So The Sims Online from Maxis is a smashing success. How could it not have been? It's a game that allows you to do everything you do in real life, like go to work, interact with people, participate in con artistry, and even go to brothels!
Okay, so that last one may have thrown you for a loop. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, head to The Alphaville Herald and check it out. For those who don't care enough, the lowdown is this: there are players who have made it their mission to make the Sims Online waaay too much like the real world. There are "scammers" who con new players into giving up all their money, or luring them into places they can't leave and humiliating them. There's also cyber-brothels where folks can go to "cyber" with other users. Even though the fake Sim-money "simoleans" are exchanged for all of this, the simolean has an exchange rate for real dollars that currently exceeds that of some third-world nations.
Believe it or not, none of this is all that new. And since this isn't new, I don't see why people are so shocked at it. Look at the birth of internet socialization, Usenet and BBSs - even in their infancy, moderators were needed to keep things in line. IRC channels and AOL chatrooms reinforced the fact that with no real-world social repercussions, there is indeed a segment of the population that will be as absolutely detestable as they can be. From gossip and rumor-mongering to out and out racism and threats of violence.
Online gaming gave the first clues as to what would happen when there were more than words to be exchanged online. In first-person shooters like Quake, people who had invoked the ire of other players would find themselves being hunted exclusively, sometimes for months on end. In team games, certain players would kill members of their own teams (called a team kill), often for no reason. And the trash-talking, oh the trash-talking! People will get so worked up over getting a kill or getting fragged, and then say the stupidest stuff imaginable.
It only escalated with the introduction of more interactive environments, first with Ultima Online and then the player-versus-player servers for EverQuest. This was really the first game that had in-game money that was being exchanged for real money on a large enough scale to be noticeable - 100,000 platinum in EverQuest goes for around $300 on eBay. Groups of players would go around killing folks, often for no reason but also often to get their stuff. Players would offer to help other players kill monsters and such, only to stab them in the back once the monster was defeated and the other player was weakened. Players would offer to sell things to other players, and then just run off with the cash.
This didn't happen often enough to be a real problem, though. Since these servers were player-versus-player, wronged players could join a guild of more powerful players and issue a gang beat-down to the perpetrators. Even on non-PVP servers, a practice known as "training" (getting a bunch of monsters to follow you, and then leading the entire train of baddies to the dumb-ass in need of an ass-whooping) would serve as a deterrent for being an excessive jerk.
Enter Sims Online. Many see the game as merely a chatroom with mini-games, but others see it as a real game, involving character advancement and accumulation of wealth. The game has no combat system, but does have shops, jobs, and activities fuelled by and for fake money. This gives power to those willing to do whatever it takes to make a buck. Sure, there are terms of service which theoretically keep people within some bounds of decency, but they can't very well make it a rule to be a decent human being. The beta test for Sims Online (conducted on AOL) was apparently quite benign; folks would help each other out, show newbies around, that sort of thing. Maybe this pulled the wool over Maxis' eyes, but even so this is a reason, not an excuse.
The foundations were there. The history was there. Online socialization brings out the worst in some people, people whose only impetus for decency in real life is the fear of reprisal finding themselves in a world with no repercussions. How then could it be surprising that there are con artists in this virtual world? Prostitution was the first profession on earth, the internet itself seems bent entirely on selling sex in some way or another; how is it shocking that it was one of the first fixtures on Sims Online too? The Sims Online allows people to interact in almost every way possible in a world where there are no consequences.
There's no overt violence, so it's not as bad as the real world. But that's the thing - it isn't the real world, it was never meant to be. The creators of this game could have looked at all the evidence, realized that the game could and would go to its logical extreme, and built in some kind of way to deal with it. But they didn't.
And looking at how the real world works, are you really that surprised?
A couple notes: This rant is originally available on my blog, martianbob.diaryland.com. This writeup was written in an attempt to be approachable by those who know nothing of online gaming - if you have suggestions, please /msg me.