I came across an article recently, Coping with the Loss of an Online World, and have been thinking about it since then. I admit to never having heard of this world, but that’s really not surprising, since there are many virtual worlds, probably hundreds (although I couldn’t find a number readily in my Google searching).
What stood out to me in reading this article was that this world, and, no doubt, many others, provided a platform for family members to connect with each other. In a day and age when families are spread out, that’s not a small accomplishment.
Coping with the loss of an online world. CNN iReport, By Heather Kelly, CNN
Story Highlights: Disney is closing its online virtual game “Toontown” after 10 years. Many long-time players are upset that they’ll lose contact with the “Toontown” community. When massively multiplayer games close, players frequently feel a sense of loss.
(CNN) — Sarah Luchsinger started playing Disney’s online game “Toontown” in 2005 at the urging of her then 10-year-old goddaughter. It’s become a place where she can spend time with her husband and two sons, working together on tasks and feeling like part of the larger “Toontown” community.
Now Disney is shutting the virtual world down and many long-time players like Luchsinger are dealing with the loss of an online home.
Launched in 2003, Disney’s “Toontown Online” is a game for children and families where players work together to battle evil robots called Cogs, or pass the time growing gardens, fishing, and racing cars on the Goofy Speedway. In Toontown, members can also just hang out and chat with the friends they’ve made in the virtual world.
Later in the the article:
After a divorce, Mike Kahn found himself 3,000 miles from his young son. The two have turned to “Toontown” as an entertaining alternative to Skype.
“Most people know 8-year-old boys don’t want to talk on the phone much. ‘Toontown’ has become the solution for us to spend time together,” said Kahn. “We can log in, my son in Florida and my daughter and I in Idaho and all play together while talking, laughing and spending quality family time together.”
Why Does This Matter?
Clearly, there are many other virtual worlds for these families to use –Disney itself is hoping that families will choose Club Penguin. But that’s not the point. Place disruption is disorienting. In the physical world, we see it in the sudden psychological impact of natural disasters like tornadoes, tsunamis, and hurricanes, war or terrorism (e.g., the loss of the Twin Towers in NY City). Less sudden disruption, but also powerful, is the loss of place that occurred in the urban renewal of the mid-20th century (see Root Shock). I wrote this about the feelings that came up for me when I encountered the loss of a virtual place:
I wasn’t prepared for the sinking feeling in my stomach as I called up the address for some of those places and saw the words “unknown region” instead. There was a moment of disbelief and disorientation. And then sadness. And then a bit of that frantic feeling expressed by George Bailey [in It's a Wonderful Life] as his world made no sense. I wondered if I had any photos of those places. And I felt a strong urge to gather up those photos and look them over, in the same way I’ve done when someone I know has died. (From The Power of Virtual Place).
What’s noteworthy is that with the advent of virtual place, we will encounter place disruption much more frequently than our in our experience in the physical world, because virtual places are more easily changed. They are also primarily commercial endeavors, so they subject to the changing policies of the corporation that owns them. In the case of an entire virtual world shutting down, there will be significant loss of community — people will scatter. Some will reconnect in a new virtual world. But others will go separate ways.
How Will This Phenomena Affect Us?
Virtual communities and places will become more common, which means that our losses will increase. It’s not clear to me how the impact of the repeated loss of virtual place will affect us. Will we become more facile with grieving these types of losses? Will we experience more of a sense of unrootedness in our lives? Will we start to avoid attachment in these worlds, or, instead, embrace the Buddhist notion of the fleeting nature of all attachment and just appreciate what we have at the moment?
What do you think the impact will be?