A couple of weeks ago, the Orange County Register (my home town newspaper) asked me to weigh in on the closing of Disney's Virtual Magic Kingdom on May 21. I'm just now getting around to posting my answers here, in case anyone is interested. Here's the full rticle by the Register's Disney beat reporter, Sonya Smith:
Disney’s VirtualMagicKingdom.com will be shut down at 10 p.m. May 21.
The free social gaming site , also called VMK, lets players choose and style avatars, chat with other players and play games. In a statement, Disney officials said the site’s performance exceeded expectations, but the time had come to shut it down.
We invited Linda Zimmer to explain why fans are so upset about the ending of VMK and to suggest what should be next for Disney’s virtual worlds. She is an Orange-based consultant at MarCom:Interactive who advises corporations about virtual worlds. Here are her responses to the Register’s questions.
Do you play Virtual Magic Kingdom? If so, describe your experiences.
I’m a not what I consider a very active or “regular” user of VMK. I’m more of a casual user, but an avid observer of the activities and behaviors of virtual world users of all kinds - in VMK and elsewhere.
Why do you think Walt Disney Co. is ending VMK? Do you agree that the site should end or do you think Disney should keep it going?
I believe VMK is being closed for a variety of reasons, although this is my professional conjecture. VMK represented an early entrant into virtual social worlds. Technology has advanced, as have business models, user expectations and “mainstream” acceptance. Disney is in the process of launching several new worlds in which they can capitalize on these new market conditions and realities.
VMK seems to have had about 15,000 people as active daily users at the time of its closing. With constant quests and activities, this represents a cost which is likely unsustainable at that level of use - especially since there is dedicated staff (cast members) who are in world at all times it is open for users.
Also, because VMK was originally conceived as a 50th anniversary promotion, there was likely no long-term strategy in place beyond an early “experiment” in these kinds of multi-user environments.
Disney’s decision to close VMK was a business decision - so it is difficult for me to assign a “should” factor to it. However, I do think it is enormously - enormously - unfortunate that Disney has provided such little support for this hugely engaged community in the closing. Disney has a perfect opportunity here to have strategically communicated with this community, helping them transition into one of the new Disney worlds perhaps or providing some way to somehow archive some of the personal artifacts - not the least of which are the avatars, assets and personal environments which users have spent untold hours building - maybe that would be simply a digital VMK memory scrapbook - something that communicated Disney was tuned into the angst of the community being disbanded.
I do think any organization that actively builds a community has some responsibility to manage the dismantling of that community if it should be necessary. But, in the long view, any company that builds a community should be doing so as a long term commitment and ought to be considering at the outset what the “exit strategy” is.
Why do you think people are so passionate about VMK and especially about it ending?
There are two reasons - both equally important. One is the massive investment the active users have made in terms of their time, creativity and emotional involvement - as well as gaining points and personal artifacts based on achievements in the in-world games. Second is the personal connections users have made within the environment - think of suddenly being pulled out of your school in which you are on the sports team, in the drama program, are class president and where some of your most important relationships and memories take place. It’s like pulling a social foundation from these kids. Plus, many families are also using the environment to interact much like families used to play game boards in the evenings.
Explain how VMK is similar and different in comparison to other virtual worlds.
When first launched VMK was fairly unique in that it is a bit of a “hybrid” virtual world - that is, it is a mix of an online game environment and a social world. Most virtual worlds up to that point were either primarily a game environment or a social environment. Today, most virtual worlds, especially those aimed at this “tween” audience, include both.
Probably the most differentiating factor is that VMK was built to “bridge” the physical environment of Disneyland with a place to engage with that same environment virtually.
What is good and bad about VMK?
The good: A familiar and/or desirable environment brought into an online representation where members can socialize and continue (or have) a “Disneyland” experience. Great games and activities that many kids found to be addictive fun in a very safe online environment. Disney went to great lengths to provide for a safe, friendly environment, such as filtering chat for inappropriate language or activity, cast members clearly identified and always present (world only open when cast members were present), and any personally identifiable information was never allowed to be passed through the world.
Probably the biggest negative for most people is that VMK encourages “buying” as a major activity, even though access is free - and its billboards and product placement make it an extremely commercial environment for very impressionable youngsters.
Also, emotional connections develop very quickly in these virtual spaces - much more so than in the “actual world”- and that is something parents should be aware of and should be monitoring in any virtual space.
Describe for people who do not use virtual worlds why you think people use virtual worlds? What do virtual worlds offer?
What virtual worlds offer is as individual as the person. But for nearly everyone it is the social life. To some degree these virtual spaces are today’s community commons, where people drop in and out, see what’s happening, stay and visit, play a game together and of course gossip.
These spaces can also be a creative outlet in that they allow self-expression through digital representations, creations and art - and collaboration with others on these creative endeavors.
Also the games usually are tied to some kind of achievement either for points, recognition or assets. You can compete against yourself or others - and what you “own” often says much about your level of skill or length of participation - translating to your virtual reputation. That is just fun - like any other game - Monopoly comes to mind as an analogy for the type of motivation these games often represent. It often can give kids a type of “celebrity” or acceptance they might not be able to get at school, on the sports field, or in the neighborhood.
What do you think of the other Disney virtual worlds the company is suggesting people join once VMK ends?
Disney is riding the wave of interest in these kinds of environments and extending their various “franchises” into them. I think they just might have a trust issue at the moment with those from VMK joining a new Disney world. Those users may have the attitude of “why put in all the time and energy just to have it close at some point?”
I generally think these are interesting places for kids and families to explore in various ways - exploring places or activities they possibly can’t do in the “actual world” or exploring social skills or creative talents. These environments can also be valuable ways for parents to interact with their children in an environment that is slightly less intense in terms of intimacy and therefore might provide opportunities for parents to learn new things about their child - you know, maybe akin to talking while in the car - little direct eye contact and therefore a little “easier” to have some kinds of conversations.
I am very concerned about the highly commercial aspects of these worlds, however, and the general overall trend of creating such immersive commercial environments where the emphasis is necessarily on some type of transaction. We all know kids are highly influenced and this is an age group where values are being tested and engrained.
Do you think online and real world protests, letters and petitions will save VMK? Why?
I would be very surprised if Disney reversed their decision. This is a business decision - and a brand decision. New technology, new brand properties, new models, new goals. The truth is they will close VMK at some point and going through this twice would be even worse for everyone.
What do you suggest VMK people do when VMK ends? Why?
Many will be migrating to Virtual Family Kingdom which is a site created to attract the VMK “homeless.” This seems to be a place where people can at least gather and decide where to take their virtual socializing next. Groups do tend to migrate and bring a bit of the old world into the new. Parents should help kids with a plan to migrate to another safe, moderated online environment. But they shouldn’t have children connect with virtual friends via email addresses or other personally identifiable information unless the parent is actively involved in making these connections “outside” the world.
I’d like to emphasize to parents of children who have been very active in VMK to keep close tabs on their child’s emotional state in the months after VMK closes. These worlds are very immersive and very, very “real” to those who participate. Emotional connections develop quickly and deeply and disruption can cause real, actual grief in a child. Plus something the child has invested heavily in, something that may represent a type of personal identity, is suddenly unavailable. This is an emotional loss, especially if important friendships have been disrupted.
What do you think Disney should do next in its virtual world Web sites? Why?
Really think through the commitment they are making to a the new community that they will be working hard to recruit and spending millions to promote. At least 15,000 people will be asking them that question before they sign on again.
Original OC Register article is online here.
June 9 2008