- Posted September 8, 2013 by
Disney’s Falling Piano: Dealing with the Death of a Virtual World
In December of 2005, my daughter sat on my lap in front of the computer, and together we created our first set of toon avatars and joined the blossoming virtual world of Disney’s ToonTown Online. One "toon" in particular, a bear three shades of brown, caught my eye as we decided on a name. My daughter typed in “brownie” and I thought about fixing the capitalization, but curbed my college-writing-professor reflexes. As a palate of riotous colors flooded the screen, brownie landed in a cartoon-world filled with talking dogs and cats and other animals of all shapes, sizes and colors that walked upright and wore gloves like the ones made famous by the presiding mouse. One of brownie’s first actions was to splash into the fountain in the middle of the playground. My daughter and I spent the next half hour trying to get out of the fountain without success. Finally, out of desperation, I closed the program. But it was too late; I was hooked.
Over the next few years, Hannah and I would play together, and I quickly realized that ToonTown required teamwork to progress in the game. At a time where every other game seemed to pit players against each other (PvP), the group-play was a welcome relief. So, too, was the absence of blood and gore in battles since the enemies were a series of robotic “cogs” with names like “Glad Handers” and “Corporate Raiders” that would spin and explode in a shrapnel-spray of bolts and gears when defeated.
Like many online games, ToonTown came with the only the most basic instructions, encouraging players to discover the rules as they progressed in the game. Within a day, we learned that the CTRL key allows a toon to jump, and using the arrow buttons while jumping allows a toon to move in any direction, or even change direction mid-jump. Come to think of it, the game never followed the laws of physics, opting instead to follow the laws of cartoon physics where toons might be flattened, or might go sad, but they never, ever died.
That is until notice was given on August 20th 2013 that Disney is shuttering ToonTown as of September 19th, 2013 at 11:59 a.m. PDT. Suddenly, tens of thousands of toons were given a death sentence and a date of execution in one fell-swoop. Anger and disbelief rolled across the Internet. Videos of children making tearful pleas to Disney to reconsider began to surface online. Petitions asking Disney to reverse course were formed on Change.org and, one petition, started by Miho Nosaka, has garnered over 15,000 signatures.
Why this outpouring, the casual reader might ask? Surely if tens of thousands of “real” rabbits, horses, bears, and monkeys (and dogs and cats, and ducks, and pigs, and mice) were facing extermination, action would be in order, but ToonTown is a collection of pixels on a screen, strings of code on a server. Eight years ago, I would have agreed with this sentiment and dismissed the petitions as some first-world trivial piffle, a sign of misplaced priorities. But having spent nearly the last decade immersed in ToonTown, I understand the anguish, the fear, the real pain my co-players are feeling.
ToonTown is designed for kids, but also for adults who want to enjoy time with kids or grandkids, either playing together in the same house or from across continents. The game requires toons to work in unison to complete the quests and defeat bosses of all types. On-screen hints at successful game-play encourage players to find other toons with similar tasks and work together. Progressing through the game with others has allowed friendships to form, and has taught children the benefit of teamwork. As critics lambast online games that promote violence and keep players in isolation, in Toontown, it is nearly impossible to play without striking up friendships with other players.
Like many long-time adult players, I continued to play ToonTown after my daughter lost interest in the game, and I sought out other adult players. The limited ability to chat in the game, rightfully controlled to protect children players, led to the organization of numerous fan-site forums, like ToonTown Hall, run by responsible teens and adults that adhered to strict privacy and PG content controls, again to protect minors.
These fan-sites allowed for players to get to know each other better, to share information, strategies, and successes from the game, and also to share art, stories, thoughts, and opinions about the rest of the world. Clans were created, focusing on certain aspects of the game, offering help to those who needed it, company to those who shared the same interests. Players became even more entwined with their avatar toons, as their personalities began to show through in the forums. Kids struggled with life issues, and players of all ages offered advice, mostly good. Friendships sprouted in the game and flourished in the forums. Teens found best friends, boyfriends, and girlfriends; adults found other adults, sometimes resulting in divorce, sometimes in marriage. People drifted in and out of the game-world. Children and adults got sick, and some died: tearful family members came onto the game and fan-sites to give thanks for the laughs, the smiles, the sense of belonging that the departed felt when playing, and to play on their loved one’s toons, undoubtedly feeling a powerful connection to the deceased. In short, the players became a thriving community, immersed in the stuff of life, facilitated by ToonTown.
I have met wonderful adults in ToonTown and the fan-sites. I met a cat named Sir Wilbur Octofoot has regaled us with humorous stories and updates about his vacation, as well as his construction of a large fish pond in his yard, and his fruitless attempts to keep his fish from being eaten, either by raccoons or hungry neighbors. I met Silly Peanut Dizzy, Crazy Yippie, Super Coconut, and Queen Mo Mo Kookldoodle who run the Tie-Dye Nation clan, known for its bizarre in-game events. I met Cool Hector Fizzlegoober, whose player fought in Operation Desert Storm, and who demonstrated chivalry to many both in and outside the game. I met Bella Bug, a hospital nurse who plays ToonTown with her son on her nights off. I met grandparents in Ireland, parents in Central America, young adults in Hong Kong. I met One Noble Bunny, who lives in Scandinavia, and whose unbridled optimism, manners, and generosity with the kid players in the game should earn him sainthood. I met Captain Howdy, cog-building-defeater and guitar-builder-extraordinaire. And I met Lady Murky Mommo, who taught me the value of friendship and self-respect.
I have also met many awesome teens in the game, although I limited my friendships with them outside of the game. I met teens who probably slept in their Math and History and English classes but who could quickly calculate the amount of damage needed to destroy a cog with minimal waste, teens who wrote engaging social commentaries and wonderful stories and poems on ToonTown Hall. I woke up at two a.m. last June to watch a streaming video telecast of one teen player’s high school graduation in Okinawa. From these teens, I got a sense of hope for our future.
But ToonTown was not the happiest place on the Web. I think about why ToonTown failed, why Disney is pulling the plug. ToonTown was written in open-code, which made it vulnerable to hackers manipulating the game play. At first, the manipulations were barely noticeable, but they grew in scope and frequency. And hackers, mainly teenage males according to their YouTube videos, started competing with each other to create the most destructive hacks: disconnecting players from the game, resetting servers, filling districts with toon-bots, causing Disney to pull the entire game off-line for hours, then days. Hackers avoided game bans and caused financial damage to Disney with smug impunity. This has been the ToonTown of the last two years.
In this time, I joined a group of adult players, formed to research the hackers, to alert Disney when we found new hacking codes posted in the far corners of the Web, to do what we could in the game to counter the hackers. But, as the hackers started widely publishing the codes, suddenly any teenager with the ability to copy and paste could hack into the game. We counseled those we knew were hacking, and some of them listened. Most of them laughed at us. The problem spread exponentially.
Disney was unable or unwilling to pursue effective action against the hackers. Nobody wants to think of Mickey Mouse suing teenage boys, but from the eyes of honest players, Disney did very little to take back control of the game: a Mickey Mouse effort.
And then Disney announced it is pulling the plug: the heavy irony that players have been fighting corporate cogs in the game, and the game gets axed because of a bottom line on a spreadsheet, decided by a suited executive who probably never played ToonTown, flattens us like a piano from the sky.
Perhaps the petitions will work; most likely they will not. Perhaps the game creators will make an offer to purchase and repair the game…although it is improbable Disney will give up control of the mouse. Perhaps they will create a similar game that champions teamwork, limits violence and gore, and immerses players in a beautiful, social game-world. Wishes on a dying breath.
Sept. 19th, 2013 is a black day, looming just on the horizon. Imagine the horror if you woke up one morning and an entire city of 40,000 people had vanished. We players will remain when ToonTown closes, when we stare at a green computer screen announcing our permanent disconnection from the game server. But a beautiful, thriving world, made up of humans and toons, will cease to exist with the press of an Enter key. We are losing our home, our community, our children inside ourselves.