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Last Updated: Monday, 22 December 2003, 12:41 GMT
The dark side of digital utopia
Dot.life - Where tech meets life, every Monday
By Mark Ward
BBC News Online technology correspondent

Screengrab from The Sims Online. EA
It's all about virtual socialising
How would people act if they were freed from real life laws and social constraints? A new, interactive computer game offers just such a scenario - with some disturbing results.

Imagine you could move to a city where you could swap yourself for a younger, slimmer version that never ages and never gets tired.

In this city you could choose which job to pursue, build your dream home and do all the things you did not have the courage to do in your other life.

It sounds great but soon after you arrive, the gloss begins to fade.

One of the first people you meet is a kindly looking granny who greets you with a slap round the face and a barrage of abuse.

Escaping to one of the "safe" homes you find a den of thieves who trick you into handing over all your cash.

The local newspapers are full of investigations into child prostitution, rampant crime, mafia-controlled neighbourhoods, shadowy self-declared governments struggling to maintain order and runaway inflation.

Welcome to Alphaville.

Dark history

Alphaville is the biggest city in The Sims Online, a spin-off of the highly successful Sims computer game. As its name implies, players can control virtual people in an online world.

The Sims Online can be likened to a chatroom with moving pictures in which people are represented by an avatar rather than text.

But to the chatting it adds a rich virtual world in which every player has a home. There are places to socialise, to work and visit, shops and services, even virtual pets.

Alphaville and its sister cities in The Sims Online were supposed to be benign utopias that allowed people to discover who they could be when freed from the economic and social restraints that shackle them in real life.

But it has not turned out like that at all.

The dark side of Alphaville has been documented by one of its former "residents", Peter Ludlow, who in real life is a philosophy professor at the University of Michigan.

A spin-off of the successful Sims strand
Urizenus, one of the avatars controlled by Prof Ludlow, was chief reporter on a newspaper called The Alphaville Herald which featured interviews with Alphaville's child prostitutes, sadomasochists, Sims Mafioso, thieves and members of its shadow government.

"The Alphaville Herald was not supposed to document dodgy things," he says. "It was done to document the emergence of economic, social and political structures in the game."

Like increasing numbers of academics Mr Ludlow is interested in virtual game worlds like The Sims Online because they act as live, accelerated laboratories for studying the ways people interact, get on and fall out.

But as the problems of The Sims Online mounted The Alphaville Herald - which exists as a separate website - became a guidebook to the goings-on in this dystopia.

Action and reaction

Mr Ludlow thought the people behind the game should know what was going on inside Alphaville, not least because some things - child prostitution, for example - are morally and legally troubling.

Screengrab from The Sims Online. EA
Dance every night away online
But when they found out, Maxis, the game's developers, and Electronic Arts, the distributors, banned all in-game mention of The Alphaville Herald, says Mr Ludlow.

Then, says Mr Ludlow, he was thrown out of the game and his accounts closed down, cutting him off from his Sims.

EA and Maxis say they are aware of Prof Ludlow's comments, that they are dealing with customer queries collectively and cannot talk about individual accounts.

They will "continue to monitor external issues as appropriate". They declined to comment further.




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