Q&A: Banned Sims blogger bites back

Tossed onto his virtual bum by EA for exposing The Sims Online's seamier side, Peter Ludlow talks about real censorship and virtual vice. Interview inside.

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According Peter Ludlow, it all started with a simple post on his blog, The Alphaville Herald. Earlier this month, the University of Michigan philosophy professor spotted something that looked suspiciously like prostitution. Ludlow (whose avatar, Urizenus, is shown above) covers events and activities that take place in The Sims Online and writes about them in the Herald. He had stumbled onto a group of players who were exchanging in-game "sex" and "pleasures" for simoleans, the game's currency.

While many strange things happen in the Sims Online, the real-world marketplace for simoleans on eBay and other online auction sites raised issues Ludlow thought wise to bring to the attention of Electronic Arts. After documenting the escapades of the "prostitute" in his blog (which covers Alphaville, a town in the Sims Online universe), Ludlow said EA requested he remove links to the blog from his online profile--which he claims he did. But days later, EA informed him his Sims Online account was being "permanently closed" for continuing to list his Web site, a charge he denies.

The debate continues over whether EA censored Ludlow, a matter he and many other gamers take very seriously. More thoroughly covered in a Salon.com article, Ludlow's experience raises questions massive-multiplayer game designers and critics wrestle with all the time: To what extent are online activities which have an "illegal" effect in the real world punishable? To what degree are actions taken by in-game avatars expected to conform to "community" standards?

GameSpot spoke with Ludlow from his office at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

GameSpot:: Your interest in The Sims Online was academic. You look at the Sims world and ask: How's does a society evolve? What have your observations taught you?

Peter Ludlow:: It was interesting in a lot of respects. The first thing that made it interesting was that it was engineered to not have combat; rather you are given tools to mark individuals as friends (green links) and other individuals as bad (red links). Of course the fist thing that happens is that people figure out a way to exploit this architecture for griefing purposes. The red links get deployed in a game of reputational paint ball, and the effect on what you can do in the game is in many ways more significant than getting killed in a lot of MMORPGs. Red links really mess you up. Once you figure that out, then clans can emerge that will deploy the red links as weapons to control property in the game and extort in game currency from users. So our state of nature gives way to a system of tribes and clans (or mafia’s, if you will). This eventually leads to the formation of an extremely large and well organized super-group like the Sims Shadow Government, which can outgrief the griefers and at least try to restore the original intent of the game (which was socializing, I guess). People can then argue about whether the SSG is just another mafia (albeit the baddest mafia), but you can make the same argument about nation states like the United States.

GS:: To what extent do you think The Sims environment provides data that is significant, and can be applied to the real world?

PL:: Well, to some degree we don’t need to apply it to the real world. It already is part of the real world. The people playing these games are, after all, real people. And to some extent (certainly in The Sims) they don’t leave their r/l attitudes and emotions behind when they come into the game. People form friendships and groups in pretty much the same ways they do in meatspace. Likewise the economies that emerge in these games are real economies, with currencies that have conversion to the US Dollar. Now true, this isn’t the usual way for people to interact with each other, but more and more we only interact with each other in ways that are mediated by electronic media. So, sad as this may seem, we may be looking at the future of human interactions and social institution formation.

GS:: What do you think EA was trying to stop when it deleted your account? What do think its goals were and are?

PL:: I really don’t feel comfortable speculating on the intentions of the EA staff members that made this decision. They *say* it was a TOS violation, but that hardly seems credible. I’ve been hanging out in virtual communities since 1985, and I even cohosted the ethics conference on the WELL for a couple of years, so I think I understand the situation from the perspective of the moderators and the game owner. I do my best to be aware of the contents of the TOS and I try not to violate it. If I am informed that I am in violation (e.g. by linking to my own non-commercial website) I adjust my behavior *immediately* (no matter how stupid I might think the request is). In this case I immediately removed the link to alphavilleherald.com from my website. Turns out there was another mention of alphavilleherald.com on my property description. Well, I forgot about that, so it led to a 72 hour suspension. Fine, but then they deleted my account 11 hours into the suspension. How do you violate the TOS when suspended? And what was the alleged violation? EA has never told me. So again, any claim that this was just a matter of TOS violation does not stand up to even casual scrutiny.

On the other hand, if their goal was censorship, then of course they failed miserably. In the age of the blog, censorship is not only impossible, but impossibly stupid. It being impossibly stupid is, however, entirely consistent with censorship being EA’s goal.

GS:: What's your perspective on virtual worlds providing a context where behavior considered abhorrent in the "real world" is above reproach? IOW, what's wrong with player-killing, pixilated physical abuse, as well as verbal abuse which takes place in a virtual environment?

PL:: Depends on context. I happen to play Quake TA with a number of other academics, and nothing makes me happier than blowing the head off of the avatar of a Rutgers philosopher. The verbal trash talk that comes with that is also part of the game. And I don’t have much time for people that want to ban or censor such games. The question is whether every game is supposed to be like that. I guess that The Sims Online (TSO) has a different kind of audience and the game is a whole different headspace from an FPS game or something like EverQuest. Now we are looking at a game space where 13 year old girls come in to play house. Not sure we need the same FPS trash talking shoved in their faces. It isn’t the real world, of course, but it also isn’t EQ. It might call for an intermediate set of behavioral rules.

GS:: What other games do you see as providing entree into the human condition?

PL:: All games, because the human condition is basically one of gaming from start to finish. Brokers working on Wall Street are not just working, they are gaming. Generals fighting wars are not just fighting wars, but they are gaming. When not trading on Wall Street and fighting wars the brokers and generals are gaming in preparation for “the real thing” – which is just a way of say “a game that is especially important to us.” Our whole lives, human beings are creatures that game: whether it is playing house or playing war we are gaming. And not just human animals; When bear cubs wrestle they are honing skills that they will use when they face the real thing – the game when they must face a challenger of some form. Same with us. We game from childhood until they very end. It’s also reasonable to suppose that we game for evolutionary reasons. Creatures that game (whether playing house or war gaming) could arguably have a clear selectional advantage.

GS:: IN your research at Michigan, what other environments/cultures do you study? What, is the crux of your own research?

PL:: I’m not really an anthropologist or a sociologist, so I’m more interested in philosophical questions that arise in these cases. One issue has to do with the two way flow between the so-called fictional and real worlds. The Klingon language began as a fictional language in the Star Trek universe, but now people speak it in the real world and that feeds back into the fictional world. Likewise, simoleans are fictional, but you can buy and sell them on Ebay. So are they real or not? The Alphaville Herald is a fictional paper in Alphaville, but it is also real, no? So how did something fictional become real. Another question has to do with the nature of gaming strategies themselves. What kinds of extensions of mathematical game theory (in the Nash Equilibrium sense) would be necessary to describe and predict the behavior of individuals and institutions within game platforms like MMORPGs. Are those low level game-theoretic principles also at work when we look at other aspects of human interaction? -- Language, economic behavior, and warfare for example? These are the questions that interest me.

GS:: What contact have you had with EA over the past week?

PL:: I’ve asked again for clarification about why my account was terminated 11 hours into a 72 hour suspension. Still no response received.

GS:: Have you ever worked in the industry?

PL:: I never worked in the game industry, but I did work for the artificial intelligence group at the Honeywell Corporation back in the mid 1980s. [and you didn’t ask, but: When I was very young (junior high school, 1970s) I used to write simple computer games in basic code. There was a teletype terminal with an acoustical coupler at the local community college in my town and I would phone up the mainframe at the University of Minnesota and enter my games on punch tape. They were lame beyond comprehension, however.]

GS:: Why should the average gamer give a hoot about what you are calling censorship?

PL:: Well, every gamer wants to be free to express himself/herself in the game. And good gaming doesn’t end when you look away from the screen. A big chunk of the game, maybe most of it involves the communication of strategies in IM, as well as the establishment of websites that contribute to the content of the gaming experience. Not allowing gamers to link to those outside sites is in effect a way of limiting the way they express themselves in the game. And remember, language itself is a kind of game. So don’t be duped into thinking there is a big important distinction between speech and gaming. Gaming is speech, and language (typed and spoken) is an important part of our games.

GS:: Do you take a position on prostitution in its more conventional form? The Mustang Ranch (now defunct, however) form.

PL:: I favor legalized prostitution with government regulation to ensure the safety and health of the sex workers and their customers.

GS:: Where do you see the debate (your conflict with EA) going? Do you see any additional resolution occurring in the near future?

PL:: I doubt that Maxis will have the good sense to restore my account, so this will no doubt go on until I pass on to that great MMORPG in the sky. But this is just a little skirmish in something that is fundamentally much bigger. I think this is just the first of many, many such conflicts that we are going to see between game companies and their customers. Gamers need to wake up and stop letting the game companies treat them like garbage. Don’t believe the drivel that “they own the game, so they can do what they want.” The phone company owns your phone lines but they don’t tell you what you can say. We need to understand that MMORPGs are not games per se. They are platforms for lots of levels of human gaming, socializing, and conducting business. As such, the platforms need to be handled in a way that is responsible and in such a way that users are treated with respect. If the game companies don’t see this, then perhaps the games should be taken from their control.

GS:: If you could speak directly to EA corporate structure, what would you say about their "management" of the Sims community of online avatars?

PL:: I’m not a business expert, so the shareholders should probably ignore what I have to say, but I will say that if I had two nickels to rub together I would run to a broker and ask him to short EA. A lot of people have commented that EA is all about greed, but I don’t see that. I don’t know anything about the management group at Maxis, but whatever their qualities as individuals are the organization itself seems to be completely indifferent to whether they make money. From the outside, it looks like people are not thinking profits, but are playing shelf basketball and working on their putting. How do you take the most popular computer game of all time, put it online, and turn it into a money hemorrhaging debacle? Well they give us a great “How to” plan. It’s as though they bought a shopping mall that was supposed to have all sorts of content for children and homemakers, but then let gangs and prostitutes run the place, and let scammers stand in the doorway and intercept everyone – effectively driving away thousands of potential customers on their first visit (this is, in effect, what newbies get when they go to the #1 house in the “welcome” category in Alphaville – a scam house set up to scam newbies as soon as they hit the ground) For crying out loud, at least police the front door!!!. I understand that when I describe it in this way it seems like a good game in some respects; I’m making it sound like Vice City Lite. But we are talking about a game that was supposed to cater to the Sims demographic. Then, when someone tries to describe – forget complain, just describe – what is going on in the game world, their response apparently is not to fix the problem but to ban the “complainer” from the mall. Well, we can argue about whether they have a right to do that, but what a stupid move. You are still losing your customers, and, as I said above, in the age of the blog censorship just doesn’t work. So you now you have a massive PR problem on top of the debacle you already had. And for what?

GS:: Thanks, Peter.

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