Feature Article

Letters And Flowers: How Games Memorialize Loved Ones We’ve Lost

Our digital creations can survive us, providing a way for others to connect with us after we've gone.

It was late one evening as Meredith Myers was lying in bed relaxing when her sister, Jenna, walked in with an expression of shock on her face. Jenna had been taking an evening stroll in Animal Crossing: New Leaf, walking past fruit trees and over wooden bridges that connect the different parts of her town. Lolly, a friendly cat who had just moved into town, locked eyes with her and ran over.

"I didn't realize the mechanics of the game would do this--it showed my sister the letter after Lolly had moved from my town to hers," Meredith told GameSpot. "Lolly showed her the letter she had written to me in my town."

The letter her sister showed her was from their other sister, Kylie, who had passed away from cancer four years earlier.

Scenarios like this, where an NPC villager moves from one person's town to another, is normal in New Leaf, and the newcomers always bring mementos like letters with them. Meredith didn't expect Lolly to turn up with such an impactful memory, though.

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Meredith and her sisters had loved Animal Crossing while growing up, but she wasn't playing in her own town after her sister passed away--she was making sure Kylie's town was weed-free and full of happy villagers instead. "I picked up her 3DS to finish Link Between Worlds for her," Meredith said. "I did that pretty quickly and then I found Animal Crossing and it became a thing. I couldn't take care of her anymore, but I could take care of her village. That's something."

Meredith kept Kylieland, as her sister named it, well-stocked with yellow flowers (Kylie's favorite) and kept sending her villager's similarly sweet letters like the one Lolly had brought back. The Myers had always bonded over video games and Animal Crossing was something they all loved and played regularly when they were younger.

"We didn't start playing [Animal Crossing] again until she got sick, because she was bored in the hospital and didn't have anything to do," Meredith said. "I didn't know how much time, care, and dedication she had put into it until she had passed and I found her 3DS and thought I'd take a look. It was like having this connection to her, with this whole world she had created, these friendships she had with the other characters. It was neat to hang onto her in that way. I took over her town and played for years since."

"There was probably a 10-year gap [between when she last played] until I took her 3DS and started taking care of her New Leaf town," she added. Meredith has been able to keep a special connection to Kylie through their shared love of Animal Crossing, one she can revisit every day. It's a place she can help grow and change, where Meredith can go and continue all the bug-catching, house-expanding, fossil-collecting Kylie started all those years ago.

"It was like having this connection to her, with this whole world she had created, these friendships she had with the other characters."

Animal Crossing, according to Katsuya Eguchi, one of its creators, is an experience that lets families play together even if they weren't playing at the same time.

"I'd always get home really late. And my family plays games, and would sometimes be playing when I got home. And I thought to myself--they're playing games, and I'm playing games, but we're not really doing it together," he said in an interview with Gamasutra. "It'd be nice to have a play experience where even though we're not playing at the same time, we're still sharing things together. So this was something that the kids could play after school, and I could play when I got home at night, and I could kind of be part of what they were doing while I wasn't around."

Eguchi didn't know that his game design philosophy would stretch into the afterlife. In the Myers family's case, it's a perfect example of how video games can help people grieve after losing a loved one.

"If not stronger, it's a more active connection to her sister," Portland Institute for Loss and Transition Director Robert A. Neimeyer, Ph.D., said in an interview with GameSpot. "A connection that confronts her with ongoing challenges. It's almost a virtual expression of how we grieve in general."

Meredith's connection to her sister is a powerful example of the continuing bonds theory, the idea that a normal, healthy and important part of grief is maintaining a connection with those loved ones who have passed away.

The theory isn’t as clear-cut as it seems, though. As different people grieve in different ways, some are able to maintain this bond and continue living in a healthy way, while others may struggle with daily reminders of their loss.

"Grieving still happens differently, some people can still detach due to their past experiences," Neimeyer said. "Both continuing bonds and breaking bonds can be considered healthy ways to cope."

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Sharing The Race

Michael was 6 years old when his father died, and afterward, he couldn't bring himself to touch the original Xbox they had shared. He had to wait 10 years to build up the courage to boot the old console up to play one of his favorite games: RalliSport Challenge.

"Once I did, I noticed something," Michael, who goes by the online tag 00WARTHERAPY00, wrote in a Youtube comment in 2014. "I started meddling around and found a ghost, literally...you know, when a timed race happens, the fastest lap so far gets recorded as a ghost driver? Yep, you guessed it, his ghost still rolls around the track."

He had found a digital copy of his father flying around that dirt track more than 10 years after his death. It gave Michael an odd comfort, even though he missed his old man. "I played and played and played until I was almost able to beat the ghost," he wrote. "Until one day I got ahead of it, I surpassed it, and I stopped right in front of the finish line, just to ensure I wouldn't delete it."

"Bliss," he wrote.

Michael's interaction with his father's ghost racer is another impactful example of the continuing bonds theory at work, except it illustrates how maintaining a virtual connection after a loved one has passed can be dangerous.

"Continuing bonds theory, you don't just move on and forget about [loved ones who've died]. You have to figure out a new way to maintain that connection with them," Siena College professor of Social Work Carla J. Sofka, Ph.D. told GameSpot. "Before technology, [mourners would] go to the gravesite and have conversations with them."

"What happens if that technology goes away? How likely is the game a permanent thing?"

The problem comes with the concept of secondary loss, the idea that a primary loss, the death of a loved one, can lead to secondary losses like losing your job or home due to circumstances caused by the first loss. "What happens if that technology goes away? How likely is the game a permanent thing?" Sofka asked. "The concept of second loss, which would be the grief that someone experiences if that virtual reality disappears, then that person is going to grieve all over again. It's a blessing, but what happens if it's discontinued?"

Debra Bassett, a Ph.D. candidate in the Sociology Department of the University of Warwick, studies the new phenomenon of second loss, which is the idea that these digital remnants of our loved ones can themselves be lost and is a different concept from secondary loss. "This fear of second loss is a new phenomenon for those grieving in our digital society," she wrote in an article on Fast Company. "While images of the dead stowed away in boxes of photos in attics may well fade or perish over time, they don’t form part of people’s everyday lives in such a socially active way as digital memories do."

For example, if Michael crosses that finish line before the ghost racer left behind by his father, the ghost time disappears, overwritten by Michael's new best time in the race. That remnant of his parent would disappear and Michael could experience the pain of losing him all over again. The same can be said about Kylieland in Animal Crossing. It's a blessing that can potentially lead to more pain down the road.

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Visiting An Altar

Susan Rivers, PhD, is co-designer of a course for high schoolers about identity and mental health. The course uses playthroughs of What Remains of Edith Finch, a game about a family who believed they were cursed, to talk about how we view the people closest to us.

What Remains of Edith Finch is a game about death, one in which you explore the lives of lost family members through individual vignettes. Each one is presented with a different shrine, a collection of items left behind by that person.

"It helps them think about the people around them, how they view them. One of the interesting things about Edith Finch is, you can dig into a slice of the artifacts these people left behind in the shrines of each level," Rivers said in an interview with GameSpot. "It gives people a different perspective about who people are."

Rivers is the executive director of iThrive, a non-profit organization with operating in Atlanta, Boston, and New York that explores the intersection of games, mental health, and education. The organization uses different forms of interactive media to create a curriculum that teaches students about mental health, depression, grief, and other related topics.

"Grief naturally comes up with Edith Finch," she said. "What do we remember about the individuals and what they leave behind?"

What Rivers didn’t expect was to go through her own experience of grief during one of the first times students used the curriculum. Her mother died, pushing her to use some of the same ideas she taught in how she grieved the loss of someone she was incredibly close to. "The notion of curating our own space to reflect our identity. I didn't really think deeply about that concept until we did our work with Edith Finch. The final project is to create a museum of me," Rivers said. "I was curating the things from my mother's life."

"What do we remember about the individuals and what they leave behind?"

Playing through What Remains of Edith Finch helped give Rivers the idea to focus on her mother's letters, which were much like the letters that told the story of each individual vignette in the game.

"One of the things I connected to is the traditions we held and repeated," she said. "Since she passed away, I've started to collect her letters, even thank-you notes she sent to others."

While Rivers's experience didn't contain an in-game memory of her mother, What Remains of Edith Finch's family home perfectly represents the idea of an altar--a collection of items gathered in one space, a table or a box, for mourners to visit and grieve. Creating physical altars are a century-old practice, used in holidays such as Día de Muertos to honor the dead.

Video games are becoming a prominent platform for digital memories and experiences, where players can create an altar, either on purpose or by accident.

"There is a potential for a digital altar to be infused with life, it's dynamic," Joanne Cacciatore, Arizona State University Director of the Graduate Certificate in Trauma and Bereavement, explained in an interview with GameSpot. "Altars are a living ritual, they're a way in which we ritualize our dead by creating a physical space, a tangible connection, an artifact that connects us to them."

Neimeyer regularly works with people who are close to the ends of their lives to gather items and construct legacy projects to help bring them peace. "In this, people share their stories in a way that can be captured and passed on to their survivors," he said. "[Kylie] did that herself--left her a little world where she would always be there."

Kylieland and the RalliSport Challenge ghost racer are both altars; places for Michael and Meredith to rekindle relationships with lost loved ones, and places to maintain a connection that wasn't lost, but transformed. Altars can be beautiful in how they preserve a part of someone's life, and painful in how second loss can bring grief all over again. Video games, whether they be life simulators in which you send letters to quirky animals or dirt road racers where you compete against lap time, can create serendipitous memories that help us grieve.

For Meredith, Kylie's Animal Crossing town is a perfect way to keep her memory alive by continuing what she started.

"I know she wanted to expand her house, so I'm going to pay off her debt," Meredith said. "I can build off what she started. That's part of the beauty of Animal Crossing."

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