Virtual worlds can have a deep emotional impact on people. This is as true of an old-fashioned BBS or discussion forum like The Well, as well as for MMOGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Games) like the recently deceased Asheron’s Call 2.
Unfortunately, the more resources it takes to run a particular world, the more money it has to make. If it doesn’t keep in the black, it dies. Someone posted a sad little log of the last moments with their friends in this world here.
Things like this intrigue me to no end. I realize that this wasn’t a truly real world that disappeared. That is, the people behind the avatars/characters they played are still alive, sitting at their screens. They had plenty of time to contact one another and make sure they could all meet again in some other game, so it wasn’t necessarily like a tragic sudden diaspora (though some people do go through such an experience if the world they’ve counted on has suddenly had the plug pulled).
Still, the human mind (and heart?) only needs a few things to make a virtual place feel emotionally significant, if not ‘real.’ Reading the log linked above, you see that the participants do have perspective on their reality, even if you think their pining is a little ren-faire cheesy. But they can’t help being attached to the places they formed friendships in, played and talked in, for so long. It seems a little like leaving college — if you made meaningful friendships there, you can never really go back to that context again, even if you keep up with friends afterward. Except instead of graduation, you stand in the quad and part of you “dies” along with the whole campus.
I think the discussion linked above about the Well articulates pretty well just what these kinds of communities can mean to people. Further discussion and inquiry goes on all over the ‘net, including a site called “Project Daedalus” about the “psychology of mmorpgs”. (Edited to add: I also found a new publication called “Games & Culture” with at least one article specific to serious academic study of MMOGs. And I’m sure there are plenty more at places like Academic Gamers and Gamasutra.)