Hobbes in Cyberspace

Life in an online game world proves nasty, brutish, and short.


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.

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, vandals, and con artists appeared, and online mafias emerged.

One response was a player-organized virtual authority, dubbed the Sim Shadow Government. "We weren't playing the game as hoodlums," founder Piers Mathieson told the Mercury News last summer, "We were playing the game as protectors of the city." For those within the protectorate, though, the would-be state looked like yet another mafia, and the result was a civil war. Even Mathieson, writing the Mercury News after its article appeared, admitted that "we use the same tactics as mafias in The Sims Online." The difference, he insisted, was that "we only use these tactics against those who cause problems for others."

Enter Ludlow. A professor of linguistics and philosophy at the University of Michigan, Ludlow was fascinated by the social behavior he saw emerging. Soon he was chronicling the Sim world's seediest side at "Some things you see immediately—cyberbrothels and that scene," he recalls. It took him longer to figure out the dynamics of the mafias, or to learn that some of the cyberprostitutes might, in real life, be underage. It all went into the Herald, and the ultimate result was his expulsion from the game, along with a crackdown by Electronic Arts on some of the scamsters and mobs he had described.

So what does this mean? Left to their own devices, players produced cities like Alphaville. So is this the world a free people starting from nothing would live in? Or is it simply the world they'd like to pretend to live in? Or was this just a matter of bad design—of something wrong with the game world's incentives and structure?

Sellers thinks it's the latter. The designers didn't recognize the differences between online and offline games, he argues. In particular, "They didn't think they were going to have the same kind of griefing problems that other online games have had." He also sees some kinks in the rules. "One of the ways to be successful in that game is to accrue a lot of social capital," he notes. "The way you get social capital is by being good at playing a social game. The direct analogy is to junior high school."

Ludlow offers a broader criticism. "I think the problem is that the game itself is mind-numbingly boring," he says. "It's an axiom of these games that the less there is to do, the more people gravitate toward cybersex." And maybe the occasional mob war.