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Chapter Five: Multi-User Dungeons and Alternate Identities

By Howard Rheingold

Your character, Buffy Mojo, is crawling through a maze of tunnels in the dungeon of her archenemy's castle. The walls are dank, the lighting is dim, the silence is ominous. A spell has turned Buffy's only ally into a toad. Your hands feel clammy on the keyboard; your heartbeat seems too loud. If Buffy runs into the wrong character down here, your persona will die, and hundreds of hours of work you put into constructing her will have been wasted. More than just your imaginary character is at stake. Buffy's fate will influence the virtual lives of other characters who represent real friends in the material world. You are in a MUD, along with tens of thousands of others around the world who build fantasy worlds in the Net.

Welcome to the wild side of cyberspace culture, where magic is real and identity is a fluid. MUD stands for Multi-User Dungeons--imaginary worlds in computer databases where people use words and programming languages to improvise melodramas, build worlds and all the objects in them, solve puzzles, invent amusements and tools, compete for prestige and power, gain wisdom, seek revenge, indulge greed and lust and violent impulses. You can find disembodied sex in some MUDs. In the right kind of MUD, you can even kill--or die.

It all started on a computer in a university in England in 1980. By July 1992, there were more than 170 different multi-user games on Internet, using nineteen different world-building languages. The most popular worlds have thousands of users. Richard Bartle, one of the fathers of MUDding, estimated one hundred thousand past and present MUDders worldwide by 1992. MUD researcher Pavel Curtis estimates twenty thousand active MUDders in 1992. The MUDding population now is far smaller than the populations of other parts of the Net, but it is growing fast, and spawning new forms at an impressive rate.

MUDs are living laboratories for studying the first-level impacts of virtual communities--the impacts on our psyches, on our thoughts and feelings as individuals. And our attempts to analyze the second-level impacts of phenomena like MUDs on our real-life relationships and communities lead to fundamental questions about social values in an age when so many of our human relationships are mediated by communications technology.

"What is the matter with these people?" is a question that many people ask when they first learn about MUDding. "Don't they have lives?" This is the most serious question that emerges from the early history of the medium--is this a dangerous form of addiction? The strongest case for the possibility that CMC might present grave social dangers as well as opportunities stems from the documented instances of MUDders who spend most of their waking lives in their alternate worlds. The question of communication addiction isn't as simple as it seems at first. One of my guides to the MUD universe, herself a student of the phenomenon, is Amy Bruckman of MIT's Media Lab. She put it this way: "How do we feel about tens of thousands of college students spending their time and government-sponsored resources to chase virtual dragons? To answer this question, you have to dive in and explore assumptions about what is a meaningful way to spend one's time. What are the value judgments implicit in various answers to that question?"

First, it is necessary to look at the fascination, the allure, the reasons why people use the medium so enthusiastically, even obsessively. What are the unique features of this medium that appeal to people psychologically, and what does that say about people's psychological needs? I believe the answer lies in the changing notions of identity that were precipitated by previous communications media. Some people are primed for the kind of communication saturation that MUDs offer because of the communication-saturated environments that have occupied their attention since birth. MUDs are part of the latest phase in a long sequence of mental changes brought about by the invention and widespread use of symbolic tools.

Previous communications media dissolved ancient barriers of time and space that had separated people, and in the process changed the way people thought; first, alphabetic language and then printing technology created a kind of community memory, a stored groupmind accessible to many, not just to the bards and priests who had been the keepers of collective knowledge in the era of oral cultures. The nature of the individual psyche changed when it became possible for so many people outside the priesthood to take advantage of the collected knowledge of the culture. Literate people think differently from people in nonliterate or postliterate cultures, and they think of themselves differently. The telegraph, telephone, radio, and television, as Marshall McLuhan pointed out, turned everywhere and every time into here and now. An ordinary person today with a coin and access to a telephone booth commands powers over time and space that the potentates of antiquity never dared covet. People who routinely accept such power as part of their reality think of themselves in a certain way. Like previous historical changes, such as the transformation from people who thought of themselves as subjects of royalty to people who thought of themselves as citizens of democracy, this one has started at the fringes and is working its way toward the center.

Similar to the way previous media dissolved social boundaries related to time and space, the latest computer-mediated communications media seem to dissolve boundaries of identity as well. One of the things that we "McLuhan's children" around the world who grew up with television and direct-dialing seem to be doing with our time, via Minitel in Paris and commercial computer chat services in Japan, England, and the United States, as well as intercontinental Internet zones like MUDs, is pretending to be somebody else, or even pretending to be several different people at the same time.

I know a respectable computer scientist who spends hours as an imaginary ensign aboard a virtual starship full of other real people around the world who pretend they are characters in a Star Trek adventure. I have three or four personae myself, in different virtual communities around the Net. I know a person who spends hours of his day as a fantasy character who resembles "a cross between Thorin Oakenshield and the Little Prince," and is an architect and educator and bit of a magician aboard an imaginary space colony: By day, David is an energy economist in Boulder, Colorado, father of three; at night, he's Spark of Cyberion City--a place where I'm known only as Pollenator.

Some people seem to use these depersonalized modes of communication to get very personal with each other. For these people, at the right times, CMC is a way to connect with another human being. But the authenticity of human relationships is always in question in cyberspace, because of the masking and distancing of the medium, in a way that it is not in question in real life. Masks and self-disclosures are part of the grammar of cyberspace, the way quick cuts and intense images are part of the grammar of television. The grammar of CMC media involves a syntax of identity play: new identities, false identities, multiple identities, exploratory identities, are available in different manifestations of the medium.

Once inside a MUD, you can be a man or a woman or something else entirely. You can be a hive identity. The Net that to others represents access to the Library of Congress or political debates or scientific data or idle chat is, to MUDders, just the road they have to travel to get to the virtual places where their other identities dwell.

Identity is the first thing you create in a MUD. You have to decide the name of your alternate identity--what MUDders call your character. And you have to describe who this character is, for the benefit of the other people who inhabit the same MUD. By creating your identity, you help create a world. Your character's role and the roles of the others who play with you are part of the architecture of belief that upholds for everybody in the MUD the illusion of being a wizard in a castle or a navigator aboard a starship: the roles give people new stages on which to exercise new identities, and their new identities affirm the reality of the scenario.

In MUDs, as in the WELL, participants can communicate with each other through a number of public and private channels: MUD dwellers can send each other private e-mail that is stored in the recipients electronic mailbox to be read and replied to at the recipient's leisure; they can page each other in different parts of the MUD with person-to-person chat, like a person-to-person telephone call; they can "say," "whisper," and "pose" to anybody else in the same room--a form of group chat that uses the boundaries of metaphorical rooms as social boundaries; they can turn on or off special-interest CB channels for other semipublic conversations across different parts of the MUD that take place while you are talking and emoting in a specific place. It's dizzying at first, like learning a new kind of communication gymnastics.

The use of poses as well as words to convey meaning gives MUDs an odd but definitely useful kind of disembodied body language. Posing (also known as emoting) can be used in polite, informal conversation, in more structured discourse, and in that radically informal behavior known as tinysex. If you are a character named "hivemind," and you give the command "emote leaps onstage," everybody else in the same room sees the message "hivemind leaps onstage" on their computer screens. It adds a new dimension to your communications. Instead of replying to a statement, you can smirk. Instead of leaving the room, you can disappear in a cloud of iridescent, bubble-gum-flavored bubbles. Emoting seems awkward and artificial at first, but once you get the hang of it, poses give you some added control over the atmosphere in which a conversation takes place--a taste of the all-important context that is often missing from words alone.

A MUD is communications soup in real time, with a flavor of improvisatory theater. Unlike computer conferencing systems or bulletin boards, people's social interactions are in different varieties of real-time chat mode, not the kind of bulletin-board style communication you can find on BBSs or places like the WELL. MUDs are very much about who is in the place at the same time and how they interact. It's more of a hangout than a publication, more like a game board than a bulletin board.

In MUDs, however, unlike computer conferencing systems or ordinary chat services, participants also create objects with powers, such as magic carpets that transport their owners to secret parts of the kingdom. Other participants can buy or steal those carpets; people can gain power to make even more useful carpets, but only after amassing sufficient knowledge of the MUDs' lore as well as formal mastery of the MUDs' world-building languages and meeting certain challenges. There are quests and trials by fire. In some worlds, the only way to gain the most potent secrets on the road to extraordinary powers is to kill another character or cast a crippling spell. In other worlds, a majority of the other MUDders have to agree that you have built something worth keeping for public use before you can gain wizard powers.

There are worlds where you have to look out for a dagger in the back, and worlds in which building something together rather than dueling to the death is the acceptable mode of discourse. Gaining the power to modify the environment in which the game takes place is a primary goal for newcomers in both the "adventure" and "social" MUDs. When you log off the WELL, all you leave are the words you have posted. When you log off a MUD, many of the dwellings you have built, the cities you have constructed, the tools and toys and weapons you have created, can be explored or used by other people.

The communities that have arisen in MUDworlds are distinctly different from places like the WELL or the vast electronic chatauqua of Usenet or the innumerable town halls and pool parlors of small BBSs. In a MUD, you are communicating with other people elsewhere on the Net, via your characters, but you are also playing a role and learning your way around a world where knowledge of how that world works can translate into power over the other inhabitants. People who have traded enough hours of their lives to become "wizzes" (the informal, gender-neutral term for wizards, MUD experts who have earned special powers), for example, can gain the power of invisibility, which gives them the ability to spy on other conversations. One notorious trick in less reputable corners of the MUD universe is to talk somebody into going into a dark corner of a MUD for some tinysex--dirty talking via computer screen, within character for the MUD, along with explicit posing--a dark corner where some invisible wizzes are hiding. The misuse of wiz-level "snoop" powers is a recurrent theme of debate in the parts of Usenet where MUDders debate.

Net.sleazing, as the practice of aggressively soliciting mutual narrative stimulation is known, is an unsavory but perennially popular behavior in MUDland. Possibly the nastiest trick to pull on a newcomer to MUD culture is to talk him (most MUDders are males, including many who present themselves as females) into tinysex, which you clandestinely record in a text file and consequently post to the worldwide Usenet discussion of MUDlife. It's akin to seducing someone, videotaping the encounter, and putting out copies for free at the neighborhood video store. There are MUDs in which outright orgiastic scenarios are the dominant reality. There are MUDs that are as chaste as classrooms, but sex talk definitely has a place in the MUD universe.

Tinysex, net.sleazing and gender deception are aspects of MUDs and CMC worth examining, but it's a mistake to stereotype the very broad range of MUD behavior with images of its most sophomoric elements. It pays to keep in mind that most of the most notorious offenders are in fact sophomores in colleges in Indianapolis and Helsinki. The single largest category of MUDders are college students, age seventeen to twenty-three, and the particular uses they find for this technology--identity play and sexual innuendo--reflect the preoccupations of that population. But not all undergraduate MUDders are immature, nor are all MUDders undergraduates. For many, a MUD is a place where they feel more comfortable in some ways than they do in the real world. Here's how Amy Bruckman describes the place she likes to spend her time:

It is 3:30 a.m. EST, and I am talking to my friend Tao in my quarters aboard the Federation Starship the USS Yorktown. Actually, I am in Massachusetts and Tao is in South Carolina. We are logged onto a Multi-User Simulation Environment (MUSE) based on a Star Trek theme. At this moment, there are thirty-six people logged on from all over the world. My character name is Mara. Anything I say or do is seen by Tao, since he is in the same room; anything which is announced is seen by all thirty-six people logged on. Our private conversation--about gender roles and the ways female characters are swarmed with attention--is interwoven with a public conversation filled with computational puns and Star Trek references.

Amy is describing an intellectual, ironic, media-savvy place, where multileveled metaphors, puns, wordplay, and clever programming are the coin of the realm. Trek-MUSE is modeled on the roles played in the television series "Star Trek--The Next Generation." By contrast, if you entered the original MUD1, created in 1979 and 1980 by Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle, then students at the University of Essex, England, this is what you would see:

You are stood on a narrow road between The Land and whence you came. To the north and south are the small foothills of a pair of majestic mountains, with a large wall running round. To the west the road continues, where in the distance you can see a thatched cottage opposite an ancient cemetery. The way out is to the east, where a shroud of mist covers the secret pass by which you entered The Land.

The Land is a place where cunning can be essential to life, and the friendship of a wizard a shortcut to prosperity. It's a place where your character can lose its life if you aren't careful where you tell it to go. You'll need a shield and a sword if you want to last long, and if you happen upon an object or being, you better think twice about what you intend to do with it.

By typing commands, traveling around, getting bearings, gaining knowledge, making friends, and demonstrating your own contributions to the collective enterprise, you can gain enough knowledge and power from your wanderings in a MUD to be able to build additions to the fantasy world yourself and make life interesting for the people who come to play there. The wizzes are only the junior grade of the MUD illuminati. The people who attain the senior grade of MUD freemasonry by starting their own MUD, with all due hubris, are known as gods. Wizzes make life interesting for players, and gods are the ultimate arbiters.

But to the hardest-core MUDders, the traditional online epithet "Get a life" is more the issue. When you are putting in seventy or eighty hours a week on your fantasy character, you don't have much time left for a healthy social life. If you are a college student, as the majority of MUDders are, MUDding for seventy hours a week can be as destructive to the course of your life as chemical dependency. Computer scientist Pavel Curtis created an experimental MUD, LambdaMOO, on his workstation at Xerox Corporation's renowned Palo Alto Research Center. At a panel discussion in Berkeley, California, Curtis had this to say about the addictive potential of MUDding:

I am concerned about the degree to which people find virtual communities enchanting. We have people who use LambdaMOO who are

not in control of their usage who are, I believe, seriously and clinically addicted. . . . These people aren't addicted to playing video games. It wouldn't do the same thing for them. They're communication addicted. They're addicted to being able to go out and find people twenty-four hours a day and have interesting conversations with them. We're talking about people who spend up to seventy hours a week connected and active on a MUD. Seventy hours a week, while they're trying to put themselves through school at Cambridge. I'm talking about a fellow who's supposed to be at home in Cambridge to see his family for the holidays, missed his train by five hours, phoned his parents, lied about why he was late, got on the next train, got home at 12:30 in the morning, didn't go home, went to a terminal room at Cambridge University and MUDded for another two hours. He arrived home at 2:30 in the morning to find the police and some panicked parents, and then began to wonder if maybe he wasn't in control.

These are very enticing places for a segment of the community. And it's not like the kinds of addictions that we've dealt with as a society in the past. If they're out of control, I think that's a problem. But if someone is spending a large portion of their time being social with people who live thousands of miles away, you can't say that they've turned inward. They aren't shunning society. They're actively seeking it. They're probably doing it more actively than anyone around them. It's a whole new ballgame. That's what I'm saying about virtual societies.

Amy Bruckman used the rich social worlds she discovered in her favorite MUDs as the subject of her MIT graduate studies of the psychological and social significance of MUD culture. In 1992, Bruckman wrote about MUDs as "Identity Workshops." In 1993, she instigated the creation of MediaMOO, the Media Lab's version of a MUD--one designed to become a serious adjunct to scientific conferences. Bruckman's 1992 study dealt with the question of what it was about the MUDs that addicts people. Like Pavel Curtis, Amy Bruckman touched on the problems of judging hastily whether prolonged MUDding is good or bad for a particular person in a particular situation. In her paper, Bruckman cites the case of a MUDder of her acquaintance who managed to maintain a B average as an undergraduate, hold down a part-time job, and still find time to MUD for seventy hours a week or more. This person met his responsibilities in life, so whose cultural police are going to tell him he's an addict who needs help?

One of Bruckman's mentors, MIT professor Dr. Sherry Turkle, wrote something about the behavior of young, compulsive computer programmers that seems to offer a key to understanding MUDding's addictive potential. Turkle focused on the notion of mastery as a crucial missing element in the lives of some of these young people:

The issue of mastery has an important role in the development of each individual. For the developing child, there is a point, usually at the start of the school years, when mastery takes on a privileged, central role. It becomes the key to autonomy, to the growth of confidence in one's ability to move beyond the world of parents to the world of peers. Later, when adolescence begins, with new sexual pressures and new social demands from peers and parents, mastery can provide respite. The safe microworlds the child master has built--the microworlds of sports, chess, cars, literature, or mathematical expertise--can become places of escape. Most children use these platforms from which to test the difficult waters of adolescence. They move out at their own pace. But for some the issues that arise during adolescence are so threatening that the safe place is never abandoned. Sexuality is too threatening to be embraced. Intimacy with other people is unpredictable to the point of being intolerable. As we grow up, we forge our identities by building on the last place in psychological development where we felt safe. As a result, many people come to define themselves in terms of competence, in terms of what they can control.

Pride in one's ability to master a medium is a positive thing. But if the sense of self becomes defined in terms of those things over which one can exert perfect control, the world of safe things becomes severely limited--because those things tend to be things, not people. Mastery can cease to be a growing force in individual development and take on another face. It becomes a way of masking fears about the self and the complexities of the world beyond. People can become trapped.

Knowledge of MUDlore and skill at communicating with people to help you achieve your ends, and the ability to create places and puzzles for others to explore, are a form of mastery, a way for people who might lack social status in their real-world community to gain status through their MUD skills in their alternate community. For people whose lives are controlled by parents or professors or bosses, there is a certain attraction to a world in which mastery and the admiration of peers is available to anyone with imagination and intellectual curiosity.

In one family I met in a MUD, the father tutors his kids in programming, science, and the sheer art of having literate fantasies. In fact, the education these children are getting is taking place in small part in Cyberion City, a special MUD where such educational experiments are encouraged. For this family, is MUDding an addiction or a model of the way education ought to take place? This question can be generalized to the use of other CMC media in other social contexts. You have to examine the way a person uses the medium, and the way that use of the technology affects the person's behavior, thoughts, and relationships with other people, before you can begin to determine whether an eighty-hour-a-week MUDder is an addict or a virtuoso.

You can have different identities in several different kinds of places. I am represented by a character known as Pollenator in Cyberion City and Funhead in WELLMUSE. When I use the "look" command to examine Spark in Cyberion City, his identity description informs me of his resemblance to Thorin Oakenshield:

look Spark

You see a cross between Thorin Oakenshield and the Little Prince. Always smiling and whistling. Mostly tunes that are 600 years old by now.


Spark's hoverboard ($SO41221vI)

The Enlightened Creator (#1255v)




Looking at any of the objects that Spark carries would reveal further descriptions, perhaps even instructions on how to use them. In MUDworlds, description is the same as creation. MUDs are evidence that text still has its powers, even in this highly visual era. When you weave text into the kind of interactive landscape that computer models provide, you can build a kind of magic into the environment. Amy Bruckman remembers that the first object she created in a MUD was a plate of pasta that "squirmed uneasily" whenever anyone in the room mentioned the word hungry. Even if Amy's character wasn't there in the MUD at the time, everyone in the room of the MUD where she left the plate of pasta would see on their screens, on utterance of the word hungry in public conversation, the message that "the plate of spaghetti squirms uneasily." It makes for a very different kind of context for communication when you have sentient bowls of spaghetti lying around, waiting to enter the conversation. Watching other people's reactions to the objects you create adds to the excitement of MUDding.

The first object I created in a MUD was a magic camera I learned to create in a self-guided wizardry class in a virtual university within the MUD. I could put the camera in my room and it would report to me, wherever else I might be wandering, any activity that took place in my absence. Jetboy in Cyberion City has an antique phonograph in his parlor; if you invoke the command "play phonograph," thereafter, every thirty seconds, the name of a new tune from Jetboy's extensive collection of Hawaiian classics will be announced in the middle of whatever else is happening.

The roots of MUDs are deep in that part of human nature that delights in storytelling and playing "let's pretend." Brenda Laurel, in Computers As Theater, claims that the strong identification players feel with artificial characters in a computer database is an example of the same human capacity for mimesis to which Aristotle attributed the soul-changing (and, thus, society-changing) power of drama.

Richard Bartle, cocreator of the first MUD, the first of the MUD gods, has his own version of the mimesis theory. In 1990, he wrote:

MUAs [Multi-User Adventures can exert an influence over a large number of these players out of all proportion to that of either a chatline or game alone. MUAs have an emotional hold over their players which stems from the players' ability to project themselves onto their game personae, feeling as if the things which happen to the game personae are happening directly to the players themselves.

The first MUD was a Multi-User Dungeon, modeled on a Tolkienesque domain of dwarves and treasure, warriors and wizards, swordplay and magic, known as "the Land." Second-generation MUDs encompassed different metaphors. And now we have third-, fourth-, and fifth-generation variants. A MUSE is a Multi-User Simulation Environment, one of a variety of MUDs in which all players, not just wizards, are granted powers to shape the environment itself; MUSEcode also conveys the ability to build automata, computer simulations that can model real phenomena, which has both scientific and educational implications.

Narrative is the stuff of which MUDworlds are made. Everyone and everything and every place has a story. Every object in a MUD, from your character's identity to the chair your character is sitting in, has a written description that is revealed when you choose to look at the object. The story is known in MUDspeke as "the description." If you have the authorization to do so, you could create a small brown mouse or purple mountain range or whatever else words can describe. Although the MUD worlds are fantasies, with no more tangible reality than the settings and characters in a novel or a soap opera, the people I've met in real life who live in MUDlands testify passionately that the feelings they have about their characters and worlds are real to them, and often quite intense.

In a conversation with the author in 1992, Richard Bartle said:

Losing your persona in a game is absolutely terrible. It's the worst thing that can happen to you and people really get put up about it. They usually say they're gutted. "Gutted" is the word players use because it's about the only one that describes about how awful it is. It's not as if "Oh dear, I've lost my persona" in the same way you may say "I've lost my shoe." It's not even "Oh dear, I've lost my persona" in the same way as "I've lost my pet hamster." It's more as "Oh dear, I've just died. That's me they've just killed!" It's not "Oh, I've lost all that work and all that time and effort." It's "I've just died, this is terrible! Oh my God, I'm dead! Empty!"

In some MUDs, you can reincarnate your character; in others, death is irrevocable.

My first adventure in a MUD--actually, in a MUSE--was a space colony/science museum. I had heard about Cyberion City from a WELLite I had met in a rather serious business-oriented private conference; he discovered that I was interested in virtual communities, so he told me in e-mail that there was a place on the Net where he and his ten-year-old son were helping build a space colony. My friend, a man I had never met face-to-face, known as Kline in the WELL and Spark in Cyberion City, told me that some knowledgeable people who had utopian faith in the potential of cyberspace as an educational medium had chartered a new kind of computer conferencing system explicitly as a virtual community.

Aslan and Moulton, the first wizards I encountered in a MUD, were the helpful variety of wiz. It could have been an altogether different experience if I had appeared, unsponsored, in a hardcore hack-and-slash world, and attracted the attention of a foul-tempered wiz or god before I could afford a shield. I can see now that I was lucky to have chosen Cyberion City. This was before Pollenator existed, before I devoted a moment's thought to the idea of creating the right name for the identity I was going to assume in a whole new world. I was, as they say in some of the rougher neighborhoods of the MUD universe, a "clueless newbie," a bit of public-school jargon that found its way into MUDspeke via the original MUD's British origins.

Moulton, one of the three directors of MicroMUSE, was there to show me around the first time I arrived at the arrival gate. This is how Cyberion City looked to me, the first time I visited:

Welcome to MicroMUSE! We are hosted at, port 4201.

REMINDER: Read `NEWS' regularly to keep up on changes and additions to the server. New commands will be listed in `news' with details provided in `help'. For more information, new players should type: help getting started

Cyberion City Main Transporter Receiving Station

The bright outlines of the Cyberion City Transporter Station slowly come into focus. You have been beamed up here (at considerable expense) from one of the Earth Transporter Stations. You are among the adventurous and moderately wealthy few who have decided to visit (and perhaps dwell) in Cyberion City, the largest space city in the solar system. You are welcomed by the transporter attendant, who gives directions to all newcomers to this space city.



Obvious exits:


Welcome to MicroMUSE, your name is Guest1

attendant says "Welcome, Guest, to Cyberion City."

attendant says "Feel free to contact any Official for


attendant says "Be sure to use our extensive on-line help command."

attendant says "I hope you enjoy your stay."

The attendant smiles at you.

You step down off of the MTRS platform.

Main Transporter Lobby

This room has high, vaulted ceilings and white walls. The thick, black carpet makes no sound beneath your feet. You are just inside the Transporter Lobby, where Visitors arrive from Earth. To one side is an Information Desk. A door leads to the Tours office, and another leads Out into Cyberion City proper. A Public Relations Dept. Intercom stands in the center of the floor; type `look Intercom' for instructions.



Spark's helper, the Firefly






Obvious exits:

Information $SAINF$RL Tours $SAT$RL Out

Sparks says "Hi!"

You say "Hi"

Spark says "You wouldn't be Howard, would you?"

You say "yep. got here!"

Spark says "All right!"

Spark says "Wait a sec"

You say "Now what?"

Your wrist communicator quietly announces "Take a flight on a Dragon to the fabled planet of Pernth, home of the DragonRiders of Pern! Dragon flights depart from Section 0--Arc 7 in the Teleportation and Transportation Center. Go there and `beckon dragon' for a free discovery flight to Pernth."

Spark says "I think Aslan would like to say hi, and he said he has to leave soon."

Aslan has arrived.

While you're not looking, Aslan appears.

Spark says "Would you like to say hello?"

Spark says "Darn wizards:)"

Aslan says "Hello, Howard. Nice to meet you!"

You say "Hello!"

Guest5 has arrived.

Guest5 leaves the Main Transporter Facility.

Guest5 has left.

Aslan says "Perhaps you would prefer a character with a name other than Guest1?"

You say "I gotta think about that. Name is a big thing. Right now, I'm trying to figure out where I am.;-)"

Aslan says "Okay:)"

Aslan says "Well, I need to run. Glad you could make it, and Spark will show you around, I guess."

You say "See you later."

Spark says "I'd recommend staying a guest for a bit. For one thing, you're wearing a sign that says "Be courteous, I'm a guest" "

Aslan waves.

Spark says "Bye!"

While you're not looking, Aslan disappears.

Aslan goes home.

Aslan has left.

Spark waves

You say "What do you mean, "Spark waves?" How do you do that"?

Spark says "If you type a colon instead of a quote, like in that case ":waves," we all see your character adopt that pose.


Guest1 waves.

In the snippet of a MicroMUSE session quoted above, you see that the computer announces whenever someone enters the same space you occupy. Whenever anyone enters or leaves a space, a message is sent to the screen of everyone whose character is in that space. So it matters who is in the place you do your talking, and that means you have to look around and see who is there. Since Cyberion City and the MicroMUSE planets beyond it consist of many hundreds of interconnected spaces, you can find both highly populated areas (like the main arrival area) or private areas (like citizens' homes).

When people enter or leave or talk or emote, everyone in the same room knows it. Or if a magical object in the room or the room itself has been programmed to react to certain words or behaviors, everybody in the same room knows it. The public announcement that broke into my conversation with Spark was on the public channel, a kind of systemwide CB. A number of channels are available, and anyone can create private channels for themselves and their friends or work groups. You can turn channels on and off, and you can create private places where you can be sure a conversation isn't overheard--unless a wizard is "snooping" on you.

It took me hours of wandering around Cyberion City to get an idea of the scope of the place. As a new citizen, Pollenator, my character, was granted enough credits to buy a dwelling in one of the housing districts. Moulton, who seemed to be one of the wizzes in charge (except here they call them citizens, builders, and administrators instead of newbies, wizzes, and gods), showed me how to issue the commands that would create ("dig") a few rooms for me to entertain guests and work on projects. There is a set of self-paced tutorials in Cyberion City University, and an online glossary of commands, but the way you learn, everybody tells you, is by asking others. The metaphor of this MUD is a learning colony, where everyone teaches everyone else. Cyberion City's charter warns you when you enter that there are children there and educators and librarians and people having fun, and anybody who abuses the rules of polite communication is likely to have his or her character removed. After the rough-and-tumble of the WELL or Usenet or a serious adventure-style MUD, it's an altogether different feeling trying to find your way around a new place where the locals all seem to go out of their way to show you around.

While I was looking around and making myself at home, I met a few other characters. One friend I've never met in the material world is Eri, a librarian from North Carolina who has a wicked sense of humor: a sign on the floor of Eri's dwelling in Cyberion City says "Caution, black hole." If you make the mistake of looking in the black hole, you fall into the basement, where you discover that the look command only gets you the message "The basement is dark." Then you try a bunch of commands, and you get the message "Say the magic word." And if you say "shazam" or "abracadabra," you get the message "Say the magic word your mommy taught you." When you say "Please," Eri's black hole lets you back into her living room.

Moulton taught me how to make objects with MUSE code--an enterprise that is frustratingly arcane to a nonprogrammer like me. Teenage kids looking for something to do with their curious minds seem to find MUSE code hypnotically fascinating. One of the great rewards in a social MUD comes from creating a tool or a toy or a little astonishment that others want to adopt or buy or copy. If you are female-presenting, male wizards sometimes give you power objects that can be very useful in getting from place to place or shielding yourself from some kinds of attack.

While he showed me how to become one of the world-builders of Cyberion City, I asked Moulton how he got into the MUSE business. Moulton, also known as Barry Kort, had a twenty-year career as a network planner for Bell Laboratories, NASA's space station, and MITRE, a top software think tank. In the late 1980s, Kort felt compelled to do something about the state of the world. He decided to concentrate on education, an area where he thought his expertise might help. Science education, in particular, is something our society needs badly and is sadly lacking. He knew that high-capacity networking technology, together with a means of making computer models and simulations, had a tremendous and almost totally unrealized educational potential. He stumbled onto the MUDs and became convinced that he could transform the MUD technology into something with greater social value than just a hack-and-slash game. At one of these MUDs he met Stan Lim, at the time a senior at California State University accomplished in systems design. They started planning a new kind of MUD.

Kort retired as a network planner several years ago. He devotes part of his time as a volunteer at Boston's Computer Museum and the rest of his time to building MicroMUSE, the computer universe in which Cyberion City is growing (along with other planets and colonies). He has the use of some computing hardware and Internet connections at MIT's Artificial Intelligence laboratory, and an office at the Cambridge computer consulting firm of Bolt, Beranek, and Newman--where the first computer networks were born twenty years ago.

Kort's self-study of educational theory led him to the work of the Swiss educational psychologist Jean Piaget, who spent decades directly observing how children play. That people spend so many hours of their lives in MUDs, often neglecting their other duties, was, to Kort, evidence of the power locked into the medium--just look at the trouble people take to learn the esoteric MUD codes. Piaget said that children seem to learn about the world by exploring it and playing with it--that play is a powerful form of learning--and that by shaping the way the environment invites discovery, people can design some of this power into traditional curricula. Piagetians believe that children can gain more understanding in faster time out of the same material if it is presented as a world to explore rather than as a package of information to be learned by rote.

"I knew that if we could create a suitable play space," Kort told me during one of our world-building sessions, "children would learn at remarkable rates, and they would learn a wide range of skills and subject matter." Kort was also interested in community-building. Education could also be the focus of an online intentional community.

Kort and Lim modeled the organizational charter of MicroMUSE, the simulation environment in which Cyberion City exists, on Children's Television Workshop--as a nonprofit, noncommercial enterprise dedicated to harnessing the inherent educational power of networks. The charter--required reading for prospective citizens--sets forth a democratic but definite standard of behavior, and the personal commitment the MicroMUSE architects brought into the venture set the tone for the new kind of MUD. Instead of battlefields, there is a science museum where kids can play with computer simulations that teach scientific principles, a tutored or self-tutored curriculum in MUSEcode at the university, playgrounds, magical kingdoms, even spaceports where you can embark on spacecraft bound for other planets in the MUSE.

Cyberion City and the larger MicroMUSE universe grew to more than two thousand registered citizens from all over the world. Citizens are free without restriction to build one hundred objects. If they want to build more, they are asked to build something of public value. The science center, museum, university, shopping mall, entertainment section, rain forest, Yellowstone Park, and planetarium were built by citizens who became Builders.

The traditional, or adventure, MUDs in their many forms all depend on a structured game in which a fixed number of "experience" points gain initiation to higher levels of power and prestige. In the bloodiest of the worlds spawned by MUD1 from University of Essex and its descendants, beheading new, inexperienced players as a way of gaining experience points is frowned on but not outlawed. In some worlds, nothing is frowned on. It can be like participating in a roll-your-own slasher movie.

If MUDs were nothing more than a way of participating in vicarious violence and other antisocial behavior, the question of how to deal with them on campuses and tax-supported networks would be easier to answer. But the evolution of MUDs began to branch when people began exploring less lurid modes of interaction using the same technology. The genre of social MUDs, where there might or might not be hierarchies of power but where there are no fixed goals or point systems, and murder is not possible, emerged when James Aspnes of Carnegie-Mellon University created TinyMUD in 1988. It spawned a variety of different worlds and new MUD languages based on egalitarian and nonviolent values. When every citizen, not just wizards, gained the power to build the game, and there was no longer a gain in killing or stealing, a new variety of MUD enthusiast emerged.

In response to a question from Amy Bruckman about where these ideals came from--deliberate design on his part, or from the members of the first TinyMUD community?--Aspnes offered a revealing reply:

Most adventure-style games and earlier MUDs had some sort of scoring system which translated into rank and often special privileges; I didn't want such a system not because of any strong egalitarian ideals (although

I think that there are good egalitarian arguments against it) but because I wanted the game to be open-ended, and any scoring system would have the problem that eventually each player would hit the maximum rank or level of advancement and have to either abandon the game as finished or come up with new reasons to play it. This approach attracted people who liked everybody being equal and drove away people who didn't like a game where you didn't score points and beat out other players (I did put in a "score" command early on since almost everybody tried it, but most players soon realized that it was a joke). I think that this effect created a kind of natural selection which eventually led to the current egalitarian ideals. I like the egalitarianism, but it wasn't my original goal.

Bruckman treated Aspnes's reply as "a confirmation of Langdon Winner's assertion that artifacts have politics. The change in the software encouraged different styles of interaction, and attracted a different type of person. The ethics of the community emerged. The design of the software was a strong factor in shaping what emerged."

Richard Bartle doesn't have a lot to say about the use of MUDs as social tools, but he has strong opinions about MUDs as games. In conversation with the author, he emphasized repeatedly that the real juice of MUDding as he first conceived it is removed if you remove the possibility that a character will die. People might use it as a social toy or a theatrical device, but in Bartle's opinion, it isn't a game if you can't die. The evolution of MUDs forked into two paths over the issue, and each fork--the adventure and the social varieties of MUD--can be expected to develop further.

When you are not just communicating, but building virtual objects in virtual buildings in virtual kingdoms, you are also taking up much more space in a computer database. MUDs bring two things to the computers that host them--increased telecommunications traffic from everywhere and increased use of computer memory. One of the most famous of the nonviolent MUDs, Islandia, a TinyMUD at the University of California at Berkeley, grew to more than 3,000 players, of which more than 1,500 were active, and the database had expanded to 14,900 rooms. The combination of the potential for addiction and the drain on local computer system resources led to a ban on MUDding at Amherst University in 1992. The increase in telecommunications traffic was the official reason for the Australian ban on MUDS. The Australian regional network that connects to Internet must use a satellite to move information to backbone sites on other continents; NASA, which pays half the bill, asked the Australian network to find ways to cut back on the growth of traffic. MUDs were an extremely low priority on the network administration's list of "acceptable uses" for Internet.

The prevalence of gender play in MUDs is one factor that leads more traditionally minded authorities to discourage MUDding on campus computers. Gender deception and the presence of impostors is nothing new in cyberspace. Richard Bartle told me the tale of "Sue," who had captivated so many minds and hearts in the first MUD, in the early 1980s:

Sue lived in South Wales, which is some distance away from the rest of the MUD-playing community, long phone calls away. And Sue got all the way up to game administrator level, "Arch Witch." She used to write letters to everybody, great long old-fashioned letters on paper. She enclosed photographs. She's quite good-looking. As far as we were concerned, Sue was a female. One of our other wizzes fell quite heavily in love with Sue and sent photographs and gifts and so on, flowers, and he even proposed marriage. Then Sue started behaving out of character. And all of a sudden Sue said she was going to Sweden to be an au pair and that was that. We never heard any more, so we thought something seemed suspicious here.

So a group of the wizzies put together facts from Sue's letters, like her father ran some kind of a factory and you know she lives in South Wales and we've got the address that we write to, and went around--I wasn't there--but they went around to see Sue, knocked on the door, this woman opens the door. "Hello, we've come to see Sue." The woman says, "I think you better come in. Unfortunately, Sue's name is Steve and he's been arrested for defrauding the Department of Transport. He's presently in prison. I'm his wife."

The possibility of an electronic impostor invading people's most intimate lives is inherent in the technology. More than a few people out there want to be impostors. If you count the messageries rose in Paris, along with the electronic chat services and BBS worldwide, the population of online gender-switchers numbers in the hundreds of thousands. A very few can carry their deceptions far enough to turn an entire virtual community inside out.

"The Strange Case of the Electronic Lover," by Lindsy Van Gelder, a cautionary tale for all who venture into virtual communities, was published in Ms. magazine in October 1985--when the WELL was six months old.

Van Gelder had been exploring the worlds of online communications, and happened upon the CB channel on CompuServe. CompuServe is a national commercial information service that provides access to electronic mail, conferences, and a chat service modeled on the audio citizens' band radio channels of the 1970s. In 1985, CompuServe already had more than one hundred thousand subscribers--at prices three to five times higher than what the WELL was charging. One CB regular Van Gelder met, Joan, was a celebrity on CompuServe. After Van Gelder encountered Joan in a wide-open, public chat session, she engaged her in private chat. She learned that Joan was a neuropsychologist, in her late twenties, living in New York, who had been disfigured, crippled, and left mute by an automobile accident at the hands of a drunken driver. Joan's mentor had given her a computer, modem, and subscription to CompuServe, where Joan instantly blossomed.

Not only was Joan a source of wit and warmth to the hundreds of people who participated in CompuServe CB in the late 1980s, Van Gelder reported, quoting many of Joan's friends, she had a kind of online charisma. Joan connected with people in a special way, achieved intimacy rapidly, and gave much valuable advice and support to many others, especially disabled women. She changed people's lives. So it was a shock to the CB community when Joan was unmasked as someone who in real life, IRL, was neither disabled, disfigured, mute, nor female. Joan was a New York psychiatrist, Alex, who had become obsessed with his own experiments in being treated as a female and participating in female friendships.

The sense of outrage that followed the revelation of Joan's identity came first from the direct assault on personal relationships between Joan and others, friendships that had achieved deep intimacy based on utter deception. But the indirect assault on the sense of trust essential to any group that thinks of itself as a community, was another betrayal. Van Gelder put it this way: "Even those who barely knew Joan felt implicated--and somehow betrayed--by Alex's deception. Many of us online believe that we're a utopian community of the future, and Alex's experiment proved to us all that technology is no shield against deceit. We lost our innocence, if not our faith." Van Gelder quoted another woman, one of Joan's best friends, who agreed to the interview only because "although I think this is a wonderful medium, it's a dangerous one, and it poses more danger to women than men. Men in this society are more predisposed to pulling these kinds of con games, and women are predisposed to giving people the benefit of the doubt."

Personally, I think the fundamental understanding that CMC is "no shield against deceit" is a necessary immunization for the larger, uninitiated populations who are homesteading cyberspace today. The presence of skilled imposters in every virtual community is information that must disseminate formally and informally before the online population can develop a collective immune system to identity predation. People who join virtual communities today are rarely given any set of formal rules for the finer points of online relationships--like the possibility of identity deception. The best response from the online world would be to formulate norms and spread them around so that newcomers can be aware of the darker possibilities of making friends you can't see.

Although the technology of CMC provides the instrument of deception, the special importance we place on gender roles and the prevalence of swindlers in a population are both rooted in social questions that extend far beyond the technology that brings them into focus. The opportunity for deception, however, is designed into the medium. Cyberspace explorers ignore that fact at their peril.

Nearly a decade has passed since Van Gelder's article, and more than a decade has passed since Sue of MUD1, and gender deception occurs often enough in MUDS that female-presenting characters usually are assumed to be lying until they can prove otherwise. Pavel Curtis made his own educated guess, in a 1992 paper, about the reasons for the persistence of gender-switching in MUDS:

It appears that the great majority of players are male and the vast majority of them choose to present themselves as such. Some males, however, taking advantages of the relative rarity of females in MUDs, present themselves as female and thus stand out to some degree. Some use this distinction just for the fun of deceiving others, some of these going so far as to try to entice male-presenting players into sexually-explicit discussions and interactions. This is such a widely-noticed phenomenon, in fact, that one is advised by the common wisdom to assume that any flirtatious female-presenting players are, in real life, males. Such players are often subject to ostracism based on this assumption.

Some MUD players have suggested to me that such transvestite flirts are perhaps acting out their own (latent or otherwise) homosexual urges or fantasies, taking advantage of the perfect safety of the MUD situation to see how it feels to approach other men. While I have had no personal experience talking to such players, let alone the opportunity to delve into their motivations, the idea strikes me as plausible given the other ways in which MUD anonymity seems to free people from their inhibitions.

Other males present themselves as female more out of curiosity than as an attempt at deception; to some degree, they are interested in seeing "how the other half lives," what it feels like to be perceived as female in a community. From what I can tell, they can be quite successful at this.

Female-presenting players have told me that they are frequently subject both to harassment and to special treatment. One reported seeing two

newcomers arrive at the same time, one male-presenting and one femalepresenting. The other players in the room struck up conversations with the putative female and offered to show her around but completely ignored the putative male, who was left to his own devices. In addition, probably due mostly to the number of female-presenting males one hears about, many female players report that they are frequently (and sometimes quite aggressively) challenged to "prove" that they are, in fact, female. To the best of my knowledge, male-presenting players are rarely if ever so challenged.

True-life romances, sometimes at the intercontinental level, are no rarity in MUDding circles. Even online marriages, with or without corresponding corporeal ceremonies, are nothing new. There are people in different parts of the world who are married to each other today because they met and fell in love in a MUD before they met face-to-face. The technology that can serve to deceive can also serve to connect.

Why do people pretend they are characters in a television program? Perhaps the most well known "fan culture" in the material world is the international, intergenerational cult of Star Trek enthusiasts--"trekkies." They have newsletters and fanzines and conventions. They were even mocked on "Saturday Night Live" when William Shatner, the actor who played Captain Kirk of the original Starship Enterprise, told an audience of Trekkies at a fictional convention to "get a life."

One honest answer to the question "Don't these people have lives?" is that most people don't have a terribly glamorous life. They work, they subsist, they are lonely or afraid or shy or unattractive or feel that they are unattractive. Or they are simply different. The phenomenon of fandom is evidence that not everyone can have a life as "having a life" is defined by the mainstream, and some people just go out and try to build an alternate life. In the Deadhead freemasonry, this failure to conform to normal cultural expectations is embraced in a similar way as "misfit power." By what criteria does one judge whether a fan culture is constructive community-building or pathological escapism, and who does the judging? These questions are the subject of lively debate among students of a discipline known as reader-response theory.

Amy Bruckman pointed me to the phenomenon of fan culture when I was looking for reasons that so many people are attracted to MUDding, some of them obsessively so. In her master's thesis, "Identity Workshops," Bruckman cites the work of Henry Jenkins, a student of fan culture, as one key to understanding hard-core MUD culture and its appeal today:

Why are these fictional worlds so popular? Fans of Star Trek attend conventions, write stories and novels, make videos, and write folk songs about the Star Trek world. In Textual Poachers, Television Fans and Participatory Culture, Henry Jenkins analyzes fan culture with an emphasis on fan reading and writing practices. Like MUDs, the world of fandom is an alternative reality that many participants find more compelling than their mundane lives. The conclusion of Textual Poachers is called "`In My Weekend-Only World . . .': Reconsidering Fandom," and begins with this epigraph from a fan writer:

In these warm convention halls

In an hour of make-believe

In these warm convention halls

My mind is free to think

And feels so deeply

An intimacy never found

Inside their silent walls

In a year or more

Of what they call reality.

In my weekend-only world,

That they call make-believe,

Are those who share

The visions that I see.

In their real-time life

That they tell me is real,

The things they care about

Aren't real to me.

Jenkins writes about the fan folk song "Weekend-Only World" that it "expresses the fans' recognition that fandom offers not so much an escape from reality as an alternative reality whose values may be more humane and democratic than those held by mundane society." The author of the song "gains power and identity from the time she spends within fan culture; fandom allows her to maintain her sanity in the face of the indignity and alienation of everyday life."

"Jenkins' claims here are strong," Bruckman points out, "and I do not know whether they are true for fandom or whether they translate to the world of MUDding. However, it is important to recognize that when one makes statements about what is a constructive use of another person's time, one is making a value judgment. Such judgments often masquerade as `taste,' and their political and ethical nature can be obscured." Another way of saying this is that many of the highbrows of Elizabethan England would have died laughing if they knew that vulgar, nerdy Shakespeare would be remembered as great literature centuries later; who is to say MUDs and other alien suburbs of fandom are not as legitimate as Elizabethan theater? We remember Shakespeare because of the quality of his insight and his use of English, not because his contemporaries considered him to be a "great artist" or "in good taste."

Another social commentator, looking more broadly at the way communication technologies have been changing human psychology, uses the term "technologies of social saturation" as a kind of media-driven change in the pace of our interpersonal lives. Kenneth J. Gergin, in The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life, makes a case that modern communication media expose the average person to the "opinions, values, and lifestyles of others." It is self-evident that many of us communicate with many more people every day, via telephone, fax, and e-mail, than our great-grandparents communicated with in a month, year, or lifetime. According to Gergin, social saturation is an effect of internalizing parts of more people than any humans have ever internalized before. Our selves have become "populated" by many others, Gergin claims.

I didn't know whether Kenneth Gergin ever heard of MUDs, but one passage he wrote stood out as another clue to what MUDs might be reflecting about changes in human personality:

In the process of social saturation the numbers, varieties, and intensities of relationship increasingly crowd the days. A full appreciation of the magnitude of cultural change, and its probable intensification in future decades, requires that one focus first on the technological context. For in large measure, an array of technological innovations has led us to an enormous proliferation of relationships. . . .

In an important sense, as social saturation proceeds we become pastiches, imitative assemblages of each other. In memory we carry others' patterns of being with us. If the conditions are favorable, we can place these patterns into action. Each of us becomes the other, a representative, or a replacement. To put it more broadly, as the century has progressed selves have become increasingly populated with the character of others. We are not one, or a few, but like Walt Whitman, we "contain multitudes." We appear to each other as single identities, unified, of whole cloth. However, with social saturation, each of us comes to harbor a vast population of hidden potentials--to be a blues singer, a gypsy, an aristocrat, a criminal. All the selves lie latent, and under the right conditions may spring to life.

In MUDs, those latent selves are liberated by technology. And boy, do they "spring to life."

Extrapolating the future of MUDs from today's applications of the technology is hazardous business because the medium is in such creative flux. The social and adventure MUDs are the ancestor species. Nobody can predict what variations and mutations of this technology will emerge downstream a few generations hence.

In the summer of 1992, Xerox PARC, where Pavel Curtis initiated the LambdaMOO experiment, began the Jupiter project--a multimedia, eventually intercontinental MUD, meant to be a working tool for designers of virtual workplaces of the future.

Curtis is currently involved in adapting the LambdaMOO server for use as an international teleconferencing and image database system for astronomers. This would enable scientists to give online presentations to their colleagues around the world, complete with slides and illustrations automatically displayed on the participants' workstations. "The same approach could be used to create on-line meeting places for workers in other disciplines, as well as for other non-scientific communities," wrote Curtis. "I do not believe that we are the only researchers planning such facilities. In the near future (a few years at most), I expect such specialized virtual realities to be commonplace, an accepted part of at least the academic community."

Another idea guiding research at PARC is to use virtual reality to help break down the geographical barriers of a large building, of people increasingly working from their homes, by adding digital voice to MUDs. When two people are in the same virtual room, their audio channels are connected.

Xerox PARC, where personal computers and local networks were invented in the 1970s, has a sister research facility in Cambridge, England, that fits into this grand scheme for a future virtual multimedia office linking Xerox researchers worldwide. When I visited EuroPARC in Cambridge in 1992, I got a taste of what it's like to extend the networld into the video range. My guide for the day, Paul Dourish, a computer scientist from Scotland, is a Deadhead Nethead, so we had two overlapping freemasonries to chat about while I acclimated myself to what was happening. In his office, Paul sat in front of a large screen, with several windows open to documents and to the Net. And to his left of that large screen was another screen, only slightly smaller, that showed a video image. At the moment we came in, it showed the image of the laboratory's common room, one floor below ours. Above the video monitor was a camera lens.

About a minute into my conversation with Dourish, we heard a squeaking sound, like a very old wooden door creaking open. He explained that it was the most commonly used of a number of sounds EuroPARC researchers had available to signal that somebody was peeking at them.

"It's important to put something as invasive as a video technology in your office under social control," Dourish explained, calling up a menu of communications options on his computer display. I saw a list of people. There were little checks next to some of the names.

"I can select, from the roster of people who have technical access, which people I give permission to peek at me," Dourish continued. "Peeking" means that the authorized person can look into your office, with your permission, at will, for a two-second glance. It's the equivalent of peeking into your open office door to see if you are occupied or open for conversation. He showed me the menu where he chose the squeaky door as a means of reminding him that somebody was peeking. And he showed me the ultimate social control of the technology on the corner of his desk--a lens cap.

The next time the camera squeaked at us, Dourish looked over at the monitor below the camera and started talking to it. The scene on his video monitor switched from a long shot of the common room to a close-up of a young woman. They talked about a document they were working on. While they talked, they also looked at the document on their computer screens. Paul introduced me. I looked at the video camera and smiled and said hello. I could see her face as I was talking to her. Their conversation about a certain paragraph in their document took about thirty seconds. Then they signed off and Paul turned back to me. The scene on his video monitor went back to the common room.

Every ten minutes, there was another sound, a clicking sound like a camera shutter. That was the slo-scan camera that transmitted a still image across the Atlantic Ocean and the North American continent to the sister Xerox laboratory in Palo Alto. These still images were the first stage in what would ultimately be a full video link.

The idea of the common room changes when you know who is in there. One premise behind going to the trouble of adding a video channel to group communication is that it can stimulate the kind of informal, serendipitous conversation that takes place in the hallway or at the coffee machine, but in such a way that the informal space extends to wherever your colleagues are located. In a sense, they are trying to synthesize what sociologist Ray Oldenburg calls "informal public spaces." Another recent Xerox experiment linked a wall-sized monitor in a common room in the Palo Alto laboratory with a common room in a sister laboratory in Oregon. People in Oregon could walk down the hall in the material world, notice on the monitor that you are in the California half of the common room, and engage you in conversation.

I didn't see the video wall experiment, but computer pundit John Barlow saw a demonstration. We are both interested in the possibility of adding video to computer conferencing. Part of that ontological untrustworthiness of cyberspace is the lack of body language and facial expression. Misunderstandings that tangle group communications and sour personal relationships online might be avoided if you could add a raised eyebrow or a playful tone of voice to the online vocabulary. Barlow told me that he found himself somewhat disappointed in that hope. Something seemed missing. Barlow told the computer scientist who was giving him the demonstration about his disappointment. The researcher, a native of India, smiled and told him that what the video does not transmit is "the prana," the life force, literally the breath of the other people. Judging from the way other group communication media have proved to be double-edged, it would be prudent to assume that adding video to CMC will bring both advantages and disadvantages when trying to achieve communication among groups of people.

The idea of Project Jupiter that grew out of the multimedia MUD Curtis described is a common space where you can extend your informal space, with voice, text, and video all mixed together in a virtual office space; the MUD structure gives the different communication channels coherence in the form of an architectural metaphor. With the ability to build your own spaces within the MUD, it is possible to create "rooms" specifically for certain projects; you can keep reference materials there, communicate with colleagues on a virtual whiteboard, drop in for informal chats. You can move your character around a map of the MUD space, and make real-life voice contact with anyone in the same virtual space, while retaining the ability to put words and graphics up on the common MUD room space. PARC researchers are attempting to accomplish several goals with this project. At the same time, they are designing a mental model of cyberspace, experimenting with ways to use cyberspace as an augmentation of a material office, as well as mixing several different media together, and using these tools as they build them, in the bootstrapped research tradition, in their own daily work.

The first multimedia MUDs are beginning to appear. The first ones I heard about, in Scandinavia, require a powerful graphics workstation and a high-speed connection to Internet. Now you can steer your character through a visual model of a dungeon or a space colony, or even create your own visible worlds and share them with other participants. The advent of multimedia MUDding is too recent to have a significant body of observations to evaluate. Now people who can express themselves visually, using computer tools for manipulating graphic language, can add a new element to the worlds that were formerly limited to text. Text-only worlds will continue to thrive, considering how much easier it is to construct an entire civilization with words than with graphics, but it remains to be seen whether multimedia MUDs will thrive as a medium in their own right.

Amy Bruckman, after finishing her "Identity Workshops" research, extended her professional exploration of the MUD medium by creating, with colleagues at MIT's Media Lab, MediaMOO, yet another kind of serious-communication MUD. Bruckman noticed another area in her life where a communications medium with some MUD characteristics could serve a serious purpose, yet retain the fun and informality of a MUD--the virtual communities that exist around special areas of interest or professional disciplines. Scientists or scholars or specialists from the private sector meet for face-to-face conferences and conventions once or twice a year, read the same journals and electronic journals, and correspond with one another, but there is a lack of daily, informal continuity to these communities of interest that span continents. Why not design a MUD to continue the kind of informal conversation that makes conferences so important to scientific communication? The "professional virtual community" that Bruckman and colleague Mitchel Resnick had in mind was the community of people like themselves--media researchers.

MediaMOO was announced in 1993. In the abstract for an oral presentation, Bruckman and Resnick spoke of the relationship between the MUD design and the social goals of the project:

MediaMOO is a virtual version of MIT's Media Laboratory. . . . The developers have deliberately chosen not to build the entire Media Lab, but to construct just the public corridors, stairwells, elevators, and a few interesting public places. It is up to the community of users to create the rest. This is not a practical limitation, but a deliberate design decision. The act of collaborating on building a shared world creates a basis for interaction and community.

Visitors to a conference share not just a set of interests, but also a place and a set of activities. Interaction is generated as much by the latter two as the former:

Person A: Can you tell me how to get to Ballroom A?

Person B: I'm headed that way now. It's up this way.

Person A: Thanks!

Person B: I see you're at Company X. . . .

Person C: Is this seat taken?

Person D: No, it isn't.

Person C: I'm surprised the room is so packed.

Person D: Well, Y is a really good speaker. . . .

A text-based virtual environment can provide both a shared place (the virtual world), and a shared set of activities (exploring and extending the virtual world). Like at a coffee break at a conference, there is a social convention that it is appropriate to strike up a conversation with strangers simply based on their name tags. In most MU*s, characters are anonymous; there is no way to match the real world person to the virtual one. On MediaMOO, a character can either be anonymous or reliably identified with the person's real world name. Additionally, users are encouraged to wear a description of their research interests. More information is provided than a name tag, and it is provided more discreetly--the person is not notified that you looked at their research interests, and you are therefore free to decide whether or not to use that information as a basis to strike up a conversation.

The architects of MediaMOO decided to have an inaugural ball on inauguration evening, January 20, 1993. A week before, at Amy Bruckman's invitation, I showed up early and designed a few of the men's costumes for the festivities. First, I had to learn my way to the wardrobe off the main ballroom, which was located two floors above the roof of the real-life Media Lab. In places, the topology of MediaMoo replicates the real hallways of the material Media Lab building, and in places, like the ballroom, MediaMOO just builds its own cyberspace extension. Once I learned the path to the ballroom, Amy showed me the incantation I would need to create costumes. Each costume thus created could be added to the rack. When sixty-seven MediaMOO inaugural ball participants attended from five countries, they were invited to go to the wardrobe, give the "search" command, and wear one of the costumes. I was one of several costume designers, contributing a green on orange double-breasted paisley dinner jacket, a minimicro velcro tuxedo, and a loincloth of many colors.

Besides my costume, others who attended the ball could see my real name, the fact that I am writing about virtual communities, and my home e-mail address. Although it opened with a party, and the atmosphere is informal, MediaMOO consists of people who are studying virtual communities. In that context, meeting someone "socially" at an event like an inaugural ball has implications for everyone's intellectual and professional life.

Whenever people find something in a new communication medium so attractive that it becomes the focus of obsessive behavior, several questions arise: What is it about the way people are today, and the way we interact, that leaves so many people vulnerable to communication addiction? What responsibility do institutions such as universities have to regulate the online behavior of obsessive users, and what rights do students have to protect them from invasion of privacy? By what criteria should obsessive use be determined? I do not know the answers to questions about the value of MUDding, but I do know that the questions are broad ones, addressing key ambivalences that people have about personal identity and interpersonal relationships in the information age.

Go On To Chapter Six

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