Virtual%20Magic%20Kingdom.jpg [“Why We Play” is a new weekly column by freelance writer and HardCasual blogger Chris Plante that discusses how video games benefit us when we are away from them, in the real world, and what brings us back. This time - a look at some harsh criticism of a gamer upset when her favorite site went away]

I’m a fan of gaming blog RockPaperShotgun. I think they write intelligent, rich, expansive criticism and analysis. Naturally, I assumed RPS readers were equally intelligent and thoughtful - guilty by association. So then what caused a small group of RPS commenters to attack the gaming habits of an eleven year old girl with Spinal Muscular Atrophy, forcing RPS to shut down the post's comment section?

A Little Background

I was born with a full cleft-palate and cleft-lip. Like all children with birth defects, I never considered it a blessing, just a cross I willingly bear. For better or worse, I usually forgot about the scars on my mouth unless I spotted another child staring or heard an adult make an irresponsible hare lip joke.

Now, I’m twenty-two, and I live the average life of a post-collegiate freelancer in New York City. I have a cabinet full of ramen, a loving girlfriend, and parents that still pay my cell phone bill. And my rent.

For better and worse, I like to think my birth defect shaped me into this person. Truthfully, I’ve never been happier.

A week ago, a friend and fellow gamer, Paul Arzt, responded on our communal blog to my GameSetWatch column, “In the Name of God.” He noted the power of games as safe environments, places where we can make mistakes, learn new skills, and create. He then mentioned a now popular news story, the closing of Disney’s Virtual Magic Kingdom.

This story has attracted a vocal response; many commenters have been quick to write it off as the closing of yet another Disney marketing MMO, but Paul showed me the unique response of a young girl named Madison who took the news in a personal way. She wrote this on her online journal:

"My favorite web site, Virtual Magic Kingdom (VMK) is closing May 21st. I’m sad and MAD! I can’t live without my friends on VMK. PLEASE sign my guestbook like a petition to SAVE VMK for me and my friends. Pass my site on to everyone you know so they can help too. I love VMK cause I can WALK, TALK, EAT, DANCE, SHOP and play checkers all by myself.


p.s. VMK is GERM FREE too!
p.s.s. and no one stares at me there.

As Paul clarified for me, Madison has Spinal Muscular Atrophy (that likely explains her post-scripts). For her, this game, DVMK, is not just a virtual place she can practice life skills free of consequence, as I mentioned earlier; this is a place where she can live life without fear or shame. It’s a place where she doesn’t need someone’s help to live an ordinary life.

Why Gaming Matters To Madison

This shook me. I have never considered my birth defect in relation to my gaming habits. Obviously, a cleft-palate stands no comparison to the seriousness of SMA. Yet, and I hope Madison doesn’t mind, I empathize with her plight.

Since I cannot speak on her behalf, I’ll explain my own upbringing as a gamer with a birth defect as modestly as possible. In elementary school, I spent a lot of my time at home. I had a group of four friends, which our parents, mothers and fathers of the 90’s, called ‘the Hood.’ We were inseparable, and each of us, outsiders in our own ways, had the others’ backs.

But like all kids, there were certain things we never understood about each other. Better, we never understood what made people stare at us. People looked at me because I was physically different; people looked at them because they were mentally different. In times when I felt my friends and family couldn’t understand my differences I resorted to a creative outlet, and, in retrospect, nine times out of ten, that outlet was a video game.

At first, my parents didn’t buy me many NES carts. I had Super Mario Bros. and, being from Kansas City, Bo Jackson Baseball. I played these two passionately, completing them dozens of times. I remember the first time I beat Super Mario Bros. Like a good book, I rebooted, and played through it again.

Is this sad and pathetic? I don’t think so. I think it is part of being a kid. For most (read: all) people, there were hard parts in youth, and as much as we want to believe we were “the cool kid,” hindsight reveals no kid was the cool kid - we all smelt funny, had our distinct insecurities, and lacked refined motor skills. And since you’re reading GSW, I’ll assume we all spent our fair share of nights with nothing but ourselves, our console of choice, and a sixer of Cherry Coke.

Therefore, I assumed we, as gamers, must all empathize with these kids’ traumas. And that’s why I was shocked, and a bit disgusted, by the general gamer reaction to the closure of DVMK. Before Madison even wrote her passionate response, commenters across various gaming blogospheres were quick to criticize eleven year-olds for mourning the death of their favorite game and, for many, their only mode of digital communication.

Perspectives: Ponder On This?

In case you still find this closure a bit silly, here are two thought-experiments to help you better understand the dilemma.

1.) Imagine your favorite game as a child. Got it? Now imagine your parent throwing it away. Now imagine them destroying every copy of that game. That’s the experience of an MMO closure for an eleven year old.

2.) Imagine your life without chat clients. That means no AIM, Gchat, or MSNMessenger - nothing. For many parents DVMK is a safe place for their children to communicate, explore, and make friends online.

It utilizes a “safe chat system” which allows players to only uses words in the game’s dictionary - so no foul language, and no kids giving away their phone number or address. There are not a lot of back-ups to this system, and those that exist require the impossible: an eleven year-old manually transferring an entire online social network. I’m twenty-two and I couldn’t fully switch from Facebook to MySpace with a gun to my head.

The RPS Perspective

Enter RockPaperShotgun. They covered the story in brief. They mentioned the closure, and linked to a few personal stories, including Madison’s. It was a well-measured and heartfelt post. And then the users commented.

At first, the comments were varied. Some shared memories of DVMK. Some went tangential with a “damn the man” attitude, attacking Disney. Then a series of comments suggested that no child, healthy or unhealthy, should have such a reliance on a videogame. The argument was cruel, thoughtless, and, above all, erroneous.

Again, Madison replied:


These comments HURT! They don't understand!
I can't do ANYTHING by myself. In VMK I can.
I lOVE life and I LOVE my friends. My friends and I play in VMK as if we were out on a playground. Which is IMPOSSIBLE in the real world. I can be just like everyone else in VMK. I don't LIVE in a virtual world. My mom does lots of stuff with me and I go lots of places when i can. But I can't go out much in the winter time because of the chance i could pick up germs and get sick…

Immediately, RPS closed their comment section. In its place, they left this message:

"Update - Thread’s now closed to deter further bad eggs. As a general rule - if you can’t say something nice about an eleven year old who’s upset, you probably shouldn’t say anything."

What made these readers speak out against the gaming habits of Madison and other DVMK players? After all, these are readers who dedicate their fair share of time to a gaming hobby, commenting on a site like RockPaperShotgun, which I associate with both hardcore and intelligent PC game enthusiasts.

Before I go further, I’d like to point give a disclaimer about this group from RockPaperShotgun’s Kieron Gillen:

"[It’s] Worth stressing that RPS commenters are a bunch of adorable pussycats compared to the vast majority of gaming sites, and I think characterizing the thread solely as a hate-mob would be deeply unfair. There's some intelligent comments there, mixed with some off-colour gags and some people really not quite getting the girl's situation."

I wholeheartedly agree.

Internet Wild West Frustrations

There’s no exact way for me to reason a group’s action, and in reality, I have no place to say whether they’re right or wrong. The Internet’s still like the Wild West, and unless a comments section is closed, people are free to express themselves. But why did these commenters choose to express their displeasure with an eleven year-old’s gaming habits? What disgusted them, scared them, or frustrated them? Why did they feel emboldened to speak up?

I think they felt a subconscious fear, a stigma from those Cherry Coke nights. As gamers, we work as a group to protect ourselves tooth and nail from certain stereotypes: loners, losers, dorks, perverts, social miscreants, and recluses.

When someone insinuates these stereotypes might apply to a game, like in the case of the recent Resident Evil 5 racism mess at Kotaku, or a group of gamers, as with DVMK players, we try to distance ourselves from the problem. Rather than discuss the problem at hand, we tend to say, “Well, that isn’t me!” Gamers aren’t racist. Gamers don’t squander their life in a virtual world. But it’s never so black and white.

Yes, there is racism in games, there’s racism in all mediums. The problem with our discussions isn’t whether or not the game is racist or we are racist. The problem is how we react to it. What’s our responsibility to and for the games?

Yes, there are reclusive gamers. So what? People do not relate one gamer to all gamers. The problem is how do we protect these games for either social or medical reasons need these virtual society lead day-to-day lives. The questions should be, “What can we do for them?” Not, “How can we further distance them?”

Or maybe I’m making too many assumptions. Maybe we all didn’t spend parts of our childhood feeling different. And perhaps most of us always felt welcome by our family and friends. It’s possible most of us looked at gaming merely as a pastime and can’t associate with it as a sanctuary, a place away from it all.

Then I guess it’s just Madison and me. But if all that’s true, that most gamers and commenters never felt that type of loneliness, and that they attacked a young girl simply because they felt privileged to judge her inadequacies and insecurities in an anonymous setting, then I feel I’m in the right group. I’d rather stay inside where it’s safe than go out with people like that.

[Chris Plante is a freelance writer living the post-collegiate pauper life in New York City. By night, you can find him at By day, he produces theatre and television.]