In The Virtual World, His Fiancée Never Died

"Obviously, I can't bring people back to life," Jon Jacobs recently told me. Obviously.

It was morning when he told me that. He was on his way to work in Los Angeles, chatting with me on his cell phone. His wife, a singer named Cheri, was driving him to work that day. He and I were discussing his former fiancee, a lady named Tina Leiu and the best gaming pal Jacobs ever had.

Jon is a colorful guy, known to some as Neverdie and known by those same people as a "gaming celebrity." His life is full of moments of Jon Jacobs doing spectacular things, some of them chronicled in his book "The Book of Omens (The Magical True Adventures of a Self-Made Movie Star)", others performed digitally in online gaming worlds. There's usually something awesome going on in Jon's life, though what happened to Tina a half-decade ago was genuine tragedy.

Tina had gotten sick several years ago, badly. She was in and out of intensive care, seemed to bounce back but then passed away, in 2005. She left behind Jon, their son and loving parents. Jon grieved, pissed a few people off in the process (as is his habit), made headlines online (as is also his habit), raised his son, met and married Cheri, retired from one video game, launched another, and, last year, hatched an idea about Tina.

He was going to bring Tina back.

He had announced his idea about Tina last year in a press release that he blasted online four days before Christmas. The news was about her, but it was also about him: "Virtual worlds entrepreneur brings fiancée back from dead as avatar."

In The Virtual World, His Fiancée Never DiedS
Tina (second from left) and Jon in a promotional photo for the movie Hey DJ!

The son of a beauty queen and a record producer, Jon Jacobs, 44, is a born promoter. He's also a dreamer. He declares that "the last place I ever want to go is a cemetery," though he'd prefer to omit that destination and get himself to 2045, the year when thinkers like Ray Kurzweil suggest we might begin to be able to live forever.

Jon's instincts to hype, to mourn and to think big—futuristically big—merged last December with his idea about bringing Tina back. He was at a crossroads of self-promotion and private emotion, and a possible pioneer of high-tech grieving.

***

Tina was a gamer chick. That's what Jon called her in a song he wrote about her and turned into an online music video. They'd met in the 90s and, by the next decade, fell in love with a massively-multiplayer online game called Entropia Universe. At the turn of the century, Jacobs was working hard trying to be famous developing a reputation for being a leader of the game's virtual nightlife and an ambitious developer of virtual real estate. Jon and Tina played the game together, obsessively, from afar and then, even when they lived together, while sitting at different computers. They saw each other in the Entropia world in the form of their avatars. In the game, he looked much like he did in real life, tall, dark-haired, a bit slick. She looked different, not with her slender, Samoan real self but with exaggerated curves and gray skin.

Jon and Tina hunted virtual monsters together. They partied at Jon's virtual nightclub, Club Neverdie, together. The "Gamer Chick" song goes: "She always gives me ammo, when I'm running out of dough // Keeps those monsters off my back, when my hit points are getting low. // My girl's a gamer chick, I really love her so. // She always wants to play. She never, never says no."

In real life—though what was real life for these two?—they went clubbing together. They starred in an independent movies together, including one called Hey DJ that imagined Jacobs as DJ Hound Dog, an eccentric star of the club scene. (The movie was released in 2003, the same year that saw the release of Jacobs' autobiography.)

In late 2003 Tina fell ill, first from the flu and then myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart. By early 2005, despite a period of apparent recovery, the disease proved fatal. "When she died, I left the computer on with her avatar," Jacobs told me, "just in case, you know what I mean, from the other side she could make it wave." The avatar didn't wave, though Jacobs said he felt her presence.

Jon sometimes played as Tina, controlling her avatar in Entropia. Sometimes he let his son, then five years old, play as the avatar of his deceased mom. "Seeing her avatar was like seeing her," Jacobs told me. That bit of role-playing didn't last. It violated the rules every Entropia user had to digitally agree to before playing the game. Other gamers noticed, not all of them cheerfully. "Some of the players got upset, because, you know, there are haters in the forums and shit like that," Jacobs told me from L.A. "There was a rule that there was only one avatar [per person], so basically I got asked not to log her avatar on."

Entropia Universe, now known as Planet Calypso was and is run by a Swedish company called MindArk. David Simmonds, one of top people there confirmed that incident to me over e-mail. "Jon (Neverdie) Jacobs is not a special case," he wrote. "He must follow the rules as all account users must do." Simmonds liked Jacobs, who was known by some as a spokesperson for MindArk—though it was never quite clear if that was an official title—and he'd been fond of Tina, whom he'd only met virtually. Forcing Jacobs to abandon Tina's avatar was a way to prove that Jacobs wasn't receiving preferential treatment being allowed to flout rules that constrained other players, a concern Simmonds knew other players had about the boastful, attention-getting Jacobs.

In The Virtual World, His Fiancée Never DiedS
A virtual memorial for Tina.

That all happened years ago, but the incident still bothers Jacobs. "That, to me, quite honestly, was deeply offensive," he told me. "It's nonsense. They were really touching on private areas and, secondly, what's the point of virtual reality if you can't do this?"

Jacobs said he played nice, that he logged Tina's avatar off one last time, politely, and kept his aggravation to himself.

Life went on. A month after Tina's passing, he met Cheri, who, like Tina, was a singer. The women shared a birthday, something Jacobs considered a good omen. In 2006, Cheri and Jon married. Jon kept coming up with new projects and schemes. He made games and songs, produced some new videos. And last year, half a decade since Neverdie's fans and the haters thought that Tina avatar flap was over, Jon Jacobs decided to bring her back.

By late 2010, Jacobs had left Entropia by then, but not the interactive worlds made by MindArk. The company was allowing independent developers to make their own game worlds using the MindArk technology. Planet Partners, they called them. Jacobs had turned himself from player into independent game developer, setting up shop in Los Angeles to work with a small team on some virtual worlds with that MindArk tech. Subject to the rules of Mindark's platform but creatively independent of the Swedish company, he and his team landscaped a virtual place called Next Island. This new virtual place was a Polynesian Island paradise where players could visit, profit, time travel and fight in.

Next Island was a virtual paradise and the place were a virtual Tina would dwell. Jacobs brought her back as a computer-controlled character. As in most video games, players of Next Island could get their characters killed. In this one, you'd be revived by Tina, her avatar gesturing you back to life in the place where killed player-characters would reappear . "She had a dream of owning a spa in Samoa, which is where her family was from," he told me. "I decided, well, I'll build a spa, so that's making an unfulfilled wish come true. And I'll make her the healer who will bring everybody back to life. She is the reviver on the island. To me, it felt right, you know?"

That's what his press release was about. Come to Next Island. See Tina. Play Jon's game.

This was a tribute. But so was a virtual memorial island Jacobs and MindArk had made for Tina years before. This was being presented as a sort of resurrection. This was different.

***

Long ago, when someone's loved ones died, they only left behind memories. Technological advances changed that. The invention of photography ensured that lifelike images of a person would linger past their death. Film and video immortalized a person's motion; audio recording, their voice. Today, a person's Facebook page or Foursquare history leaves behind the links of their friendships, a push-pin path of their steps. Today's technology is so tethered to our lives that it can leave a more specific and lasting imprint of a human life than history has ever allowed before.

In The Virtual World, His Fiancée Never DiedS
Tina Leiu

The futurist Ray Kurzweil imagines a more lasting legacy for people. He envisions that, eventually, we can achieve immortality via advancing computer technology. The idea is that, by 2045, computers will be able to think as humans do, a milestone referred to as the Singularity. Such super-computers could, the theory goes, not just match human brains, but heal them or even be them. We could send our consciousness to them and last, agelessly forever. Jacobs loves this idea, but he doesn't want to just put his brain on a disk. "We won't want to sit in a hard-drive on a desk," he told me. "We want to be able to explore virtual worlds with our minds." This is the less obvious reason that he is saddened that Tina didn't live to see 2045. She's gone. "I don't know that that'll ever be possible for her," he said. "But maybe for the next generation, maybe for us."

Jacobs considers what he did for Tina to be a partial gesture toward the opportunities of 2045. "Obviously, I can't bring people back to life, but what I can do is draw attention to the way things are going and pay tribute in a way that was never possible before and, you know, extend an artists' legacy through virtual reality." The artist's legacy aspect is important to Jacobs and, he believes, would have been to Tina. She was a singer, lending vocals to a European club hit called "To The Club." And she had other songs, which can now play in Jacobs' virtual world. He says that his son, now 11, wants his father to make quests for the virtual Tina to dole out to players.

Jacobs' view of the future, an era of immortals that would allow great-great-grandfathers to cavort with a new generation without a creak in their bones is as tantalizing as it seems odd. His view of the present can be unsettling too, for anyone who goes through the mental exercise of imagining to log into a virtual world to encounter a for-now computer-controlled version of their wife, their son, their father or some other loved one who has died—still-active puppets in motion despite the passing of the puppeteer. Jacobs doesn't think it is weird and claims that those around him and close to Tina are cool with it. He said his son, for example, is unbothered by virtual Tina. "He just liked it immediately," Jacobs said. "He wants to bring our dog back."

Jacobs sees nothing odd about this for himself, either. He dismisses the suggestion that it might be painful to see his ex-fiancée in virtual form. "No, not really. It's been five, six years. We have a son. I see her face every day in him."

Even Tina's mother is happy about her daughter's virtual "resurrection." Mom lives in Oregon and told me, during a phone interview, that she doesn't have a powerful enough computer to run Next Island. But a nervous Jon Jacobs had told her about it. "It's really nice, because I know my daughter loved that game," she said, conflating, as a non-gaming mom can do, fake-Tina's appearance in Next Island with the adventures real-Tina had controlled in Entropia. "I know Tina loved that game. It was second only to her family and her husband."

***

Jon Jacobs lives the kind of life in which actions, heartfelt as they may be, can feel like publicity stunts. He relishes in the attention of extraordinary, though he traces his background as one of canny struggle. He was in acting schools by age 11, he said, but kicked out of the best one for fighting. He got a short film, called Metropolis Apocalypse, into the Cannes Film Festival in 1988. But he was working in Starbucks by the mid-90s, struggling until, he says, an indie film raved about in the Los Angeles Times that he starred in became a potential breakthrough. It wasn't.

In The Virtual World, His Fiancée Never DiedS
Neverdie buys his asteroid in Entropia

By 2004 Jacobs was deep into creating the Neverdie persona he plays online. He was in Miami at the time and says he had refinanced the mortgage on his home. He took out a loan of $90,000, combined it with some $26,000 of virtual currency he said he'd earned from two and half years of playing Entropia and paid $100,000 to buy an Entropia asteroid. The feat also bought him press and a Guinness World Record for a deal in virtual real estate. MindArk's Simmonds, who considers Jacobs, "a great guy," confirmed the transaction and denied that Jacobs had any inside help. He made the winning bid, fair and square. "Jon was the fastest to deposit and won the auction," he said in an e-mail. "We returned the money to the unsuccessful bidders. Jon is a celebrity , flamboyant [and] loud. People take notice of Jon, [which] makes good news. So Neverdie has been good for Entropia Universe." Jacobs turned his newly-bought asteroid into a popular virtual nightclub, Club Neverdie.

The Tina resurrection, announced in December, is not Jacobs' newest press release event, but it was an important one to him. It didn't seem to catch on, though, and generated few headlines. Not a problem, because there's another thing going on with Jon Jacobs' barely-alter-ego.

"Neverdie is kind of the pioneer in these virtual worlds," he told me, referring to his virtual self in the third-person. "Neverdie is the first virtual political prisoner." The short version: people started complaining—in a 77-page message board thread!—that Jacobs was violating a MindArk rule by playing his Neverdie avatar in the very virtual world he was developing. Developers can't be players, lest they tip the playing field. MindArk told him he was violating the rules and, shades of the playing-as-Tina prohibition, told him to knock it off. In reaction, Jacobs built himself a prison in a virtual world he's constructed called Rocktropia.

Simmonds explains: "We asked Jon to not 'play' with his avatar, only to use it for publicity… as a developer he cannot influence the economy and get unfair advantages. Mindark can see every captivity of an avatar. Some players believe he has an unfair advantage, [but] this is not so."

The Neverdie protest is not much of a financial shot against MindArk, considering that Rocktropia is another Planet Partner, made by Jacobs but using MindArk's tech. There's no comparable platform worth working with, Jacobs told me. So, saying he's quite irked and doesn't want to simply glad-hand with his Neverdie avatar like some man in a Mickey Mouse costume at Disneyland, he's locked himself in the prison. "I'm going to fight for avatar rights," he said. "I'm declaring virtual old war. We're going to war. It's like Rocktropia versus everyone."

Jacobs has the kind of dreams for Next Island and Rocktropia that sound like those of so many other virtual-world dreamers and salesmen. He wants his virtual worlds to be the most open, the most flexible and the best, the one that will attract stars and make stars of its players—make them money, even thanks to financial inventives tied to every action from in-game hunting to in-game mining to in-game nightclub management. Maybe he'll get there, and if he does, we'll have all of his prior feats and his living-the-crazy-life-in-L.A. YouTube videos as a trail that marks his progress. He is, it seems, a man of evenly grand brio and geek pride. To wit, he's the singer and composer of the song "I Am My Avatar" ("No money, no love, no rule, I say, going to take my virtual life away. // A-V-A-T-A-R, I am my avatar.") Rocktropia was recently upgraded with a 2.0 release, and Jacobs is now promoting an in-game event called Make the Devil Pay that is designed to raise money for a Rocktropia player named Erica who is battling multiple sclerosis. The money for Erica will be raised based on in-game taxes placed on hunting expeditions, Jacobs said.

***
In The Virtual World, His Fiancée Never DiedS
Jon "Neverdie" Jacobs

On the day that Jacobs and I first discussed much of what's been making him tick, on the day he was being driven to work by his wife, the whole Neverdie story seemed, as it so often does, extraordinary. I'd met Jacobs about four years ago, I'd realized. He was in New York and had different P.R. people then. That time, his people had reached out to me. This time, I'd found him. I'd known about the $100,000 asteroid, but not about Tina, not about Rocktropia and the whole political prisoner thing.

Of all of his feats, I was most interested in knowing what his wife thought of bringing Tina back, and how he did it. But that's the thing, he said. He hadn't talked to her about it. She'd not seen his Tina press release in December. Cheri dropped Jon off at the studio and we continued our conversation. "You actually forced me to bring it up now," he said, as he walked into his studio. "She blew me a kiss when she dropped me off, so I guess she forgave me."

He started to sound choked up. "I never really discuss it, because it's a little sensitive. That's more my business, my virtual stuff." Cheri was certainly part of the family, he told me, a great mother to his son. But she's not part of all this virtual stuff and not part of Tina's press-release-proclaimed resurrection. "It's not something I was going to ask permission for," he said. "This is something I needed to do. For myself. And for my son."