In the Jungle of MUD Hat

In the Jungle of MUD

Virtual worlds you can hook into - and get hooked on - are the latest rage on the computer networks


You're in a tropical rain forest, trying to decide whether to explore the ruined Maya temple in the distance or climb into the forest canopy overhead, where you might see some monkeys. Suddenly there's a yellow-brown jaguar sitting on the branch above you, flicking his tail from side to side, his yellow eyes fixed on yours. Maybe climbing a tree isn't such a good idea after all. You don't think jaguars eat people, but rather than find out, you head off across the forest floor, turning this way and that, until you manage to get yourself hopelessly lost.

Don't panic. Just hang up, take a deep breath, and log on again. You're not going to Panama, after all, just to a machine somewhere in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. And what you are exploring is not an exotic ecosystem but a computer system called a MUD.

MUDs (the name stands for Multi-User Dungeons) are the latest twist in the already somewhat twisted world of computer communications. A sort of poor man's virtual reality - created by using words, not expensive head-mounted displays - MUDS are a quantum leap over computer bulletin boards, where you not only meet and interact with other computer users from all over the world but build your own imaginary worlds as well. The first MUD was invented in 1979 as a way for British university students to play the fantasy game Dungeons & Dragons by computer. But in the past few years computer scientists have created new kinds of MUDs that are far removed from the D&D world. These quickly caught on among college students - and among the general computer-using population too. Suddenly new MUDs are sprouting up everywhere in cyberspace, in every size and shape.

Some MUDs are fashioned after medieval villages, with town squares, blacksmiths and churches. Others re-create science-fiction and fairy-tale settings like C.S. Lewis' Narnia, Frank Herbert's Dune and the universe of Star Trek. Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers have built a MUD model of their famous Media Lab, with offices and corridors corresponding to the real thing. One intrepid group of computer users constructed a section of the London Underground, complete with a virtual subway. MUDs come and go, drifting in and out of favor, but the current count is estimated at 300 worldwide, most of them accessible through the vast global computer grid called the Internet.

Playing in a MUD is like wandering through a literary maze. Scenes are sketched out in a phrase or two - a woody glade, a drafty cave - and you move from one to the other by typing commands: go west, climb up, enter castle. In your travels, you run into various objects (a giggling robot, a sleeping sloth) as well as other characters. These can be other players, logging on from a remote computer, or cleverly designed computer programs masquerading as humans. You can communicate with anyone you meet by either speaking (typing a message that appears on the other player's screen) or "emoting" (expressing a feeling or performing an action). In the early MUDs, players spent most of their time stabbing, clubbing or otherwise inflicting pain on other players. In more highly evolved MUDs, characters engage in all manner of intimate communications, including simulated sex.

Sex is tricky on the MUDs. Because you can be anything you want to be - a tall Xantian with purple eyes or a gorgeous earthling hunk - there is quite a bit of gender swapping going on. "A lot of men pretend to be women so they can have more virtual sex," says Amy Bruckman, an M.I.T. researcher studying social interaction on MUDS. "A lot of women pretend to be men so they'll be left alone." Tracy (not her real name), a 28-year-old writer, often assumes the identity of a macho, beer-guzzling, care-for-nothing college student. She says it gives her a chance to see how the other half lives - and to work out her frustration with the men she meets in her life off-line.

Committed MUDders find the experience highly addictive - much to the consternation of parents and computer-system administrators. Some students play as much as 80 hours a week, neglecting their schoolwork and overloading their local computer networks. Amherst College banned MUDs from the campus computer system in 1992; Australia has gone so far as to banish them from the continent.

Some educators are trying to find a way to channel all that creative energy. Education-technology researcher Barry Kort administers a child-oriented MUD in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where children learn by doing. Among its virtual worlds are the Land of Oz and a model of Yellowstone National Park, complete with spouting geysers and wandering moose. The Yellowstone world was built by a nine-year-old boy just back from a family vacation. Instead of writing about what he did on his summer vacation, says Kort, "he built a working model of his summer vacation."

Nobody has yet found a way to make money from MUDa, but commercial exploitation may not be far behind. Howard Rheingold, author of a new book on virtual communities, points out that many MUDs already have elaborate systems for tracking the points that players amass by finding treasures or killing enemies. Those systems could just as easily be used to amass dollars, says Rheingold. "As soon as somebody figures out a way to play for real money, you're going to see some real action."

Richard A. Bartle (
21st January 1999: tm130993.htm