Peter Ludlow is not just a computer gaming enthusiast. He's also a philosophy professor, with an abiding interest in the relationship between the real and the virtual worlds. So when the world's most successful virtual-reality game, the Sims, launched an online version just over a year ago, he didn't just join in for fun; he also decided that he could carry out research for his next book.
And that was where the trouble started. Alphaville, the game's fictional city, could have gone in any number of directions, depending on the arbitrary decisions of the online game players who make up its people through their chosen "avatars", or game characters.
Alphaville could have become a socialist utopia, a grand experiment in free-market capitalism or simply a reflection of the allure and the pitfalls of any real Western city.
As it was, Alphaville quickly turned into a hellhole of scam-artists, crime syndicates, mafia extortion artists and teenage girls turning tricks to make ends meet. It became a breeding ground for the very worst in human nature - a benign-sounding granny, for example, who specialised in taking new players into her confidence, then showered them in abuse. Then there was the scam-artist known as Evangeline, who started out equally friendly and then stole new players' money.
Professor Ludlow, who teaches at the University of Michigan, decided he would chronicle Alphaville's seamy reality by setting up a newspaper, The Alphaville Herald, run by his game alter-ego. He reported on the scams and the prostitution rings, and also interviewed the protagonists. (Evangeline, his most intriguing source, turned out, in real life, to be a spectacularly warped teenage boy.)
But that was before his dispassionate academic inquiry ran smack into the authoritarian brick wall of the game's manufacturer and controller, the California gaming company Electronic Arts.
The Alphaville Herald was closed down and Professor Ludlow's avatar, Urizenus, was kicked out of town. "While we regret it," Electronic Arts told him in a letter, "we feel it is necessary for the good of the game and its community."
Officially, the reason for Professor Ludlow's expulsion was that he included links in his inside-the-game newspaper to outside websites, including one that gave players instructions on how to cheat. What Professor Ludlow and a growing band of academics and sympathisers believe, however, is that his efforts to publicise the tawdry fantasy activities of real-life teenagers were becoming simply too uncomfortable for Electronic Arts to stomach.
The company wants to draw the maximum number of players to the Sims Online, one of a growing number of interactive computer games attracting audiences possibly hundreds of thousands of people. Such is the interest in the phenomenon that the Sims Online game is to be featured in a California exhibition, opening today, which will feature a real-life recreation of a room from the game.
The game is rated "T" for teenager and is sold, according to the marketing materials, as a "fun-filled" exercise in fantasy projection. Publicity highlighting the very dark place that Alphaville had become was not likely to be good for business, and could even get the company into trouble over its rating.
Shortly before he was thrown out of Alphaville, Urizenus and his fellow reporters were openly questioning whether teenage game players should be allowed to trade in human flesh, albeit virtual flesh, and wondering whether the Sims Online should be restricted to adults.
Professor Ludlow's expulsion was only the beginning of a fascinating new phase in the game. Electronic Arts, through its online game controller, Maxis, has been cracking down on bad behaviour to clean up Alphaville and, one assumes, try and boost its audience which is stuck at a 80,000 (EA had hoped for a million by now). Evangeline and the psycho-granny have been disciplined, as have various mafia syndicates and a parallel city government set up as a player-based alternative form of authority.
You could compare it to Mussolini's crackdown on the Sicilian Mafia, or even to President George Bush's war on terror. The academics are having a field day as they see real-life issues of power and control played out in cyberspace. The very premise of an online game is that it is uncontrollable - indeed, even the banned players have found ways to sneak back in various disguises.
That, in turn, presents a thorny set of philosophical problems. How do you seek to curb the baser instincts of a community of autonomous players? Is repression the answer? Or do you have to give people incentives to behave better all by themselves? Such questions have been pondered even within the august confines of Yale Law School, where one student, James Grimmelmann, wrote recently: "On the one hand, Maxis is close to losing control over their game world. TSO is a positively Brechtian world of violence, flim-flammery, and low-down dirty tricks.
"On the other hand, Maxis acts like a classic despot, using its powers to single out individual critics for the dungeons and the firing squads. The usual real-world justification for this kind of arbitrary action is the need for a strong central hand to protect public safety and common welfare. But since Maxis isn't all that good at those aspects, the Herald censorship smacks more of tyranny for its own sake."
You can draw your own conclusions about how this relates to the politics of the real world, but the parallels are there.
Another academic, John Suler, a psychology professor at Rider University, has taken the Sims issue as emblematic of broader lessons to be learned from online gaming and the proclivities of human nature.
He said that online games were an invitation to young people to act out fantasies of bad behaviour - especially if the participants were outsiders in real life, as computer geeks often are. He added: "The more an online game simulates real life, the more the social problems in that game will simulate real life."
In other words, it is much more than just a game.
The bewildering world of the Sims
By Charles Arthur
Think of all the people you have "encountered" on the internet, but never actually met. Now imagine them living their entire existence within a computer. That is essentially what happens with The Sims Online.
It is a self-contained computer game that you can play on your PC and you can create an entire virtual economy, with all the mobs, tricksters and prostitution that you get in the real world.
For some people, a life online is better than the real thing, because you can be more than you are in real life. In June last year, for example, Sim mobs turned up on virtual doorsteps, demanding protection money - payable in the online currency, simoleans. Don't think that is trivial: right now, one million simoleans trades for $22 (£12) on the auction website eBay.
Online economies can even intermingle with the real one. Last month, a court in Beijing ruled in favour of Li Hongchen who sued the operator of the online game Red Moon after his virtual money and weapons were stolen by a hacker. The court said that because the virtual goods had been acquired using his labour, time, cash and "wisdom", they belonged to him and had real value.Reuse content