A Story About A Tree is a short essay and an epitaph written by Raph Koster, regarding the "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 about the loss of imaginary people as well as the aspect of death in internet-based friendships. It has been later proven that the real person, Karyn's avatar claimed to be, never existed.
Karyn, being both her given real name and that of her avatar, first logged into LegendMUD in autumn of 1996. She claimed to be a Miss Norway 1995 finalist and a law student at the University of Oslo. Her particular emphasis in the MUD was placed upon role-playing. Shortly after joining she created a personal website, displaying the pictures claimed as being 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 the guild's morale. Two months after her disappearance, Karyn's website displayed a letter from her parents and a news article in Norwegian. It was soon a well known fact that Karyn died in a traffic accident, while test-driving a Porsche 911.
The news of Karyn's fate, and thus 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 film producer Tracy Spaight and virtual worlds researcher Richard Bartle, Karyn's 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.
The Karyn incident, albeit not unique in nature, is considered to be a key event in the development of virtual worlds' ethics, similar to the 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. A Story About A Tree is considered a major counterargument against the "it's just a game"-statement, when referring to 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.
- Spaight, Tracy. Who killed Miss Norway?. Salon.Com. 2009-01-24. URL:http://dir.salon.com/story/tech/feature/2003/04/14/who_killed_miss_norway/index.html. Accessed: 2009-01-24. (Archived by WebCite® at http://www.webcitation.org/5e51nyjzC)
- Koster, Raph (1998-05-05). "A Story About A Tree". Raph Koster's Website. Retrieved on 2008-04-01.
- "Karyn's tribute Page". Unknown publisher (2005-11-22). Retrieved on 2008-04-01.
- Bartle, Richard (2003). Designing Virtual Worlds. New Riders. pp. "Chapter 8. Coda: Ethical Considerations", "Yourself". ISBN 0131018167.
- Spaight, Tracy. "Who killed Miss Norway?". salon.com. Retrieved on 2008-04-01.
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