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MMO Family: LEGO Universe, autism, and heartbreak

Karen Bryan

Often when the topic of video games comes up, it's followed by comments about the negatives, such as violence, antisocial behavior, or inappropriate content. But if they do have harmful effects (and it's arguable how many players really are affected in a negative way), they can also be helpful as well, yet you rarely hear a news story about the good. I've written before about how companies like IBM have studied MMO guilds in order to improve team-building and organization within their company. More recently, MMOWGLI focused on global issues, such as the future of piracy, to study what solutions players could cooperatively generate.

There are also positive benefits to children as well, and while we've touched on a few in recent columns, this week we'll focus on the impact LEGO Universe has had on autistic children. Sadly, the game will be shutting down in a few weeks, and while many parents are thankful for how much it's helped, they're also concerned about what will happen once the game is gone. Read on for a bittersweet look at how this LEGO-based game is leaving behind a legacy.

LEGO Universe and autism

This story was first brought to my attention from Omali, who came across a post in the LEGO Universe forums about a mother of an autistic boy who was saddened by the news of LEGO Universe's closing. Here's her post, verbatim:

As i sit at the airport waiting for my flight back to the U.S., I'm thinking about the difference LEGO Universe has made in my son's life. it may sound silly, but LEGO Universe has been a magical combination of his two favorite things...legos and video games. It's been amazing to see the critical thinking and problem-solving skills he learned over the past few months, and the sense of self-worth he has gained. As someone who retreats into himself and ignores the world, Lego Universe provided a way to interact with community that didn't care that he is obsessed with creating new LEGO inventions. He figured out how to use his network and collaborate with people to get to a new level. He learned how to build or catch(?) pets and put on his thinking hat in order to do certain things. He figured out how to use the tools at his disposal, what each brick did, how to navigate in a world with no maps, and the importance of "figuring it out" on his own. And though half the time I had no idea what he was talking about, the world he was building in LEGO Universe came to life when he described it, jumping up and down with excitement as he built a new castle and described the function of each item he was using to create this world. He was even able to teach his brother to navigate the world and build his own little corner...again, as someone on the autism spectrum, it is rare for him to engage with his brother in a positive way period, let alone a full-on conversation. It breaks my heart that such an inspiring game is going away, and as of yet I have found no good substitute. If anyone has any ideas, I would desperately love to hear them...some games are not even close. For all of you at LEGO Universe, know that you have been an inspiration to my son and he wishes on a star every night that perhaps it will be saved.
The thread quickly bloomed into multiple pages of responses from other parents and family members of children with autism and Asperger's Syndrome, recounting their stories of how LEGO Universe has helped and how saddened they were that the game would soon be gone.

Virtual refugees

The LEGO stories reminded me of Celia Pearce's book, Communities of Play: The Social Construction of Identity in Persistant Online Game Worlds. In it, Pearce followed a neighborhood (guild) of players from Uru Live, called The Gathering. They were brought together through their love of the Myst series of games, and when Uru Live shut down just a few weeks after launch, they became virtual refugees in search of a new home. Their "hood" grew to over 350 players, and they were determined to stay together and find a new game, but it was not without struggle. They eventually settled in the game There, and while it took a while for them to settle in with the established community aleady there, they eventually did succeed in finding a game where they could channel their love of Myst even after Uru Live's passing. Like the players in The Gathering, the parents of children in LEGO Universe face a similar conundrum, but thanks to the thread in the LEGO forums, parents of children with autism and Asperger's Syndrome have found each other. It's both fascinating and bittersweet to see this example of emergence: the bonding of an unexpected community of families that have used LEGO Universe as almost a form of therapy for their children. One has to wonder if they might end up together in another game, similar to The Gathering in Uru Live.

Lego Universe
The permanence of it all

Three or four years ago, even the most cynical gamer would probably laugh you off if you mentioned the possibility of losing characters and possessions to a game's closing. We were in the heart of a gaming boom, and a game's sunsetting was so rare that it was almost inconceivable. The Tabula Rasas and Star Wars Galaxies of the MMO world have made that a stark reality, but for children, it's still a difficult concept. I remember the first time my two children participated in a beta; even though I explained upfront that they'd have to start over once the game launched, they still had a difficult time when they saw their characters gone. I can only imagine how much more difficult that must be for parents with autism. For them, it's much more than a game -- it's a place where their children can express themselves and socialize in a setting that's much more comfortable for them. As the countless stories on the thread show, MMOs are definitely helpful to children, but because these worlds are also a business, there's always the chance that these games might not be around forever. Hopefully, despite the sad closure of LEGO Universe, these families will still feel like it's helped and will find a new game to call home.

Thanks to Omali for the tip!

The MMO Family column is devoted to common issues with families and gaming. Every other week, Karen looks at current trends and ways to balance family life and play. She also shares her impressions of MMO titles to highlight which ones are child-friendly and which ones offer great gaming experiences for young and old alike. You are welcome to send feedback or Wonka Bars to

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