In March 2004, when René Koiter was 19, his twin brother Michel came down with a fever. René and Michel were students in the Netherlands—Michel at the Utrecht School of the Arts, René at the University of Utrecht—and they were doing freelance design work for Blizzard Entertainment, a video game developer about to launch its marquee franchise: World of Warcraft.
Michel’s fever wasn’t supposed to be fatal. Michel was young and healthy—he and René were regulars at their local Taekwondo center. But a few days later, Michel’s heart started failing, and René and their father rushed to the hospital to save him. René waited in a hospital guest room as doctors tried to resuscitate his brother. Hours later, Michel was gone.
That same day, René’s boss, Blizzard Entertainment art director Samwise Didier, came to him with an innovative proposal: He wanted to erect a monument to Michel in World of Warcraft, most likely the first permanent memorial in gaming history. René agreed, and in late 2004, a stone obelisk engraved with Michel’s initials, MK, appeared in World of Warcraft. Known as the Shrine of the Fallen Warrior, it features the body of an orc—Michel’s chosen avatar in the game. In a recent update, Blizzard added an angelic figure known as a “spirit healer” to watch over the obelisk. “It was an epic gesture,” René said.
René visited the memorial often, sometimes accidentally. His twin’s shrine was in prime World of Warcraft real estate, and he would pass by it on his way through the game. Like a physical memorial, it gave him a chance to reflect on the brother who was ripped from his life, but it also gave him a sense of calm—he began to hope that, through the memorial, Michel’s legacy would endure for decades.
René points to physical objects of Michel’s that he still keeps with him: Michel’s ashes, drawings, and letters. “Eventually, those will fade,” René said. “But I believe the Shrine of the Fallen Warrior will remain as a note in the annals of video game history for a long time to come.”
The Shrine of the Fallen Warrior may have been the first, but it isn’t the last. In the past 10 years, gaming companies and individual players alike have endeavored to preserve the legacies of lost players within the games they loved. Across World of Warcraft, EVE Online, Guild Wars 2, and dozens of other large-world massively multiplayer online role-playing games, hundreds of shrines have popped up honoring deceased players. For close friends and family members of players preserved in video games, those memorials offer a way not only to reflect on their loved ones but also on the community that cared for them. A shrine stretches far beyond the digital plot of land it occupies. It reaches into the homes of hundreds of quasi-strangers, bound together by their love for a friend they likely never met in person.
Grieving on the internet is a stilted and uncertain process. Having grown up in writing communities across Twitter and Tumblr, I think often of the friends who I messaged every day, whose blogs I subscribed to, whose tweets I lived for—until eventually, those people stopped posting. Some I haven’t heard from since. In my circle of internet friends, it’s an uneasy joke: It’s almost like they died, we say, and laugh. We rarely, if ever, entertain the possibility that maybe it’s true.
Rather than grieve tentatively and alone, as so many other online communities are forced to, gaming communities have innovated ways to make mourning communal. And those shrines and funerals they erect radiate outward to family and close friends of deceased gamers who are struggling, too. They see what their loved one meant. They see the legions of people their loved one impacted.
Players are memorialized through gravestones in an in-game cemetery in Guild Wars 2, through rune libraries in Ultima Online, and through characters in the tutorial to City of Heroes (which has since gone offline). Even comedian Robin Williams and Sean Smith, a diplomat killed in the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, have received virtual memorials in the games they loved (World of Warcraft and EVE Online, respectively). In World of Warcraft, whose creators have made it a mission to memorialize its dead, there are nearly 50 scattered shrines.
One of its most famous tributes honors 12-year-old Ezra Chatterton, a World of Warcraft player and brain cancer patient who made waves in the community when he chose to visit the headquarters of Blizzard Entertainment for his Make-A-Wish trip.
Ezra and his father, Micah, played World of Warcraft nearly every day together. In 2006, soon after Ezra’s diagnosis, he suffered a seizure that left him comatose for several days. “When he woke up, all he wanted to do was play World of Warcraft,” Micah told me. He even hooked up a laptop loaded with World of Warcraft to the emergency room. “Ezra was OK with being in the hospital, he was OK with the pain, he could cope with all that stuff, but [he said], ‘I just want to play this game.’ ”
A year later, during his Make-A-Wish visit, the Blizzard Entertainment staff asked Ezra to design his own quest within World of Warcraft. Ezra came up with the concept on the fly: A dog goes missing, and players have to find it and feed it. The quest—which is known as “Kyle’s Gone Missing!”—features an audio sample of Ezra’s actual voice begging players: “Help! My prized puppy, Kyle, has run away! I just know he’s running around Bloodhoof Village, lost and hungry.”
After Ezra died, Micah stopped playing World of Warcraft. Part of the reason is that when Micah remarried and had another son, Samuel, the free time he once dedicated to gaming evaporated. But without Ezra, the game also stopped feeling the same. In the intervening years, World of Warcraft updated its design through expansion packs, which have reshaped the look and feel of the world Micah and Ezra once explored together.
“With each expansion they can introduce a completely different aesthetic, a completely different way the world looks,” Micah said. “But it makes it hard if they overwrite the things I remember. Now those lands don’t look the same, and I can’t go back to get that same feeling that I had of just going around shooting elephant creatures with Ezra.”
When he plays “Kyle’s Gone Missing!” despite hearing his son’s voice pleading to find his dog, he isn’t overcome with sadness. The quest feels estranged from Ezra’s death. “I don’t really think of it as a memorial, that quest,” Micah said. It’s more like an old art project of Ezra’s—something bursting with Ezra’s sense of creativity, but entirely separate from his death.
Yet the quest captures enough of Ezra’s life that he has started showing it to Samuel, who is now 5. “It’s one way he’s learned stories of his brother,” he said. When Samuel is old enough, Micah wants to try playing World of Warcraft with him.
Instead of the quest, what has felt most like a memorial to Micah is something Blizzard Entertainment offered to Ezra in the last months of his life: full access to what’s known as a “phoenix mount,” an exceedingly rare phoenix that users can ride as it flies around the game’s internal landscape.
“After he passed and I was playing without him, I would only take it out at very specific times,” Micah said. “It would always mean something to me to pull out that mount and just streak through the sky, just to see that, because that was such a clear memory I have of our playing together. That image of really just flying around the world with the flames trailing behind me.” Players would recognize it as Ezra’s mount and start messaging Micah about how much his son meant to them.
Josh Howard, a public historian who has written about video game memorials, thinks there is something comforting about knowing an online community is mourning alongside you. Families he’s researched “seemed particularly touched by the idea that hundreds of digital strangers the world over genuinely cared for their son as a friend, and digital memorials are a testament to that friendship.”
Though Michel Koiter’s memorial is likely the first permanent structure dedicated to a player, MMORPG users have organized tributes to their fallen friends—often in the form of in-game funerals held through avatars—since the inception of MMORPG itself. “I can personally recall people gathering in early Everquest [in 2001] to mourn the death of someone through the chat system,” Howard said.
A Canadian gamer named Andrasta has dedicated the latter half of her life to preserving relics, often memorial stones, to players in the 1997 fantasy game Ultima Online. After nearly 21 years playing Ultima, she fears more than anything that soon people will forget the players, many of them her lifelong friends, who built the community.
Growing up, Andrasta wanted to be a historian, and she views her work within Ultima as an extension of that: She’s keeping alive the memory of those who came before her. One of her most famous projects is Goodman’s Rune Library, a virtual structure where Ultima players could learn skills like mining, lumberjacking, and lockpicking—and that made its creator, Frank Goodman, one of the most recognizable players in the game. Goodman was one of Andrasta’s closest friends. Within the game, they frequently went to fish and hunt together for treasure, and they talked about work and family.
When he died in August 2005, he passed the rune library on to her in his real-life will. She agreed to preserve it after he was gone. Maintaining that library is a commitment: To keep such a massive building running, Andrasta has to pay “rent” in Ultima and conduct regular building audits. Andrasta converted the roof into a rose garden where players can write down memories of Goodman in virtual books.
Each year, Andrasta and a group of Goodman’s virtual friends also held annual memorial services at the rune library. Dozens of player avatars crammed around a set of candles, and one by one they went up to a makeshift stage to share their memories of Frank, which appeared as text hovering above their heads.
“I don’t know if anyone could write a tribute to Lord Goodman that would truly do his life justice,” one player said at a Goodman memorial service. Soon, the services expanded to include other players who died that year—a way for the community to come together to mourn.
In 2015, Andrasta decided that Goodman’s 10th memorial service would be his last. During the service, “I was so very sad,” Andrasta said. “I cried through the entire thing.” There were all of her friends, all of Frank’s friends, all of the people who had supported her through the last two decades of her life, and they came to reminisce about a man who touched all of their lives, even if they’d never really met.
The annual memorial services did not last forever, and one day the in-game monuments to Frank and hundreds of other players will meet the same fate. Eventually, a server will be abandoned or a game will fall out of use. What endures, however, is the thing those memorials represent—the love, pain, and gratitude of a community that has lost one of its own.