Judy Malloy

PUBLIC LITERATURE: NARRATIVES AND NARRATIVE STRUCTURES IN LAMBDAMOO (excerpts)

The complete paper "Public Literature: Narratives and Narrative Structures in Lambda MOO" was Published in Craig Harris. ed., Art and Innovation - The Xerox PARC Artist-in-Residence Program Cambridge, MA MIT Press, 1999.

This online version focuses on two projects of current interest to the writer, Brown House Kitchen and Deep Creek School.

ABSTRACT

Beginning in 1993, as part of my residency at Xerox PARC, I worked with words in LambdaMoo, a text based social virtual reality site, created at Xerox PARC by Pavel Curtis, that runs LambdaMoo code and is publicly accessible on the Internet. Investigating the narrative variety inherent in Moos (MUD's object oriented), I created three different narratives: The Ocatillo Files, Brown House Kitchen, and Deep Creek School. The Ocatillo Files was an ephemeral performative narrative that examined role playing and story telling in the heart of this virtual community - the LambdaMOO living room. Brown House Kitchen is a exploratory collaboratively experienced narrative in which text is disclosed by programed objects. Deep Creek School is a collaboratively created model of an alternative art school.

MUDs (Multi-user Dungeons) are extraordinary virtual communities. They are cohesive text-based universes existing parallel to life where stories occur daily usually observed only by the participants -- just as they do in real life. In these people-centered places a wide variety of public literature can be created.

It is no accident that the many world wide web books that currently line the shelves on the book stores are of the "how to" category: how to design, how to program, how to find; whereas the books and articles that are appearing on MOOs are more human-oriented: Life on the Screen, [1] "...Adventures of a feminist MUDder." [2] Despite elements of interaction, the web [in the 1990's when this was written] is at its core, an information delivery system -- suited for solitary information access. MUDs, on the other hand, are recreational gathering spaces that connect many users to the same place at the same time. Users are "visible" to each other and share a database of "rooms", "exits", and other objects. [3]

LAMBDAMOO

Spawned by a multi-user "adventuring" program written in 1979 by students at the University of Essex in England [4], MUD's have remained for the most part recreational. However, The Social Virtual Reality project at Xerox PARC, headed by Pavel Curtis, whose theatrical and computer science background merge fortuitously in these environments, is exploring non-recreation uses of MUD technology [5] and in particular the notion of social virtual realities.

Beginning in 1993, as part of my residency (as a writer and designer of experimental computer mediated narratives) at Xerox PARC, I worked in LambdaMOO, a MUD that uses an object oriented programming language (a cross between C++ and LISP) developed by Curtis. [6] The term "LambdaMOO" refers both to this software and to the server Curtis runs at Xerox PARC that uses this software and is open to the Internet public.

LambdaMOO (and similar sites based on LambdaCode) are malleable code- based structures where, as if participants lived in an intellectual equivalent of Home Depot, building materials are always within reach. Although general MUD usage has centered on creative social interaction, the flexible programming system that Curtis created also has the potential for complex information delivery and for an infinite variety of narrative structures.

Literary forms that are possible here include narrative environments that groups of readers can virtually enter and explore such as Brown House Kitchen; [7] performative narratives such as The Ocatillo Files; and collaboratively created narrative environments such as Deep Creek School. [8]

There is a difference between making a work in a preexisting virtual community like LambdaMOO and making a work in a MOO created to serve a specific community. (such as PostModern MOO [9], Hypertext Hotel [10] Astro_VR [11] and WaxWeb [12]) LambdaMoo is already a well defined richly embroidered virtual environment. A user who opens the door to the closet (the standard entry way to this environment) enters a well defined room that is based on Pavel Curtis' real-life living room. "It is very bright, open, and airy here, with large plate-glass windows looking southward over the pool to the gardens beyond. On the north wall, there is a rough stonework fireplace. The east and west walls are almost completely covered with large, well-stocked bookcases." [13] Although it is challenging to create in this already shaped space, I believe that the feeling of actually being somewhere fosters visualization of three dimensional, community oriented narratives.

BROWN HOUSE KITCHEN

I physically entered PARC in November 1993. I had an office in the legendary Computer Science Lab (CSL) across from the office of Rich Gold, the Director of PARC Artists in Residence (PAIR), and a SPARC workstation. In this cubicle (that I decorated with horse chestnut from the neighboring fields), I labored over the programming of the wind up duck in an informal LambdaMOO tutorial.[14] Soon I was spending my days glued to the terminal on familiar territory - the Internet.

On November on the CSL veranda at PARC, Pavel Curtis and I discussed what I would do in LambdaMOO. Also present was ethnographer Cynthia Duval who recorded and transcribed the conversation. I had envisioned the narrative as a kind of hypertext but Pavel pointed out the three dimensional qualities of the medium and spoke about "creating a space that was itself literature in that by walking through the space and manipulating the objects that I might see there or taking different paths through the space encounter this work of literature." [15]

Pavel also suggested that objects in this space could disclose text. Additionally we discussed the public art possibilities inherent in LambdaMOO. Both Pavel and I felt that the story should be one that would appeal to the citizens of this community.

In the course of a walk across the horse strewn fields that border the PARC building, down Page Mill Road, past the Wall Street Journal, past Hewlett Packard, down to the Coronet Motel on El Camino Real (where I was staying with not much but a 286, a modem, a black cat, a few items of clothing, and some powdered soup), I conceived of Brown House Kitchen.

Influenced by the ubiquitous computing research (the creation of an environment where many invisible to the user computers are available) being undertaken in CSL, [16] the kitchen was conceived of a future communal eating space where interrelated devices integral to its functioning would record events in various ways. In Rashoman fashion, these devices are capable of relating the details of things that occurred in a previous November in separate but related ways.

The participant who enters this environment now reads:

"An Early Ubicomp Era kitchen
The sun, coming through white lace curtains that frame
a small irregularly watered yard, falls invitingly on a
round oak table, surrounded by chairs. In the Northeast
corner, an old man sits in a bluegreen rocking chair,
reading a newspaper. He looks like your grandfather.
To your left, you see what appears to be a sculpture of
a kitchen drawer mounted on a pedestal. Near the
Northwest wall, there is a kitchen sink, decorated with
blue tiles. An orange cat stands on the edge of the
sink, drinking water from a slow faucet drip."

Players who enter Brown House Kitchen can unfold the story in various (unpredictable) ways by examining the things they find there. Some of the devices (simulated video, simulated audio) disclose information that is seen (when activated) by everyone in the room. Other devices (electronic book, diary) disclose text visible only to the player who activates them. Players can sit at the table, order meals, and as is usual in LambdaMOO, talk with their "companions".

The environment contains five integral text disclosing devices as well as a large amount of hypertextual "tiny scenery". (descriptions activated by the word "look". [17] The devices are a mobile, audio equipped robot (Ralph Will Clean Up After You). a database food dispensing table (GoodFood) a pre-narrative video device (Barbie-Q [18]), and two electronic books. (the Diary and the narranoter)

Two of the devices, Ralph Will Clean Up After You and GoodFood, are time-based. The information they disclose varies according to the day of the month and the time of the day in which you enter the story. Barbie Q discloses text sequentially. The Diary and the narranoter produce hypertextual lexias at random. [19] In addition there is a garden outside the kitchen where text is disclosed in a fugal way using "fork". (a feature of LambdaMOO code that allows time delays in the production of text)

Brown House Kitchen is structured with parellel intersecting data streams that are contained in and disclosed by this collection of objects. The idea of parallel data streams was one that I had worked with in Wasting Time -- a narrative data structure where the words and thoughts of three characters are treated as parallel intertwining data streams. [20]

Brown House Kitchen,, a work that exists in a time warp in virtual space, is a more complex narrative. It and not only challenges readers to discover less obvious streams of text but also locates them within the story.

Because what Ralph says, what Barbie-Q recorded, etc. needed to be consistent, A chart where these details were plotted, hung on my wall for months. To structure the work, I used food as an integrating device and started by writing the menus for the 93 meals that were to be served by GoodFood over the course of a month. The chart integrated what was eaten at the meals with what the video device has recorded, the gossip Ralph discloses, the words that Sandy writes in the narranoter.

Although they are not to be blamed for any weird elements in my programing of Brown House Kitchen, what I did would not have been possible without the presence of Pavel Curtis and other knowledgeable, helpful CSL researchers including Rich Gold, Ron Frederick, Berry Kercheval and David Nichols. Brown House Kitchen, because of the large amount of detail that it required, would have evolved more smoothly with a team of writers and programers actually working on the project. Certainly, a more experienced programmer than I am would not have banged his or her head against the virtual walls of LambdaMOO as much as I did in the creation of this work.

Nevertheless, in ways that teams of writers, artists, computer scientists and musicians may eventually do on a future shared-space, multimedia Internet, Brown House Kitchen integrates narrative disclosing devices that both relate to each other and respond interactively to investigation. As in this envisioned future Internet environment, Brown House Kitchenis communal in that it works best when several people are in the room.

In November 1994, I invited Tim Collin's and Reiko Goto's Carnegie Mellon "Art Systems" class into the work. Sitting at separate terminals in the computer room, the students jointly explored Brown House Kitchen. Although the narrative is difficult to comprehend if only one person is exploring it in a solitary manner, as I had envisioned, the environment worked very well in this group situation. Its rich detail was apparent, there was no need for a didactic help file, and the students were enthusiastic.

DEEP CREEK SCHOOL

A model of Deep Creek School was created in LambdaMOO in June 1994 while I was artist in residence at Deep Creek -- an art school, associated with Arizona State University. [21]

Deep Creek roared by the "ice house" where the school's computers were located. Art students worked outside, in the shadow of snow capped mountains, building site specific installations or preparing performance works related to or inspired by the environment. For the most part, the students were not computer literate.

I conceived this model as a non-threatening way to introduce art students to computer environments and as a way for students to begin to write about their work. In addition, it was a way to create a collaboratively written "document" about the experience.

I avoided the creation of programmed "objects" (things with responsive behavior)- focusing instead on words and hypertextual linking. This "tiny scenery" approach didn't take advantage of the full range of the medium, but I wanted each student to be able to work in this virtual environment easily. And, like most writers, I believe that words alone are capable of creating rich virtual environments.

This was the second year I had worked with Deep Creek Students. The year before (working with email and conferencing systems) I found that because of the amount of learning required and the competition with mountain, forest, creek environment, few students actually sat down at the computer. Those who did were unlikely to return. (As an artist in residence, I was a resource as opposed to a teacher of a scheduled class)

In contrast, this year many students immediately immersed themselves in LambdaMOO and were interested in locating themselves and their work within the model Deep Creek School. Working with "details", students represented themselves and/or their work in any way that they wanted and linked themselves within the virtual model.

Although it could benefit by more depth writing and better spatial organization, Deep Creek School on LambdaMOO provided an effective way to introduce art students to online environments, coax students to start writing about their work and provide a record of the summer of 1994 at Deep Creek School. Ideally, it will be reshaped and repopulated by future Deep Creek students.

The narratives that I created in LambdaMoo are useful models for future Internet literature. Brown House Kitchen, in particular, is representative of the kind of narrative that will be possible in a future shared Internet space that incorporates audio, video, graphics.

As the Jupiter Project Team expresses it: "In the real world, people who do things together do so in the same place; the very act of sharing location enables joint activity.... We would like to see the richness of "place" conceptually embedded in the network." [22]


Notes and References

1. Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (New York, Simon & Schuster, 1995)

2. Lori Kendall, "MUDder? I hardy Know 'Er! Adventures of a Feminist MUDder," in Lynn Cherny and Elizabeth Reba Weise, eds. Wired Women: Gender and New Realities in Cyberspace. (Seattle, WA: Seal Press, 1996) pp. 207-223

3. Pavel Curtis, "Mudding: Social Phenomena in Text-Based Virtual Realities," Xerox PARC CSL-92-4, April 1992

4. Richard Bartle, "Interactive Multi-User Computer Games," MUSE Ltd Research Report, Dec. 1990. file://parcftp.xerox.com/pub/MOO/papers/

5. Pavel Curtis and David A. Nichols, "MUDs Grow Up: Social Virtual Reality in the Real World," Xerox PARC, May 5, 1993.

6. Pavel Curtis, LambdaMOO Programmer's Manual For LambdaMOO Version 1.8.1, May 2004

7. to get to Brown House Kitchen telnet://lambda.parc.xerox.com 8888 connect guest (or your character if you have one on LambdaMOO) type @go #24969. (note that this no longer works, and Brown House Kitchen is no longer available) However, the notes and programs for this work are available in the Judy Malloy Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

8. According to the wishes of students at Deep Creek School, the URL for Deep Creek on LambdaMoo is not publicly available.

9. PMC MOO provides access to texts generated by Postmodern Culture as well as an opportunity for realtime discussion, telnet://dewey.lib.ncsu.edu

10. Hypertext Hotel uses a filter that Tom Meyer created that takes Storyspace based hypertext documents and converts them to LambdaMOO,

11. Astro-VR is a social virtual reality intended for use by the international astronomy community, created by Xerox PARC in collaboration with Dave Van Buren, an astronomer at the NASA/JPL Infrared Processing and Analysis Center.

12. David Blair's WaxWeb site integrates collaboratively created hypertext writing, moving image, and sound,

13. To reach the LambdaMOO living room, telnet://lambda.moo.mud.org:8888 connect guest, open door (note that this may not be avaiable anymore)

14. Yduj Anderson, yduJ's Programming Tutorial

15. Cynthia Duval, "The Use of Artifacts as Tools for Thinking: a Sociocultural Study of Creative Work," unpublished manuscript, 1996.

16. Mark Weisner, "Some Computer Science Issues in Ubiquitous Computing," Communications of the ACM July 1993 36:7 75-84

17. Someone in CSL suggested that it might be beneficial to change these commands into more natural English. At the time I agreed, but as I got deeper into LambdaMoo I realized that this would be akin to visiting Paris and altering the French language to suit me.

18. Rich Gold told me that there was some research at PARC on selective videotaping that they called pre-narrative. The video recorder that is housed in Barbie-Q is programed to begin recording when human heart beats accelerate and to stop when they revert to normal.

19. The lexias are actually pseudo-randomly generated using the UNIX date function in much the same way that Terminals, the Third File of Uncle Roger works.

20. Judy Malloy, "Wasting Time, A Narrative Data Structure" In: After The Book (Perforations 3) summer, 1992.

21. Daniel L. Collins, School of Art Arizona State University and Charles R. Garoian, Associate Professor of Art Education School of Visual Arts, Penn State University "The Deep Creek School: Technology, Ecology, and the Body as Pedagogical Alternatives in Art Education," 1994

22. The Jupiter Project Team, Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, "Not a Highway, but a Place: Joint Activity on the Net," CPSR Newsletter, the quarterly publication of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, Fall 1994. The Jupiter Project is extending the MUD form to include audio and video.



The work I did to create Brown House Kitchen would not have been possible without the presence of Pavel Curtis and other knowledgeable, helpful CSL researchers including Rich Gold, Ron Frederick, Berry Kercheval, David Nichols, and Mark Weiser.
last updated: January, 2013

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