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How Will Death Exist in the Metaverse and Web3?

New research shows how virtual spaces change how we deal with death.

Key points

  • Technology continues to change perspectives on death, grief, memorialization, and digital legacy.
  • Immersive virtual reality near-death out-of-body experiences have been shown to reduce fear of death.
  • The metaverse and virtual worlds offer new opportunities for digital immortality.
Athena/ Pexels
Source: Athena/ Pexels

The concept of death, memory, and memorialization is actively being transformed by virtual spaces. Many have experienced friends, loved ones, or public personas dying and leaving online digital traces of their lives.

Social media profiles have become places to gather, mourn, and commemorate people who have passed on. Digital profiles, avatars, and one's online presence are now part of a greater digital legacy. How will death exist in the metaverse and Web3?

Death as Being Banned From the Network

A recent meme on Twitter and Reddit that is critical of Meta (formerly Facebook) alleges that Mark Zuckerberg said, “If you die in the metaverse, you die in real life.” The meme refers to a dystopic vision that equates being banned from the metaverse as a form of “death” both socially and economically.

This meme critiques a centralized version of the metaverse, in which power is concentrated with a handful of owners or operators. (Centralized means that the servers and user data are owned by entities or corporations with their own rules.) Who lives or “dies” (i.e., is "banned") in a network is outside user control in this model.

Not all metaverses will be centralized, and even the centralized ones will have different rules, regulations, and decision-making processes. The metaverse is not the same thing as Web3. And as discussed in A Roadmap of The Many Worlds of the Metaverse, the metaverse is not a single entity.

Virtual worlds will also exist as part of Web3 or web 3.0., a decentralized Internet built on blockchain and decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs), which will ideally allow users to own their own data and digital identities. With the arrival of Web3, the power to pull the plug on users or accounts would no longer rest in the hands of a select few. Proponents of Web3 hope that this model will lead to a more democratic Internet in which users have more agency and ownership. This means no single entity would be able to remove a user.

However, being banned or removed from a network is only one form of “death.” Designers and developers of the many worlds of the metaverse and Web3 will need to grapple with how physical and digital death exist in virtual spaces.

How death will exist in these virtual spaces can be divided into two very different questions:

  1. How will the “physical death” of a user be handled digitally? What happens to the data and accounts of people who have died? How will developers and creators of the metaverse and Web3 influence our relationship with our digital legacies?
  2. How is “death” experienced in virtual spaces by live users? Will there be simulated death experiences such as in massive multiplayer online games? Will being banned or removed from networks be so important socially or economically that is like a form of "death"?

Regarding the first question, designers and developers of the metaverse face the complex task of what to do with inactive accounts of deceased users. Social media companies have had to develop ad hoc solutions to this problem.

Memorialized Accounts and Legacy Options

In 2006, Facebook gave users or family members of users the option to memorialize accounts with a “Remembering” designation at the top of the profile. Users can also opt for legacy contacts or, under Memorialization Settings, have their entire account deleted after passing away. Instagram accounts can be frozen and memorialized, or family members or next of kin can decide to delete the account. Google offers a named legacy contact.

In 2019, Twitter announced that they would remove inactive accounts but then stopped this process after public backlash and are working to release memorialized accounts. So there has been a learning curve in dealing with death digitally.

Web3 will also face how death will impact accounts–what happens to the nontransferable tokens or cryptocurrency after death? Issues will come up regarding transfer and access to digital assets. Digital estate planning will be increasingly important.

In a recent paper, “Decentralized Society: Finding Web3’s Soul,” co-authors Flashbots’ Puja Ohlhaver, Microsoft’s Glen Weyl, and Ethereum’s Vitalik Buterin introduce a tool similar to non-fungible tokens (NFTs) called “soulbound” tokens (SBTs) that would represent credentials, membership, and affiliations to establish provenance and reputation—a series of living, publicly visible tokens that are possibly revocable by the issuer. The accounts are referred to as “Souls.”

People would have “Souls” that store SBTs based on their educational credentials, professional certificates, employment history, or works like art or writing they have created in their lifetime. Companies and corporations like universities or companies would issue SBTs to verify a credential or membership. What will happen to these SBTs after the owner dies?

Grieving and bereavement and memorialization rituals have been actively transformed by technology and will continue to evolve as technology changes how we live–and how we die. QR codes have been added to tombstones to bring memorialization into an augmented reality space. 3D and AI holograms preserve Holocaust survivors' stories for future generations. Dead musicians are taking the stage in the form of music holograms. Virtual funerals have even been held in virtual worlds, including a virtual funeral of a well-known player held in World of Warcraft, which was subsequently raided.

Turning to the second question: Will death experiences exist in virtual worlds to live users? How will death be portrayed? What is the psychological impact on the user?

Death in Video Games and Virtual Worlds

One window into understanding this is looking at how death is portrayed in virtual worlds and multiplayer online games. Wanda Gregory, PhD, faculty at the University of Washington who teaches game design, media studies, and UI/UX design, describes death as both an important game mechanic and a window into our beliefs and feelings toward mortality.

Death as Failure to Achieve a Goal and to Promote A Sense of Urgency

In games, death can symbolize the failure to achieve a goal and is a way to slow down the gameplay and give the player a chance to learn and replay. It is a way to provide enough challenge and a sense of urgency to achieve flow. Dr. Gregory points out that even in the game Candy Crush, the player is given “lives” instead of “turns” to engage the player.

Death as Reboot or “Reset”

Some virtual worlds opt for a “death” that has little to zero impact on the user. In Second Life, a virtual world operating since 1992, death is simply a reboot. When the avatar sustains enough damage that the heart health goes to 0 percent, the avatar is teleported to their home location. The “death” is not permanent, and the user does not lose any inventory.

Death as Partial Resurrection

In some virtual games, death is conveyed as a partial resurrection. Dr. Gregory describes the experience of an earlier version of World of Warcraft, where upon the death of the avatar, the player has the choice to pay a fee to the Angel of Death and be resurrected with less strength or to choose to go on a “ghost run” as a spirit trying to find the body.

Death as a Virtual Out-of-Body Experience

A virtual reality study found that giving users a virtual reality immersive "out-of-body" near-death experience reduced their fear of death. This raises the question of whether near-death or virtual death experiences could provide a change how people feel about mortality. These virtual experiences may vary depending on cultural, religious, or spiritual beliefs. Developers of these experiences would need to consider cultural implications and ensure the experience does not harm or trigger users.

Death as a Reflection on Mortality
How death is experienced psychologically in virtual spaces is heavily influenced by developers and players. Dr. Gregory describes how keeping her avatar alive became vitally important as she went through treatment for cancer. Surviving in the game took on new meaning. “As video game player and developers age, as you get older and think about mortality, how will that change the way the you play the game, and what will you notice in the game?” Dr. Gregory asks. As virtual spaces evolve, so too will our perspectives on death and digital legacies.

Transcending Death: Digital Immortality
Finally, the metaverse and Web3 will likely open up more opportunities for digital immortality–the promise that people can exist, evolve, and interact in virtual spaces indefinitely. Some virtual worlds like Somnium Space have opted to eliminate death and offer “Live Forever” mode.

In 2000, Microsoft researchers Gordon Bell and Jim Gray predicted that digital immortality would become real this century. Data and avatars will continue to evolve without the limitations of a physical body. Our lives in virtual spaces will continue to change the way we view and deal with death.

Part 1: Can Empathy Exist in The Metaverse?

Part 2: Five Types of Empathy in The Metaverse

Part 3: A Roadmap of the Many Worlds of the Metaverse

Acknowledgements: Thank you to Wanda Gregory, PhD for her insights and discussions on death in video games and virtual worlds.

Copyright © 2022 Marlynn Wei, MD, PLLC

References

Edwards, L., Harbinja, E. (2013). “What Happens to My Facebook Profile When I Die?”: Legal Issues Around Transmission of Digital Assets on Death. In: Maciel, C., Pereira, V. (eds) Digital Legacy and Interaction. Human–Computer Interaction Series. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-01631-3_7

Weyl, Eric Glen and Ohlhaver, Puja and Buterin, Vitalik, Decentralized Society: Finding Web3's Soul (May 10, 2022). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4105763 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4105763

Bourdin P, Barberia I, Oliva R, Slater M. A Virtual Out-of-Body Experience Reduces Fear of Death. PLoS One. 2017 Jan 9;12(1):e0169343. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0169343. PMID: 28068368; PMCID: PMC5221792.

Bell, Chester & Gray, Jim. (2000). Digital Immortality. Communications of the ACM. 44. 10.1145/365181.365182.

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