Escape From SimCity

At last, an online game without sword fights or pizza-making.

Even if you’ve never touched a computer game, you’ve probably heard about Will Wright’s genre-busting hits from friends who got sucked into them. SimCity (1989) put players in charge of urban planning for a computer-simulated metropolis that fought their every move (welcome to New York, Mr. Bloomberg). Wright’s 1999 follow-up, the Sims, moved the action to a Simpsons-style suburb. Players created dream kitchens and rumpus rooms for characters less from the real world than The Real World. Would Kelly and Brad hit it off at the pool party, or would Krystal intercept him at the punch bowl? The game sold four million copies in its first year, and custom “skins” for Sims characters are an online cottage industry.

But Wright’s latest rollout, the Sims Online, is a giant flop, the gaming industry’s Hudson Hawk. The idea seemed like a winner: Take the online, multi-player fantasy worlds of Everquestand Ultima Online, and replace the swords and sorcery with an ironic Sims suburbia. Instead of slaying dragons to survive, human players logged in from all over would band together to make pizza. But six months after its release, Sims Online has just 97,000 active players, far short of the millions Wright’s backers had forecast. Writing in Slate,Steven Johnson nailed the game’s fatal flaw: the “bizarre, high-school-like quality” of its compulsory social interactions. I lost at high school once already; why would I want to play again?

Enter Second Life, a multi-player online game without compulsory trophy hunts or totalitarian pizza-making. In fact, Second Life, which goes live in June, doesn’t push gamers into any kind of scripted quest. What exactly do you do? “I build stuff,” one beta tester told me. And build they do: Second Life’s landscape is Beverly Hills gone wild, a bucolic expanse of trees, hills, and beaches dotted with one expansive dream house after another. Every home has its custom playthings. In an afternoon demo, I was invited to twirl on a tire swing, jam on a purple electric guitar with a drummer whose practice space overlooks the swimming pool (the game kept our sounds in sync, although he was in San Francisco and I was in Tribeca), and wander through a lethal maze of Doom- like tunnels. The game’s makers, the tiny San Francisco startup Linden Lab, say the game is surprisingly popular with middle-aged women, who are less inclined to quest-oriented swordplay than to designing each other’s dream homes. This may be the start of a new game genre: First person non-shooters for Mom.

As with other role-playing games, each player creates an avatar, a character that represents themselves in the game. But instead of buying prefab characters off the rack, Second Life players program them by manipulating 140 sliders that control mathematical variables rendered on the fly (be warned: you’ll need an 800Mhz PC to play). The result is a Halloween party for grownups. One avatar is a ponytailed woman in pants, the next a meticulous clone of KISS frontman Paul Stanley. Another is a small monkey, followed by a guy who looks like the Unix programmer he probably is in real life. The characters look dorky in screenshots, but come alive when they move. Instead of flat, “isometric” graphics, the game is rendered in full 3-D perspective, so you can swoop around the scenery in your own Bullet Time.

Second Life’s construction materials are also defined at more of a mathematical, raw-materials level than other games. Instead of an inventory of pre-rendered building blocks, players can get their hands on the game’s geometric primitives to stretch, twist, and texture them—like working with Play-Doh instead of LEGOs. Don’t like what’s available for download? You can design your own parts without needing high-end graphics software. If the Sims Online is a virtual consumer culture, Second Life is a tinkerer’s wonderland. The game’s beta testers (you can still join for free until the official launch) tend to gush over their ability to craft custom objects, ranging from musical instruments and weapons to a high-rise knockoff of the Blade Runner set.

So what’s the point of a game with no goal? Second Life is reminiscent of the original concept for Burning Man: “Make your own damn world.” For people who hate learning to play by the rules, Second Life offers them a chance to locally define the rules for themselves, and to explore what others are doing with the same freedom. Sure, you can chat up other gamers, but most of my conversations with players in and outside the game revolved around building stuff. There’s a sense of playful anarchy to the whole thing. The landscape is a crazy jumble of characters and architectures that would drive any central planner mad. In a few months of beta testing, players have put up spartan frontier cabins, glass dream houses, and a Japanese dojo within sight of one another.

The game’s one sop to scorekeeping is its virtual economy, a tax-and-spend system that punishes resource consumption and rewards popular characters and projects. I couldn’t follow the details, but it sounded alarmingly like the European Union. My guess is that beta testers won’t complain, but customers asked to fork over $14.95 monthly this summer will find ways to hack around the requirement to impress others. Second Life isn’t really a game; it’s a virtual world for people who don’t care to win either a firefight or a popularity contest. The idea isn’t to get a life, but to build one of your own. And wasn’t that the coolest part of the original Sims—creating your own private Idaho?