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SEX AND THE SIMULATED CITY: Virtual world raises issues in the real one

Personal, corporate rights being debated

January 27, 2004


One player is a University of Michigan professor.

The other is a teenager from Florida.

Separated by thousands of miles, their lives are colliding in a very public way on the Internet, inside a role-playing game that features sex, crime, greed and the struggles of daily life.

The game is called "the Sims Online." Roughly 80,000 people play it.

The professor decided to play as an investigative reporter in the game. The teen chose to play as a madame who runs a brothel and steals money from other players. Her name was Evangeline.

In the end, the professor exposed Evangeline's true identity. The game's owner, Electronic Arts, kicked the professor out, canceling his subscription to "the Sims Online."

In the real world the events have touched off an international debate about what is proper and fair in the burgeoning online culture.

At issue is the exposure of children to adult situations online, the role of the games' corporate owners and the boundaries of free speech in the increasingly virtual world.

Real and unreal

Role-playing games like "Dungeons and Dragons" and "the Sims Online" blur the lines between virtual reality and true life.

In the world of the Sims, for instance, virtual currency has real monetary value.

On Friday, 1 million simoleans -- the game's currency -- went for $20.75 on eBay. That's $20.75 in real U.S. currency. Players buy the virtual simoleans to use them in the game. Exchange rates rise and fall on Internet auction sites.

Such real-life impact of "the Sims Online" fascinated U-M philosophy professor Peter Ludlow, who has edited books on the conceptual issues of cyberspace.

Interviewed by the Free Press recently, he said he decided to gather material for another book by joining the game in September. Ludlow hoped to study and document the emergence of an online governance structure, virtual legal systems and the development of social culture within the game.

"The Sims Online" debuted about a year ago and sells for about $30 at electronics stores; users also pay a $10 monthly subscription fee. The game is a 3-D world on the Internet that is a spin-off of "the Sims," one of the most popular computer games of all time. Inside this virtual world, 3-D men and women live in neighborhoods, form relationships and go about their daily lives.

But in this version, humans, rather than computer-controlled simulations, are behind the characters.

But darker impulses also flourish. Some players organize crime syndicates, harass enemies and cheat like the devil.

Subscribers range in age from the teens to early 30s, and 60 percent are women. Children under 13 are officially banned from playing.

Ludlow, 47, created a character he named Urizenus and moved into Alphaville.

It is one of several cities in the game. Players pick where they want to live and how their characters look. No one wins the game, but characters can get a job, start a business, build a house and climb the social ladder to riches and popularity. The characters must be fed, clothed, bathed and cared for by their owners. At the click of a button, they emote with gestures, hugs, kisses, laughter and more, depending on the situation.

Players, some of whom participate for hours each day, can visit the Alphaville FBI headquarters, hang out at reputable nightclubs and even patronize City Hall. But there also are dueling Mafia syndicates, gangs, scammers and a whole neighborhood that is home to a society of players with an interest in sadomasochism.

Online watchdog

In October, Ludlow created an online newspaper, the Alphaville Herald, to document the good, the bad and the ugly of the city. His Urizenus character was the lead reporter, with help from several other game characters who jumped at the chance to rake muck in the game.

The newspaper resides outside the game at <gfwww>www .alphavilleherald.com, and is, therefore, not subject to any control by Electronic Arts. The paper -- really more of a journal -- features interviews with key game players and academic treatises about the real-world impact of "the Sims Online."

It wasn't long before the Herald began acting as a watchdog in the virtual city. Ludlow's character and others began questioning Electronic Arts' real-life responsibility -- as a sort of governmental caretaker -- to police its game.

The newspaper, for instance, ran several articles in which Ludlow claimed a character told him of an assault in real life. Electronic Arts, Ludlow wrote, was slow to respond.

Ludlow said that after his newspaper criticized the company's handling of the incident, he received a warning in early December from Electronic Arts that he had broken game rules by advertising an outside Web site on a game message board, a rule many other players routinely break without repercussions. He took it as a warning shot to back off in his criticism of the company.

But Ludlow continued publishing the Herald, and by Dec. 8, he was ready to do a big story on Evangeline, arguably Alphaville's leading villain, notorious for her in-game brothel.

Ludlow interviewed the character outside of the game using instant messages.

Under the heading "Interview with a child cyber-prostitute," the newspaper detailed Evangeline's rise. She didn't give Ludlow her real name, but claimed to be a teenager in real life.

The Herald reported graphic details of Evangeline's experiences in the game. "My girls worked hard," the character told Ludlow's Urizenus in the interview. "I only hired real cyber sex girls," who talked dirty.

Ludlow editorialized that Electronic Arts should be more proactive against exposing real-life teens to the darker, sexual elements of the game, insinuating that chaos reigned in the virtual cities of "the Sims Online."

The animated characters do not perform sex acts, per se, but they can jump in hot tubs and engage in explicit conversation.

At the least, Ludlow said, the industry rating ought to be changed. ("The Sims Online" carries a rating of "T," meaning suitable for teenagers.)

Jeff Brown, an Electronic Arts spokesman, said the game offers nothing more explicit than what children see on network television.

"Regardless of what people might be messaging to one another . . . it is impossible for the characters themselves to do anything more intimate than dance or lie in a bed."

Stop the press

On Dec. 9, Ludlow landed his biggest scoop: A gossip column in the Herald divulged that Evangeline was not what she seemed.

He reported that the person behind the online character was, in real life, a 17-year-old boy.

Using clues from the earlier interview and other sources -- such as Evangeline's real-life likes and dislikes -- Ludlow searched the Internet and sniffed out Evangeline's true identity.

He posted the boy's name in the Herald, and links to the boy's personal Web sites and photographs of him.

The next day, Ludlow reported on the Herald's Web site that Electronic Arts had terminated his game account.

Online observers quickly cried censorship, and mainstream media picked up the story. Ludlow and others claimed Electronic Arts had muzzled a critic who tried to expose the unseemly elements of a game that should bear a tougher rating, perhaps M for mature audiences only.

A student posted this observation on a Yale law school Web site:

The game "is a positively Brechtian world of violence, flim-flammery, and low-down dirty tricks. (The Herald's major 'sin' was opening a window onto such goings-on.) . . .

The gamemaker "acts like a classic despot, using its powers to single out individual critics for the dungeons and the firing squads."

The legal issues

The company's actions raise issues that courts have yet to decide.

Legal and Internet experts say situations like this might one day lead to pioneering legal rulings on free speech issues in cyberspace.

Electronic Arts' Brown argued that the company can do whatever it wants with the game because it is privately owned, and players sign contracts to join.

But, as articles on the Sims controversy have pointed out, some courts have held that private entities, namely shopping malls and telephone companies, can be subject to speech protections because they are public gathering places.

Are games like "the Sims Online" virtual gathering places? Time may tell, and the work of academics like Ludlow may drive the issue.

Electronic Arts wrote that his account was terminated because he violated terms of service by posting links to outside Web sites within the game and because of player complaints, which they would not detail.

"It is simply not true" that the company tried to censor Ludlow, Brown said. "He got kicked out for breaking the rules and for annoying other players."

From her home in Florida, the boy's mother said she was upset when the Free Press told her that Ludlow's Alphaville Herald had disclosed her son's name.

"This is what I was afraid of," said the woman. "I told him I don't want anyone knowing your name, where you live. You are a minor. Somebody could find out."

The mother said she knew her son was infamous in the game, but didn't know to what extent, and didn't know whether the boy complained about the Herald to Electronic Arts. She would not allow her son to be interviewed.

A single mother, the woman said her son plays the game for hours, though she objects.

Electronic Arts has terminated several of his game accounts, including his most current one, his mother said.

Ludlow, however, is back in the game. He set up an account with a new character name.

Urizenus is dead. But the Herald lives on in Alphaville.

Contact JIM SCHAEFER at 313-223-4542 or schaefer@freepress.com.

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