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A Real-Life Debate on Free Expression in a Cyberspace City
By Amy Harmon for the New York Times

<h2>A Real-Life Debate on Free Expression in a Cyberspace City</h2>

<h3>By Amy Harmon</h3>

Peter Ludlow said he was only trying to expose the truth that Alphaville's authorities were all too happy to ignore. In his online newspaper, The Alphaville Herald, he reported on thieves and their scams. He documented what he said was a teenage prostitution ring. He criticized the city's leaders for not intervening to make it a better place.

In response to his investigative reporting, Mr. Ludlow says, he was banished from Alphaville. He was kicked out of his home; his other property was confiscated. Even his two cats were taken away.

Alphaville is not a real town but a virtual city in an Internet game called The Sims Online, where thousands of paying subscribers log on each day to assume fictional identities and mingle in cyberspace. Indeed, none of Mr. Ludlow's possessions existed outside the game. But the recent decision by the game's owner, Electronic Arts, to terminate Mr. Ludlow's account � forever erasing his simulated Sims persona � has set off a debate over free expression and ethical behavior in online worlds that is reverberating in the real one.

"To me, it was clearly censorship," said Mr. Ludlow, whom the Internet magazine described as "an unabashed muckraker."

A Yale Law School student, writing on the school's Web log, condemned Electronic Arts as "a classic despot" that is "using its powers to single out individual critics for the dungeons and the firing squads."

The issues are actually not that clear-cut. But the episode has called attention to the little-known netherworlds of a popular computer game genre known as "massively multiplayer online role-playing games," which now regularly attract a million or more Americans. In Sims Online, Everquest and others where the border between fantasy and reality is increasingly blurry, the games have become more than simply a source of entertainment. They are also a gateway to a complex social network that takes on a life of its own.

But in a setting where the point is to play out fantasies, there is little agreement among players about the real-world consequences of their online actions. At the same time, the games' corporate owners are finding themselves at odds with some subscribers, who want more control over how the communities they play, fight and live in are governed.

That repeatedly wielding highly realistic, albeit fictional, weapons will contribute to real-life violence has long been a concern about traditional video games. But players and social critics say the ethical questions multiply when thousands of other real people are behind the characters on the screen.

Is it all right for teenagers to slaughter other characters in Everquest, but not for them to engage in sex chat in Sims Online? Is it fine for adults in Sims to engage in private sex chat, but not acceptable to advertise virtual bondage and discipline services, as dozens of Alphaville's virtual residents now do?

Within the game world, the 80,000 Sims Online subscribers are a relatively small group. Electronic Arts has said it has failed so far to attract the expected audience in part because it released the game last year before the software was quite ready. But Sims is seen as the forerunner of a new game genre whose goal is to let people play in social environments that more closely approximate real life. In those worlds, experts say, the overlapping of fact and fiction becomes both more significant and harder to sort out.

"Part of the original reason people went to these games was for a sense of time out," said Sherry Turkle, a psychologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has studied Internet role-playing. "But as these spaces get more integrated with real life the kind of boundaries people want are still being negotiated."

In a Sims city like Alphaville, players see the same stretch of green pixels on their computer screens, dotted with cartoon houses and stores. Love shacks, too. They visit each other. Some hold poetry readings; others pagan sacrifices. Some vie to be on the "most popular Sims" list, or to get rich, but there is no way to "win" the game.

The players themselves are represented by animated figures and become entirely responsible for their own online identities, which can reflect who they are in real life or deviate from it drastically. The median age of Sims subscribers is 28 to 30, and about 60 percent of them are women. The game is officially off limits to children under 13.

Because they believe that such graphical environments are turning into important vehicles for communication, economists, lawyers and social critics have lately begun to study the world of multiplayer games as virtual laboratories that can provide insight into familiar realities even as they breed a new hybrid.

"As more of us spend more time in these environments, everyone is going to have a stake in making sure their rules are fair," said Jack Balkin, director of the Information Society Project at Yale.

The details of Mr. Ludlow's case are murky. Electronic Arts says he was kicked out because he broke one of the game's main rules by including a link on his profile to his Alphaville Herald Web site, which in turn linked to sites that tell people how to cheat. Mr. Ludlow, a philosophy professor, said he was nabbed on a technicality. Many players agree that the company enforces the rule selectively.

"They were out of line," said Mr. Ludlow, who said he joined the game in part to do research. "There has to be some responsibility that comes with running a kind of social common space like that."

Yet some of the game's most avid players also question the integrity of Mr. Ludlow's reporting, such as it was. Were 13-year-old subscribers really playing prostitutes in the game, exchanging the online equivalent of phone sex for simoleans, the game's currency? His source, a boastful 17-year-old player famous for cheating new players out of their money, has been assailed as unreliable.

Even some of Mr. Ludlow's biggest detractors, however, worry about some of the same issues he sought to highlight, particularly whether the range of role-playing Electronic Arts allows is appropriate in a game open to teenagers. And they chafe at what they say are unnecessary restrictions about what they can talk about on the game's message boards.

"For us to be gagged so we can't criticize other Sims is an enormous frustration," said Catherine Fitzpatrick, 47, a freelance translator in Manhattan. "You can't improve this society without being able to talk about what's wrong with it."

As competition heats up among game companies, they may be forced to listen to such concerns. Online games cost a lot to develop and several have recently failed, but their economics are luring more entrants: customers, after buying the software, typically pay about $12 a month to subscribe.

Everquest, the most popular of the games among Americans, has 430,000 subscribers who spend an average of 20 hours a week in a vast medieval kingdom. (Its addictive quality has earned it the nickname Evercrack.) More than two million South Koreans play Lineage, where princes and elves fight for control of feudal villages.

And the line between "reality" and fantasy is blurring. The currency of several online games can now be regularly purchased for real dollars on Internet auction sites, allowing people to buy their way into a higher level much as they might pay to get a child into a better nursery school. A Sims cheetah, the kind of rare-breed cat that Mr. Ludlow owned, is selling for $25 on eBay. The high-end rate for Sims "prostitutes," about 500,000 simoleans, fetches about $15.

Mr. Ludlow said the fact that fantasy money had lately taken on a real market value made the notion of selling sex online more worrisome. And he accused Electronic Arts of turning a blind eye to sexual elements of the game that might not be appropriate for teenagers.

But defining a community standard for the game's teenage players is not any easier than it is in the real world. In the bondage neighborhood that has sprung up in Alphaville, for instance (the Black Rose Castle describes itself as offering "collaring services but not weddings"), most residences state that players must be over 18 to enter. But carding the animated avatars that enter poses obvious difficulties. Many players argue that it is the responsibility of parents, not the game company, to monitor their children's "sexual" activities online.

Jeff Brown, vice president for communications at Electronic Arts, said the company would investigate if a player reported that a teenage player had adopted the persona of a prostitute, but added that it would need to respond case by case. "If someone says that is going on in cyberspace, is it lost on anybody that it's not actually happening?" Mr. Brown said. "No law was violated. It's a game."

Sims sex is, indeed, simulated. It consists mostly of players at a keyboard typing into a dialogue bubble displayed above the heads of their pixelated characters, perhaps while using the "slow dance" command or lying on a simulated bed.

Harassment, cheating and use of obscene language are prohibited under the game's "terms of service" that players agree to when they subscribe. If one player is breaking the rules, another can click a button to alert an Electronic Arts employee, who may then intervene, suspending or banning the violator.

That may have been what happened to Mr. Ludlow, who appears to have had as many critics in Alphaville as he had loyal readers. But even if Mr. Ludlow could prove Electronic Arts bounced him because it did not like his reporting, legal scholars say he does not have a First Amendment case, at least for now.

Game companies are not like phone companies, which have a legal obligation to carry all speech over their lines. They are more like a private club, which can reserve the right to expel members at will. And the Constitution does not protect speech once it has been signed away by contract, which is what players do when they subscribe.

But that could change as virtual worlds increasingly intersect with the real one, some legal experts contend. It is considerably more painful to switch game worlds, abandoning pets, property and friends, than it is to switch phone companies, they note. Games may come to be regarded in the same gray area as shopping malls, which several state courts have ruled can be forced to uphold free speech rights despite being private property.

For now, Mr. Ludlow has been reduced to sneaking back into the game under other players' accounts and publishing his findings on his Web site, He still keeps track of Alphaville doings on a blackboard in his office, he said, in an obsession he likens to law enforcement officers trying to figure out the structure of a mafia crime family.

"You almost get this sense that, well, I can't just leave, that it would be irresponsible," Mr. Ludlow said. "People come to me and I can help them. It gives me some � possibly illusory � feeling of playing a role in the community."

I probably should of linked to this on NYT, but I doubt many of you have registered for their news, which is required -- yuck.