Under the Radar: The Sabotage of SimCopter | Retrohistories

Under the Radar: The Sabotage of SimCopter | Retrohistories


This might seem a little far-fetched. But it’s a true story. Well, most of it. Between the cross-platform success of SimCity,
and the record-smashing sensation of The Sims, Maxis published a medley of different Sim
games, with varying levels of involvement from creator Will Wright. One of the few that Wright oversaw personally
was SimCopter, where you played the role of a pilot flying around a series of primitive
3D cities, chasing criminals, MEDEVACing patients and putting out fires. It’s not a serious flight sim by any measure;
like most of the other Sim games, it’s a fun sandbox, or as Wright put it, a ‘software
toy’. In a way, it’s an early precursor to Grand
Theft Auto, even down to the parody commercials on the radio. Though developed under intense time pressure,
reviews were positive. But the game shipped with an unexpected feature. One that would put SimCopter in the Guinness
Book of Records, and lead one man to worldwide infamy. Will Wright was playing the game at home with
his daughter when he noticed some unexpected behaviour. Occasionally, men in swimming trunks with
glowing nipples would swarm the world, making loud kissing noises, and seeking out one another,
passers-by, and the player. Problem was, this was only noticed after 78,000
copies of the game had been sent to distributors. But this ostensible bug had been placed there
deliberately and without approval by one of the game’s programmers. It was an easter egg that triggered during
the celebration sequence at the end of the last level (where there would usually be a
brass band and fireworks), as well as elsewhere in the game on certain days of the year: the
prankster’s birthday, his ex-boyfriend’s birthday, and Friday 13th. The programmer responsible was Jacques Servin. By modern standards, this easter egg is benign. The prank doesn’t interfere with playability. The rest of the game was already quirky in
tone. And the behaviour is so comical and the graphics
so crude that it’s hard to imagine anybody taking offence. There’s no record of any. But for Maxis, it caused a lot of headaches. “…some gay, kissing muscle-men every Friday
the 13th.” “He’s becoming a celebrity of sorts in
the computer world, especially the gay computer world.” With the game already on the shelves, they
hastily arranged a new pressing of the CD-ROM, a downloadable patch, and a call-in replacement
programme for customers without Internet access… which in 1996 was most of them. Servin justified his action by saying that,
in development, the game had included scantily clad women. So why not scantily clad men? Though he pointed out that Maxis was a “very
enlightened” employer, he said his aim was to draw attention to how “heterosexual content
is always implicit” in games. Servin was fired by Maxis, ostensibly for
the unapproved addition, though according to a Reddit post supposedly from another team
member, primarily because he went AWOL during crunch after a bad breakup. The game was fixed, and Maxis and Servin both
moved on. But the story only gets more interesting. A year and a half later, an organisation that
described its purpose as “to encourage the intelligent sabotage of mass-produced items”,
claimed responsibility for the SimCopter hack as well as sixteen other acts of creative
subversion. The group, called RTMark, was supposedly funded
by anonymous benefactors and had existed, covertly, for several years, pulling strings
and causing mischief. It acted as a middleman, and awarded money
to those able and willing to carry out anti-corporate pranks. RTMark said they’d paid $5000 to Jacques
Servin to sabotage SimCopter, a claim confirmed by Servin. RTMark went on to aim their sights at larger
targets. A fake website for Texas Governor George W.
Bush incurred the anger of the then-presidential candidate. “…and this guy’s just a garbage man.” They built another fake website for the World
Trade Organisation, this one plausible enough to fool people into believing it was real. When the site’s email address started to
attract misplaced inquiries, RTMark transferred the domain to a pair of individuals who saw
an opportunity for mischief. Two men willing to attend events and press
conferences in character, posing as official WTO representatives. Mike Bonnano and Andy Bichlbaum, also known
as the Yes Men, would become infamous for many such hoaxes over the years. Their stunts were audacious, they were funny,
and they always drew attention to a serious point. Here’s Andy Bichlbaum as Hingo Sembra from
the US Chamber of Commerce announcing a reversal in their position on climate change. As Hensley Cocker of the NRA, launching a
programme to give a free firearm to an inner city civilian for each one purchased through
their site. Posing as Jude Finisterra, a Dow Chemical
spokesman, on the BBC, announcing a $12bn compensation and cleanup programme for the
chemical leak in Bhopal that killed 15,000 people. This stunt wiped $2bn from the value of the
company in 20 minutes. It may seem like we’re a million miles from
SimCopter here. But we’re missing a crucial piece of the
puzzle. Here’s one of the few photos of Jacques
Servin from the coverage in 1996. Notice any similarity? Jacques was a Maxis programmer… “…at
a company called Maxis, I was one of the first two programmers on The Sims.” …and he
did add the easter egg, but the story about receiving money from RTMark was completely
fictional. In fact, so was RTMark. “So I wrote a manifesto from this fake organisation
called RTMark. It had ‘funded’ me, and it was funding
hundreds of people around the country…” It wasn’t backed by a cabal of wealthy donors. It was two guys running a site whose design
they’d swiped from Andersen Consulting, claiming responsibility for unrelated stories
in the news and pranks they pulled themselves, to create the facade of a well-funded activist
group. Pretending to be mere associates of RTMark,
the two men began to operate through public appearances. “…then one day, we found ourselves with
an invitation to come speak at a conference. They wanted the head of the World Trade Organisation
to go to a conference.” And the rest is chronicled in their three
feature-length documentaries. The SimCopter stunt wasn’t a work of paid
sabotage. It wasn’t even meant to be a statement of
gay equality or a stand against sexism in games; those justifications were invented
later when the press asked questions. “I might have done it differently if I’d
thought of it as a political action, but it quickly became a political action afterwards.” It was just a small act of rebellion by a
programmer who’d had enough of 60 hour weeks and being denied time off. SimCopter was a wakeup call for the industry,
and marked the beginning of the end of the era when a lone programmer could sneak unvetted
code into a game from a major studio. Development practices have changed. Servin’s act of creative sabotage would
now be virtually impossible. But it gave Servin a taste for mischief, and
the resulting press interest delivered an adrenaline rush he’s been chasing ever since. “It wasn’t at all what I had intended. But I did find that I super enjoyed the process
of trying to make sense of this, and the exposure on TV… it was just hilariously fun for me,
who knew?” It was the first act of disobedience by someone
whose later pranks would become international news, and it’s buried in an obscure mid-90s
PC game. Hi, Chris here. If want to hear about future episodes of Retrohistories,
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12 thoughts on “Under the Radar: The Sabotage of SimCopter | Retrohistories

  1. So this guy pranked his own company, claimed it was political, invented a fake company to take credit for it, and then assumed another identity to execute more pranks. Did he appear in any of the Metal Gear Solid games?

  2. That's hilarious. I saw The Yes Men movie back in 2003. I see they have another couple of docs since I must give them a look.

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