Players of Electronic Arts' enormously popular simulated life game are complaining that their artfully-crafted homes and mansions are beginning to resemble the Twilight Zone, thanks to an artifact of the game's design that causes hacks to spread like viruses from user to unwitting user.
Entire neighborhoods of Sims are being mysteriously graced with eternal youth, while some characters are finding all their needs fulfilled by a single shot of magic espresso. Others no longer need to empty the toilet after potty training their toddler. Some Sims are being abducted by aliens when they glance through their telescope - every time, instead of just occasionally, which is normal.
All this mayhem is the work of a community of experimenters wielding hex editors, custom programs and reverse-engineering skills who began mastering their own Sims 2 worlds immediately after the game's release last September. The hackers share their weird science with one another through public websites and forums.
The hacks are easy to install, but they aren't for everybody. Many are cheats that eliminate challenges and obstacles in the game, while others modify fundamental behavior of the virtual people that inhabit the Sims 2 world. The "No Social Worker" hack, for example, allows Sims to neglect their children without the state getting involved. The "No Jealousy" patch lets them keep multiple lovers without getting slapped all the time. Another hack allows teenagers in the Sims 2 to get pregnant. As the game is sold, they can't even have sex.
The first sign that some of the hacks were spreading to unwilling users came in October, in the form of a dishwasher that did nothing special, but was inexplicably named Candace on the screen. Candace began replacing the ordinary dishwasher in the houses of users who had never visited a Sims 2 hacking site, or knowingly installed a hack. A torrent of other hacks soon followed, and users who wanted to play the Sims 2 as it was designed found them as unwelcome as the latest Windows worm. By mid-November, players were openly complaining on EA's Sims 2 forum and other sites. "Please help, I'm afraid my game is going to get ruined forever," one player despaired. "This stuff is not funny."
It was the modders themselves who figured out what was going on. The Sims 2 lets users build their own virtual houses from the ground up, then populate them with carpeting, furniture, wallpaper and appliances picked from the game's built-in catalog. If they build something they're proud of, the user can export a house to a file that can be shared with other players, primarily though EA's own Sims 2 website.
What nobody had realized was that hacked objects or behaviors would be transferred with the house, and would supersede the game's original functionality for anyone who installed it. So if you download a house with a magic espresso machine in the kitchen, all of your espresso machines in all of your Sims houses and neighborhoods will become magic. If the house came from a game that has the "No Jealousy" patch installed, your game will henceforth be free of the green-eyed monster as well.
If you then export one of your houses and share it, anyone who installs it will also be gifted with special java and open relationships. And so on. As a user downloads and uploads more houses, the hacks accumulate in the game like spyware.
The Petri dish for these unintended Sims 2 viruses is EA's own "Lot Exchange," where over 27,000 user-created properties - many lavishly detailed and elaborate - are available for downloading, with more added every day.
At one point as many as three-quarters of the lots on the exchange contained hacks, estimates Suzanne Walshire, a 57-year-old Sims 2 player from Pflugerville, Texas, and an early victim of the phenomenon." It's extremely widespread," Walshire says. "Someone at Electronic Arts was really shortsighted not to have thought of hacked objects spreading this way. If they knew that their own objects would download with a house, they would know that other objects would download with a house also."
But the company says it was indeed surprised. EA declined interview requests for this story, but last month, thirty days after the initial complaints rolled in, the company finally issued a warning about the spreading hacks on its Sims 2 forum. At the same time it announced that it had reprogrammed the exchange to identify any lots containing modified objects or behaviors, and to allow users to see all the elements in a property before installing it. "Our community continually surprises us by their creativity and dedication to pushing the game's limits further then we ever dreamed possible!," the company wrote, by way of explanation.
"I think the response wasn't exactly timely," says a Sims 2 hacker who asked to be identified by his online moniker, Jfade. By then the community, fearful of being blamed for the issue, had already developed its own solution. Modders took a page from the anti-virus industry and created a central list of identified hacks, their names and checksums, then wrote programs that can scan a user's Sims 2 directory and isolate suspect files. "It allows them to see more details about the hack ... and then they can either move it out of the downloads directory or delete it," says Jfade, who authored one of the programs, called the Sims 2 Hack Scanner and Lister. "I knew I wouldn't want to have these hacks, and in the process found out that I had quite a few."
It's possible such scanners will someday become as indispensable to networked Simmers as anti-virus software is to Windows users. So far the hacks that are spreading are designed to be harmless, but there's nothing keeping a new and uncommonly twisted breed of malware writer from taking the stage, producing viruses that spread through the exchange to corrupt thousands of tiny simulated worlds.
An empty trailer home could carry an invisible hack that makes the game unplayable... at least until the user tracks it down and deletes it. Walshire, still a loyal Sims 2 fan, dreads the day when black hats take on the Sims. "I can't see why someone who was malicious," she says, "couldn't accomplish some really nasty things."