This is Faith in Play #16: Mourning, for March 2019.
Dearly beloved, we gather today to mourn the passing of our companion Ralph, a bold adventurer who met his fate defending his friends and companions. Although we are greatly saddened at this loss, we can take some comfort in the knowledge that Ralph was a non-player character, and his loss of little consequence to the ongoing game as he will be replaced by a new recruit during the party’s next visit to town.
I once commented in Game Ideas Unlimited that game characters often died with very little recognition of their deaths within the game world. At the time I had just helped my sons bury a family cat, and noted that the life, and the death, of this small animal mattered to them, impacted them. I wondered that in so many of the games I had played, the deaths of character party members were of less consequence to the other characters in the party. It was as if death did not matter to them.
I have run many hours of Multiverser, and in that game we have what Ron Edwards said was an excellent answer to character death: when a player character dies, he starts again in another universe in a new adventure. However, I have also run many hours of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and played in several other role playing games. I remember when a beloved Gamma World character was killed I was in such shock that I played the rest of the night from the couch across the room (the living room end of a long living room-dining room), despite the fact that I had two characters in the game and the one who was still alive was the leader of the group. Even in Multiverser, non-player characters who matter sometimes die. Yet player characters somehow fail to mourn them.
Mourning is something of a sticky issue in Christendom. I am at an age at which I sometimes hear that people I have not seen for decades, such as college friends, have died. My reaction is often that they were always more fortunate than I, and now they get to go home first. There are churches in which funerals are if not upbeat at least positive. One woman who had reached the age of one hundred and five and still got someone to transport her from the nursing home to church every weekend commented to her pastor that she’d better die soon or the family was likely to think that she’s not coming. We speak of the joy of the afterlife, but find ourselves mourning when those we love have entered it.
Of course, the best explanation is that we are not really sad for them, but for ourselves. I lost my father a few years back, and I still miss him. Our best man and the girl who sang at our wedding have both succumbed to cancer, and many times I had wished I could see them again. We have lost opportunities to connect again in this life with people who mattered to us. We should be glad for them, but still we are sad for ourselves, for our loss. I am not sorry that they died, really; I am sorry that I have lost them. For now.
Yet what do our characters believe? How do they regard the deaths of their comrades and companions and acquaintances? Do they even have friends, and if so will they miss them when they’re gone?
If so, why is it that I don’t recall ever having a game character attend a funeral?
It seems that our imaginary characters fail to be human in this critical way. We fail to feel the pain of loss when one of our number dies. It is a real pain which we feel in our ordinary lives, and to be human in this way, to have our imagined characters care about each other, communicates something about love to others in the game. It says that we care about them, that people like them matter to us, reflected in the fact that people like their characters matter to our character. It is a sad moment when someone dies, and it should be so for game characters—even for those non-player characters whose loss doesn’t really impact the players.