- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 9, 2003

NEW YORK

Jeremy Chase admits to shaking down his enemies. His Web site advertises extortion, hits and prostitutes for a hefty fee. Mr. Chase is a mob leader — but only in the virtual world. He is one of hundreds of players who found the path of lawlessness and deviance too irresistible when “The Sims Online” challenged them to “Be Somebody … else.”

The popular commercial game, where thousands of people interact electronically, is turning into a petri dish of antisocial behavior. That is raising questions about whether limits on conduct should be set in such emerging virtual worlds, even if they are huge adult playpens.

“Games give people the opportunity to either do something they’ve never had the ability to do before or allow them to do the stuff they are too afraid to do in real life,” said Mr. Chase, an unemployed, self-described computer geek who lives in Sacramento, Calif. “This is as close to the real-life Mafia that I’m going to be able to get.”

All online games see their share of ne’er-do-wells, or “griefers.” In other games where violence is the norm and killing routine, thugs delight in slaughtering the less-powerful and stealing their loot.

But there are no guns in “Sims,” made by Maxis, and it is impossible to do serious harm to another player. That means griefers — a small percentage of the game’s 100,000 subscribers — have to be devilishly creative in their social deviance.

Mr. Chase and others insist they are just role-playing like everyone else in the game. But harassment can be a big deal in “The Sims,” which resembles a neighborhood of virtual dollhouses where you build a home and invite others to come over and play.

The online game’s raison d’etre is socializing. Barely half a year old, it is the biggest game yet whose rewards come from making friends and being popular.

One mob tactic is gathering the foot soldiers to stigmatize someone else with several “red links” — a sort of demerit that shows others how many enemies a player has.

For gamers who have spent hours building their reputations, red links can be devastating. The platform may be virtual, but the attack isn’t.

“It’s only a game, but the people operating those little animated cartoons are real,” said Holly Shevenock, a postal worker from Harrisburg, Pa.

Miss Shevenock quit playing “The Sims” because she was spending too much time in it — up to five hours a day. “If you’re not careful, you begin to play this game with your real emotions.”

She and others said they knew several people who stopped playing or reduced their time online because of groups that seemed intent on harassment.

Psychologists who study online behavior say in-game spats and the visceral responses to them aren’t surprising. With simulations becoming more lifelike, the line between real and fake is blurred.

“The more real you try to make these online worlds, the more the problems are real-world problems,” said John Suler, a Rider University professor who specializes in the psychology of the Internet. “It’s not always easy to contain this stuff in the fantasy world.”

The game’s terms of service agreement tells players they cannot “harass, threaten, embarrass, or do anything else to another Member or guest that is unwarranted.” They’re also told, “The laws that apply in the off-line world must be obeyed online as well.”

Maxis gives warnings, terminates threads in message boards, suspends players and, in extreme cases, bans accounts. Mr. Chase himself endured a three-day suspension for what he said was foul language.

“We have a very big hammer to wield when we have to,” said Kyle Brink, a Maxis associate producer.

But Maxis can’t control everything.

Some players have reported online spats leaking out of the game. Players have hacked into others’ accounts, posed as acquaintances and spread rumors about real people through instant messaging. Some have even reported identity theft.

That puts far more pressure on game makers to begin cracking down on gamers, analysts say. It could lead to more real-world, legal liability for both players and the companies that make the games.

“We’re going to be forced to create a whole new area of social convention — and probably law — that reflects that kind of behavior,” said psychologist David Greenfield, founder of the Center for Internet Studies and author of the book “Virtual Addiction.”

“You can’t produce something that’s this potent or powerful psychologically and not have some accountability for it,” he said.

Piers Mathieson and his wife, Jennifer, are two more hard-core “Sims” players. They log several hours most days.

After the Las Vegas couple distributed photos of themselves to friends, one griefer hacked into Mr. Mathieson’s America Online account and stole his in-game character’s possessions. Someone else posed as Mr. Mathieson and told other players that Mrs. Mathieson had died of cancer.

The Mathiesons may have been easy targets. Their character, Mia Wallace, was the most popular in Alphaville, as one of the game’s servers, or cities, is known.

“You start having to question who your real friends are, who you can trust, who you can’t trust,” Mrs. Mathieson said. “It also paints a huge bull’s-eye on your forehead.”

The two are also founders of the Sim Shadow Government, a group boasting 1,000 members dedicated to cracking down on griefers where Maxis couldn’t.

Though the Mathiesons say they dispense justice, their online tactics can be just as rough. The couple say they have ransacked apartments, sent out their “troops” to urinate on others’ lawns and once drove another player from the game.

Mr. Brink says the griefers are a far less serious problem in “The Sims” than in other games because it has a different demographic: a lot of women, people from all age groups and “players who are looking to build, not destroy,” he said. “This is a mature, social crowd as a whole.”

There are also many ways to block out people who bother you.

“It reminds me of sales calls during dinnertime,” said Laura Robinson, a student who lives in Philadelphia. “They always seem to message at the wrong time, which in my case is always.”


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