Thursday, April 10, 2008

When Community Ends

There is nothing more devastating, in my opinion, than when community is disrupted. This happens when groups split up, when people move, when people get sick, there's a natural (or unnatural) disaster, or even death. It's always traumatic and sometimes it causes us to lose trust in the overseer of that community, whether that be a person, a group of people or God. I could go on and on, but I'll just cut to the chase.

Many of you know that my girls and I, although in the past year definitely more me, have been part of an online community/game run by Disney called VMK, or Virtual Magic Kingdom. Almost three years ago, I got this goofy email from Disney asking me if I'd like to be a cool mom and sign my child up for this new community. Of course, at the time, I was completely in love with Disney. We'd made several trips there, our family had enjoyed a few Disney vacations and I honestly didn't know what I was getting myself into!! I'd never joined an online community, let alone an online game.

To make a long story short, what Disney had apparently intended to be a year long 50th anniversary promotion (of course, that intent was never really communicated at onset to their fans), ended up continuing into a huge, three year online community/game complete with message boards, expert room builders, expert gamers, people having multiple "mules" and VMKers amassing massive amounts of virtual "stuff"! There were (and probably still are) sales of these virtual items on ebay, bringing in loads of money.

My part in all of this?? I joined two online communities, met in person a few of the people I met online (not recommending this, although for me it's been fine), and enjoyed some of my downtime with friends I've made in the game. It's an environment where we all have made our own rooms, can chat with each other, play a few games Disney has added and wander around the Magic Kingdom online. Really... it's just fun! Kt enjoys decorating her rooms with credits I win for her, Em enjoys buying costumes and changing her clothes. We completed several of their in park quests while on various vacations and have brought home virtual prizes that we've shared with friends who can't make it to the parks.

VMK, while it's not as large as some other online communities such as Second Life or Hobotown(?), has on average 6,000-8,000 players on line in the evenings and on weekends. Right now, it serves people all over the world, many of whom stay up all hours of the night to play as it's only open from 10am - 1am eastern time. There are message boards for Disney addicts who play, for small groups of friends who play and I've even visited one that is totally devoted to room building. While there are frustrating things about the game (like the fact that the bigger the kingdom gets, the fewer things my laptop can handle!), the fact that people can mingle online is the one thing about VMK that brings everyone back.

For this whole school year, I've basically been off of VMK, unable to play games but checking in with everyone when I can. Yes, I have friends on the game. I call them friends because they are. I'd like to think that if I met them in person I'd still like them, but I don't know that! LOL Online, they are friends, a community. I've seen people meet through VMK and get married, have regular park meet-ups and we've gone through losing people, medical issues, marriage issues, parented together - sometimes I've even felt like some of these people are like family. On one board, they affectionately refer to each other as "ohana", which means family... from Lilo & Stitch. So, why am I telling you all this???

Disney announced to it's VMK players through a newsletter hidden on the VMK page that on May 21st, they will shutting off VMK. That's it - just ending it. No warning, in fact they've produced a surge of VMK items and events in the past three months that would have led any VMKer to assume quite the opposite. Instead, they are just shuttering the entire community, without nary a sign of remorse. It's a big deal for a lot of people. For me, it's sad, disappointing, but most of all kind of the last straw for me and Disney. I had always been prepared for the possibility that Disney would convert this game into a pay to play venue, but just turning it off? It just seems like a failure to see the limitless possibilities, but more importantly I'm shocked that a supposedly family oriented company that relies on it's die hard Disney freaks would effectively decimate such a hugely successful venture.

Disney aside, because their luster has faded in my eyes, I'm sad that I can't check in with my virtual friends anymore. Of all the online communities I've seen - Second Life, Webkins, Hobo, World of Warcraft(?) - VMK is a stand alone in my opinion. It's monitored fairly well, has some fun games, is familiar to anyone who knows anything about Disney and can be fun for kids and adults as well. I don't believe that anyone foresaw the potential the creation of this community would have, and they obviously don't see the impact that breaking it up will have on those who have come to love it.

So, what happens when we're separated from our community, when the world we once felt comfortable in vaporizes?? I'm not sure, because in real life that's just a rare, extremely traumatic event. An earthquake, war, tornadoes, death, tsunami, or even 9/11 are examples of the instantaneous breakdown of community. This does not quite compare to something that catastrophic, at least not at first sight. This community will disappear in an instant, with no fanfare, no FEMA, no outpouring of sympathy. In fact, for most people it will not even be a blip on their radar. But I'm willing to bet that for many, kids, teenagers and adults, there will be a void that can't easily be replaced with something similar. Friends we knew only online will be gone. I'm also willing to bet that in this age of increased virtual activity, we'll see more communities end like this. I guess I just never thought it would happen by the hand of Disney!

Post on TheDisneyBlog about this closure.

Another story today on this in St. Louis.

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