Animal Crossing Funerals Let Mourners Grieve in Cyberspace
For some of us, moving real life to the virtual realm is a new and strange experience. For others, replicating life in the digital world has been a passion for decades. World-building games like Second Life and World of Warcraft host rich online environments where players have spent years creating their own settings and characters, from the fantastical to the mundane. Players use their avatars to engage in all kinds of activities and interactions with other players, including replicas of life events like parties, weddings, and funerals. With COVID-19 practically eliminating the possibility of traditional in-person funerals, many mourners have turned to the world of online games to channel their grief and come together with loved ones — or at least their Animal Crossing avatars.
A world of their own
World-building games provide users with open-ended environments entirely built and controlled by the players themselves. From decades-old classics like Sim City to Nintendo’s newly released Animal Crossing, these games let players build communities and scenes that reflect their passions, personalities, and lives.
For people like Jay Lee, who can’t afford a gravestone for their mom, the memorial they built in Animal Crossing provides some measure of comfort. “It’s something I was able to do for her when I haven’t been able to do something in the real world,” they said. As someone who spends a lot of time in the game, Jay can now visit their mother’s virtual memorial whenever they want.
In April, the friends and family of a 23-year old Animal Crossing enthusiast who died of Coronavirus complications held a funeral service in the video game. Branden Perez, who died in early April, was an avid gamer and Animal Crossing enthusiast. In the game, friends and family could explore the town Branden created and leave virtual flowers as a tribute. They can visit Branden’s password-protected island whenever they want, where they can view a virtual memorial complete with Branden’s photo.
Many other players have created memorials to loved ones in the game. With the popularity of Animal Crossing booming partly due to the pandemic and extensive stay-at-home orders across the world, the game offers a logical, if unorthodox, avenue for expressing grief and coming together in mourning in a time of social distancing.
Unlike videoconferencing and other messaging apps, video game worlds offer immersive, interactive environments where participants can control their movements, pick up and move items, and interact with other avatars. With virtual reality equipment, the immersion goes a step further toward simulating a physical experience.
The future of funerals
Even in the pre-pandemic world, the funeral industry was already reimagining the future of funerals, encouraging a serious look at the potential of virtual reality and technology to help mourners attend funerals when they can’t be there in person. At the 2019 NFDA Convention, Funeral Innovations showcased a virtual reality memorial using the Oculus Quest VR headset to lead guests through an immersive funeral experience complete with a campfire tribute and fireworks.
Online grief support, live-streamed funerals, and videoconference memorial services have been part of funeral services for years. For many people who can’t attend family funerals for a variety of reasons, the virtual experience gives them a way to participate remotely. Undocumented immigrants, the disabled, those with loved ones in hospice far from home, and those who just can’t afford the trip to their hometowns or countries know all too well the challenges of not having the opportunity for in-person grieving and comforting. But in many of these cases, more people attend in person than virtually. Replicating almost the entire funeral experience is a new reality.
In the scramble to provide new ways for mourners to attend funerals virtually in the wake of COVID-19, funeral homes are installing video cameras, microphones, and high-speed internet connections. But to many, the videoconference experience still feels strangely detached. Attending via Zoom helps loved ones support each other in ways they couldn’t just a few years ago. However, the experience lacks the intimacy and immediacy of physical gatherings.
With the doubly painful impact of increased deaths due to the virus and the inability to hold memorials where friends and loved ones can gather, embrace, and mourn together, holding funerals in cyberspace has become a powerful tool in the fight against despair and loneliness. Aside from the grief faced by those losing family and loved ones — whether to COVID-19 or other causes — during this time, society as a whole is grieving the loss of normalcy, of certainty, of future plans. The user-created fantasy worlds of games like Animal Crossing or Second Life offer a unique opportunity to simulate the social aspects of memorial services and the emotional closure brought by visiting physical gravesites.