You might know the culture-jamming activists The Yes Men from one of the three documentaries about them — The Yes Men, The Yes Men Fix the World and The Yes Men are Revolting.
The Yes Men, Jacques Servin and Igor Vamos, use pranks to draw attention to important issues. They usually do this by pretending to be representatives from corporations or the government. They then hold press conferences offering shocking policy suggestions; usually an reductio ad absurdum version of what the company or government’s already doing.
It doesn’t always work, but when it does, the results can be amazing. For example, the Yes Men set up a hoax website claiming General Electric would be donating their $3.2 Billion tax refund to the US Treasury. This wasn’t true, of course, but the Associated Press reported it as fact.
It’s remarkable to think that all this happened from one strange hack in a forgotten Sim game.
The SimCopter Hack
One of the most popular games of the late ’80s and ’90s was SimCity by Maxis. The original game took off almost immediately and was ported to a number of different systems. SimCity‘s success led to a number of spinoff Sim games: SimEarth, SimTower, SimAnt, SimLife and, of course, The Sims.
As with any series, though, there were a few forgettable entries, including SimCopter. If you guessed that SimCopter let you fly a helicopter, better enroll at Harvard now, because you’re right. In the game, the player could earn money by doing various helicopter-related jobs, like catching criminals or airlifting injured sims to hospitals.
However, there’s one other thing you can do in SimCopter: Loudly make out with half-naked dudes with luminescent nipples. It’s an easter egg in the game, where on certain dates, swarms of “himbos” would appear on tops of buildings, hugging and kissing each other (with loud sound effects). There was a bug in the game, however, where the himbos would come out more often and swarm your copter.
The easter egg was quickly discovered and removed from the future copies of the game. Unfortunately for Maxis, it wasn’t until between 50,000 and 80,000 had already been shipped. The man responsible for the bug was fired for adding unauthorized content; he claimed that he’d done it due to the intolerable working conditions at Maxis. By the way — that man’s name? Jacques Servin.
®™ark and the Pre-History of the Yes Men
Servin said the activist group ®™ark (pronounced “Art Mark”) had given him $5,000 to do it. Though much later it came out that Servin and Vamos were the co-founders of ®™mark, they initially claimed to have very little knowledge of the then-anonymous organization.
Servin told Wired: “I don’t really know much about ®™ark,” and Vamos told them “”I’ve been suspicious about them from the beginning. It seems too weird, but they’ve been good to us.”
Other early ®™ark projects include the Barbie Liberation Front, who swapped voice-boxes between talking GI Joes and Barbies and the website gwbush.com, a fake campaign page for George W. Bush. They also set up various funds people could donate to to fund future pranks.
Servin, who is openly gay, did make sure to say his addition to the code wasn’t meant to expose homophobia at Maxis. He described Maxis to Wired as “very enlightened” toward LGBTQ issues — in addition to protesting the working conditions, he wanted to show that “heterosexual content is always implicit” in games.
In retrospect, it’s not surprising that Servin co-founded ®™ark and eventually became a Yes Man. As he told Wired shortly after the easter egg was discovered:
I’ve always wanted to be an activist, but activism is so moribund now. Do you think these heads of corporations are going to walk into an art gallery and say, “Oh, wow — I was wrong”? Symbols are so much more powerful where you don’t expect them.
With ®™ark and the Yes Men, he definitely found a way to make activism less moribund. And it all came from a mostly-forgotten ’90s video game.