the practices around mourning and memorialisation are immediately recognisable to anyone familiar with grief in the offline world. One of the most obvious of this is the creation of virtual cemeteries in which residents are able to purchase a headstone and rent a virtual plot at which to mourn a lost loved one.
This is a digitised version of a time-honoured means of mourning the dead. It allows residents to create a space in which loved ones, whether they existed in the physical or the digital world, or in both, can be remembered. The very nature of Second Life, however, creates some jarring disjunctures between traditional spaces of mourning and those created in the virtual world.
The screenshots in this article are from my visit to a pet cemetery in Second Life. In this space residents have memorialised pets they have lost in the physical world. Gravesite are adorned with traditional religious imagery such as crosses, with images of the lost beloved pet, and often with rainbows or flowers. Headstones sometimes, but not always, feature text: often the name of the lost pet and a brief epitaph. I observed epitaphs written in English, German, and Spanish, indicating that the use of this space overcomes (some) linguistic barriers. All instructions are written in English.
Many of the graves feature what are known in Second Life as ‘pose balls’. These are small items, usually spherical, which, when activated, animate the avatar of the user. Thus visitors to the cemetery are able to show their mourning physically through acting out prayer or are able to visually demonstrate that they are engaging in quiet contemplation through adopting laying or sitting poses.
The limits to the poses made possible by pose balls are dependent only on the skills of their creators. This can lead to disturbing outcomes. In the pet cemetery I examined, the carefully constructed quiet tranquility is disrupted by the inclusion of two pose balls which challenge the apparent meaning of the space.
The first of these is beside a fountain in the cemetery grounds. One of the pose balls beside the fountain allows an avatar to ‘play dead’. My initial assumption upon finding this was that it was intended for animal avatars – that is, users who choose to present themselves as animals such as cats or dogs. However, upon using the pose ball, I found my avatar submerged beneath the fountain’s water as though I had drowned.
The second pose ball which I found to disrupt the narrative of the cemetery space was on a small section of fence. The pose ball, labelled ‘Dive’, appeared to me immediately incongruous with the cemetery space. It struck me as even more incongruous than the ‘headbang’ pose ball beside it, simply because there was no location into which one’s avatar could reasonably be expected to dive. Upon using it I found that the pose ball animated my avatar so that she would climb onto the fence and leap dramatically to the ground, landing face down and partially covered by grass. In another context this may have appeared to be an innocent fluke. In the context of a cemetery, however, the act of jumping to the ground and lying face down and immobile immediately invoked images of suicide.
I suspect that these incongruities were not intentionally introduced into the space. It seems to me more likely that the very nature of Second Life led to this situation. In Second Life items often come with pose balls attached. There are standard pose balls which allow an avatar to, for example, sit or dance. But there are some which are designed for specific venues. The fence with the pose balls allowing an avatar to headbang or dive was likely designed for a concert venue, in which place it would be entirely appropriate. It is only within the context of the cemetery that it becomes disruptive.
This is one of the oddities of Second Life. In the physical world a fence would be appropriate either in a concert venue or in a cemetery. A fountain would be a calming feature, entirely suitable for a place of mourning. In Second Life, however, an object is often not just an object. It is often an object designed for a specific space, with a specific purpose. When it is outside its designated space it is more obvious than it would be in the physical world – and more disrupting.