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Mudding: Social Phenomena in Text-Based Virtual Realities
A MUD (Multi-User Dungeon or, sometimes, Multi-User Dimension) is a
network-accessible, multi-participant, user-extensible virtual reality whose
user interface is entirely textual. Participants (usually called players) have
the appearance of being situated in an artificially-constructed place that also
contains those other players who are connected at the same time. Players can
communicate easily with each other in real time. This virtual gathering place
has many of the social attributes of other places, and many of the usual social
mechanisms operate there. Certain attributes of this virtual place, however,
tend to have significant effects on social phenomena, leading to new mechanisms
and modes of behavior not usually seen `IRL' (in real life). In this paper, I
relate my experiences and observations from having created and maintained a MUD
for over a year.
The Machine did not transmit nuances
A MUD is a software program that accepts `connections' from multiple users
across some kind of network (e.g., telephone lines or the Internet) and
provides to each user access to a shared database of `rooms', `exits', and
other objects. Each user browses and manipulates this database from `inside'
one of those rooms, seeing only those objects that are in the same room and
moving from room to room mostly via the exits that connect them. A MUD,
therefore, is a kind of virtual reality, an electronically-represented
`place' that users can visit.
MUDs are not, however, like the kinds of virtual realities that one usually
hears about, with fancy graphics and special hardware to sense the position and
orientation of the user's real-world body. A MUD user's interface to the
database is entirely text-based; all commands are typed in by the users and all
feedback is printed as unformatted text on their terminal. The typical MUD user
interface is most reminiscent of old computer games like Adventure and Zork
; a typical interaction is shown in Figure 1.
Three major factors distinguish a MUD from an Adventure-style computer game,
This last factor has a profound effect on the ways in which users interact with
the system; it transforms the activity from a solitary one into a social one.
Most inter-player communication on MUDs follows rules that fit within the
framework of the virtual reality. If a player `says' something (using the say
command), then every other player in the same room will `hear' them. For
example, suppose that a player named Munchkin typed the command
Then Munchkin would see the feedback
and every other player in the same room would see
Similarly, the emote command allows players to express various forms of `non-
verbal' communication. If Munchkin types
then every player in the same room sees
Most interplayer communication relies entirely on these two commands.*
* In fact, these two commands are so frequently used that single-character
abbreviations are provided for them. The two example commands would usually
be typed as follows:
There are two circumstances in which the realistic limitations of say and emote
have proved sufficiently annoying that new mechanisms were developed. It
sometimes happens that one player wishes to speak to another player in the same
room, but without anyone else in the room being aware of the communication.
If Munchkin uses the whisper command
then only Frebble will see
The other players in the room see nothing of this at all.
Finally, if one player wishes to say something to another who is connected to
the MUD but currently in a different and perhaps `remote' room, the page com-
mand is appropriate. It is invoked with a syntax very like that of the whisper
command and the recipient sees output like this:
Aside from conversation, MUD players can most directly express themselves in
three ways: by their choice of player name, by their choice of gender, and by
When a player first connects to a MUD, they choose a name by which the other
players will know them. This choice, like almost all others in MUDs, is not
cast in stone; any player can rename themself at any time, though not to a name
currently in use by some other player. Typically, MUD names are single words,
in contrast to the longer `full' names used in real life.
Initially, MUD players appear to be neuter; automatically-generated messages
that refer to such a player use the family of pronouns including `it', `its',
etc. Players can choose to appear as a different gender, though, and not only
male or female. On many MUDs, players can also choose to be plural (appearing
to be a kind of `colony' creature: "ChupChups leave the room, closing the door
behind them"), or to use one of several sets of gender-neutral pronouns (e.g.,
`s/he', `him/her' and `his/her', or `e', `em' and `eir').
Every object in a MUD optionally has a textual description which players can
view with the look command. For example, the description of a room is automat-
ically shown to a player when they enter that room and can be seen again just
by typing `look'. To see another player's description, one might type `look
Bert'. Players can set or change their descriptions at any time. The lengths
of player descriptions typically vary from short one-liners to dozen-line
Aside from direct communication and responses to player commands, messages
are printed to players when other players enter or leave the same room, when
others connect or disconnect and are already in the same room, and when objects
in the virtual reality have asynchronous behavior (e.g., a cuckoo clock chiming
MUD players typically spend their connected time socializing with each other,
exploring the various rooms and other objects in the database, and adding new
such objects of their own design. They vary widely in the amount of time they
spend connected on each visit, ranging from only a minute to several hours;
some players stay connected (and almost always idle) for days at a time, only
occasionally actively participating.
This very brief description of the technical aspects of mudding suffices for
the purposes of this paper. It has been my experience, however, that it is
quite difficult to properly convey the `sense' of the experience in words.
Readers desiring more detailed information are advised to try mudding
themselves, as described in the final section of this paper.
In October of 1990, I began running an Internet-accessible MUD server on my
personal workstation here at PARC. Since then, it has been running
continuously, with interruptions of only a few hours at most. In January of
1991, the existence of the MUD (called LambdaMOO*) was announced publicly, via
* The `MOO' in `LambdaMOO' stands for `MUD, Object-Oriented'. The origin of
the `Lambda' part is more obscure, based on my years of experience with the
Lisp programming language.
the Usenet newsgroup rec.games.mud. As of this writing, well over 3,500
different players have connected to the server from over a dozen countries
around the world and, at any given time, over 750 players have connected at
least once in the last week. Recent statistics concerning the number of players
connected at a given time of day (Pacific Standard Time) appear in Figure 2.
4 a.m. ************** 10-1/2
5 a.m. ***************** 12-1/4
6 a.m. ******************* 14
7 a.m. ************************** 18-3/4
8 a.m. ****************************** 21-1/4
9 a.m. *********************************** 25-1/4
10 a.m. *************************************** 28
11 a.m. ********************************************* 32-1/4
noon **************************************************** 37
1 p.m. ********************************************************** 41-1/4
2 p.m. ******************************************************** 39-3/4
3 p.m. ************************************************* 35
4 p.m. ******************************************************** 39-1/2
5 p.m. ********************************************************** 40-3/4
6 p.m. ******************************************************** 39-3/4
7 p.m. ********************************************************* 40-1/2
8 p.m. ************************************************************ 42-1/2
9 p.m. *************************************************************** 44-1/4
10 p.m. ***************************************************** 37-3/4
11 p.m. ******************************************** 31
midnight ************************************** 26-3/4
1 a.m. ***************************** 20-3/4
2 a.m. ******************* 13-3/4
3 a.m. *************** 10-3/4
4 a.m. ************** 10-1/2
Figure 2: Average number of connected players on LambdaMOO, by time of day
LambdaMOO is clearly a reasonably active place, with new and old players coming
and going frequently throughout the day. This popularity has provided me with a
position from which to observe the social patterns of a fairly large and
diverse MUD clientele. I want to point out to the reader, however, that I have
no formal training in sociology, anthropology, or psychology, so I cannot make
any claims about methodology or even my own objectivity. What I relate below is
merely my personal observations made over a year of mudding. In most cases, my
discussions of the motivations and feelings of individual players is based upon
in-MUD conversations with them; I have no means of checking the veracity of
their statements concerning their real-life genders, identities, or (obviously)
feelings. On the other hand, in most cases, I also have no reason to doubt
I have grouped my observations into three categories: phenomena related to the
behavior and motivations of individual players, phenomena related to inter-
actions between small groups of players (especially observations concerning MUD
conversation), and phenomena related to the behavior of a MUD's community as
Cutting across all of these categories is a recurring theme to which I would
like to draw the reader's attention in advance. Social behavior on MUDs is in
some ways a direct mirror of behavior in real life, with mechanisms being drawn
nearly unchanged from real-life, and in some ways very new and different,
taking root in the new opportunities that MUDs provide over real life.
** The mudding population. The people who have an opportunity to connect to
LambdaMOO are not a representative sample of the world population; they all
read and write English with at least passable proficiency and they have access
to the Internet. Based on the names of their network hosts, I believe that well
over 90% of them are affiliated with colleges and universities, mostly as
students and, to a lesser extent, mostly undergraduates. Because they have
Internet access, it might be supposed that the vast majority of players are
involved in the computing field, but I do not believe that this is the case.
It appears to me that no more than half (and probably less) of them are so
employed; the increasing general availability of computing resources on college
campuses and in industry appears to be having an effect, allowing a broader
community to participate.
In any case, it appears that the educational background of the mudding com-
munity is generally above average and it is likely that the economic background
is similarly above the norm. Based on my conversations with people and on the
names of those who have asked to join a mailing list about programming in
LambdaMOO, I would guess that over 70% of the players are male; it is very
difficult to give any firm justification for this number, however.
** Player presentation. As described in the introduction to mudding, players
have a number of choices about how to present themselves in the MUD; the first
such decision is the name they will use. Figure 3 shows some of the names used
by players on LambdaMOO.
One can pick out a few common styles for names (e.g., names from or inspired by
myth, fantasy, or other literature, common names from real life, names of
concepts, animals, and everyday objects that have representative
connotations, etc.), but it is clear that no such category includes a majority
of the names. Note that a significant minority of the names are in lower case;
this appears to be a stylistic choice (players with such names describe the
practice as `cool') and not, as might be supposed, an indication of a depressed
Players can be quite possessive about their names, resenting others who choose
names that are similarly spelt or pronounced or even that are taken from the
same mythology or work of literature. In one case, for example, a player named
`ZigZag' complained to me about other players taking the names `ZigZag!' and
The choice of a player's gender is, for some, one of great consequence and
forethought; for others (mostly males), it is simple and without any questions.
For all that this choice involves the fewest options for the player (unlike
their name or description, which are limited only by their imagination), it is
also the choice that can generate the greatest concern and interest on the part
of other players.
As I've said before, 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 per-
haps 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. (I say more about anonymity later on.)
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 report a number of problems. Many of them have told
me that they are frequently subject both to harassment and to special treat-
ment. One reported seeing two newcomers arrive at the same time, one male-pre-
senting and one female-presenting. The other players in the room struck up
conversations with the putative female and offered to show her around but com-
pletely 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 some-
times 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
Because of these problems, many players who are female in real life choose to
present themselves otherwise, choosing either male, neuter, or gender-neutral
pronouns. As one might expect, the neuter and gender-neutral presenters are
still subject to demands that they divulge their real gender.
Some players apparently find it quite difficult to interact with those whose
true gender has been called into question; since this phenomenon is rarely
manifest in real life, they have grown dependent on `knowing where they
stand', on knowing what gender roles are `appropriate'. Some players (and not
only males) also feel that it is dishonest to present oneself as being a
different gender than in real life; they report feeling `mad' and `used' when
they discover the deception.
While I can spare no more space for this topic, I enthusiastically encourage
the interested reader to look up Van Gelder's fascinating article  for many
more examples and insights, as well as the story of a remarkably successful
deception via "electronic transvestism".
The final part of a player's self-presentation, and the only part involving
prose, is the player's description. This is where players can, and often do,
establish the details of a persona or role they wish to play in the virtual
reality. It is also a significant factor in other players' first impressions,
since new players are commonly looked at soon after entering a common room.
Some players use extremely short descriptions, either intending to be cryptic
(e.g., `the possessor of the infinity gems') or straightforward (e.g., `an
average-sized dark elf with lavender eyes') or, often, just insufficiently
motivated to create a more complex description for themselves. Other players go
to great efforts in writing their descriptions; one moderately long example
appears in Figure 4.
You see a quiet, unassuming figure, wreathed in an oversized,
dull-green Army jacket which is pulled up to nearly conceal his
face. His long, unkempt blond hair blows back from his face as he
tosses his head to meet your gaze. Small round gold-rimmed glasses,
tinted slightly grey, rest on his nose. On a shoulder strap he
carries an acoustic guitar and he lugs a backpack stuffed to
overflowing with sheet music, sketches, and computer printouts.
Under the coat are faded jeans and a T-Shirt reading `Paranoid
CyberPunks International'. He meets your gaze and smiles faintly,
but does not speak with you. As you surmise him, you notice a glint
of red at the rims of his blue eyes, and realize that his canine
teeth seem to protrude slightly. He recoils from your look of
horror and recedes back into himself.
A large proportion of player descriptions contain a degree of wish fulfillment;
I cannot count the number of `mysterious but unmistakably powerful' figures I
have seen wandering around in LambdaMOO. Many players, it seems, are taking
advantage of the MUD to emulate various attractive characters from fiction.
Given the detail and content of so many player descriptions, one might expect
to find a significant amount of role-playing, players who adopt a coherent
character with features distinct from their real-life personalities. Such is
rarely the case, however. Most players appear to tire of such an effort quickly
and simply interact with the others more-or-less straightforwardly, at least to
the degree one does in normal discourse. One factor might be that the roles
chosen by players are usually taken from a particular creative work and are not
particularly viable as characters outside of the context of that work; in
short, the roles don't make sense in the context of the MUD.
A notable exception to this rule is one particular MUD I've heard of, called
`PernMUSH'. This appears to be a rigidly-maintained simulacrum of the world
described in Ann McCaffrey's celebrated `Dragon' books. All players there have
names that fit the style of the books and all places built there are consistent
with what is shown in the series and in various fan materials devoted to it.
PernMUSH apparently holds frequent `hatchings' and other social events, also
derived in great detail from McCaffrey's works. This exception probably
succeeds only because of its single-mindedness; with every player providing the
correct context for every other, it is easier for everyone to stay more-or-less
** Player anonymity. It seems to me that the most significant social factor in
MUDs is the perfect anonymity provided to the players. There are no commands
available to the players to discover the real-life identity of each other
and, indeed, technical considerations make such commands either very
difficult or impossible to implement.
It is this guarantee of privacy that makes players' self-presentation so impor-
tant and, in a sense, successful. Players can only be known by what they
explicitly project and are not `locked into' any factors beyond their easy
control, such as personal appearance, race, etc. In the words of an old
military recruiting commercial, MUD players can `be all that you can be'.*
* Kiesler and her colleagues  have investigated the effects of electronic
anonymity on the decision-making and problem-solving processes in
organizations; some of their observations parallel mine given here.
This also contributes to what might be called a `shipboard syndrome', the feel-
ing that since one will likely never meet anyone from the MUD in real life,
there is less social risk involved and inhibitions can safely be lowered.
For example, many players report that they are much more willing to strike up
conversations with strangers they encounter in the MUD than in real life. One
obvious factor is that MUD visitors are implicitly assumed to be interested in
conversing, unlike in most real world contexts. Another deeper reason,
though, is that players do not feel that very much is at risk. At worst, if
they feel that they've made an utter fool of themself, they can always abandon
the character and create a new one, losing only the name and the effort
invested in socially establishing the old one. In effect, a `new lease on life'
is always a ready option.
Players on most MUDs are also emboldened somewhat by the fact that they are
immune from violence, both physical and virtual. The permissions systems of all
MUDs (excepting those whose whole purpose revolves around adventuring and the
slaying of monsters and other players) generally prevent any player from having
any kind of permanent effect on any other player. Players can certainly annoy
each other, but not in any lasting or even moderately long-lived manner.
This protective anonymity also encourages some players to behave irresponsi-
bly, rudely, or even obnoxiously. We have had instances of severe and repeated
sexual harassment, crudity, and deliberate offensiveness. In general, such
cruelty seems to be supported by two causes: the offenders believe (usually
correctly) that they cannot be held accountable for their actions in the real
world, and the very same anonymity makes it easier for them to treat other
players impersonally, as other than real people.
** Wizards. Usually, as I understand it, societies cope with offensive behavior
by various group mechanisms, such as ostracism, and I discuss this kind of
effect in detail in Section 2.3. In certain severe cases, however, it is left
to the `authorities' or `police' of a society to take direct action, and MUDs
are no different in this respect.
On MUDs, it is a special class of players, usually called wizards or (less fre-
quently) gods, who fulfill both the `authority' and `police' roles. A wizard is
a player who has special permissions and commands available, usually for the
purpose of maintaining the MUD, much like a `system administrator' or
`superuser' in real-life computing systems. Players can only be transformed
into wizards by other wizards, with the maintainer of the actual MUD server
computer program acting as the first such.
On most MUDs, the wizards' first approach to solving serious behavior prob-
lems is, as in the best real-life situations, to attempt a calm dialog with the
offender. When this fails, as it usually does in the worst cases of
irresponsibility, the customary response is to punish the offender with
`toading'. This involves (a) either severely restricting the kinds of actions
the player can take or else preventing them from connecting at all, (b)
changing the name and description of the player to present an unpleasant
appearance (often literally that of a warty toad), and (c) moving the player to
some very public place within the virtual reality. This public humiliation is
often sufficient to discourage repeat visits by the player, even in a different
On LambdaMOO, the wizards as a group decided on a more low-key approach to the
problem; we have, in the handful of cases where such a severe course was
dictated, simply `recycled' the offending player, removing them from the
database of the MUD entirely. This is a more permanent solution than toading,
but also lacks the public spectacle of toading, a practice none of us were
Wizards, in general, have a very different experience of mudding than other
players. Because of their palpable and extensive extra powers over other
players, and because of their special role in MUD society, they are frequently
treated differently by other players.
Most players on LambdaMOO, for example, upon first encountering my wizard
player, treat me with almost exaggerated deference and respect. I am fre-
quently called `sir' and players often apologize for `wasting' my time. A
significant minority, however, appear to go to great lengths to prove that they
are not impressed by my office or power, speaking to me quite bluntly and
making demands that I assist them with their problems using the system,
sometimes to the point of rudeness.
Because of other demands on my time, I am almost always connected to the MUD
but idle, located in a special room I built (my `den') that players require my
permission to enter. This room is useful, for example, as a place in which to
hold sensitive conversations without fear of interruption. This constant
presence and unapproachability, however, has had significant and unanticipated
side-effects. I am told by players who get more circulation than I do that I am
widely perceived as a kind of mythic figure, a mysterious wizard in his magical
tower. Rumor and hearsay have spread word of my supposed opinions on matters of
MUD policy. One effect is that players are often afraid to contact me for fear
of capricious retaliation at their presumption.
While I find this situation disturbing and wish that I had more time to spend
out walking among the `mortal' members of the LambdaMOO community, I am told
that player fears of wizardly caprice are justified on certain other MUDs. It
is certainly easy to believe the stories I hear of MUD wizards who demand
deference and severely punish those who transgress; there is a certain ego
boost to those who wield even simple administrative power in virtual worlds and
it would be remarkable indeed if no one had ever started a MUD for that reason
In fact, one player sent me a copy of an article, written by a former MUD wiz-
ard, based on Machiavelli's `The Prince'; it details a wide variety of
more-or-less creative ways for wizards to make ordinary MUD players miserable.
If this wizard actually used these techniques, as he claims, then some
players' desires to avoid wizards are quite understandable.
** MUD conversation. The majority of players spend the majority of their active
time on MUDs in conversation with other players. The mechanisms by which those
conversations get started generally mirror those that operate in real life,
though sometimes in interesting ways.
Chance encounters between players exploring the same parts of the database are
common and almost always cause for conversation. As mentioned above, the
anonymity of MUDs tends to lower social barriers and to encourage players to be
more outgoing than in real life. Strangers on MUDs greet each other with the
same kinds of questions as in real life: "Are you new here? I don't think we've
met." The very first greetings, however, are usually gestural rather than
verbal: "Munchkin waves. Lorelei waves back."
The @who (or WHO) command on MUDs allows players to see who else is currently
connected and, on some MUDs, where those people are. An example of the output
of this command appears in Figure 5.
This is, in a sense, the MUD analog of scanning the room in a real-life
gathering to see who's present.
Players consult the @who list to see if their friends are connected and to see
which areas, if any, seem to have a concentration of players in them. If more
than a couple of players are in the same room, the presumption is that an
interesting conversation may be in progress there; players are thus more
attracted to more populated areas. I call this phenomenon `social gravity'; it
has a real-world analog in the tendency of people to be attracted to
conspicuous crowds, such as two or more people at the door of a colleague's
It is sometimes the case on a MUD, as in real life, that one wishes to avoid
getting into a conversation, either because of the particular other player
involved or because of some other activity one does not wish to interrupt. In
the real world, one can refrain from answering the phone, screen calls using an
answering machine, or even, in copresent situations, pretend not to have heard
the other party. In the latter case, with luck, the person will give up rather
than repeat themself more loudly.
The mechanisms are both similar and interestingly different on MUDs. It is
often the case that MUD players are connected but idle, perhaps because they
have stepped away from their terminal for a while. Thus, it often happens that
one receives no response to an utterance in a MUD simply because the other
party wasn't really present to see it. This commonly-understood fact of MUD
life provides for the MUD equivalent of pretending not to hear. I know of
players who take care after such a pretense not to type anything more to the
MUD until the would-be conversant has left, thus preserving the apparent
validity of their excuse.
Another mechanism for avoiding conversation is available to MUD players but, as
far as I can see, not to people in real life situations. Most MUDs provide a
mechanism by which each player can designate a set of other players as
`gagged'; the effect is that nothing will be printed to the gagging player if
someone they've gagged speaks, moves, emotes, etc. There is generally no
mechanism by which the gagged player can tell a priori that someone is gagging
them; indeed, unless the gagged player attempts to address the gagging player
directly, the responses from the other players in the room (who may not be
gagging the speaker) may cause the speaker never even to suspect that some are
not hearing them.
We provide a gagging facility on LambdaMOO, but it is fairly rarely used; a
recent check revealed only 45 players out of almost 3,000 who are gagging other
players. The general feeling appears to be that gagging is quite rude and is
only appropriate (if ever) when someone persists in annoying you in spite of
polite requests to the contrary. It is not clear, though, quite how universal
this feeling is. For example, I know of some players who, on being told that
some other players were offended by their speech, suggested that gagging was
the solution: "If they don't want to hear me, let them gag me; I won't be
offended." Also, I am given to understand that gagging is much more commonly
employed on some other MUDs.
The course of a MUD conversation is remarkably like and unlike one in the real
world. Participants in MUD conversations commonly use the emote command to
make gestures, such as nodding to urge someone to continue, waving at player
arrivals and departures, raising eyebrows, hugging to apologize or soothe, etc.
As in electronic mail (though much more frequently), players employ standard
`smiley-face' glyphs (e.g., `:-)', `:-(`, and `:-|') to clarify the `tone' with
which they say things. Utterances are also frequently addressed to specific
participants, as opposed to the room as a whole (e.g., "Munchkin nods to
Frebble. `You tell `em!'").
The most obvious difference between MUD conversations and those in real life is
that the utterances must be typed rather than simply spoken. This introduces
significant delays into the interaction and, like nature, MUD society abhors a
Even when there are only two participants in a MUD conversation, it is very
rare for there to be only one thread of discussion; during the pause while one
player is typing a response, the other player commonly thinks of something else
to say and does so, introducing at least another level to the conversation, if
not a completely new topic. These multi-topic conversations are a bit
disorienting and bewildering to the uninitiated, but it appears that most
players quickly become accustomed to them and handle the multiple levels
smoothly. Of course, when more than two players are involved, the opportunities
for multiple levels are only increased. It has been pointed out that a suitable
punishment for truly heinous social offenders might be to strand them in a room
with more than a dozen players actively conversing.
This kind of cognitive time-sharing also arises due to the existence of the
page command. Recall from the introduction that this command allows a player to
send a message to another who is not in the same room. It is not uncommon
(especially for wizards, whose advice is frequently sought by `distant'
players) to be involved in one conversation `face-to-face' and one or two more
conducted via page. Again, while this can be overwhelming at first, one can
actually come to appreciate the relief from the tedious long pauses waiting for
a fellow conversant to type.
Another effect of the typing delay (and of the low bandwidth of the MUD medium)
is a tendency for players to abbreviate their communications, sometimes past
the point of ambiguity. For example, some players often greet others with
`hugs' but the `meanings' of those hugs vary widely from recipient to recipi-
ent. In one case the hug might be a simple friendly greeting, in another it
might be intended to convey a very special affection. In both cases, the text
typed by the hugger is the same (e.g., "Munchkin hugs Frebble."); it is
considered too much trouble for the hugger to type a description of the act
sufficient to distinguish the `kind' of hug intended. This leads to some MUD
interactions having much more ambiguity than usually encountered in real life,
a fact that some mudders consider useful.
The somewhat disjointed nature of MUD conversations, brought on by the typing
pauses, tends to rob them of much of the coherence that makes real-life
conversants resent interruptions. The addition of a new conversant to a MUD
conversation is much less disruptive; the `flow' being disrupted was never very
strong to begin with. Some players go so far as to say the interruptions are
simply impossible on MUDs; I think that this is a minority impression, however.
Interruptions do exist MUDs; they are simply less significant than in real
** Other small-group interactions. I would not like to give the impression that
conversation is the only social activity on MUDs. Indeed, MUD society appears
to have most of the same social activities as real life, albeit often in a
As mentioned before, PernMUSH holds large-scale, organized social gatherings
such as `hatchings' and they are not alone. Most MUDs have at one time or
another organized more or less elaborate parties, often to celebrate notable
events in the MUD itself, such as an anniversary of its founding. We have so
far had only one or two such parties on LambdaMOO, to celebrate the `opening'
of some new area built by a player; if there were any other major parties, I
certainly wasn't invited!
One of the more impressive examples of MUD social activity is the virtual
wedding. There have been many of these on many different MUDs; we are in the
process of planning our first on LambdaMOO, with me officiating in my role as
I have never been present at such a ceremony, but I have read logs of the con-
versations at them. As I do not know any of the participants in the ceremonies
I've read about, I cannot say much for certain about their emotional content.
As in real life, they are usually very happy and celebratory occasions with an
intriguing undercurrent of serious feelings. I do not know and cannot even
speculate about whether or not the main participants in such ceremonies are
usually serious or not, whether or not the MUD ceremony usually (or even ever)
mirrors another ceremony in the real world, or even whether or not the bride
and groom have ever met outside of virtual reality.
In the specific case of the upcoming LambdaMOO wedding, the participants first
met on LambdaMOO, became quite friendly, and eventually decided to meet in real
life. They have subsequently become romantically involved in the real world and
are using the MUD wedding as a celebration of that fact. This phenomenon of
couples meeting in virtual reality and then pursuing a real-life relation-
ship, is not uncommon; in one notable case, they did this even though one of
them lived in Australia and the other in Pittsburgh!
It is interesting to note that the virtual reality wedding is not specific to
the kinds of MUDs I've been discussing; Van Gelder  mentions an on-line
reception on CompuServe and weddings are quite common on Habitat , a
half-graphical, half-textual virtual reality popular in Japan.
The very idea, however, brings up interesting and potentially important ques-
tions about the legal standing of commitments made only in virtual reality.
Suppose, for example, that two people make a contract in virtual reality. Is
the contract binding? Under which state's (or country's) laws? Is it a written
or verbal contract? What constitutes proof of signature in such a context? I
suspect that our real-world society will have to face and resolve these issues
in the not-too-distant future.
Those who frequent MUDs tend also to be interested in games and puzzles, so it
is no surprise that many real-world examples have been implemented inside MUDs.
What may be surprising, however, is the extent to which this is so.
On LambdaMOO alone, we have machine-mediated Scrabble, Monopoly, Mastermind,
Backgammon, Ghost, Chess, Go, and Reversi boards. These attract small groups of
players on occasion, with the Go players being the most committed; in fact,
there are a number of Go players who come to LambdaMOO only for that purpose. I
say more about these more specialized uses of social virtual realities later
on. In many ways, though, such games so far have little, if anything, to offer
over their real-world counterparts except perhaps a better chance of finding an
Perhaps more interesting are the other kinds of games imported into MUDs from
real life, the ones that might be far less feasible in a non-virtual reality. A
player on LambdaMOO, for example, implemented a facility for holding food
fights. Players throw food items at each other, attempt to duck oncoming items,
and, if unsuccessful, are `splattered' with messes that cannot easily be
removed. After a short interval, a semi-animate `Mr. Clean' arrives and
one-by-one removes the messes from the participants, turning them back into the
food items from which they came, ready for the next fight. Although the game
was rather simple to implement, it has remained enormously popular nearly a
Another player on LambdaMOO created a trainable Frisbee, which any player could
teach to do tricks when they threw or caught it. Players who used the Frisbee
seemed to take great pleasure in trying to out-do each other's trick descrip-
tions. My catching description, for example, reads "Haakon stops the frisbee
dead in the air in front of himself and then daintily plucks it, like a
flower." I have also heard of MUD versions of paint-ball combat and fantastical
games of Capture the Flag.
MUD communities tend to be very large in comparison to the number of players
actually active at any given time. On LambdaMOO, for example, we have between
700 and 800 players connecting in any week but rarely more than 40
simultaneously. A good real-world analog might be a bar with a large number of
`regulars', all of whom are transients without fixed schedules.
The continuity of MUD society is thus somewhat tenuous; many pairs of active
players exist who have never met each other. In spite of this, MUDs do become
true communities after a time. The participants slowly come to consensus about
a common (private) language, about appropriate standards of behavior, and about
the social roles of various public areas (e.g., where big discussions usually
happen, where certain `crowds' can be found, etc.).
Some people appear to thrive on the constant turnover of MUD players throughout
a day, enjoying the novelty of always having someone new to talk to. In some
cases, this enjoyment goes so far as to become a serious kind of addiction,
with some players spending as much as 35 hours out of 48 constantly connected
and conversing on MUDs. I know of many players who have taken more-or-less
drastic steps to curtail their participation on MUDs, feeling that their habits
had gotten significantly out of control.
One college-student player related to me his own particularly dramatic case of
MUD addiction. It seems that he was supposed to go home for the Christmas hol-
idays but missed the train by no less than five hours because he had been
unable to tear himself away from his MUD conversations. After calling his
parents to relieve their worrying by lying about the cause of his delay, he
eventually boarded a train for home. However, on arrival there at 12:30 a.m.
the next morning, he did not go directly to his parents' house but instead
went to an open terminal room in the local university, where he spent another
two and a half hours connected before finally going home. His parents,
meanwhile, had called the police in fear for their son's safety in traveling.
It should not be supposed that this kind of problem is now commonly-under-
stand phenomenon of `computer addiction'; the fact that there is a computer
involved here is more-or-less irrelevant. These people are not addicted to
computers, but to communication; the global scope of Internet MUDs implies
not only a great variety in potential conversants, but also 24-hour access. As
Figure 2 shows, the sun never really sets on LambdaMOO's community.
While it is at the more macroscopic scale of whole MUD communities that I feel
least qualified to make reliable observations, I do have one striking example
of societal consensus having concrete results on LambdaMOO.
From time to time, we wizards are asked to arbitrate in disputes among play-
ers concerning what is or is not appropriate behavior. My approach generally
has been to ask a number of other players for their opinions and to present the
defendant in the complaint with a precis of the plaintiff's grievance, always
looking for the common threads in their responses. After many such episodes, I
was approached by a number of players asking that a written statement on
LambdaMOO `manners' be prepared and made available to the community. I wrote up
a list of those rules that seemed implied by the set of arbitrations we had
performed and published them for public comment. Very little comment has ever
been received, but the groups of players I've asked generally agree that the
rules reflect their own understandings of the common will. For the curious, I
have included our list of rules in Figure 6; the actual `help manners' document
goes into a bit more detail about each of these points.
It should be noted that different MUDs are truly different communities and have
different societal agreements concerning appropriate behavior. There even exist
a few MUDs where the only rule in the social contract is that there is no
social contract. Such `anarchy' MUDs have appeared a few times in my experience
and seem to be quite popular for a time before eventually fading away.
A recent listing of Internet-accessible MUDs showed almost 200 active around
the world, mostly in the United States and Scandinavia. A conservative guess
that these MUDs average 100 active players each gives a total of 20,000 active
mudders in the world today; this is almost certainly a significant undercount
already and the numbers appear to be growing as more and more people gain
In addition, at least one MUD-like area exists on the commercial CompuServe
network in the United States and there are several more commercial MUDs active
in the United Kingdom. Finally, there is Habitat, a half-graphical, half
textual virtual reality in Japan, with well over 10,000 users.
I believe that text-based virtual realities and wide-area interactive `chat'
facilities  are becoming more and more common and will continue to do so
for the foreseeable future. Like CB radios and telephone party lines before
them, MUDs seem to provide a necessary social outlet.
The MUD model is also being extended in new ways for new audiences. For
example, I am currently involved in adapting the LambdaMOO server for use as an
international teleconferencing and image database system for astronomers. Our
plans include allowing scientists to give on-line presentations to their col-
leagues 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. 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.
On another front, I am engaged with some colleagues in the design of a MUD for
general use here at Xerox PARC. The idea here is to use virtual reality to help
break down the geographical barriers of a large building, of people
increasingly working from their homes, and of having a sister research
laboratory in Cambridge, England. In this context, we intend to investigate
the addition of digital voice to MUDs, with the conventions of the virtual
reality providing a simple and intuitive style of connection management: if two
people are in the same virtual room, then their audio channels are connected.
Some virtual rooms may even overlap real-world rooms, such as those in which
talks or other meetings are held.
Of course, one can expect a number of important differences in the social phe-
nomena on MUDs in a professional setting. In particular, I would guess that
anonymity might well be frowned upon in such places, though it may have some
interesting special uses, for example in the area of refereeing papers.
Some of my colleagues have suggested that the term `text-based virtual real-
ity' is an oxymoron, that `virtual reality' refers only to the fancy graphical
and motion-sensing environments being worked on in many places. They go on to
predict that these more physically-involving systems will supplant the
text-based variety as soon as the special equipment becomes a bit more widely
and cheaply available. I do not believe that this is the case.
While I agree that the fancier systems are likely to become very popular for
certain applications and among those who can afford them, I believe that MUDs
have certain enduring advantages that will save them from obsolescence.
The equipment necessary to participate fully in a MUD is significantly cheaper,
more widely available, and more generally useful than that for the fancy
systems; this is likely to remain the case for a long time to come. For
example, it is already possible to purchase palm-sized portable computers with
network connectivity and text displays, making it possible to use MUDs even
while riding the bus, etc. Is similarly-flexible hardware for fancy virtual
realities even on the horizon?
It is substantially easier for players to give themselves vivid, detailed, and
interesting descriptions (and to do the same for the descriptions and behavior
of the new objects they create) in a text-based system than in a graphics-based
one. In McLuhan's terminology , this is because MUDs are a `cold' medium,
while ore graphically-based media are `hot'; that is, the sensorial parsimony
of plain text tends to entice users into engaging their imaginations to fill in
missing details while, comparatively speaking, the richness of stimuli in fancy
virtual realities has an opposite tendency, pushing users' imaginations into a
more passive role. I also find it difficult to believe that a graphics-based
system will be able to compete with text for average users on the metric of
believable detail per unit of effort expended; this is certainly the case now
and I see little reason to believe it will change in the near future.
Finally, one of the great strengths of MUDs lies in the users' ability to
customize them, to extend them, and to specialize them to the users'
particular needs. The ease with which this can be done in MUDs is directly
related to the fact that they are purely text-based; in a graphics-based
system, the overhead of creating new moderate-quality graphics would put the
task beyond the inclinations of the average user. Whereas, with MUDs, it is
easy to imagine an almost arbitrarily small community investing in the creation
of a virtual reality that was truly customized for that community, it seems
very unlikely that any but the largest communities would invest the
greatly-increased effort required for a fancier system.