From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

January 26, 2004*: It's all in the game.

I often say to myself that I'd love to have the time to play online games, though until someone decides to pay me to do so, I'll probably continue to accumulate only second-hand knowledge of that gaming experience. I'm quite sure that these games are fascinating and open up worlds of possibilities, but I have other tasks to attend to, and being inclined to become addicted I'm better off keeping my distance.

Of course it's not only online games that attract me. Any game that gobbles up my time in mindless activity attracts me. Although many years have passed since then, I still remember quite distinctly the joy of wasting my time getting to higher and higher levels of Tetris on my old Macintosh SE. It probably has something to do with the same enzymes that convince us that the music we listened to in our youth is the best music, because I've seen many a version of Tetris since then, but haven't found one that equals the elegant simplicity of that particular version.

But even though kids are known to congregate around the computer screen, taking turns at whatever game they've decided to play, gaming of this sort is on the whole an individual activity. It's one person with the mouse or the keyboard, primarily playing in front of, or against, the computer. Because the social aspects of game playing seem to me the most interesting, online games seem to be the right place to look. But just where, among the myriad possibilities, is that right place? The MMORPG.COM website lets us know that it's the clearinghouse for social gaming, and simply taking a peek into that site leaves me frightened of jumping into a boundless ocean. Do I really want to study all this? But of course it's not all of online gaming that interests me. I'm primarily interested in the intersection of the virtual and the offline worlds, and by the blurring of the boundaries between them.

Even before it was released, the possibilities in The Sims Online caught my interest. The idea of not only building a world, but of bringing that personal world into interaction with the personal worlds constructed by others, seemed to raise the sort of questions that most interested me. A simulation of this sort seemed to be a realization of the promise of the MOOs and MUDs that years earlier were among my first encounters with the wonders of cyberspace, but on a much richer scale. At the same time, it seemed also to promise (as suggested by a November, 2002 article in the New York Times) the conquest of cyberspace by suburban banality. There was a hint of an undercurrent of a turning of the tables. Instead of the limitless possibilities of cyberspace influencing our more staid and subdued daily lives, those lives were staking a claim on what was supposed to be our dreams and aspirations.

Presumably the focus of activity of The Sims Online is within the framework of the game, within the environment created by the people who make the game. But even if that's true, things haven't stayed that way. Numerous web-based cottage industries sprang up. Gamers prepared designer clothes, or specialty furniture, or any number of other consumer objects, and offered these for "sale" on their own personal web sites (here and here, for example). It would appear that many game players were beginning to devote more and more of their outside-the-game lives to their inside-the-game involvement. And for a total novice like myself, visiting one of the numerous (not yet countless) related web sites that contain announcements of upcoming events, reports on past events, classified ads relating to Sim characters or activities, and more, caused quite a bit of confusion. Were the people posting to these sites telling the community of other Sims Onliners about their outside-the-game lives, inviting friends met online to glimpse their offline lives? Or was all this activity focused almost solely on the online world they had created, suggesting that this immersion was reaching the level of an obsession?

It turns out that the ideal abodes of the suburban Sims world, like their real life counterparts, have a less wholesome underside. Among the less than desirable developments are mafioso Sims that use strong-arm tactics to take over their communities. As should be obvious, this wasn't one of the scenarios designed by the builders of the Sims Online world. And it raises an important question. Do the creators of The Sims Online have control over the communities of virtual characters that populate that world? Can they control the actions of the real life creators and manipulators of those characters within that world?

Peter Ludlow, a professor of philosophy and linguistics at the University of Michigan, was also, until very recently, an active player in The Sims Online. For most of us, Ludlow's professional areas of research would seem highly obscure, but he's also been involved in the academic study of cyberspace, including investigating issues pertaining to self and community online. This is probably what brought Ludlow to create a blog - The Alphaville Herald - that reported on, studied, and reflected Alphaville, the Sims community where his Sims character lived. Though it's name might suggest that the newspaper was part of the Sims Online world, it was an outside-the-fold blog. In other words, Sims characters didn't read the newspaper as part of their daily Sims lives. If they chose to, the people who created and manipulated those characters read it - in their out-of-game lives. But the paper dealt with the world of Alphaville, and the less than desirable behaviors of many of its citizens. Ludlow interviewed numerous Alphaville citizens, clearly with a bent toward criticizing what he saw as undesirable behavior. Maxis, the company that created and runs The Sims Online decided to do something about that problem. They banned Ludlow (and his character) from the game. An (accessible) article in from December of 2003, Raking muck in "The Sims Online", covered this affair, bringing it to the attention of many of us who'd never heard of (that) Alphaville (not the one it was named after) before then. It's surprising that Maxis didn't guess that this would happen, but that's another story. Discussion forums argued the issue (or at least poked fun at it), Ludlow was widely interviewed, and The Sims Online probably got more bad press that it would have gotten had it simply let The Alphaville Herald go on its merry muckraking way.

Frankly, I'm neither pleased nor distressed that so much of The Sims Online seems to look more and more like Lord of the Flies. I'm not really surprised either. I doubt that the fact that this happens tells us much about "human nature" (whatever that may be), and it seems to me that it tells us more about our desire to overcome boredom and to play with limits than it does about any animal instinct that may have been released. For me, the behaviors themselves are less interesting, than the fact that the internet, and the possibility of conducting a full-fledged virtual life, have become so well established in our culture that it's become hard to determine where one starts and the other ends. Toeing the line between the two is the sort of game I can enjoy.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

back to the Boidem Contents Page

Return to Communications & Computers In Education - Main Page