BUILDING THE VIRTUAL WORLD: SOFTWARE, BETA TESTING, AND THE BIRTH AND DEATH OF THE SIMS ONLINE
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Originally released in 2002, The Sims Online (TSO) was one of the most hyped online games ever brought to market. Many critics believed its connection to The Sims would ensure its success. However, this potential was never reached, and in August of 2008, EA/Maxis shut down TSO, terminating users' accounts and removing all traces of it from the Internet. Despite its failure, TSO remains an interesting text for analysis, especially as a case study of the growing importance of virtual worlds on the Internet, and as a cautionary tale for future virtual world development.
Combining a cultural studies approach with the emerging media studies' subfields of "ludology" and "software studies" this dissertation examines the formative period of TSO's development--how was the game developed, created, and used in its earliest stages (especially its beta test, in which users play the game before the official release in order to uncover problems with the software).
Whereas previous examples of the Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) genre were fantasy-based, TSO fashioned a world very much modeled on the familiar; players would navigate their Sim avatar through a landscape filled with simulacrums of the material artifacts, cultural rituals, and social practices that are common in American culture. TSO was not a game about battle and conquest--it was a game about the meaning of production and consumption in our lives and leisure. The dissertation focuses on the overlapping and even blurring meaning of consumption and production in users' experience of TSO, as well as in the architecture of the game. The analysis of the crucial beta test phase provides a particularly focused examination of the collision of these terms.