Families Cope with the Loss of an Online World

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 worldCNN 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?

10 thoughts on “Families Cope with the Loss of an Online World

  1. Nancy, thanks for the post. My hope is that we will “retreat” back to the times of old and reclaim control over our physical space through telephone calls, visiting people face to face and writing letters. Why depend on an entity to control the landscape you rely on for love and family, the most important connections of all? I’m sure time, money, strategy and proximity play into this, sure, but there is nothing like a hug, or a kiss, the warmth of a friend, or even a smile from across a table. It brings new (or reminds us of the old) meaning of keeping in “touch” with one another.


    • Thanks for your comment, Brian! You might appreciate reading a book called Hamlet’s Blackberry — a philosopher talks about the impact of technology through the ages, going back to Socrates! The point he makes is a good one, I think. Every new technology both solves a problem and then creates challenges.

      These virtual spaces are solving the problem of people scattered all over the country and the world, which is a consequence of limited economic opportunities in some places and our mobile society. Virtual spaces won’t go away under those circumstances, and in fact, they can be very powerful methods of intervention (click on my virtual worlds category to read of some intriguing things). Letters were the first solution to those distances…one of the older technologies. Like you, I think they still have a place. But they don’t provide the same sense of presence as a real-time connection via Skype or in a virtual world.

      That said, I agree with you that we need to continue to value the physical and face to face…I think there is room for both. Interestingly, when people meet for the first time in virtual spaces and get to know each other, they really want to connect face-to-face, too.


  2. Nancy,

    You’ve given me much food for thought. I hadn’t really thought before of twitter/pinterest/google+/facebook as virtual worlds that could potentially be taken away or curtailed one day nor what impact that would have on me.

    I think you have raised some very important points and concerns… If people were to experience frequent losses of virtual worlds [communities] in which they are highly active in, I believe this would ultimately impact the type and quality of future relationships individuals would make online.

    This suggests a potential future retreat and/or greater emphasis on face to face relationships [as Brian mentions above] or perhaps a revolution on our part… finding a way to object to the dismantling of communities and finding a way to keep them going even without the support of the original company who sponsored it.

    As Kristi Bowman states so eloquently, “We often forget our human connectedness. Throughout my life, I have felt the greatest beauty lies in this connection. It has been in the deepest connections with others that I have experienced the greatest degree of learning, healing and transformation. This connection is a powerful thing, with the ability to transform lives, and ultimately transform human experience.”

    Our relationships are too precious to let commercial organizations throw them by the wayside.


    • Wow, Dorlee, your comment has provoked me to think at an even deeper level about these issues. Thanks for sharing your reactions.

      I think we will both need to place higher value on face-to-face relationship time, including setting aside time for it, and honor the importance, role, and meaning of virtual connections. As I thought more about what you wrote, I think we might be seeing the need for bill of virtual rights.


  3. Here is some of what I am thinking. First, definitions of relationships and interactions are being redefined with the use of virtual worlds, technology etc. I think that as a person entering the social work filed, it may become important that when evaluating and determining normal healthy interactions we may have to find ways in which people can utilize strengths and skills learned in virtual worlds to translate them into actual human interactions. While I utilize e-mail and instant messaging with my support system at the VA, it actually makes my appointments, and interactions stronger where “work” can actually be accomplished. This may be true for those who utilize virtual worlds and online communities to mitigate any disability. I think I summarized a good “can of worms”.


    • Heidi, you’ve made some really good points. We are still figuring out the role and best mix for both types of relationship connections, as well as how to transfer our social work skills into these new spaces. And we need to figure out the right balance of virtual/physical connections. The virtual is at it’s best, I think, when it accomplishes what we couldn’t accomplish with the physical space and time limitations we are dealing with. And I think we have to make sure that we don’t get lazy and look to virtual connections to do things that physical connections need to do. As Brian wisely pointed out, I will take a physical hug or kiss over a virtual one any day. But if I am miles away from my loved ones for very good reasons, then a virtual hug can warm my heart.


  4. When my son got into a verbal argument with hospital staff, his psychiatrist, a real gem if there ever was one, decided to take away all of his internet access. We still have phone contact but it’s not the same as being able to send him a link to this site – for example. But at least it’s more difficult for him to challenge the psychiatrist about the adverse reactions of teh drugs she forces on him. Does anyone know of a group of recovering people anywhere in Ohio? I am hoping to get my son out but he will need both virtual and physical community once he leaves the hospital.


    • Katherine, I’m sorry that your son is dealing with such a punitive approach to his care. I can only imagine how hard that is for you to deal with, as well as for how hard that is for him.

      In terms of recovery oriented communities, I’m not personally aware of any. But I would recommend starting with the local Mental Health Association in Ohio, because MHAs often are aware of such communities. Also, you might search on Twitter under the hashtag #dearmentalhealthprofessionals There is an ongoing dialogue there from many recovering people (and some lessons for mental health professionals, as well).

      If you aren’t familiar with Twitter you might want to check out my Twitter 101 blog post https://njsmyth.wordpress.com/2013/07/19/twitter-101/ It should be enough of an introduction to get you started.


  5. Reblogged this on Kylie Sabra Speaks and commented:
    I feel fairly confident that Second Life will remain viable for some time to come as well as it’s soon-to-be offspring. I admit this article caused a moment of pain as I realized how much I would lose if this virtual world were to one day vanish. It would be like experiencing a massive loss of family and friends. We develop deep and lasting relationships in this ether world.


    • Yes, Kylie, I had exactly the same feelings as I heard what these people were going through and I imagined losing Second Life. And in addition to losing family and friends, I would feel the loss of my avatar — part of myself — and my homespace there. It’s become a sanctuary of sorts over the years.

      Thanks for reblogging the post and taking the time to share your reaction. And by the way, I’m a huge fan of the clothes you design in Second Life 🙂


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