Trying to Tame Virtual Worlds: a Disney Story

Disney makes no bones about how tightly they want to control and protect their brand, and rightly so. Disney means “Safe For Kids”. There could be no swearing, no sex, no innuendo, and nothing that would allow one child (or adult pretending to be a child) to upset another.

I found myself unable to reconcile the idea of a virtual world, where kids would run around, play with objects, and chat with each other without someone saying or doing something that might upset another. Even in 1996, we knew that text-filters are no good at solving this kind of problem, so I asked for a clarification: “I’m confused. What standard should we use to decide if a message would be a problem for Disney?”

The response was one I will never forget: “Disney’s standard is quite clear:No kid will be harassed, even if they don’t know they are being harassed.””So much for no-harm, no-foul,” Chip grumbled, quietly. This requirement lead me to some deep thinking over the coming weeks and months about a moderation design I called “The Disney Panopticon”, but that’s a post for another day…

“We spent several weeks building a UI that used pop-downs to construct sentences, and only had completely harmless words – the standard parts of grammar and safe nouns like cars, animals, and objects in the world.”

“We thought it was the perfect solution, until we set our first 14-year old boy down in front of it. Within minutes he’d created the following sentence:

I want to stick my long-necked Giraffe up your fluffy white bunny.

KA-Worlds abandoned that approach. Electric Communities is right, chat is out.”

That was pretty much settled, but it felt like we had collectively gutted the project. After all, if the kids can’t chat, how could they coordinate? It’d end up being more like a world where you could see other players playing but you couldn’t really work with them much. [Side note: Sadly, a lot of MMORPG play is like this anyway, see Playing
Alone Together

Habitat Chronicles: The Untold History of Toontown’s SpeedChat (or BlockChattm from Disney finally arrives)

This was a GREAT article. Fantastic. Please, please– if you have ANY interest/understanding in communities for kids– please read this. Why? Because it talks about how hard it is to make a completely safe community for kids that has little moderation overhead (aka, paying humans to oversee kids).

Nicktropolis & Disney’s VMK are both fully fortified like this… Nicktropolis has a predictive text chat system which I found really frustrating (I wanted to write “El Tigre” and it kept coming out “Elbow Tiger”). Of course there are many other sites that attempt this tactic as well, but they aren’t kid networks…

This is a great article to remind people just how clever tweens/teens are… and how they can figure a way around any type of wall you try to build.

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