On the Ethics of Virtual Endings

I've written previously about Webkinz, the toys and the game, and the experience of our children with both.  Recently, my youngest daughter came to my wife and me with a simple question: "How do I stop my Webkinz account?"  She doesn't play the game, but remains very connected to her stuffed animals.  The thought that she might starve or neglect her pets in a virtual world somewhere, because she doesn't want to play the game any longer, horrifies her.

As with many online systems, the creators don't seem to have given a lot of thought to user-initiated account termination.  There are many warnings about not letting your account get terminated due to not paying for another year, instructions for renewing your pet, transferring your pet to another account, attaching more pets to your current account, etc.  There is no mention of anything like what she wants: an intentional goodbye that honours her feelings for characters she loves.

As an adult it would make sense to simply let her account run out of time.  After a year, if she doesn't renew, they will terminate her account.  But in the meantime, we are warned, her pets may suffer:

What if the Webkinz pet gets sick?
If your child's pet gets sick (if it has a green snout and an ice pack on its head), please take it to the Clinic in the "Things to Do" menu. Your child will have to purchase medicine for it to help make it feel better. If a pet is just unhealthy, please feed it some healthier foods and give it some more exercise. Sometimes Webkinz pets get sick if they are left alone for long periods of time without care and their health meter drops below 9 and sometimes they get sick if there's just a sickness going around. [emphasis mine]

Don't worry, they can't die: "Webkinz pets cannot die. Webkinz pets can get sick, but they cannot die."  They can get sick from being left alone for long periods of time, unfed, uncared for, but they cannot die.  This presents a very difficult dilemma for a child who does not wish to continue in the virtual world, but cannot rescue or otherwise extricate their pet fully into the real.

Webkinz as game fails on so many levels it's hard to enumerate them all.  Here, at the end of a virtual existence, the possibility exists for something more than a Purgatory before annihilation, where even the specter of death is not an option for the sickness and loneliness that must surely ensue.

But Webkinz isn't alone in mismanaging the stewardship of its users' attention.  As more of our lives are lived with shadows in a virtual world, the question of stewardship and the responsibility for endings, terminations, data retention, and the like becomes more and more important.  I'm not convinced that the people who build such systems understand how to care about such things.  Endings are, nevertheless, as real as beginnings, and need great care.

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