A Story About a Tree
"A Story About a Tree" is a short essay and an epitaph written by Raph Koster, regarding the alleged death of a LegendMUD player named Karyn. The essay raises the subject of inter-human relationships in virtual worlds, particularly the loss of friends, concluding that these are not "just games". The case, having caused a massive uproar in the MUD's community, is used as a paradigm to the human ability to grieve for imaginary people as well as the aspect of death in Internet-based friendships. The existence of a real Karyn has since been disproved.
Karyn had first logged into LegendMUD in autumn of 1996. She claimed that the name of her avatar was also her real name, and to be a Miss Norway 1995 finalist and law student in the University of Oslo. Her particular emphasis in the MUD was on role-playing and being somebody else. Shortly after joining, she created a personal website, displaying the pictures that she claimed were her own, and founded a Guild named the Norse Traders. Some time later, her frequent visits to the virtual world ceased, resulting in the stagnation and eventual decrease of guild morale. Two months past her disappearance, Karyn's website displayed a letter from her parents and a news article in Norwegian. It was soon common knowledge on LegendMUD that Karyn died in a traffic accident, whilst test-driving a Porsche 911.
The news of Karyn's fate, and therefore the fate of a popular member and leader of an influential guild in LegendMUD, quickly spread throughout the community through message boards and the official newsletter. The players soon began pilgrimages to a "Garden of Remembrance" constructed in memory of the beloved member. The game's code was adjusted to enable pilgrims to leave permanent remembrance cards below a little tree bearing a brass plaque reading "In Memory of Karyn whose kindness and companionship will always be missed".
As later proven by journalist Tracy Spaight and virtual worlds researcher Richard Bartle, Karyn's supposed real self, as described on her website, was an invented persona. Spaight's investigation, driven by Bartle's suspicions of Karyn's existence, discovered that the University of Oslo had no records of student deaths in road accidents during the respective time frame. Spaight also found that the person in the photographs of Karyn was a contestant in the Miss Norway contest; however, the contestant had never heard of LegendMUD. The story was later published in Tracy Spaight's report for Salon.com.
In recent years, more plaques have been added to LegendMUD's "Garden of Remembrance" to note the passing of other players.
The 'Karyn incident', albeit not unique in nature, is considered to be a key event in the development of virtual worlds' ethics, similar to A Rape in Cyberspace. The 'death' demonstrated that people can develop feelings for each other via the virtual world medium, thus experiencing real emotions about somebody they've never met, even an entirely fictional persona. A Story About a Tree is considered as a major counterargument against the "it's just a game" point of view on virtual worlds. Furthermore, it showcased that while being a very real object of grief to one party, it can indeed remain just a game for another.
- Koster, Raph (1998-05-05). "A Story About A Tree". Raph Koster's Website. Archived from the original on 13 May 2008. Retrieved 2008-04-01.
- "Karyn's tribute Page". Unknown publisher. 2005-11-22. Archived from the original on April 18, 2002. Retrieved 2008-04-01.
- Bartle, Richard (2003). Designing Virtual Worlds. New Riders. pp. "Chapter 8. Coda: Ethical Considerations", "Yourself". ISBN 0-13-101816-7.
- Spaight, Tracy. "Who killed Miss Norway?". salon.com. Archived from the original on 2009-01-29. Retrieved 2008-04-01.