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A Closer Look

Sims 2: Too Infectious?

By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 9, 2005; Page F07

Be careful about downloading that dream home for your Sims 2 game -- you might be getting more than you bargained for. Some new, player-designed downloads for the popular computer game are wreaking havoc in the virtual world and sparking alien abductions, philandering behavior and self-replicating dishwashers in the process.

As video games get more complex, go online and give players endless customization options over their game-play options, players are responding by tweaking away. Sometimes, things can go a little haywire.

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In the Sims 2 world, players get to micromanage the daily life of a virtual, humanlike "Sim" character. Published by game giant Electronic Arts, the title is the recent sequel to the blockbuster game franchise that sold a whopping 40 million units. (That's including a stack of "add-on" packs and versions for game consoles such as PlayStation 2 and GameBoy Advance.)

To help create an online community around the game, EA has made it possible for players to create all sorts of in-game objects in this virtual world -- clothes, appliances and entire homes -- and share them on the Web.

Some clever fans with a programming bent have gone even further and developed invisible tweaks that change the game experience on a more fundamental level. There's the "toddler sleep through the night" patch, for example. Some modifications can shift the basically PG-rated game closer to an R: Teenage Sims don't ordinarily hook up in the game, but one download installs a sudden interest, among younger Sim-folk, in sex (or "woo-hoo" as it's called in the parlance of the Sims community).

The software modifications can sometimes get inadvertently passed from player to player, too, it turns out, as reported this week in SecurityFocus, a computer security news site owned by Symantec Corp., maker of the Norton line of computer safety software.

Some Sims 2 players who custom-designed houses apparently incorporated other modifications by mistake or by design that were then passed on when subsequent players downloaded their handiwork. One download of the wrong McMansion, in other words, and suddenly your Sim-world went awry, and it was not obvious why.

"There are folks who like to tinker, and if they didn't, they probably wouldn't even play this game," said Caryl Shaw, online services manager at EA. "That's something we encourage, but in this case, the creativity spilled over into some users' games unintentionally."

EA now has tools at its Web site that automatically detect whether player-built houses have such game-altering tweaks incorporated into them before a player downloads them. Of the more than 28,000 player-designed home lots available at EA's site, a third had some sort of player-built alteration in them, but only a small subset of those could install modifications that affected the behavior of Sim-folk or a player's Sim-world, she said.

Though Sims 2 software patches can travel to an unsuspecting user's computer in a fashion similar to a computer virus, EA said putting an end to an annoying Sim patch is as simple as deleting the file bearing the suspect modification and restarting the game.

Steven L. Kent, author of a history of the video game industry called "The First Quarter," said that this sort of digital tomfoolery fits perfectly with the prankish sense of humor of Will Wright, creator of the Sims games.

"One of his chief delights in the world is to see how you can misplay games, including his own," Kent said. Wright once had a peculiar passion for the online war game Tribes. "He used to take great joy in going into that game and trying to instigate peace movements."

Wright himself said he enjoys seeing players trying to wrest control of the game away from him and his team. He called the recent tweaks "more amusing than malicious."

"I kind of like the idea that it makes people revisit their assumptions -- it makes the world seem more vibrant or unpredictable," he said. "It's kind of cool when virtual worlds can get shaken up a little, because that's what happens in the real world."

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