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I consider Will Wright (The Sims, Sim City) to be one of the truly great visionaries in contemporary media – someone who has been outspoken in his recognition of the central role that audiences play in shaping entertainment experiences. He has expressed many times that he feels that ultimately, the bulk of Sims content will be generated by consumers and not commercial designers. He has described Sims Online as a social experiment to see what kinds of rules and structures people would create themselves given a sufficiently rich online environment. I often cite Maxis as a model not only for the ways that other game companies should operate but more generally, for the way other media companies should operate. The success of the Sims stands as perhaps the best rebuke to the efforts of the music industry to crack down on file-sharing or the film industry to try to reign in fan websites.

For that reason, I was disturbed by the report in Salon that an academic had been expelled from The Sims Online for running a newspaper, covering events within the game, which might be taken as critical of some of the policies of Maxis’s owner, Electronic Arts. The writer had been outspoken in questioning the operation of a brothel in the game world that was being run and staffed by under-aged players.

Does such an imaginary brothel amount to a form of child prostitution, given that things of value in the game world get exchanged for its imaginary services? The issue cuts to the heart of ongoing debates about the relationship between virtual and real world identities, a debate that concerns not only academics but also policy makers. I can see why EA would be uncomfortable calling so much attention to this practice – though coverage in Salon about the silencing of the reporter probably gets them more negative press than the reporter had generated in the first place. Clearly, the First Amendment does not require companies to support and sustain speech critical to their interests, yet what does it do to an experiment in online democracy to so directly curtail Alphaville’s citizens to express their views on issues important to that community?

Out of respect for Will Wright and Maxis’s extraordinary track record, I have to hope that there is more to this story than Salon has reported, but the issues here are important for people who care about online worlds.

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