Erik Davis' Figments


Exploring Online Reality

In our media-primed brains, the phrase "virtual reality" triggers off images of Robocop helmets, studded gloves, and 3D Nintendo. VR is seen as the scuba gear for the seas of simulation, a purely technological means of tricking the central nervous system into inhabiting a digitally concocted space.

But some netheads are coming to suspect that MUDs--which, depending on whom you talk to, stands for either Multi-User Dimension or Multi-User Dungeon--have already incarnated the spirit, if not the letter, of VR. Called into being by variety of different programming languages with greasy-kid-stuff names like MUD, MUCK, MUSH, and MOO, MUDs have sprouted up mostly on university computers hooked to the Internet. But no matter what their underlying code, these environments allow folks to simultaneously log on from any computer on the net, construct virtual characters, and then explore and even extend the landscape.

With individual names that would comfortably emblazon a comic-book cover or the latest techno compilation (Death's Domain, Overdrive, UNITOPIA, GodNet, OpalMOO), most MUDs provide role-playing adventure games, while less structured ones create open-ended social environments where people breed the meanings and behaviors of virtual life. Largely catering to procrastinating undergraduates with free access to the Internet, MUDs also appeal to computer workers who can secretly slack in cyberspace. Once logged in, these folks generally chat with other characters, weave plots, make stuff, take stuff, kill things, or fuck. So why do many techies not consider MUDs "real" virtual reality? Because MUDs are not conjured out of cyberspace with snazzy graphics or immersive hardware but with our dustiest mental technology: writing.

The first time I entered a MUD, I went to hell. I dropped into LambdaMOO, a particularly heady MUD devoted to the free-range creation of virtual community. Since I hadn't created an online identity, the system dubbed me Blue_Guest and lobbed me into the Coat Closet:

The closet is a dark, cramped space. It appears to be very crowded in here; you keep bumping into what feels like coats, boots, and other people (apparently sleeping). One useful thing that you've discovered in your bumbling about is a metal doorknob set at waist level into what might be a door.

After screwing around, I typed "out" and entered the Living Room, where characters with names like Abraxas, Tetsuo, and Obvious were hanging out, their painful puns and quick retorts rapidly scrolling up the screen. They were also bonking each other with mallets and rubber duckies, which they managed to do by "emoting." If I had typed the command "emote throttles the duck," everyone else currently in the Living Room would have seen "Blue_Guest throttles the duck."

Using simple directional commands (north, south, out, etc,), I wandered through the Kitchen, the Family Room and out some glass doors into the Yard. The block of text that described the Yard indicated the presence of a large red lawnmower nearby. This machine was not just part of the scenic description but one of the scads of independent objects programmed by some motivated MOOer, many of which talk or perform simple tasks or tricks. After I managed to fire up this particular object, the thing ripped "me" apart with flashing slasher blades and I found myself in Hell: toasty rooms, devils, and screaming sinners right off a Sepultura CD cover. Later I would learn how to teleport around LambdaMOO's textual topography with a simple command, but at that moment I was stuck, a "clueless newbie" in the fiery pit, huis clos.

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MUDs are spectacles that bind. After Wired magazine ran Howard Reingold and Kevin Kelly's breezy, upbeat article on these virtual realities, horror stories swamped the letter's page: students having to be forcibly removed from their workstations, academic careers run aground, relationships destroyed. Having spent half of last summer stuck in a MUD, I have great respect for these sobering tales. After I caught the MUD bug, I'd hang out online until my eyes fried, chatting with excellent pals, tinkering with my room, hazing newbies. My modem was my lifeline; material friends grew tired of my constant busy signal and ceased calling. Increasingly unwashed, subsisting on toast, chips, and other goods easily consumed at the keyboard, I let my body wilt in the summer heat. In that six-week period, my freelance career nearly ground to a halt, and only sheer necessity and a novel degree of will on my part pushed me back into the cold turkey that MUDders call RL: real life.

To grok my particular enchantment with LambdaMOO, imagine for a moment the lot of the writer: painfully hacking away at words in solitude, then folding up the results into paper airplanes encrusted with ads for futons and phone sex, and finally shooting your work into the void. You hope the words fly, and you rarely see where they land. But by combining the control and craft of writing with the immediacy of a conference call, MUDs gave my text immediate feedback in kind from virtually live human beings. In MUDs, prose grows a phantom limb: you can poke, tickle, and stroke your pals, or skate along a surface of slippery puns until the tension between literalism and metaphor breaks down entirely. The group wordplay LambdaMOOers frequently indulge in not only reflect the hallowed place of puns in computer culture but the fact that MUDs animate language, firing it up into its most fecund, allusive, and polymorphous forms.

The more I hung around LambdaMOO and the more adept I became at its codes and commands, the more I came to psychically inhabit what at first seemed an arid, weightless realm only geeks could love. Though initially loosing consciousness from matter in a kind of gnostic rush, MUDs end up producing a curiously twin body, a doppelgänger that explores, wrestles, hugs, and laughs. Even more than printed texts, MUDs play out writing's perpetual game of hide-and-seek with the quality of "presence." One evening a particularly strong Internet-wide system drag clogged up the MOO. Usually these netstorms just increase the time lag between the act of typing and the arrival or your words onscreen. But this time the strange weather filled my screen with a hailstorm of random characters, before booting me off the MOO entirely and into net limbo. My sense of space instantly collapsed to the dimensions of my terminal screen, and it was only then that I realized with a slight shiver how embodied I had felt just moments before, hanging around in the nowhere land of LambdaMOO.

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Still, it's my initial trial by lawnmower and hellfire that keeps coming back to me, for the story of MUDs begins in the nastier regions of the imaginative id. Inspired by Dungeons & Dragons, the mother of all fantasy role-playing games, two University of Essex students built the first Multi-User Dungeon in 1979. Set in "the Land," their game laid the blueprint for the slew of bloody adventure MUDs to come: players create a role from a menu of races, player classes, and accessories; wander through forests, castles, and dungeons; crack puzzles, learn spells, and steal stuff; and attempt to terminate each other's characters with battle-axes.

For both cultural and technical reasons, adventure games and computer networks were a match made in purgatory. The "gods" who wrote and administered the MUD took on the demiurgic role of D&D's "dungeon masters," and the intoxicating fantasies elicited by face-to-face role-playing combat became in some ways even juicier when loosed in the virtual otherworld. Driven by the simple but powerful goals of avoiding death and accumulating enough wealth and experience to ascend to the coveted status of "wizard" (at which point some MUDs give the player direct control over the database), MUDders fed the modest fires of text-based VR with the fuels of the adolescent male: adrenaline, libido, and the heavy-metal imagination.

With their hierarchies, top-down creative control, and ceaseless drive towards closure, such "hack and slash" MUDs not only catered to teen boys but created what one could call "patriarchal" spaces.

But in 1989, an enterprising netdweller designed the first TinyMUD game, which jettisoned strict ranks and points, cooled the mayhem, and for the first time allowed all players to extend the MUD themselves, building objects and rooms with commands like @describe, @create, and @dig. Though not designed to overthrow role-playing games, TinyMUDs nonetheless began attracting netheads--many of them females--who had little interest in murdering trolls. With DIY creativity and egalitarianism programmed into the environment itself, TinyMUDs went social, players became inhabitants, and close-minded contests of mayhem gave way to the open-ended games of life: comradery, sex, gossip, debate, and factional politics, some of which revolved around the rules and regulations of the MUD itself.

Some TinyMUDders socialize within specific role-playing "themes" like Star Wars, Narnia, or Middle Earth, while in free-for-alls like LambdaMOO, people first stitch their costumes from comic books, private jokes, or the Illuminatus! trilogy and then run around creating objects and rooms that fuse dreamscapes, Leggo sets, and conceptual art. The highly popular FurryMUCK, which grew out of a non-net fandom surrounding supercute animal characters, demands only that your character be, well, furry. Once covered with a pelt, or feathers, or scales, you're free to do what you will--which in FurryMUCK generally means netsex, the online world's curious and surprisingly moist blend of phone sex and raunchy pen-pal letters. In contrast to role-playing games, the most performative language in social MUDs includes emotes like "slap" and "suck," though one always runs the risk that your new friend may log a juicy text-file from your dalliance in order to titillate his (and you can bet its his) virtual cronies.

By providing a romper rooms for students and the computer-literate, social MUDs took off. UC Berkeley's Islandia, an early TinyMUD, mushroomed to over 3000 players and almost 15,000 rooms in less than a year, before collapsing under its own weight. And when these digital ant-farms expand, they bloom into robust worlds notable both for their unpredictability and their strange familiarity. Because the threads that run through virtual communities are often the same ones that tie us down offline, the best MUDs remind us that much of what we take to be material reality consists of a dense semiotic web: chains of signs that MUDs both copy and relink. For example, male characters regularly hit on and help out female characters, even though most guys know that their new friends are quite possibly males in disguise (hot bods and come-ons are a dead giveaway). On the other hand, many women cross-dress or choose gender-neutral character handles, not because they're deconstructing desire but because don't want to deal with sleaze. The slippery soap opera of a wired world: What does gender mean when you can slap a cock on or erase it with one command? And how do you explain the propensity of so many MUDders to develop intense online crushes on beings who are composed of nothing but text?

Part of the answer is that messy ol' Eros is firing up all these weightless signs. Even without the loopy pleasures of netsex , virtual love affairs can be emotionally intense, resulting in more real-life encounters and marriages than you might guess. And like many MUD rituals, such affections say a lot about what goes on in the real world: lots of language and lot of projection. And when you get down and do it in the information super-road, you're surprised how hot semiotics suddenly become. But even if we know that true love can bloom in virtual reality, that does not help us solve one of the great metaphysical questions of cyberspace, a conundrum that sinks to the very heart of online ontology: if you fuck in a MUD, are you cheating in RL?

As MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle has written, in MUDs, "the rules of social interaction are built not received." But that begs the question: who gets to build the rules? Carving a place out of cyberspace is not the virtual equivalent of a Mennonite barn-party. The anonymity and freedom of MUDs have a way of invoking the id within, which partially explains how readily kids take to the slasher etiquette of combat MUDs. But social MUDs have an obvious interest in constraining such crass and anti-social behavior, and many purchase civility with top-down constraints on the action and speech of their players, with judges or wizzes ready to "toad" (expel) unruly players.

As MUDs map the wilderness of the electronic frontier, many reach for the metaphor of Main Street, with its sheriffs, judges, and schoolmarms (and bankers). But more radical frontier equivalents offer themselves to the virtual imagination: the nomadic tribes of hunter-gatherers, and the intentional communities of nineteenth-century utopians and heretics. Comparing FurryMUCK to Oneida may be a bit of a stretch, but both habitats develop new forms of community out of an erotically creative but ultimately constrained organization of spaces and practices. Then again, MUDs may eventually evolve past all received metaphors of community. For just as cyberspace dissolves physical boundaries, and scrambles the distinction between identity and information, so too does it eat at the category of "the rules" itself. As such, MUDs may become Petri dishes for that most beautifully chaotic of utopias: anarchy.

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For many VR wireheads and interactive game hackers, the only appeal of text-based MUDs is how little bandwidth they require. Compared to the future's glittering, sensually enveloping theme-parks, today's text-based MUDs seem like raggedy-assed gypsy camps in the arid outback of simulation.

But MUDs take on a more fantastic light when they're seen, not as baby steps on the golden road of total immersive VR, but as the apotheosis of writing. Most computer-literate high-brows have pegged hypertext--the permutation of narrative as nonlinear webs of linked textual objects that can be read in countless paths--as the likely site for the emergence of computer "literature". But MUDS create nonlinear texts in many ways more marvelous than the precious literary experiments beloved by Robert Coover. MUDs make text interactive, spontaneous, and collaborative; writers cobble together a collective hallucination (the rooms, object and characters), breed narratives of love and war, and jam like improv poets with their chat. Spaces proliferate like a Shangra La dreamt by the nomad philosopher Gilles Deleuze: Borgesian libraries, nests of Chinese boxes, orchards exfoliating from the patterns in Persian carpets. By materializing the postmodern truism that everything is a text, MUDs not only practice theory, but paradoxically reboot a very old paradigm: that the world around you is a book, a plenitude of living signs.

Balancing the creative freedom of TinyMUDs with the constraints of a specific mythos, many theme MUDs all players free reign within a specific literature--Dune, H. P. Lovecraft, cyberpunk. Drawn from the genres that have long served as the cultural lingua franca of computer geeks, theme MUDs don't quote the texts themselves but rather redeploy their characters, social hierarchies, geographies. Books are no longer narratives but worlds, mythic spaces that allow role-players to express their creativity within someone else's gilded frame.

A few theme MUDs even rip their worlds from "real" literature. Set in the fiery pits of Milton's Paradise Lost ("Welcome to Hell! We hope you like it here!"), Pandemonium players align themselves with a variety of factions (Sons of Light, The Black Guard, Servants of the Morningstar) and plot intrigues and assassinations. But not all theme MUDders murder for fun--PernMUSH, based on Anne McCaffrey's Dragon-riders of Pern series and perhaps the most realized theme MUD on the net, tolerates no combat at all. Choosing such mundane occupations as Harpers, Vinters, and SeaCrafters, in many ways Pern MUSHers just "live" (and love) in their animated books, seeking not only to fulfill every inner tyke's dream of riding dragons but more concrete desires for organic community.

Besides providing ideal fantastic maps, SF and fantasy work in MUDspace because the magic and future science of these genres bend the same rules of reality that MUD code does. In MUDs, you can communicate telepathically, shape-shift, teleport, create little machine selves, and conjure birds and pleasure domes out of thin air. As Vernor Vinge recognized in the novella True Names, which placed his (pre-Neuromancer) vision of cyberspace in a world of D&D medievalism, magical imagery functions as paradoxically pragmatic metaphors for the odd laws that rule the digital astral planes of VR. Even the binding spells wielded by 13-year-old necromancers in combat MUDs express of that virtual fact that changing language changes the world, for the world itself is made of language. And both poets and programmers have the power.

Most of the time, MUDding is no more sublime than hanging out in a bar and shooting darts. But by carving out a zone at once postmodern and mythic, MUDs can project the wired body into a strangely numinous realm. Just check out Divination Web, an occult social MUD with one of the richest, most evocative topographies on the net. Too few people hang out for good chat (perhaps they are intimidated by their surroundings), but the grounds are resplendent. You can scramble through the various paths and spheres on the kabbalistic Tree of Life, the West's greatest esoteric map, or explore Faery, a shamanic desert, a Satanic grotto. With Divination Web, MUDspace takes us towards what the great Islamic scholar Henry Corbin called the mundus imaginalus: the rich geographies captured in the various dreamtimes, summerlands, and celestial temples of esoteric and pagan lore. DivWeb's bare text gives the MUDs a surreal potency, for visitors are forced to fill in the gaps with their own archetypal faculties. Simultaneously inside and outside, MUDs can twist you like a Moebius strip, throwing you into worlds as concrete as the print you're reading now, but within which you move like a lucid dreamer.

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More than just demonstrating the postmodern cliche that "identity is a construction," MUDs enact it. Technically, your online "you" is just another object in the MUD database, a name and a description you can rewrite as easily as you change the message on your answering machine. In a space where everyone is at once person and persona, identity itself becomes a performance art. Theme MUDders delineate between being IC (in character) and OOC (out of character), but the distinction is notoriously difficult to maintain. Because the freedom and anonymity of MUDs often encourage inclinations more appropriate to a libidinal daydream than a cocktail party, the selves that emerge from people's clacking keyboards tend to include not only their mundane personalities or their heroic ideals, but the crustier, oddball character actors who are always waiting in the wings within.

As Sherry Turkle wrote, in MUDs, "the self is not only decentered but multiplied without limit." Not only can you cross-dress, tint the skin, and break the rules, but on many MUDs you can continually remake yourself by "morphing" into a series of different characters--a significant term, reminiscent at once of Ovid, Kafka, and the technological wizardry behind Terminator 2 and the Benneton utopia of Michael Jackson's "Black or White" video. As with radical fashion moves like shaving your head or wearing thigh-high leather boots, morphing alters your online sense of self, and intriguingly different voices emerge as you dip into your new role like a Method actor testing the waters: a warrior, a little girl, a vegetable god. Tinkering with the signs that make the self, one deepens the abstract theoretical notion of "multiplicity" into a somewhat uneasy carnival of being. And because your pals often don't recognize you, the plots of many a Shakespearean comedy suddenly appear quite relevant to your lived experience.

Of course, the very freedom that encourages self-creation allows an unparalleled level of deception. Deprived of most of the usual cues which allow folks to intuit judgements about strangers, online friendships generally proceed by gradual self-disclosures, though many people readily unload intimate details on very ghostly friends. Of course, identity claims cannot be verified short of "flesh-meets" (and even then, deception is possible), and a few nefarious folks use this fact for decidedly questionable games, cons, and seductions. And as Howard Rheingold points out in The Virtual Community, the net has yet to develop "collective immune system" against such deceit.

Still, despite the somewhat prosaic concerns of some Internet watchdogs (Rheingold characterizes gender deception as "sophomoric"), the ambiguity of online identity should be accepted as a gift from the tricksters of cyberspace--or at the very least, as the price of admission. Besides teaching us how much of the Other is supplied by the Self, online masks allow individuals to slip out of imposed social determinations (race, gender, physical disabilities, the "individual"), while at the same time unfolding potential selves hidden within. As MIT's Amy Bruckman, who runs the Media Lab's MediaMOO, wrote, MUDs are "identity workshops." If the MUD demographic expands from its current base (which, as one guy put it online, basically resembles a Rush concert), than MUDs may become an improv stage for an identity politics loosened from literalism, authenticity, and separate lunch tables. The Post Modern Culture MOO take on this--at one point it randomly overwrote your character description with a different gender, race, and sexual preference--was a novel if somewhat obnoxious start.

In a lecture on MUDs and identity at the Austin Cyberconf, Sherry Turkle made an intriguing aside about the drastic rise in the number of patients diagnosed with multiple-personality disorders. On the surface, such a development seems unrelated to the playgrounds of cyberspace, but I take her point to mean that the postmodern self is fragmenting before our eyes. It's like a comp-lit B-Movie: the theories of decentered subjectivity concocted in academic labs have leaked through the grates into the world at large, where they've spawned forms of cultural experience which oscillate between a rich diversity and a debilitating schizophrenia. Defining health as "a fluidity of access to different selves," Turkle asserted that MUDding (including periods of addiction) could be a healthy form of self-therapy--almost as if the fantastic schizophrenic ambiguity of MUDs gives us a better handle on daily life than our creaky, jerry-built conventional mores.

Of course, the schizo has long tangoed with technology. From the reality-shifting fables of Philip K. Dick, the android dreams of artificial intelligence, and the alien implants of the truly paranoid, we discover that the heart of our psychological fragmentation beats with the exacting rhythm of a flashing cursor. Our postmodern media, money, and information machines are surrounding, penetrating, and slowly disintegrating the industrial-issue ego. As we edge toward the lip of the millennium, it is the machine, nor nature, that arises as our great Other, our mythic mirror.

In MUDs, players engineer the self, while programmed routines partially achieve the status of selves. MUDders frequently go cyborg--not by morphing into Arnold, but by programming the MUD client to perform certain tasks your character would otherwise do themselves, like waving to incomers or responding to certain trigger phrases. Or online consciousness can be distributed though "puppets" who serve as your remote realtime "eyes" in other parts of the MUD. At the same time, MUDders frequently encounter programmed software objects called "bots," who greet you, ask questions, and perform certain simple tasks. It's easy to initially mistake them for real people--a real Blade Runner moment, when you think about it, and the players who like to masquerade as bots don't help clarify matters much.

Besides sending us postcards from the hyperspace beyond the bend, MUDs also provide a very pragmatic structural metaphor for the pressing problem of organizing simultaneous online interaction. By putting the space in cyberspace, MUDs are attracting the workaday world of the Internet: scientific research, online services, and, in the case of MIT's MediaMOO, an "endless conference reception." (Whoopee!) MUDs are growing up, and in contrast to the playful slack evinced in today's digital sand-boxes, these mature environments will help shape cyberspace into a working future.

But MUDs will lose some reality if they abandon fantasy, and today's crude VR offers a wayward intensity more mature endeavors may well lack: floating downstream through the Egyptian underworld; making out with a textual lover with phrases that stroke the screen; or clutching your gut as the character you've poured literally hundreds of hours of online time into dies at the hands of some eldritch sorcerer. For when today's humble MUDs grab you and won't let go, it's not because of force-feedback data-gloves or real-time 3D rendering but because their claws belong to Imagination, Sex, and Death: the three great dragons of the dungeon within.

(First appeared in the Village Voice, February 22, 1994.)

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