Note: this is a reproduction of a paper that originally appeared on the University of Twente (The Netherlands) site in 1998 but which has since disappeared.

I have been unable to track down the author, whoever that may be, and therefore it does not appear with their permission. I shall remove it forthwith if they email to request that I do.

Note also that the paper appears to quote at least one other paper word-for-word (Elizabeth Reid's Cultural Formations thesis without acknowledging the fact; I assume that this is an oversight due to its being in draft form.


(ok if ur reading this msg then ur reading the uneditted version, by that i mean the really nasty boring lack of piccys, images, propper titles, basically it is just the general normal text version that had to be handed it. A nice 'prittier'version will be up as soon as exams finish and i get time.)


When studying MUDs, a form of Role playing game on the InterNET, it is clear that there is a society.


The InterNET is such a wide subject that to justify it all in a small 5000 word project would be impossible but I have tried to give a basic idea of what it is in reference to it being a culture. However, because it is such a large a topic I have decided to take my evidence from a small part of the InterNET called MUDs which are interactive fantasy role playing games.

I have chosen to refer to a particular group of computer programs known as MUDs (MultiUser Dungeons). MUDs are networked, multi-participant, user-extensible systems which are most commonly found on the InterNET, the international network that connects many thousands of educational, research and commercial institutions. Using a MUD does not require any of the complexes commonly associated with virtual reality as there is no special hardware to sense the position and orientation of the user's real-world body, and also no special clothes allowing users to see the virtual world through 'goggles' and touched through 'datagloves'. The MUD interface is completely textual meaning all commands are typed in by the user and all feedback is displayed as text on a monitor. MUDs act not only as a tool for the expression of each user's imagination, but also mediate between the user's imagination and their communication to others of what they have imagined. A simple PC can act as a gateway into this kind of virtual world.

Technically speaking, the term 'virtual reality' is most commonly used to refer to systems that offer users visual, auditory and tactile information about an environment which exists as data in a computer system rather than as physical objects and locations. Virtual Reality, or "cyberspace", takes alternate reality a step further (beyond books and movies) by introducing a computer as mediator, or imagination enhancer. (Lavroff, Waite Group Press, 1992)

The virtual worlds within MUD systems have many of the social conditions of physical places, and many of the usual social mechanisms apply. Users treat the worlds depicted by MUD programs as if they were real. MUDs force users to deconstruct many of the cultural tools and understandings that form the basis of more conventional systems of interaction. They are unable to rely on physical means as a channel of understanding, so users of MUDs have developed ways of substituting for or by-passing them, resulting in novel methods of textualising the non-verbal.

A Brief History:-

The computer department at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in the early 1970s were well known for being fantasy fans. Rooms in the AI Lab were named after locations described in J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, and the printer in the lab was rigged so that it could print in three different Elfin fonts. It was one of these fantasy fans who wrote the first virtual reality computer game. Donald Woods, a veteran of MIT's Spacewar, discovered quite different kind of game being played on a computer at the Xerox corporation's Palo Alto Research Centre. The program depicted an explorer seeking treasure in a network of caverns. This was an entirely text-based game. There were no monsters to be shot, no graphics at all, just descriptions of locations and prompts asking players where they wished to go or what they wanted to do next.

Will Crowther decided to expand the game into a more complex adventure game. What he wrote was called ADVENT, more commonly known as Adventure, in which a player a took on the role of a traveller in a Tolkienesque setting, fighting off enemies, overcoming obstacles through clever tricks, and eventually discovering treasure. Simple commands, such as 'get sword', 'look tree' and 'go north', allowed the player to navigate and interact with the Adventure universe, with each input item adding a new description of the player's environment or of the results of their actions. Players were free simply to explore the game universe. They could do whatever they liked. Users could in their imagination enter into the game universe, and do in it exactly what they would like to do in actual reality. Adventure offered a form of escape that no computer game previously had by allowing the user to enter the game universe and plot the form the game would take.

The name 'MUD' first appeared in 1978 when Roy Trubshaw, then a student at the University of Essex, England, wrote what he called a Multi-User Dungeon. The name itself was a tribute to an earlier single- user Adventure-style game named DUNGEN. In 1979, Richard Bartle joined Trubshaw in working on a MUD. MUDs contained many of the features which others, such as Alan Klietz, had developed independently. It was a networked Multi-User game which allowed users to communicate with one another, to cooperate on adventures together, or to fight against each other.

The first MUD universe was a fantasy-style one that encouraged players to compete with each other for points. Players went on quests to kill monsters or find treasure. Killing monsters (or other players) was a source of points, but more were to be gained by finding treasure and bringing it back to a swamp located at a shifting point in the game universe. On throwing treasure into the swamp, players would be rewarded with points which, once they had collected enough, would enable them to gain new and greater powers. Although this original MUD game did not ever gain a high level of popularity, it nevertheless has had great influence on those who were to develop later games. The number of people who played Bartle and Trubshaw's MUD was small, but many of them went on to design the systems that are popular today. The original MUD game can still be played, it is called British Legends. (Sterling, The Maga2ine of Fantasy and Science fiction Feb. 1993).

Theoretical Background:-

When stripped of the historical, environmental and social contexts in which words have evolved and in which they are used, they then have very little meaning. It is context that creates meaning and allows us to act. The information on which we decide which aspects of our systems of social conduct are appropriate to our circumstances lie in cultural contexts rather than in the shape and sound of words alone. When interacting with other people, we rely on non- verbal information to decipher the context for which they actually mean.

The pose and feeling commands in particular offer players a medium through which to substitute for the non-verbal cues that we take for granted in everyday life. By using them players may shrug, laugh, smile demonially, frown in anger, and offer hugs and kisses to fellow players. By using each of these commands MUD players are able to string a web of communication which ties each player to a social and virtually physical context, a shared web of verbal and textual significance's that are substitutes for, and yet distinct from, the shared networks of meaning of the wider community. This unique method of communicating is the set of solutions devised by MUD players to meet the specific problems that they face, and which binds them into a common culture.

Clifford Geertz has a very concise and well known definition of religion upon which he also closely related to his definition of culture. His religion definition is well developed so I have therefore used it to relate my studies upon. Geertz stated that "religion was a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and emotions in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic". In reference to MUDs therefore, symbolism can be seen in the very word 'reality', and the dedication and time is the powerful moods, and the high level of believe in reality is the order of existence. Ritual is clothing the conceptions, and it's link back to the everyday world is the uniquely realistic part. (Geertz, 1973)

Greg Dening, said that "Being cultured, what where we are experts in our semiotics... we read sign and symbol and codify a thousand words in a gesture". We don't have to be told for example that we are at a wedding, and should be quiet during the ceremony, in order to respect the code of etiquette that our culture reserves for such an occasion. Words alone do not express or define the full extent of our cultural and interpersonal play. The greater part of our interaction is expressed through signs and symbols, in styles of dress and handwriting, in postures and facial expressions, and in respects to rules and traditions. The words themselves tell only half the story, it is their presentation that completes the picture. (Dening, 1988.)

Van Maanen and Barley, said that "Culture can be understood as a set of solutions devised by a group of people to meet specific problems posed by situations they face in common." (Van Maanen, and Barley, 1985) In this sense culture consists of a set of behaviours and rules which give a shared significance to common experiences and problems. MUDs have systems of symbols and textual significance which allows them to achieve understanding despite the absence of normal social context. With these tools MUD players are able to 'read between the lines' of text which make up their virtual world, a skill that is all the more challenging and all the more crucial in such an environment. This shared ability allows me to think of the players of a MUD as sharing a common culture, and this common culture allows MUD players to take part in activities that serve to bind them together as a community. (Van Maanen, and Barley, 1985)

Social cohesion on adventure MUDs is the result of the Darwinian rule of the survival of the fittest. On the most superficial level, only the strongest and most talented players will survive and flourish on adventure MUDs. It takes time, effort and skill not only to become powerful on such MUDs, but simply to survive on them.


While carrying out my research, I personally use my experience on particular MUDs that I am now very familiar with. Because of this I know that I will therefore have a slight bias view to all this as I am looking at it from the point of being inside and not from a critical observer. However, because I have spend almost 3 years now in such environments I do feel like I have a fair notion of what is actually happening enough to give a good accurate account of it. I feel I have found out what the MUDs are all about and what they all mean to the people involved. I collected over a month of data, and here I became even more aware of the environment around me, taking in experiences and taking notes about what happens in such places. I also talked to many of my friends and associates within the MUD environment about what it means to them, I asked questions like was it really just a game to them or did it actually mean more to them then that. As I am in fact a high level rank in one particular MUD and hold responsibilities towards it in the running and administration, I was able to set up a decision session where upon about. 20 people in all came and we all talked about what MUDs were all about. I tried to get a wide range of different types of people but this tended to be quite difficult due to the fact that MUDs happen to be majority male dominated and mainly students.

The general idea to the reason why there are more male student dominating the MUD environment is because they are the type of people most likely to come across them. Being mainly scientific people and especially computer science people, the majority of that department are in fact males so it is quite clear that people who are involved with computers and technology will have the higher opportunity to find out of these such places. With the actual data collection of social activities, I was able to make a small program that would tally up all the social commands that players made in the game. This was carried out over a week and the results were recorded.


Within the MUD Underworld, players invoked a 'feeling' command every thirty seconds on average. The most popular commands and their total in a week were:


The numbers next to the feeling is the total number of times that particular feelings was used. The tally program was run for exactly a week. The average Underworld player smiles at their fellow players 27 times a day, and kisses them 24 times a day. There are actually 209 feeling commands in total.

Discussion of the results:-

From the practical results of the tally, feelings showed that the environment was actually a very social and emotional place. Even though there were just text responses, the players were still able to express themselves and understand exactly the feelings around them. The most popular feeling is nodding to a fellow player, this is because it is a quick gesture replacing either nodding or saying yes, the most common ones in real life.

On the MUDs, text replaces gesture, and even becomes highly personal with emotions. Players themselves must become actors and must also provide their own scenery and express feelings in order to be understood. Imagination takes the place of physical reality. Each object in the MUD universe, each person, each place, each item, each thing can be given a description by its creator. This description can be as simple or as complex as the creator wishes, and can be viewed by every other player by use of the 'look' command. It was therefore evident that feelings and the words used were not just plane words but an held great importance to the players.

Results obtained from conversations with the players were very useful with the evidence that there was more to the MUDs then it being just a game. In the decisions it was often noted that players actually tend to behave more freely than they would in face-to-face encounters. This was common to everyone I talked to, they an felt a sense of safety and ease about the whole environment. Kiesler, Siegel and McGuire have observed that "people in computer-mediated groups were more uninhibited than they were in face-to-face groups." (Kiesler and Sproull,1986: 1498)

Other very common features that people said was that the characters that they were in the game environment were close to them selves in real, just that they were more free and able to express them selves more openly. Most people agreed that this character they were using was actually an image of who they would really want to be them selves (an ideal form) and this relaxed environment provided such a means to be that person. The idea that it was just a game was not a common one. There were a few people who did use the game environment as a means to 'escape' upon and be someone completely different for a while as a change of scenery or curiosity. But most people believed it was not just a game to them as they were real people and also playing characters very close to them selves.

Yes, people said it was a game in the sense that you have an objective to achieve with a character in a special environment, but the majority of the time people were not off killing some monster they were in fact socialising. There was a lot of socialising going on in these MUDs so therefore it shows that this feature was an important one as they were able to interact with many different kinds of people from all over the world easily. Socialising they said was an important part of the MUDs.

Everyone also agreed that there was an increase in friendliness and intimacy on the MUDs more then in some parts of regular life. Players do seem to be less inhibited within the Mud soundings. They can be seen to be both more intimate (or more hostile) with each other than would be socially acceptable in everyday fife, particularly when considering that hostility or intimacy may be shown among players who are strangers to one another.

Particular features that we discussed about the MUDs were also showed to be significant and important. These included their language, power and hierarchy, punishment, death, sex, love and marriage, and dedication, all important aspects of a real life culture as well.

The decisions concluded that the universal language is actually English and even though most people are from all over the world the common language that we all communicated in was English, the universal language. The language used by MUD players contains its own textual gestures. It doesn't allow for any other tense but the present, with all actions and feelings crammed into that one highly charged tense. The present tense allows that real sense of reality. Each moment on a MUD is a matter of existent experience and not of recollection. It is immediate, and in it there has evolved grammatical forms that stress this immediacy. MUI) language however does not employ the same degrees of respect for textual conventions as do other forms of written language.

Below is an example of the very common uses of MUD language which is highly unique. (The examples are best understood if viewed at an angle i.e. fitting your head to the left)

:-) or :)is a smiling face
;-) or ;)is a winking, smiling face
:-( or :(is unhappy face, or 'unsmiley'
:-(*)is someone about to throw up
8-)is someone wearing glasses
:-Pis someone sticking out their tongue
>:-Ois someone screaming in fright, their hair standing on end
:-&is someone whose lips are sealed
*!#*!^*&:-)is a schizophrenic!

They provide a form of shorthand for the depiction of physical condition. The whole point of these small gestures is that a whole feeling or expression can be conveyed across in a matter of split seconds like a smile would also achieve in real life. It is important to have feelings expressed as quickly as they could be done in real to achieve the 'real' factor effect. However the plain smiling face which is used to denote pleasure or amusement, can also be used to soften a sarcastic comment that would be miss interpreted because the other player couldn't be able to see the expression of tease on the players face, so here this is easily overcome by a quick easy gesture.

Another way where MUDs have a very quick way of expressing their selves is with their common use of abbreviations. Here whole phrases were able to be expressed in a few letters, i.e. afk, meaning away from keyboard which allows people to know that you are unable to respond till you are back. Another one is btw, which is by the way, another is brb which is be right back, same as afk. There are also feelings that have also been abbreviated like rofi which rolling on the floor laughing showing that the person finds something very funny. All these are very commonly used like as in every other sentence as they do give quick easy responses.

When discussing relationships within MUDs we saw that these can be taken quite seriously by those who have engaged in them. there are such things as MUD weddings for example which are also taken seriously. Romances are also very common as it is after an an interactive environment and therefore people are meeting other people all the time. The whole community can be involved in the wedding and can also act as witness for such happy events. MUD weddings are more simple then real ones obviously but there is the highly attractive notion that they can have exactly what they want in the weddings and are not in any way restricted to any laws that are in the real world like churches and in the presence of a god. The virtual bride and groom are usually married by another player who virtually reads, and actually types, the wedding ceremony. Textual descriptions of rings, or other tokens, are exchanged along with the vows. These weddings are serious things to the people that have them, and in matters like this most people do agree that it is not just a game at this point. Below is an example of the very thin line between virtual reality and the real world is with this quote from a person I talked to about their personal experiences with relationships.

"I met Mark, who I'm now married to, on a MUD.
When I first met him I was living on the West
coast (of the United States) and he was on the
East Coast. I was really new to MUDs, really
clueless, and he gave me a lot of help. He was
teaching me how to build stuff, and he let me
start building off of this castle he'd built. We
spent a lot of time chatting and we got closer
and closer. It was really good - I could tell him
anything and he was really supportive. We ended
up building this castle together and everyone on
the MUD treated us like a couple. I could tell
that he was interested in me, and at first I was
reluctant to get involved but he was so nice and
he said that he really loved me and in the end we
had this MUD marriage. It was so beautiful - i
burst into tears in real life halfway through
it! After a few months I had the chance to visit
the East coast, and we met while I was there. He
was different from what I'd expected, mostly in
the way he looked, but we really got along well,
and I decided that I really did love him He
ended up getting a transfer to near where I lived
and we got married last year."


In agreement, it was felt that MUD lovers don't feel that their relationships are shallow or inconsequential. They can be very important to those involved in them. Just as in real life, love and hate the two strongest feelings for humans are expressed also in MUDs, after all we are only human! The expression of these like all other feelings are possible by tools that give virtual realism to the imaginations of players. The exercise of imagination is necessary for the creation of a social context within which to act.

Another aspect that is common in a real life society that is also found in MUDs is hierarchy. Everyone thought that this too was important in the MUD but not so much for discrimination and abuse of power but in maintaining order and peace. In this system the hierarchy is established and maintained strongly. There is definitely a sense of respect and positions of power are not just taken lightly. Position is a serious matter. For example there is a common situation that occurs often enough showing this even exaggerated respect for hierarchy.

Fred tells you : "Excuse me sir, I hope I'm
not botheringyou, but couldyou possibly help
me? Im really new to MUDs, and I've got some
pretty dumb questions. If you haven't got time
to answer them please don't worry about it, but
if you do I would really appreciate it."

(Logfile, Underworld 1997)

Gods are the immortal characters in the game and have powers that mortal characters actually respect but as seen above it can be a bit too much at times. The Gods or Wizards are a notable symbol of power and carry signs of their rank upon them. These Gods or Wizards are the top of the hierarchy system, all the rest are mortal characters who them selves have levels of hierarchy depending on their experience in the game. The common comment about Gods or Wizards is that everyone felt like they had the right over their power as they well and truly earned it. This was why they were respected as it was not an easy thing to become and it involves a lot of dedication and work which mortal characters admired and looked up upon.

When a newbie (a player who has just started playing) begs for some money or help, it is usually expected that you will give what you can. Everyone was a newbie once, and probably got their start through the generosity of other more established players. The least you can do is show the same consideration to future newbies (known as the golden rule). And above all, remember it's just a game ... but with real people on the other end side...

Players who break this rule were not popular. Some may be subject to the kinds of punishment and displays of power that Gods and Wizards do actually have. Others may be subject to the vengeful attacks of their victims and fellow players. Punishment is also taken seriously if it is due. Again it is up to the Gods or Wizards to administer this to the guilty player.

Death is another aspect of MUD fife that is taken very seriously indeed. Death is not just a part of every day life in the MUDS, as when someone dies it is a big deal. When a character dies it looses all it's possessions and past experience. Yes they can actually become alive again so they have the chance of gaining back all that they have lost, but still the notion behind death is that it is a serious issue and characters are devastated when they do die.

Dedication was another factor discussed that is dominant in MUD societies. To get anywhere in them you have to have some degree of dedication. On average a MUD player could be active playing talking or coding for about 5 hours a day. Although this seems a long time, the time in such environments passes by very quickly as do any other interactive environments. It seems like a long time but it is not too different from the daily fact of watching television. MUDders can swap to other things while they are playing just like swapping channels on a television. or eat or talk to friends just as normal people would do while having the television. on. MUDders life is therefore not as uncommon and different from normal parts of daily life in some perspectives.

Where there are people and a culture there will always be sex, MUDs are no acceptation. From all accounts MUDsex can be a lot of fun for the participants, even though many a crude reference has been made in the MUD-related newsgroups as to the manner in which improves a player's ability to type one-handed! Beyond its mechanics MUDsex occurs on social level of life showing here again,that MUDs are not just and normal boring game but in fact very close to normal conceptions of real fife. MUDsex falls into a realm between the actual and the virtual. Players can become emotionally involved in the virtual actions of their characters, and the fine between virtual actions and actual desires can become blurred.


It is quite clear therefore that there is a society established within the MUD section of the InterNET. The InterNET as a whole however also could be classified as a society but as I was not able to do the whole InterNET but just a part, I think it is clear that from this small 'part' that there is definitely evidence for a culture. MUDs are an environment where people are constantly interacting together so that in it's self is evidence for a society. There were many features within the MUDs that were also evident in normal societies like the significance of relationships and love for example. Power and hierarchy is also a big aspect of MUDs just as it is in other societies. Language is another very important of a culture, MUD environments also have their own code of language, both with what they say and how they say it.

Traditional forms of human interaction have their codes of etiquette. We are an brought up to behave according to the demands our social context. We know, as if instinctively, when it is appropriate to flirt, to be respectful, to be angry, or silent. Words do not express the fun extent of our cultural and interpersonal play. The greater part of our interaction is expressed through signs and symbols, in styles of dress, in postures and facial expressions, in rules and traditions. Smiles, frowns, tones of voice, posture and dress like Geertz's "significant symbols" tell us more about the social contexts we are placed in than do the statements of the people we socialise with.

MUD environments are extremely culturally rich, and communication between MUD players is often highly emotionally charged. Although they can't see, hear or touch one another, MUD players have developed ways to convey shades of expression that would usually be transmitted through these senses. Their means of expression are severely limited by the technology on which MUDs are based, but instead of allowing that to restrict their communication they have devised methods of incorporating socio- emotions into pure text. They use text (normally such a restrictive medium) to make up for what they lack in physical presence. On MUDS, there is no lack of emotions expressed, in fact it is in some ways more obviously reflected then in real life. MUDders want their expressions conveyed so therefore they do find ways for this to happen.

The safety of MUD and friendships increases their worth, and players can, ironically, become extremely dependant upon such relationships. The lack of factors inhibiting intimacy, and the presence of factors encouraging it, can induce deep feelings of attachment in players toward their virtual friends. This is a quote I got from someone expressing this intense feeling of dedication to it.

I don't care how much people say they are, MUDs
are not just games, they are *real*!!!
My MUD friends are my best friends, their the
people who like me most in the entire world.
Maybe the only people who do...
They are my family, they are not just some dumb

(anon. 1997)

I personally felt that the general idea that a culture must have a religion would mean that MUDs therefore could not be a culture. However, I think this is all part of the magic and attraction about MUDS, the notion that there is no God or religion or upper most belief that we associate with Christianity or what ever religion that feels so oppressive. Most people playing are not religious and rind this environment attractive to them because of the lack of ' God' and religion.

However, taking Kolakowski's idea that a religion doesn't have to actually be about a 'God' but it is more about a high level of belief in something, like cars to some or music to another. Here we can see religion clearly as a way of fife that they just have to have. The whole notion that your some other character wearing medieval cloths, wondering about with talking rabbits, and killing dragons is in its self a belief so in this sense there is actually a very rirm bases of a religion in MUDs. The whole concept of miracle is when people log in and type their characters name, it is felt that there is a shift inside them at this point that signifies the 'miracle', and becoming this person and entering the game can easily be seen as symbolic of a religious action just as the Holy Communion is symbolic.

Some would insist however that 'MUD' does in fact stand for Multi Undergraduate Destroyer, in recognition of the number of students who may have failed their classes due to too much time spent MUDding!!


I wish to thank players of Underworld and Albion MUD for their time and assistance in my data collecting. I would also like to thank Lieuwe Elgersma for helping to code a program within Underworld MUD which collected my data.


Leverton, Philip and Milward, Ross. (1989) 'Technical note' on the InterNET, Melbourne University.

Pierre, Lewis. (1993). 'History of UNIX Subject: A very brief look at Unix history', on the InterNET.

Sara Kiesler, Jane Siegel, and Timothy W. Mcguire. (1984) 'Social psychological aspects of computer- mediated communication,' in American Psychologist Vol. 39 No. 10 (October 1984):1125.

John Van Maanen, and Stephen Barley. (1985) 'Cultural Organization: Fragments of a Theory.' On the InterNET in Organizational Culture. Beverly Hills: 33

Sara Kiesler and Lee Sproull. (1986) 'Reducing Social Context Cues: Electronic Mail in Organizational Communication.' On the InterNET in Management Science Vol.32 No. 11 (November 1986): 1498.

Geertz, Clifford. (1973) The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays Basic Books. New York.

Benedikt, Michael. (1991) 'Cyberspace: First Steps.' On the InterNET. MIT Press Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Curtis, Pavel. 'Mudding: Social Phenomena in Text-Based Virtual Realities.' On the InterNET in Intertek Vol. 3.3 (Winter 1992): 26-34.

Sterling, Bruce. 'The Strange History of the InterNET.' On the InterNET in Digital Redistribution: 5-8. Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction February 1993.

Elizabeth M. Reid. (1994) Cultural Formations in Text-Based Virtual Realities University of Melbourne.

Dening, Greg. 'The Bounty: An Ethnographic History'. On the InterNET Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, (1988).


Elsewhere on this site:

Richard A. Bartle (
11th July, 2003.