The Sims Online – an Internet-only world where ordinary folk can take on another persona and interact with other folk virtually — seems to be exhibiting all the signs of the real world, with a twist. Salon carries an article about a Sims community called Alphaville, and some of its citizens, including an academic called Urizenus (in real life, Michigan philosophy professor Peter Ludlow), a young man (or, possibly, a boy) called Evangeline, allegations of extortion, and the possible existence of a virtual brothel.
The story is well worth a read (subscription or day pass only), if only for the moral responsibilities a corporation running a community may have. If someone opens a virtual brothel for online folk to indulge in a little cyber-sex, is the company managing that world — in this case Electronic Arts — guilty of prostitution? And what happens if there’s evidence the ‘madam’ of that brothel, and some of its employees, are underage? And then, exploring the matter further, is Electronic Arts guilty of censorship by terminating the account of the academic who chronicled such allegations in his online newspaper, Alphaville Herald? And if there’s (ultimately) real money involved, should the police be called in to this virtual world?
I’m not surprised a philosophy professor is interested in these kind of issues. Going back to the early days of the Internet, the virtual world has a habit of impinging on the real. In that sense there’s nothing different between real estate and virtual estate. If humans interact on it, it’s turf and it needs to be policed. It will be interesting to see how EA handle this case, and whether they start patrolling their creation more thoroughly. And if they do, will it cease to be economically viable?