The Sims Online

Jason Thompson

Barnum would be proud of the whole enterprise and is undoubtedly smiling from his grave.

Publisher: Electronic Arts
Genres: Simulation
Price: $29.99
Multimedia: The Sims Online
Platforms: PC
Number of players: 1
ESRB rating: Teen
Developer: Maxis
US release date: 2007-07

I admit it. I've been a fan of The Sims ever since Electronic Arts shipped the first title way back when. The idea to create a cyber person and/or family with its own house, job, way of life and so forth was actually nothing new. Back in the 1980s Activision came out with a title called The Little Computer People Project in which players could have their very own "person" living in their computer and allowed them to play with it, feed it, and generally take care of it.

Damn... come to think of it, this was way before the Tamagotchi craze, even.

But EA capitalized on the concept and made it an addictive franchise through The Sims and its many expansion packs -- Livin' Large, House Party, Hot Date, Vacation (Holiday outside of the US), Unleashed, Superstar, and Makin' Magic. Each of these packs has expanded the Sims' universe in various ways: allowing players to own pets, have sex in vibrating beds, or open their own techno clubs. It seems that Maxis (creators of all the other Sim titles such as the ever-popular SimCity line) has covered every need that a cyber-person could want. That is, except for other real human interaction.

So it was only a matter of time before the brains behind Maxis and EA combined their hit game with the elements of the good old Internet chat room. Slap on a $9.99 per month fee to play it, and voila, you have The Sims Online, as engrossing an online experience as any that came before it. But, as anyone who has ever had any serious chat room experience knows, what the companies actually have is a Pandora's Box on their hands, the likes of which probably hadn't been seen before online.

Chat room fans will be the first to tell you that more often than not, the online chat experience often boils down to a meat market -- not only for singles, but the married types as well. This has been going on since the groundbreaking days of IRC with its various user-created rooms such as "Married and Flirting," "20s Chat," "30s Chat," and so on. There's something for everyone interested in meeting others for an online (or even offline) romance: from bondage and fetish lovers to those who just want the casual one night stand. Of course, The Sims Online was going to embrace these same groups whether Maxis and EA wanted it to or not. And it does so fully, catering to the consumer with a vast array of kinky leather outfits, user-created "love houses" and more.

Yet the core game itself is rather dull, surprising, considering that the regular offline Sims experience was always engaging to me. This time around, the game players are pretty much forced to make money and excel at the game in groups. The less people doing the same thing together, the longer it takes to become better at various skills. Those character traits are basically the same in TSO as in the previous games. Your character can become adept at cooking, mechanics, creativity, logic, physical strength, and so on. In TSO, Maxis has added skilling objects so everyone can excel at their chosen talent. Once players have bored themselves to death from watching their Sim read books all day long while trying to max out their cooking or mechanical skills, for example, they can then try out their new skills on such things as the pizza making machine (which requires four people), the preserving tables (canning what looks to be like apples), or just going about and fixing broken items which actually costs the player his own Simoleans (the Sims' currency).

But it's that human interaction that keeps players glued. However, the conversations found during the game are as bland and uninteresting as any found in most chat rooms. The users tend to have an annoying fixation with using acronyms, such as LOL, ROFL, and LMAO to name the most popular.

It's ironic that so many are fascinated with such a boring game. Living a "life" in TSO revolves around the same things one has in his or her real life. Cleaning a house, working, eating, dancing, watering plants, scrubbing toilets, having real arguments with so-called friends. The offline games at least had a sense of bewildering amusement in their original, novel ideas that this wasn't real at all but a fun diversion. But TSO seems to drain the real lives of the players and injects it into the game. A bit creepy and surreal, truth be told.

There are other games sprouting up in the wake of The Sims Online. is offering an online gaming experience in which the players have their own characters and live out wacky lifestyles. Then there's the whole Star Wars franchise by LucasArts whose An Empire Divided has embraced a lot of TSO's mechanics.

The Sims' Online's slogan is "Be Somebody. Else." Be yourself, instead. Stick with the offline games, and keep your sanity intact. Maxis and EA promise even more fun for the future. It seems that they are knowingly pressing the already-addicted Sims fans into giving up even more of their real lives in favor of... a strange facsimile. Barnum would be proud of the whole enterprise and is undoubtedly smiling from his grave.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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