Rationale and Literature Review
Magnafix says, "Have you figured out the secret entrance to
Kahn Draxen's castle?"
Newtrik sighs deeply.
Newtrik says, "I think so, but I haven't found the stone key yet!"
Magnafix grins mischievously.
Magnafix gives a stone key to Newtrik.
Newtrik smiles happily.
Newtrik shakes hands with Magnafix.
Newtrik says, "Thanks!"
Magnafix grins broadly and says, "No problem..."
Newtrik leaves west.
The purpose of this thesis is to investigate the communicative phenomena to be found in those
environments known as Internet MUDs, or Multi-User Dimensions. These text-based virtual realities are
presently available to students and faculty at most learning institutions, as well as anyone with a computer
and a modem. Though the term "virtual reality" has become connected for many with visions of fancy
headgear and million dollar gloves, MUDs require no such hardware. They are, however, a form of
virtual reality, "because they construct enduring places, objects, and user identities. These objects have
characteristics that define and constrain how users can interact with them," (Holmes & Dishman, 1994,
p. 6). Having been created in their most rudimentary form nearly two decades ago, the technology that
supports MUD interaction is well developed and has spawned a new variety of communicative
environment, one that thousands if not millions of users have found fiercely compelling.
Since MUDs are generally restricted to text-based interaction (some support ANSI codes, and the
graphical MUDs are gaining popularity), one might expect that the interactions therein are characterized
by a lack of regulating feedback, dramaturgical weakness, few status cues, and social anonymity, as
Kiesler and her colleagues have suggested (Kiesler, Siegal, & McGuire, 1984). While these characteristics
may be readily attributable to the majority of interactions within experiments on computer conferencing
and electronic mail, such is not the case for MUDs, as each (there are hundreds) is a rich culture unto
itself, as will be shown. This thesis is meant to explore the modalities by which MUD users avoid the
drawbacks mentioned above, specifically, how nonverbal communication takes place in a virtual world
composed solely of words.
History of network computing
The first computer network was created in the late 1960s in an effort by the Department of Defense to
link multiple command sites to one another, thus ensuring that central command could be carried on
remotely, if one or several were disabled or destroyed. Once the hardware was installed, the military
allowed educational institutions to take advantage of the research resources inherent in multiple site
networking. This interlaced network of computer connections spread quickly, and in the early 1980's, the
network was divided into MILNET, for strictly military uses, and ARPANET, which, with the advent of
satellite communications and global networking, became the Internet (Reid, 1993).
On a smaller scale, throughout the 1970's, various corporations developed their own computer networks
for intra-organizational interaction. E-mail and computer conferencing were created, useful for
information exchange, but asynchronous (i.e., messages are stored for later retrieval by other users,
rather than the synchronous co-authoring of messages) and thus less interpersonal than MUDs would
At the same time as this conferencing research was being done, another group of programmers was
involved in the creation of text-based adventure games in which a user would wander through a
textually-depicted maze, occasionally encountering programmed foes with whom to do battle. These first
single user adventure games, developed in the early 1970's, expanded the world's notion of computers
from mere super-cooled punch-card-munching behemoths to a more user-friendly conception of
computers as toys and even friends.
Inevitably, the networking technology and the game technology crossed paths. In 1979, Richard Bartle
and Roy Trubshaw developed the first MUD (called "MUD", for Multi-User Dungeon; now, the term
MUD is commonly accepted as a generic term for Multi-User Dimensions of many varieties) at Essex
University. This original game became enormously popular with the students at Essex, to whom its use
was restricted at first. As various technological barriers were toppled, access to "MUD" was granted to a
widening circle of users in the United Kingdom, which eventually prompted two results. First, several of
the "MUD" players wrote their own variations of the game. Second, the computer games magazines took
note and produced a flurry of articles about "MUD" in the early 1980's (Reid, 1993, Bartle, 1990).
These two results are related in that they brought about an exponential growth in the Multi-User
Dimension community. By 1989, there were quite a few families of MUD programming technology, each
designed with different goals in mind. Many of these technologies sought to distinguish themselves from
their brethren by adopting new acronyms (as well as new programming approaches), such as MUSH
(Multi-User Shared Hallucination), MUSE (Multi- User Simulated Environment), MOO (MUD,
Object-Oriented), DUM (Depend Upon Mud (forever)), MAGE(Multi-Actor Gaming Environment), and
MUCK (Multi User C Kernel).
At the time of this writing, there are an estimated five hundred publicly accessible MUDs (Turkle, 1995,
p. 11). There also exist an unknown number of private MUDs, and commercial "pay-for-play" MUDs.
These numbers change from week to week, as MUDs die out for various reasons quite frequently (e.g., a
MUD running on a university computer may suddenly lose the right to do so -- especially if the university
was not informed of such use). Indeed, "large MUDs can be opened from scratch by spending a few
hours with FTP," (Koster, 1996), and hence can expire shortly thereafter due to lack of interest.
However, many MUDs survive for years, as evidenced by such hugely popular MUDs as Ancient
Anguish, DragonMUD, and LambdaMOO, each of which boasts over seven thousand participants.
It must be noted, however, that even though the rate at which people come on and stay on the Net is
increasing, and shows no signs of slowing (Sellers, 1996), MUDs have remained as one of the
least-frequented portions of the Internet. Even with articles published in such mainstream publications as
Time (September 13, 1993), The Atlantic (September 1993), The Wall Street Journal (September 15,
1995), MacUser (November 1995), Technology Review (July 1994), and The Village Voice (December
21, 1993), even the most cyber-savvy of citizens has likely not experienced a MUD. There are several
reasons for this. First of all, MUDs have been rather insular, almost underground, in their marketing;
there is a single USENET newsgroup dedicated to the announcement of new MUDs
(rec.games.mud.announce). For the uninitiated, this sole advertising space is quite obscure, if not
invisible. As such, it is common for people to be introduced to MUDs simply by word of mouth, a
diffusion method that has met with limited success. Among people who have heard of MUDs, many
assume that they are simply wastes of time (indeed, MUDs can devour time like few other activities).
Another factor for new users is the fact that the graphical interface is the Internet industry standard now;
if there's not a multi-colored icon to click on, many recent Internet users will pass it by. As such, it may
turn out that the graphical MUDs currently under development will become the dominant paradigm for
real time chat and adventure games in the years to come. Finally, there is a steep learning curve involved
in becoming acquainted with one's first MUD, including such hurdles as Unix, telnet, the initial login
screen, the hundreds of available MUD commands, the local MUD culture, etc.
Previous studies of text based virtual realities:
The current body of communication research on MUDs is scarce, though growing steadily. Carlstrom's
(1992) sociolinguistic study examines the popular MUD LambdaMOO, and points out several notable
differences between MUD communication and real life communication, including issues of proxemics,
turn-taking, and the uses of silence. Lynn Cherney at Stanford University has produced a wealth of
important linguistic studies, such as her (1994) analysis of gender-based language differences as
evidenced on one MUD, and a (1995a) study of the objectification of users' virtual bodies on MUDs.
Another article (Cherney, 1995b) points out the details involved in MUD communication backchannels,
implicitly satisfying Kiesler's query, "Consider the consequences if one cannot look quizzically to indicate
if the message is confusing or ... nod one's head or murmur 'hmm' to indicate that one understands the
other person," (Kiesler, Zubrow, & Moses, 1985, p.82). Finally, Cherney's (1995b) effort examines the
modal complexity of speech events on one MUD, and suggests a possible classification system for MUD
nonverbal communication, including conventional actions, backchannels, byplay, narration, and
Michael Holmes is another scholar who has recently contributed to the literature on MUDs. His (1994)
study of MUD environments as compared to Internet Relay Chat (and other similar "chat" utilities)
concluded that the chat services "supply a stark context for conversation", while MUDs furnish "a richer
context intended to model aspects of the physical world," (Holmes, 1994). Similarly, his (1995)
examination of deictic conversational modalities in online interactions sheds light on such curious
observed utterances as "Anyone here near Chicago?", (Holmes, 1995). Owen (1994) worked with
identity constructions spawned by the chat utilities of the world's largest commercial Internet provider,
America Online (AOL) and posits the frequent appearance of self-effacing attribution invitations in online
As the number and extent of the uses of computer mediated communication (CMC) have grown
exponentially in the last two decades, the communication discipline has produced a body of literature
examining the interpersonal effects of such interaction. Some such studies purport that CMC is
necessarily task-oriented, impersonal, and inappropriate for interpersonal uses (see Dubrovsky, Kiesler,
& Sethna, 1991, Dubrovsky, 1985, Siegel, Dubrovsky, Kiesler, & McGuire, 1986). This effect is
brought about by a lack of media richness, and is sometimes called the "cues-filtered-out" perspective
(Culnan & Markus, 1987). In other words, restricting interlocutors to the verbal channel strips their
messages of warmth, status, and individuality, (Rice & Love, 1987). However, as Walther, Anderson,
and Park point out in their excellent (1994a) meta-analysis of published CMC studies, when provided
with unlimited time, CMC users gain familiarity with the tools at hand, and communication becomes
much more sociable, indicating that "the medium alone is not an adequate predictor of interpersonal tone,
", (Walther, 1995, p. 11). Walther even posits the existence of what he calls "hyperpersonal"
communication, "CMC which is more socially desirable than we can achieve in normal Ftf [face to face]
interaction,", (Walther, 1995, p.18). This phenomenon stems from three sources. First, CMC
interlocutors engage in an over-attribution process, attributing idealized attributes on the basis of minimal
(solely textual) cues. In fact, Chilcoat and Dewine (1985) report that conversants are more likely to rate
their partner as attractive as more cues are filtered out. (Their study compared face to face, video
conferencing, and audio conferencing, and the results were exactly the opposite of their hypotheses.)
Second, CMC provides users with an opportunity for "selective self-presentation" (Walther & Burgoon,
1992), since the verbal channel is the easiest to control. Finally, certain aspects of message formation in
CMC create hyperpersonal communication in that one has time to formulate replies and analyze
responses to one's queries, a luxury denied, or at least restricted, in face to face dyads.
A considerable number of papers and projects concerning MUDs has been produced within other
disciplines. For instance, sociologist Reid (1994) examines a MUD as a cultural construct, rather than a
technical one, and addresses issues such as power, social cohesion, and sexuality. Serpentelli (1992)
examines conversational structure and personality correlates in her psychological study of MUD behavior.
Likewise, NagaSiva (1992) treats the MUD as a psychological model, but draws on Eastern philosophy,
and discusses MUD experiences as mystical experiences. Young (1994) embraces the textuality of MUD
experience as postmodern hyperreality, a rich new hybrid of spoken and written communication.
Numerous articles have been produced within the Computer Science discipline, many of which are of a
non-technical nature, most notably Bartle (1990), whose experience as the co-creator of the first MUD
makes him uniquely qualified as a commentator, Curtis (1992), another noted innovator in the field (and
perhaps the original author of the phrase "text-based virtual reality"), and Bruckman (1993), whose
extensive work on socio-psychological phenomena in MUDs at MIT has earned her deserved respect.
Finally, Turkle's (1995) important new book examines numerous MUD- relevant topics, including
artificial intelligence and "bots" (MUD robots), multiple selves and the fluidity of identity ("parallel lives"),
and the effects of anonymity. She points out the psychological significance of role (game) playing, and
reminds the reader that the word "persona" comes from the Latin word referring to "That through which
sound comes", i.e., the actor's mask. Through MUDs and other forms of CMC, she believes that people
can learn more about all the various masks people wear, including the one worn "in real life".
While the original "MUD" began a tradition of games with monster-slaying and treasure acquisition as
their primary goals, the advent of the MOOs, MUSHes, MUSEs, and perhaps most notably, Jim Aspne's
TinyMUD in 1989, brought about a new thinking in the purpose of Multi-User Dimensions. Rather than
utilizing commands such as "wield sword" and "kill dragon", participants in these "social MUDs" use the
virtual environment as a forum for interpersonal interaction and cooperative world creation.
At the same time as these text-based virtual environments were rapidly multiplying, an arguably more
ambitious project was well underway in Japan. Known as "Habitat", it was (and is) a "graphical
many-user virtual online environment, a make-believe world that people enter using home computers...",
(Farmer, Morningstar, & Crockford, 1994, p. 3). The creators of Habitat soon discovered that a virtual
society had been spontaneously generated as a result of their efforts. One of the creators claims,
This is not speculation! During Habitat's beta test, several social institutions sprang up
spontaneously: There were marriages and divorces, a church (complete with a real-world
Greek Orthodox minister), a loose guild of thieves, and elected sheriff (to combat the thieves),
a newspaper (with a rather eccentric editor), and before long two lawyers hung up their
shingle to sort out claims. (Farmer, 1989, p. 2)
As these various MUD environments have developed, each with their own particularities of culture, a
number of categories have emerged. Social MUDs have become virtual gathering places for people to
meet new friends, converse with old ones, get help on their trigonometry homework, play "virtual
scrabble", and assist in the continuing creation of the virtual environment. Some MUDs are known for
their risque activities. On FurryMUCK, players assume the identity of various animals and have
"mudsex" with one another, a rapid exchange of sexually explicit messages.
Professional and educational MUDs have begun to appear recently with more "serious" uses in mind --
their aim is to provide a virtual spatial context (e.g., conference rooms, lecture halls, and private offices)
for the participants therein, and even the creation of various pedagogical devices within the environment.
A few MUDs have been set up as havens for virtual support groups for people with common misfortunes
or interests. The most popular variety of MUD, though, harkens back to the philosophy of the original
"MUD", involving puzzle-solving, dragon slaying, and treasure accumulation.
It is these "adventure-style" MUDs which shall be the topic of inquiry for the remainder of this thesis.
While it may be argued that the social MUDs, with interpersonal interaction as their participants' sole
goal, would be more suitable, it is precisely because of this goal that adventure MUDs have been
selected. It stands to reason that the communicative phenomena to be found on purely social MUDs may
be even more firmly entrenched than on adventure MUDs due to the wealth of additional cultural cues
which such environments spawn. Therefore, it is important to demonstrate that 1) virtual cultures
develop on adventure-style MUDs, 2) that these cultures are quite real to the participants therein, and 3)
that nonverbal communication occurs in these worlds designed with point accumulation in mind, and
created solely by words.
While a few "pay MUDs", i.e., MUDs which charge for access, do exist (and claim to be more dynamic
and carefully programmed), the vast majority of adventure MUDs are created and maintained by
volunteers. These volunteers are often computer science majors at major universities who have access to
the hardware needed to run a MUD and make it accessible to multiple users at once. Once the hardware
is in place, a "mudlib" must be decided upon. A "mudlib" is the most basic code that makes the MUD
run, i.e., the code that defines the mechanisms by which the spatial metaphor is created, defines the
difference between living and non-living objects, and calculates the formulae involved in combat.
Beyond the technical distinction of which mudlib a MUD runs on, the next most distinctive feature is
probably the theme which guides the builders (i.e., the people who actually program the objects in the
MUD - every room, monster, weapon, etc) in their creation of the MUD. The first MUDs were most
commonly based on a Tolkienesque world of hobbits and giants, swords and sorcery.
Now that the MUD community has expanded, however, diverse themes can be found, such as MUDs
based on Star Trek, Star Wars, and other popular fantasy genres. Some MUDs (mostly social MUDs)
are simply set in American cities, such as BayMOO (San Francisco) and Club Miami (Miami, FL). Other
MUDs are not themed in setting, but in purpose; they exist as meeting places for people with common
interests, such as support groups for zoophiles, or discussion groups for astronomers. Still other MUDs
are set simply in a virtual representation of the administrator's home. (The WWW site
http://www.mudconnect.com contains an extensive list of current publicly available MUDs).
By far, however, the fantastical swords and sorcery adventure-style MUDs are the most popular among
MUD players. As such, they have been developed perhaps more than any other, with a rich tapestry of
literature from which to draw, and perhaps even attracting especially imaginative builders and players. It
may be speculated that an additional reason that adventure- style MUDs are so popular is that the
treasure and point gathering that takes place therein appeals to many computer enthusiasts' desire for
mastery of technique and knowledge.
Each adventure-style MUD (referred to as simply MUDs from now on, unless otherwise noted) has a
primary dichotomy, often referred to as the "mortal/immortal" dichotomy. Simply put, the "immortals"
are those participants who have access to the programming which makes the MUD run. "Mortals" do
not. Though the colorful terminology may change from MUD to MUD, this split is sure to exist. It should
be noted that this is a significant difference between adventure-style MUDs and purely social MUDs
(most often based on MOO code), in which all members enjoy some access to the programming, and
there fore the ability to create their own objects.
Every MUD participant starts out as a "mortal". This entails no access to the programming language at
all. That is, they receive all the textual descriptions of the virtual environment, but none of the underlying
code that makes the MUD run. For the mortals, the spatial metaphor is reified through this limited access.
They have no choice but to exist within the spatial metaphor and interact with the other characters and
Most adventure MUDs offer their participants a range of classes, or professions, (such as fighter, thief, or
necromancer), and races (fantastical things like ogres and elves). Besides being a colorful addition to the
participant's virtual persona, these designations have various effects on the player's experience with the
MUD. Ogres may be quite strong, but poor at spell casting. Mages may have an arsenal of spells at their
disposal, but may be struck down easily when hit. These details become pertinent when one understands
the "goal" of an adventure MUD.
In the maze of rooms that makes up a typical adventure MUD, there reside various programmed
monsters to be slain and puzzles to be unraveled. Players will typically spend much of their time dashing
from room to room engaging in computer-moderated verbally described combat with these creatures.
When successful in vanquishing these foes (success is determined in a large part by programmed
attributes of the combatants, though player strategy plays a part), players may reap their bounty.
Rewards such as equipment (which may aid the character in future battles or sold at the shop), or money
(which may be used to purchase equipment), and other treasures may be found. Above all, though, the
player of the adventure MUD seeks "experience points", which determine how powerful the character
can become. When a sufficient quantity of experience points have been collected, the character may
"advance a level", thereby increasing his or her mastery of combat, spell casting, or other skills.
There are risks, of course, in such valorous activity. Every time a character enters into combat with a
foe, there exists a chance of death. The severity of players' deaths varies from MUD to MUD. On some
MUDs, characters may simply lose the treasures they have amassed during their session. On others,
significant reductions in a character's quantified skill levels may occur, while on a few MUDs, death is
quite realistic and harsh - the character is simply erased.
Death is not a random occurrence on well-tuned adventure MUDs. Each character is a quantifiable
distance from death at any given moment, often referred to as "hit points". Every time s/he is struck in
combat (which proceeds quite rapidly, text scrolling across the player's screen), that number of hit points
is reduced. When it reaches zero, the character dies.
Since characters engage in combat often, and combat reduces hit points, there exists a need for healing,
so that characters do not simply get weaker with each successive battle. On adventure MUDs, these
biological needs are taken care of through the presence of pubs and restaurants from which one may buy
various cocktails and foodstuffs, all of which contribute to a character's health. This virtual biology is
extended in that characters can only eat and drink a certain amount before becoming satiated, after which
they need to wait a short time before consuming again. Some MUDs even require that each character eat
from time to time even if they do not require healing - they get hungry.
Besides food and drink (which cost gold coins), there exist healing spells which certain classes of
character may cast. This is just one of the ways that interaction between characters is spawned on
MUDs. If one character is injured and knows that a healer is connected to the MUD at the time, s/he
may seek the healer out and ask for help, perhaps even offering something in exchange. Some MUDs,
for instance, require material components for spell casting (eyes of newt, and so forth), thus providing
non-spell casters with some bargaining power.
An additional source of interaction between players is the guild system. While each character has a
"class", or profession, which determines what proficiencies they have, guilds are more like social
organizations. A guild could be based upon traditional notions of chivalry, or black magic, or the love of
chocolate, or anything else that the creators decide. Guilds generally have a private location for guild
members to congregate and interact, and perhaps a few specialized signs or signals that they use to
recognize one another. Guilds often provide an additional reason for interaction, even to those players
most interested in accumulating experience points.
Many MUDs allow characters of sufficient experience the opportunity to ascend into the ranks of the
"immortals", or those individuals with some degree of access to the actual programming that makes the
MUD run and the power to create and manipulate objects therein. For the immortals, combat skills are
completely irrelevant; they can simply erase any (non-player) foe in their path. As such, the very nature
of the environment is completely different for them.
Within the Immortal group, there are several levels of access to the programming, each with its own
colorful moniker. The hierarchy outlined below is based roughly on the author's acquaintance with two
popular MUDs, Ancient Anguish (described at length in Masterson, 1995) and Paradox II (development
of this hierarchy described in part in Masterson, 1995b). The lowest level of Immortals includes the
Builders, Wizards, or Creators. This group of individuals consists generally of those players who have
reached a certain level of expertise and experience, and have been granted limited access to MUD code.
They are generally given a directory (MUD syntax is much like the Unix operating system) in which they
can write and edit files which may create objects in the MUD. It is this group of immortals whose
responsibility it is to continue the creation and expansion of the virtual geography of the MUD. It is also
generally the largest group of immortals.
Various other groups of immortals are responsible for overseeing the activities of the wizards and the
players. A common division involves one person (often called an "arch") to determine if the areas (this
term includes the monsters and objects therein, as well) that the wizards are making are of sufficient
quality (imaginatively described and comprehensively coded) to install in the game for players to enjoy
(the "QC" or "Approval Arch"). Another arch might be responsible for ensuring that the areas all are
smoothly integrated into the milieu of the MUD, and that there are neither areas in which players will
suffer grave misfortune for little reward nor areas from which players stagger home with loads of treasure
with little risk (the "Balance Arch", or "World Arch"). Another Arch may be responsible for ensuring that
the underlying code that governs combat, character death, and interaction of objects runs smoothly (the
"Mudlib Arch"). Finally, there is usually an arch who's responsibility it is to ensure a fair and equitable
environment for the wizards to code in and the players to adventure in; in other words, and individual
responsible for the upkeep of the rules of the MUD (the "Law Arch"). Though this scheme is by no
means the only way that adventure MUDs govern themselves, it is quite common. All of the arches will
have greater access to the programming than do the wizards.
The individuals who occupy the top tier of the adventure MUD immortal hierarchy are known as the
Admins (administrators). This group of individuals is endowed with the ultimate responsibility for
maintenance and the upkeep of the MUD. They have access to every file that comprises the MUD.
Mortal concerns are outside the scope of their responsibilities.
The issue at hand
A common descriptive metaphor in the literature of nonverbal communication states that "We don't need
to be told we are at a wedding." In other words, our nonverbal communication provides essential
contextual cues, moment by moment, which help us and others to make sense of our interpersonal
situation. Just as a picture may take the place of a thousand words, so too may a gesture.
It can be seen from the preceding section that there are numerous attributes of MUDs that give rise to
interaction between participants. This interaction brings about a sense of community among participants
on a given MUD. Indeed, some people get quite passionate about their membership in the
"MUD-family", and connect to the MUD for as many as 80 hours a week, which is testimony to MUD
conversations' compelling interactivity. Given that this is the case, though, how is it that in virtual
Source: Essay UK - http://www.essay.uk.com/coursework/nonverbal-comm.php