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<nettime> Mobs move into 'Sims Online' power vacuum
fran ilich on Sat, 14 Jun 2003 17:03:10 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Mobs move into 'Sims Online' power vacuum

Mobs move into 'Sims Online' power vacuum
By Dawn C. Chmielewski
Mercury News 


Tony Soprano can keep Jersey (who wants it, anyways?) A new family is
movin' in on unclaimed turf -- online.

An underground group known as the Sims Shadow Government has taken over
the fantasy world that is ``The Sims Online,'' meting out mob justice.

It's a violent twist for ``The Sims,'' the dollhouse-inspired computer
game that has long been portrayed as the antithesis to guns-'n-gore
bestsellers like ``Grand Theft Auto.'' The emergence of a seedy underbelly
in the online game may reveal more about the dark fantasies of middle-aged
suburbanites than anyone suspected.

Turns out, everyone wants to be Tony Soprano or Don Vito Corleone.

To hear the ersatz mob boss, Piers Mathieson, tell it, it all began
innocently enough, with the desire to impose order on the chaos that is
``The Sims Online.''

The game's designer, Will Wright, deliberately created a blank stage on
which players could act out their fantasies.

To Mathieson, the lack of a government to lay down laws in virtual online
communities like Alphaville -- let alone cops to enforce the rules --
resulted in anarchy. ``Grievers'' arose -- players who delight in creating
misery for other players -- stealing money, trashing houses or even
appropriating another's online identity.

Mathieson, 34, who lives in Las Vegas and promotes bands, said players
turned into racketeers.

``They show up at your house and they request protection money. `You have
to pay me 100,000 simolians if you don't want your house torn down.' It's
technically harassment.''

The most popular person in the Sims universe -- Mia Wallace, a composite
character played by Mathieson and his wife, Jennifer -- stepped into the
power vacuum and organized the Sims Shadow Government.

``We weren't playing the games as hoodlums, we were playing the game as
protectors of the city,'' said Mathieson.

At least at first. Somewhere along the line, though, the Sims Shadow
Government turned from benevolent overseer to a virtual version of La Cosa

Maybe it was the emergence of a rival family, the Playtime gang. Or maybe
it was the Mia impostor, who tarnished the real Mia's reputation by
inviting other players to work for her as a prostitute. Perhaps the final
straw was when someone hijacked Mathieson's America Online account -- and
stole all of his in-game cash and property.

Whatever the pretext, Mia morphed from prom queen to mob boss. A handful
of the SSG's 160 members would meet outside the game -- in Yahoo
discussion groups or by phone -- to talk about offenses against the
``family'' and plot revenge.

The in-game hits are not as gory as a bloody horse head in the bed of a
movie producer who offended Don Corleone -- the fictional Godfather
created by Mario Puzo.

Nor does it match the savagery of a HBO's prime-time mobster Tony Soprano,
who beats fellow ``made man'' Ralphie Cifaretto to death for killing their
jointly-owned racehorse, Pie-o-My, for the insurance money, then stuffs
Ralphie's head in a bowling ball bag for safekeeping.

But for online game players who invest months developing a character, it
can be nonetheless devastating. Like the time 28 gang members stormed a
rival's property and delivered a ``red link'' -- the game's way of
designating another player as an ``enemy.''

Particularly egregious affronts to the Shadow Government could -- at least
until game maker Maxis disabled this feature -- be dealt with by ripping
out an opponent's heart. Of course, nobody dies in the ``Sims Online.''
It's just to prove a point.

This drama via modem is consuming for its participants, who've formed
real-life friendships with their in-game allies.

Kacie Velie, a 21-year-old assistant manager of a residential facility for
the mentally retarded in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., is by night one of the SSG's
capos. She said the drama became so intense she sometimes receives calls
at work about developments.

``I am amazed personally as to how this whole game has become so real . .
. I spend more time with my computer than I do with my friends,'' said
Velie, who like about 60 percent of the players, is a woman.

Wright -- the grand puppet master who birthed the bestselling Sims
franchise -- is both fascinated and frustrated by the emergence of the

In an interview at a recent trade show, Wright said he logs on nightly to
monitor the mob's exploits. But he said Maxis is powerless to stop it --
since all the group's communications happen outside of the game.

Game experts say organized gangs are the hallmark of successful online
multiplayer games, like ``Lineage'' or ``Ultima Online.'' Sometimes, it's
a sign that the game lacks enough interesting elements to engage the
players -- so they create their own drama. More often, it means players
are so attached that they invest the time to exploit its rules.

Consider the Mathiesons hooked. They decided to delete the Mia character,
saying the demands of reigning as overlord of Alphaville became too
taxing. But they're not about to quit the game.

``She just retired, for the simple fact she needs to go in for a
face-lift,'' said Mathieson. ``She came back as Hermia, with a bouffant
hairdo. A much different Sim.''

Maybe Mia's gone. But she's not forgotten.

``Our friends know who the overlord is.''

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