‘Though He Were Dead, Yet Shall He Live’: Permanency and Impermanency of Death in Video Games

Video games have advanced to extreme realism in the past few decades. Forty years ago, players could only place themselves in a video game with great imaginative power. Then, animation improved, so a player manipulated a humanoid in a cartoon, like Mario or Link. The character moved at the command of the player—one button for jump, one button for movement forward, backward, and so on. However, role-playing games advanced to a new level near the turn of the Century. MMORPGs hit the market. A player could create a character to individual specifications, name it, and manipulate that character to go and do whatever they wished (within the technological limits of the game). The character could emote, speak, yell, express desire, and interact with other players as a proxy. In essence, video games moved from a third-person play experience to a first-person play experience.

Who Plays Video Games?

Many people believe video games are only for kids or “loner” adults, but demographic statistics give us a different picture. Most MMORPG players are in their late twenties, and at least half have full-time jobs or careers. A third are married, and nearly a quarter are parents. Most gamers play regularly every week with people they know in real life (partners, family members, spouses, etc.). With communication technologies like Discord, for example, gamers who live all over the world can build relationships, become friends, and network while they play. For this reason, MMORPGs appeal so broadly.

The thing about video games is that you can do pretty much anything and risk everything with an avatar, and even if you lose, the avatar rises again. When my kids were younger, we adopted a gaming terminology of “defeat” rather than “death.” We wanted to instill the virtue of persistence and dedication even in the face of defeat, and we sought to de-emphasize the idea of the impermanence of death in a concerted effort to promote the value of life. We encountered this challenge in nearly every video game.

Many MMORPGs feature immortal avatar characters that can live and die but are punished somehow for death or after excessive deaths. The punishments include delayed rebirth, loss of items or status, or even loss of currency. These act as deterrents and contribute to various risk factors in the game that mimic some real-life play. However, one popular MMORPG, World of Warcraft (WoW), launched a version of their game that included death permanence. Meaning that when a character dies, they cannot be revived. Anything they owned, status, reputation, or currency was also lost with the character. They called this version ‘hardcore,’ and it was wildly popular upon first launch, but people quickly left the servers due to the amount of time and effort investment that could be lost because of a simple or clumsy error.

My Experience, as a Gamer

I have played this video game on and off with various family members for several years. I’ve played with my husband, my kids, and my dad in different seasons of life. So, when WoW Hardcore was announced, I first thought it was an April Fool’s joke. There is no way, I thought, that gamers would invest their time and energy into developing a character for a world where mobs might attack and destroy an avatar, even with careful intentional play. However, I was curious and up for a challenge, so I logged on and explored the concept of permanent death in video games.

I logged onto a server with fellow guild members and created my avatar. I created an avatar for the class I usually play, so I would have every advantage. I am familiar with the starting zones and initial quests, so navigating the first several levels was easy. I knew what to watch out for and how to manage my surroundings. My first character reached level 10 before dying to an elite mob in an unfamiliar location. It was mainly negligence that killed my avatar. The realization of the threat immobilized me momentarily as I debated whether to flee or fight. I did a little of both, which took me out. Frustrated and annoyed, I started again. This time, I started in a different zone that was more familiar. My second avatar progressed much further. I reached level 33 and had more access to potions, weapons, and armor that offered better protection. I was nearly level 34, more than midway to the highest achievable level (60). Armed with overconfidence one morning, I ventured into a new territory and mismanaged my ability. I fell to my death while chased by several mobs capable of taking me out. I felt this loss intensely. I had achieved more, collected more, influenced more of the game, and advanced more skills and abilities.

My first character I abandoned. It is probably still a ghost on that server, long forgotten. This new toon, however, I had created a bond with, and as much as I didn’t want to leave the server where I had lived, grown, and fellowshipped with guildies, I transferred her to the afterlife server. My existence on that server was brief. I spent some time commiserating with other players in-game. We grouped up for quests and dungeons and shared our stories of death. Our comradery and expression of shared experience lessened the pain, and we regained power in this new version where death could not overcome us. However, I quickly grew bored of this version. Without the risk, the game returned to a mundane effort.

Here are five things I learned from this experience:

  1. Navigating Emotional Investments in Digital Realms

The shift from familiar gameplay to the perilous stakes of World of Warcraft’s hardcore mode represents more than just a change in gaming dynamics; it’s a profound journey through the emotional landscapes we invest in our digital avatars. My own experience, from the loss of my avatar at level 10 to a more impactful defeat at level 33, illuminates the vast spectrum of emotions that this environment can evoke. It’s a testament to how video games transcend mere entertainment, becoming arenas where we explore aspects of our identity, resilience, and the coping mechanisms we employ against inevitable ends.

  1. The Evolution of Risk and Reward

This mode of gameplay, where death carries permanent consequences, fundamentally alters the traditional gaming calculus of risk versus reward. Starting over after the loss of a character I had grown attached to forced me to approach in-game decisions with a level of seriousness and contemplation reflective of real-world stakes. It’s a vivid illustration of how the virtual experiences of loss and strategy resonate with our life’s decision-making processes, encouraging a deeper philosophical examination of our actions and their ramifications.

  1. Forging Connections through Shared Vulnerability

In the aftermath of loss, finding solace and camaraderie on the afterlife server with others who had endured similar fates was a unique and unexpectedly profound experience. It demonstrated how shared challenges and vulnerabilities can become the foundation for meaningful connections, even in a virtual setting. This reflection on the nature of communal bonds, forged in the crucible of shared trials, highlights the essential role of empathy and support systems in navigating both digital and real-world adversities.

  1. Embracing Persistence in the Face of Loss

The resolve to continue playing, despite the harsh finality of character death, is a powerful affirmation of persistence through true loss. The deep sense of loss felt for my character, especially the one I had developed a significant bond with, mirrored life’s trials where moving forward requires acceptance and the fortitude to start anew. This aspect of the gaming experience offers a rich ground for philosophical reflection on grief, recovery, and the human capacity for resilience in the face of irrevocable change.

  1. Contemplating Existence Beyond Death

The option within the game to transfer characters to an afterlife server, thereby escaping the permanence of death, opens up fascinating avenues for philosophical inquiry into mortality and what might lie beyond. My mixed feelings about the diminished challenge in this new realm prompted me to reflect on the implications of immortality and the essence of life’s meaning in the absence of vulnerability. This virtual exploration of afterlife concepts not only mirrors theological discussions on resurrection and eternity but also invites a deeper contemplation of how our digital and real-life philosophies on death and the afterlife intersect and inform each other.

A Theology of Virtual Afterlife

In the reflective journey through the virtual landscapes of video games, especially those as challenging and immersive as World of Warcraft’s hardcore mode, we find a compelling parallel to the divine promise in Christianity of eternal life through faith in God’s grace. The experiences of losing avatars to permanent death and contemplating their resurrection in another realm resonate deeply with the words of Christ: “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live” [Jn. 11.25, KJV]. This biblical narrative, speaking to humanity’s hope for resurrection and eternal peace, finds an unexpected echo in the digital realms where players navigate the loss and potential rebirth of their avatars.

This interplay between virtual experiences and the declaration of Christ as the resurrected God invites us to ponder deeply how our encounters with death and resurrection in video games might shape our understanding of these eternal truths. For gamers, the option to leave our avatars as powerless ghosts or to embrace a new life in a different realm serves as a profound metaphor for the Christian hope in the afterlife—a hope that transcends the finality of death and promises a new existence beyond it.

“Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.”

John 11:25, KJV

For parents and families of gamers, these experiences offer a unique opportunity for dialogue about the concepts of loss, recovery, and the belief in a new beginning. They prompt us to ask: How do our virtual experiences influence our real-world beliefs about mortality, the soul’s journey after death, and the promise of resurrection? Can the emotional investment and the sense of loss we feel for our digital avatars help us better empathize with the profound biblical promises of redemption and eternal life? And how might these gaming experiences enrich our theological and philosophical reflections on life, death, and what lies beyond?

Ultimately, the option in WoW’s hardcore mode to resurrect in another realm encourages us to reflect on the broader implications of faith, grace, and the divine promise of resurrection. It challenges gamers, parents, and families to consider how the metaphors of death and rebirth in video games can illuminate our understanding of these profound spiritual truths, fostering a deeper contemplation of the mysteries of life, death, and the hope for an eternal hereafter promised through faith in God’s grace.

A Way Forward

In a world increasingly dominated by virtual simulations, where social interactions and even aspects of our work unfold, we navigate these spaces through avatars. These digital representations are not us, yet they carry our identities into realms unbound by physical limitations. This leads us to an existential question that is deeply intertwined with our faith: Do these avatars and their experiences shape our understanding of ourselves? As we live out portions of our lives through these virtual proxies, encountering life, death, and resurrection in digital landscapes, we are prompted to reflect on the profound ways these experiences might inform our sense of self and our beliefs.

This existential inquiry is not devoid of faith implications. Our digital engagements offer unique lenses through which to view the mysteries of life, death, and the hope of resurrection. They provoke us to question, explore, and deepen our understanding of these eternal themes within the context of our modern, technology-driven lives.

So, in what ways might our virtual experiences enrich our theological reflections on these mysteries? The answer lies in the continuous journey of self-exploration and faith development in the digital age. As people of faith navigating a world where digital and physical realities increasingly intertwine, it is paramount that we engage with these virtual experiences not as mere escapism but as opportunities for profound spiritual reflection and growth. They challenge us to consider the ways in which our digital lives reflect, contrast with, and even enhance our understanding of philosophical and theological truths, particularly the promise of resurrection and eternal life.

By embracing this dual existence—grounded in the physical world yet extending into the digital—we are invited to continuously work out who we are as people capable of deep faith. This ongoing exploration requires us to critically assess how our virtual actions and experiences reflect our values, beliefs, and understanding of our place within God’s creation. It underscores the importance of discerning how these digital dimensions can complement our journey toward spiritual maturity, offering new insights and perspectives on the age-old questions of identity, existence, and eternity.

In an age of digital awareness, we should reflect on how our virtual presence intersects with others and influences our own self-awareness. In doing so, we engage in the timeless act of recognizing ourselves in a changing cultural context and working out our faith in a rapidly evolving digital world.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *