David spends twelve hours a day as a swashbuckling explorer in a
subterranean world of dungeons and elves. He plays a character called
Lotsu. He should be in class getting A grades. Instead he has succumbed
to the latest fad sweeping college campuses: total immersion into
multiuser fantasy games.
Multiuser fantasy games are electronic adventures run on a large network
fed by university and personal computers. Players commonly spend four or
five hours a day logged into fantasy worlds based on Star Trek, the
Hobbit, or Anne McCaffrey's popular novels about dragon-riders and
Students like David use school computers, or their own personal machine,
to log onto the Internet. This mega-network, now collectively funded by
governments, universities, and private corporations around the world,
subsidizes all ordinary passengers traveling across it. Colleges freely
issue Internet accounts to any student wanting to do "research." By
logging on from a dorm in Boston, a student can "drive" to any
participating computer in the world, link up for free and stay connected
for as long as he or she wishes.
What can one do with such virtual travel, besides downloading papers on
genetic algorithms? If 100 other students were to suddenly show up in
the same virtual place, it might be pretty cool. You could: throw a
party, devise pranks, role-play, scheme, and plot to build a better
world. All at the same time. The only thing you'd need is a multiuser
place to meet. A place to swarm online.
In 1978, Roy Trubshaw wrote an electronic role-playing game similar to
Dungeons and Dragons while he was in his final undergraduate year at
Essex College in England. The following year, his classmate Richard
Bartle took over the game, expanding the number of potential players and
their options for action. Trubshaw and Bartle called the game MUD, for
Multi-User Dungeons, and put it onto the Internet.
MUD is very much like the classic game ZORK, or any of the hundreds of
text-based adventure video games that have flourished on personal
computers since day one. The computer screen says: "You are in a cold,
damp dungeon lit by a flickering torch. There is a skull on the stone
floor. One hallway leads to the north, the other south. There is a grate
on the grimy floor."
Your job is to explore the room and its objects and eventually discover
treasures hidden in the labyrinth of other rooms connected to it. You'll
probably need to find a small collection of treasures and clues along
the way in order to win the motherlode booty, which is usually to break
a spell, or become a wizard, or kill the dragon, or escape the dungeon.
You explore by typing something like: "Look skull." The computer
replies: "The skull says, 'Beware of the rat.'" You type: "Look grate"
and the computer replies: "This way lies Death." You type: "Go north,"
and you exit through the tunnel on your way into the unknown in the next
MUD and its many improved offspring (known generically as MUDs, MUSEs,
TinyMUDs, etc.) are very similar to classic 1970s-style adventure games
but with two powerful improvements. First, MUDs can handle up to 100
other human players immersed in the dungeon along with you. This is the
distributed, parallel characteristic of MUDs. The others can be playing
alongside you as jolly partners, or against you as wicked adversaries,
or above you as capricious gods creating miracles and spells.
Secondly, and most significantly, the other players (and yourself) can
be at work adding rooms, modifying passages, or inventing new and
magical objects. You say to yourself, "What this place needs is a tower
where a bearded elf can enslave the unwary." So you make one. In short,
the players invent the world as they live in it. The game is to create a
cooler world than you had yesterday.
MUDs then become a parallel, distributed platform for a consensual
superorganism to emerge. Someone tinkers up a virtual holodeck for the
heck of it. Later, someone else adds a captain's bridge and maybe an
engine room. Next thing you know you have built the Starship Enterprise
in text. Over the course of months, several hundred other players (who
should be doing calculus homework) jack in and build a fleet of rooms
and devices until you wind up with fully staffed Klingon battleships,
Vulcan planets, and the interconnected galaxies of a StarTrek MUD. (Such
a place exists on the Internet.) You can log on at any time, 24 hours a
day, greet fellow members of the crew -- all in role-playing characters -- to
collectively obey orders broadcast by the captain, and battle enemy
ships built and managed by a different set of players.
The more hours one spends exploring and hacking the MUD-world, the more
status one earns from the rulers overseeing that world. A player who
assists newcomers, or who takes on janitorial chores in keeping the
database going, can earn increasing rank and power, such as being able
to teleport for free or being exempt from certain everyday laws.
Ultimately every MUDer dreams of achieving local god or wizard status.
Some become better gods than others. Ideally, gods promote fair play,
keep the system going, and help those "below." But stories of abusive
and deranged gods are legendary on the Internet.
Real-life events are recapitulated within MUDs and TinyMUDs. Players
will hold funerals and wakes for characters who die. There have been
TinyWeddings for virtual and real people. The slipperiness between real
life and virtual life is one of MUD's chief attractions, particularly
for teenage kids who are wrestling with their identity.
On a MUD, you define who you are. As you enter a room, others read your
description: "Judi enters. She is a tall, dark-haired Vulcan woman, with
small pointed ears, and a lovely reddish tinge to her skin. She walks
with a gymnast's bounce. Her green eyes seem to flirt." The author may
be petite female with a bad case of acne, or she may be a bearded male
masquerading as a women. So many female-presenting characters are
actually males pretending at this point that most savvy MUDers now
assume all players to be male unless proven otherwise. This has led to a
weird prejudice against true female players who are subject to the
harassment of "proving" their gender.
Most players live out virtual life with more than one character, as if
they are trying out various facets of their persona. "MUDs are a
workshop for the concept of identity," says Amy Bruckman, a MIT
researcher who studies the sociological aspects of MUDs and TinyMUDs.
"Many players notice that they are somehow different on the net than
off, and this leads them to reflect on who they are in real life."
Flirting, infatuation, romance, and even TinySex are as ubiquitous in
MUD worlds as on real campuses. Only the characters vary.
Sherry Turkle, who calls the computer an occasion for a "second self"
goes further. She says, "On a MUD, the self is multiplied and
decentralized." It is no coincidence that a multiple, decentralized
structure is the emerging model for understanding real-life, healthy
Pranks are also rampant. One demented player devised an invisible "spud"
that, when accidentally picked up by another player we'll call Visitor,
would remove Visitor's limbs. Others in the room would read: "Visitor
rolls about on the floor, twitching excitedly." The gods were summoned
to fix player Visitor. But as soon as they "looked" at him, they too got
spudded, so that everyone would read, "Wizard rolls about on the floor,
twitching excitedly." Ordinary objects can be booby-trapped to do almost
anything. A favorite pastime is to manufacture a neat object and get
others to copy it without knowing its true powers. For example, when you
innocently inspect a "Home Sweet Home" cross-stitch hanging on someone's
wall, it might instantly and forcibly teleport you home (while it
flashes "There is no place like home").
Since most MUDers are 20-year-old males, violence often permeates these
worlds. Elaborate slash-'n'-hack universes repel all but the most thick
skinned. But one experimental world running at MIT outlaws all killing
and has gathered a huge following of elementary and high school kids.
The world, Cyberion City, is modeled on a cylindrical space station. On
any one day about 500 kids beam up into Cyberion City to roam or build
without ceasing. So far the kids have built 50,000 objects, characters,
and rooms. There's a mall with multiplex cinema (and text movies written
by kids), a city hall, science museum, a Wizard of Oz theme park, a CB
radio network, acres of housing suburbs, and a tour bus. A robot real
estate agent roams around making deals with anyone who wants to buy a
There is deliberately no map of Cyberion City. To explore is the thrill.
Not to be told how things work is the teacher. You are expected to do
what the kids do: ask another kid. As Barry Kort, the real-life
administrator of the project, says, "One of the charms of entering an
unfamiliar environment and culture such as Cyberion City is that it
tends to put adults and children back on an equal footing. Some adults
would say it reverses the balance of power." The main architects of
Cyberion City are 15 years old, or younger. The sheer bustle and
intricacy of the land they have built is intimidating to the lone,
over-educated immigrant trying to get somewhere, or build anything. As
San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll exclaimed on his first
visit, "The psychological size of the place, all those rooms, and the
'puppets' flitting about, makes it seem like being dropped into downtown
Tokyo with a Tootsie Roll and a screwdriver." To survive is the only
Kids get lost, then find their way, then they get lost in another sense
and never leave. The continuous telecommunication traffic due to nonstop
MUDing can cripple a computer center. The college of Amherst outlawed
all MUDing from its campus. Australia, linked to the rest of the world
by a limited number of precious satellite datalines, banned all
international MUDs from the continent. Student-constructed virtual
worlds were crowding out bank note updates and calls from Aunt Sheila.
Other institutions are sure to follow the ban on unlimited virtual
Until now, every MUD going (and there are about 200 of them) has been
written by fanatical students in their spare time with no one's
approval. A couple of pseudo-MUDs have a large following on commercial
online services. These almost-MUDs, such as Federation 2, Gemstone, and
ImagiNation's Yserbius permit multiusers but give them only limited
power to alter their worlds. Xerox PARC is nurturing an experimental MUD
running on its company computer. This trial, code-named the Jupiter
Project, explores MUDs as a possible environment in which to run a
business. An experimental Scandinavian system and a start-up called the
Multiplayer Network (running a game called Kingdom of Drakkar) both
boast a prototype visual MUD. The dawn of commercial profit-making MUDs
in not far away.
Children of the 22nd century will marvel at Nintendo games of the 1990s
and wonder why anyone bothered to play a simulation where only one
person could enter. It's sort of like having one telephone in the world
and no one to talk to.
The future of MUDs, then, converges upon the future of SIMNET, the
future of SimCity, and the future of virtual reality. Somewhere in that
mix is the ultimate god game. I imagine it as a vast world set into
motion with a few well-chosen rules. It is populated by myriad
autonomous critters and other creatures who are mere simulacra of
distant human players. Characters unfold over time. Tangles grow.
Eventually the simulated world quickens with palpable energy as the
interrelations deepen and the entities alter and shape their world. The
participants -- real, fake, and hyperreal -- coevolve the system into a game
different than it began. Then, the god himself dons a pair of magic
goggles, suits up, and descends into his creation.
The god who lowered himself into his own creation is an old theme.
Stanislaw Lem once wrote a great science-fiction classic about a tyrant
who kept his world in a box. But another version predates it by