Hobbies in Cyberspace: Life in an Online Game World Proves Nasty, Brutish, and Short
Walker, Jesse, Reason
When the press learned what had been happening in Alphaville, its band of outsiders began to file breathless reports. The city, they said, had been infected with crime, depravity, and now the heavy hand of censorship: Peter Ludlow, editor of The Alphaville Herald, had been run out of town for daring to tell what goes on there.
Sort of. Alphaville exists only in cyberspace--it's one of the larger settlements in the game The Sims Online. The Herald is a weblog that chronicles events in the imaginary city. Officially, Ludlow was expelled for linking within the game to a commercial site outside it; the claim that he was tossed for truth telling is merely an educated suspicion. "I've got to think it was connected to the stories I was running on the children involved in the cyberbrothels," he says.
To understand The Sims Online, you have to start with The Sims, the brainchild of designer Will Wright. Influenced by the architect Christopher Alexander and the economist David Friedman, Wright created a game with no winners, losers, or externally imposed goals: just the humdrum interactions and acquisitions of ordinary life. (Well, somewhat ordinary life. Players haven't been above creating Sims worlds featuring Spider-Man or the cast of Gilligan's Island.) More than 28 million copies of The Sims and its expansion packs have sold since it was published in 2000, making it the best-selling video game ever.
So there was a lot of fanfare when, after a multimillion-dollar investment, Wright's employer Electronic Arts unveiled the online version of The Sims in December 2002. Now you wouldn't just be able to create your own characters and households. You could let them interact with other characters in a shared virtual world. (See "Free Play," page 20.)
But the new version earned poor reviews. The Sims Online was unpopular not just with the gaming subculture, which never really understood The Sims" appeal to begin with, but also with Sims fans, who found it less rewarding than the original. The San Jose Mercury News described it as "an intriguing, technically elegant virtual playground that lacks only one crucial ingredient for success: fun."
Worse, some people found that fun by causing trouble for other players. "That style of game play is called 'grief' game play," says Mike Sellers of the Austin-based company Online Alchemy, who was lead designer of the forthcoming Sims 2 when he worked for Electronic Arts. Thieves, vandais, and con artists appeared, and online mafias emerged. …