Toons, Love, and Letting Go

Earlier this month the curtain finally fell on Toontown Online.  I am guessing that 90% of the people who read this post will have no idea what that is, was, or means.  I won’t spend a lot of time telling you what it is or was, but I do want to share a few words about what it means.

TTO End of the WorldToontown was a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, an MMORPG, if you can believe such an acronym exists.  It is more commonly referred to as an online world, or a virtual playground, where participants create a character, or avatar, that represents them among tens of thousands of others at any given time, in what is affectionately known as cyberspace, the intersection of computer networks, or the Cloud.  The most famous and successful MMORPG of all time is undoubtedly World of Warcraft, which was created ages ago by Blizzard Entertainment and has produced immense wealth for those behind it.  Toontown is kind of like the quirky second cousin of World of Warcraft, created by huge fans of WOW initially at Disney Imagineering R&D, seeking a key point of differentiation — Toontown was the first MMORPG for kids and families.  Yes, that’s right, kids and families.  It came from Disney, after all, where family entertainment is the brand promise.

Aside from appealing to a different demographic audience, Toontown accomplished a few other significant milestones.  For one, it lasted commercially over a decade, if not putting it in the wealth stamping mode of World of Warcraft, certainly getting it into the rare window of time warp triumph that few digital games enjoy.  It was certainly the longest living bit of software that I ever helped see the light of day, by an order of magnitude.  We started working on it in 1999, launched the free public beta at Disney Online in the Fall of 2002, and went live in full subscription model in mid-2003.  Earlier this year, Toontown Online celebrated a milestone of ten years active that very few libraries of compiled code ever have the occasion to note.

If you have never played an MMORPG or have no idea what the gameplay in Toontown Online encompassed, you can easily learn that by doing a few web searches or scanning the Toontown entry in Wikipedia.  Now that Toontown Online is over, I want to talk less about its being, and more about its resonance.  It was a turning point for those who worked on it in several capacities — proof that the Disney brand and Walt’s vision could be migrated to a new platform of which Walt never dreamed.  It galvanized a team to emerge from the DotBomb bubble years through a process of creative destruction and reinvention.  It bonded its developers to its customers in a true paradigm shift that redefined for all involved the notion of “community.”  I remember approving a job requisition for a position called “Community Manager,” and I swear I stared at the page for an hour wondering what that meant, whether we really needed one, and whether any person was superhuman enough to tackle such a role.  The truth was, we were all Community Managers, and residents, and participants, and young at heart immersives who knew something had changed.  We bonded with our customers, and we bonded with each other, and that bond proved to be something that will last in perpetuity.

World class work is contagious.  High performance teams willingly tackle shared dreams.  Achieving the improbable is a permanent bonding agent.  Copy and paste that in your signature file.

The bond of being part of doing something that hasn’t been done before with a team of impossibly talented individuals with whom you are unlikely to ever work again is both powerful and intangible.  The odds against Toontown lasting a year let alone a decade were incalculable.  It was so hard to describe the concept to people both inside and outside the company that building a consensus and maintaining funding was entirely improbable.  Yet because history told us Walt had faced the same struggle and challenge opening a branded family theme park — Walt’s Folly, as it was known — we just stuck to it and got it done.  We knew if we could get people to sample it — try it, touch it, be in it, share it — it would slowly catch on.  It did, like the Little Engine that Could, and those silly little Toon characters got stuck in our minds and our hearts.  We played in that world with each other, kids and adults, employees and customers, everyone an equal, everyone just looking for gags and Cogs to take down.

Years into it, Thomas Friedman wrote a critically important book called The World is Flat, but those of us making and playing Toontown already knew that.  The hierarchy had inverted, unrestricted except by carefully constructed parental controls, global in reach and appeal.  The Toons were in charge of this world, not us.  Our job was to be good stewards of the world, not run it, only to tend the expansive lands.  Yep, it was an online theme park that belonged to everyone there.  It was a community, a true virtual community, almost perfectly safe because the community kept it that way, alive and vital 24x7x365.  We discovered it then, and we feel it now.  The game might be gone, but our sense of belonging, no chance that can be dipped in solvents.  Belonging is eternal.

Therein lies the truest lesson of Toontown for me, a lesson I learned my very first years in the software business, years in which I rode the unruly swings of success and failure all at once.  Astonishingly few projects in media succeed commercially or critically, and even fewer achieve both, but the ones that do make up for all the ones that don’t, both financially and in life satisfaction.  An extraordinarily wise mentor taught me at the outset of my journey this simple but enduring lesson, that if I stayed in this racket and wanted a career instead of a job, I needed to learn and embrace the mantra that projects come and go, but it is the people with whom you work  you will remember way more than the projects.  He explained that anyone looking back on a creative career when it comes to an end — and they all do at some point because we are humans, not T0ons — is that a truly successful career will be built on the back of about a half-dozen successes you could never predict, mixed in with a landfill of failures.

The takeaway was that it would always be easy to forget projects magnificent and awful, but the people with whom you shared those projects could rise to the level of unforgettable if you made that a focus.  If process was as important as outcome — more important than outcome because it is the only path to sustainable outcome — then you might forget the rotten days, the missed milestones, the modules that wouldn’t compile, the costly customer service calls, all that junk — but the joyous memories of the people would stay with you.  The people were the gift then, and they would remain so forever.

The incomparably talented people who built and nurtured Toontown were many of the same people with whom I shared any number of initiatives that didn’t go right.  It would be impossible to acknowledge and commend all of them here, and to pick just a few would inevitably be read wrong by the many.  The ten-year run of Toontown didn’t make them good, they were good already and they are good still.  All of us shared this tiny bit of magic, and now like most forms of media it joins the destiny of the ephemeral.  Our bond with each other is unbreakable , and our bond with that community is impenetrable.  The memories of the cast endure, the value of the bond beyond price, the stories of each other ours forever.  We are a little geeky, a little playful, a little different, and a little older.  We are forever Toons.

Toons of the World Unite.


Edutainment No More

About a year ago I wrote the following article at the request of ACM Computers in Entertainment for the debut of their redesigned site, which launched last week.  It is a bit longer than my usual posts, but for those interested in the topic, hopefully it will inspire good thoughts and discussion.  Here is a link to that article on the ACM site, which can also be found in the CIR Library, with the full text below:

“Why Did Edutainment Become a Bad Word?” by Ken Goldstein (ACM Computers in Entertainment: May 1, 2012)

“What have we here, laddie?  Mysterious scribblings?  A secret code?  No!  Poems, no less!  Poems, everybody!  The laddie reckons himself a poet… Absolute rubbish, laddie.”
— Pink Floyd – The Wall

Last year Amy Chua caused quite a stir with her polemic, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.  The excerpt, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” published in the Wall Street Journal is said to have drawn the most individual responses to any article published to date on The fact that a number of teens and tweens actually read and responded to a genuine WSJ article speaks to the silver lining in all free speech—that an idea expressed however outrageous is better than an idea suppressed for the very argument it inspires. John Stuart Mill was right, the marketplace of ideas only works when it is fully open for business; we rely on these sorts of diatribes as poorly considered advice that can be danced upon.

Here in my mind is the problem—we continue for some reason to want to draw a line between education and entertainment, between learning and playing, between rote study and inspired imagination. I don’t get it. We worry that the U.S. is falling behind the rest of the modern planet in math and science, we have a national epidemic on our hand with high school drop out rates, we live and work in a society where basic labor continues to be automated and the post industrial information economy is increasingly preeminent, and we are coming to accept the notion expressed by Thomas Friedman that The World is Flat. Largely for electorate exploitation, we continue to tout an ordained notion of exceptionalism, yet with refrains of “We’re No. 1” more often appropriate at football halftime shows than college commencement exercises. We have come to understand such grandeur is more a political mantra than shared aspiration. Budgets are under pressure at the state and federal levels, teachers are underpaid and exhausted, the Internet allows more information than ever to be readily available, yet we elect our candidates based on name recognition and image. What does all this mean? We are not as smart as we should be.

If we don’t think we are doing something wrong, perhaps we deserve what we get. That would be fatalistic, so maybe we should try it a different way. We know change occurs when the pain of change is less than the pain of staying the same. If we aren’t in enough pain now, then change is quite unlikely ever to be an option. We need to “Think Different” about education, and we need to do it now.

Professor Chua may have come to the conclusion that the elimination of play dates, disallowing her children to have a role in school theatrical productions, and psychological downgrading when a wrong note escapes the piano are the correct paths to discipline. Were we to take that path to its logical conclusion, what kind of society might we have? Certainly we might experience a landscape of accomplishment, complete with bragging rights, but would it be a place our children would want to live, either as kids or adults? It would likely lack rebellion, imagination, and most of all, fun. As I look around at kids on the playground, kids in the computer lab, kids on their iPhones, kids in garage bands, I don’t think those kids would call it fun. When the fun stops, the learning stops.

Tooling around Facebook recently I bumped into an old friend, Carmen Sandiego. I will tell you upfront, I have a deep and profound connection with the master thief; she and I shared a good many hours for a good many years. She also once pervaded just about every young classroom in this nation, and a fair number of households in the way back days before we all took connectivity for granted. I played a round of “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” on Facebook and easily won my first case, the gimme we always intended it to be for encouragement and engagement, and then got blasted on my second case. Seems I could not quite remember my cities and landmarks as encoded memory was supposed to ensure, so I did the only thing any logical Aeron potato would do—I searched the locales on Wikipedia to get back on track. In the old days we used an almanac to do this, now that same almanac is about as relevant as the Yellow Pages we use as a booster seat for visiting nieces. The point is, the game was still fun, and it got me thinking. It did not replace the study of geography, nor was it a waste of time. It was a catalyst to make me want to do something—reinforce my weakened memory, by running some queries in a public database—that I am reasonably sure I would not have done otherwise. The game also made me chuckle, the puns were still clever and the animation cheerful, however dated. Years ago we built a business around this called “edutainment,” and while controversial at times with some leading academics, it was a good business that we enjoyed. When we sat with kids in the classroom and tested new versions, they seemed to enjoy the games as well; the games they didn’t enjoy, we mostly cancelled.

Did their test scores go up? I doubt it. Did a lot of them grow up to be detectives or geographers? Statistically speaking, I am guessing not more than usual. Was the introduction of computers to them at a young age a path to wanting to understand how the program code worked and how they could rip it apart? That I can promise you was my experience. A lot of those young folks grew up to be programmers and worked for me. Did we tell them anywhere, anyway, anyhow that we expected them to take apart the computer code? No, actually we begged them not to do this for copyright reasons. Yet here is a secret: When kids enjoy something, they often take it apart all on their own. I did it as a kid with music, poetry, written fiction, theatrical performance, cardboard models, solid fuel rockets, even my first bank account. Inquiry is natural when it is interesting, that’s how a lot of us are wired. Think about your work—when you are engaged, the time flies by and you complain a lot less about how terribly busy you are. When you are performing rote tasks for financial reward, the clock ticks by slowly…oh, so slowly.

My definition of fun is engagement. My definition of entertainment is engagement. My definition of learning is engagement. You don’t need a Ph.D. in advanced mathematics to see the transitive nature of the implied equation.

There needs to be more fun in learning, not less. There needs to be more entertainment in education, not less. If we want kids to stop dropping out of school, they need to want to be in school. If we want kids to do their homework, we have to make their homework worth doing. Somewhere along the way, a vast conspiracy of otherworldly forces decided that school was about getting a job to make money. Suppose it is. Is that fun, getting a job so you can make money, so kids can look into our eyes and say, yeah, I am gonna play by the rules so I can have what you have? And we wonder why kids are having a hard time with this?

Cut back to when you were toddler, where every day was a miracle, where the distinction between learning and playing did not exist. When you explored the world as your own adventure, every living second was learning, and the last thing you wanted to do was crawl back into the crib. Kids practically beg us to go to preschool, then kindergarten, even first and second and maybe third grade. Why? Because it is fun. It is social. Learning and playing are one and the same. The magic of math is one big puzzle to unravel. The cipher that is language is practically super-power in letting us open new doors, whole universes. The unraveling of science gives the knowledge once restricted to society elders to a five-year-old, as we come to grasp the physical riddles of fire, gravity, why our little teeth drop out of our mouths and are replaced without asking by big teeth. Every day we see our friends and share with them. We sing with them, we learn to play soccer together; we come to embrace simple rules of order and etiquette so that we can get along, even if it just means being polite when cookies and juice are served. We are in a peer group of our own, with an authority figure who temporarily replaces mom or dad called a teacher, and we know intuitively every day we are getting smarter because we are having more fun.

Then they start to measure our performance, and the jig is up. No more fun. Grades. Test scores. College prep. So we can learn something valuable enough to get a job and make money. Oh yeah, that sure is fun.

In his 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama said, “We need to teach our kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair.” If this is just rhetoric than we are bipartisan doomed. We absolutely must embrace the nerds just as much as we applaud the athletes, not because they will all grow up to be Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, but because they probably will not. Unless it is cool just to be smart and “be in the band,” then why on earth should anyone stick with education? I buy that with every fiber of my conviction, probably because I was one of the nerds and an embarrassingly awful athlete—but I was never an outcast, because I knew learning qua learning is what mattered most and I was always on the inside with someone who shared that core value and called it fun.

Now let’s dig a little deeper into President Obama’s meaning. My personal sense is that he was saying until education returns to being a core value, we will remain a divided land. That division is what I suggest our well-intentioned but unedited antagonist, Professor Chua, is unintentionally supporting, not the least of which is by drawing ethnic association into a social landscape that continues to evolve appropriately to multiculturalism, tolerance, and shared embrace. If some of us are forced to learn in over structured traditions of education, then whether we like it or not, we probably will get through college and end up with a job that allows sustenance. Whether that is fulfilling and happy for us is not the point, we will participate in the economy and not be a burden to other taxpayers. What then do we do with the rest of us, is it just, oh well, we will get by the best we can? I don’t think so, because the currency of the new economy is not instilled knowledge, it is creativity. In President Obama’s own words: “The first step in winning the future is encouraging American innovation.” Innovation is a direct reflection of creativity, not recitation.  Larry Summers said as much in his response to Professor Chua, citing great minds that did not follow traditional paths, but embraced creativity and started companies instead. And here is another secret that almost no one seems to get—they started those companies not to make money, but to have fun. They chose to work hard at building those companies because they found it enjoyable. There was no separation of work and play, education and entertainment in their minds. They did what they wanted to do, they did it well, and they enjoyed more days than they did not. The fuel of innovation is creativity, and the fuel of creativity is fun.

Sound familiar? Like professional sports perhaps? Or young people who want to become musicians, actors, writers, or fashion designers? Well, we all know the bad news on statistics, we aren’t all going to be at the top of our game if our game is economically limited to a celebrity few. A tiny few of us will start companies that become empires, accidental or otherwise. Yet can we borrow from the motivations of the people who do make these inroads? Instead of fantasizing about playing in the Super Bowl or collecting an Academy Award, how about looking into the sheer drive that brought those “players” to the top of the top. Leave the frosting, eat the cake—the lesson is that the journey is the reward, so start learning the way you want to learn such that you learn what matters to you, and put it to work for intrinsic rather than extrinsic reasons. When you do that, education and entertainment are one and the same, it’s your world. Why don’t we get smart and start teaching kids that way?

If the currency of the new economy is creativity, then we need to celebrate creativity. If kids love entertainment, then we need entertainment to be the fabric of learning. Am I suggesting we do away with drills, practice, focused preparation, and the like? Does the football coach do away with drills, practice, focused preparation and the like? And does the football coach tell his players the reason they are running drills, practice, focused preparation, and the like is because he wants them to understand that this is how football will reward them with riches? The football coach is a teacher, and his game is one of learning. If you haven’t had the pleasure, check out the TV series “Friday Night Lights” and see how much heart it takes to escape the ordinary: “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose.” Let’s learn from that.

Luckily, my teachers took a different tack, keenly advising that I walk in the shoes of the masters so that when the time came to rebel, I would know precisely what I was rebelling against. I was one of the lucky ones; I had guidance first, instruction only as a conduit. There was plenty of welcomed discipline, unending study, invited volumes of dusty old books; all I wanted was more, because it was clear to me that a war chest of fully digested material was armor for the long and winding road. Most athletes don’t really like push-ups, but they do as many as they can, as often as they can. Most students don’t really like Hegel in the vernacular or translation, but oh, dialectic synthesis can sure come in handy when a modern Sophist plays fast and loose with history. We each only get one vote, the same value, but we both know if we earned it. In developing our own voices, we are able to see clearly that laughing is always part of learning. When we learn and laugh well, how can we not call it fun?