Somewhere between the disembodied, dimensionless experiences to be found in a chat room, and the full-on virtual reality portrayed in movies such as Disclosure and Lawnmower Man, there exists something known as a MUD.
A MUD, or Multi-User Dimension, is a language-based virtual reality. In other words, an imaginary computer world to which multiple people can connect and interact, all created solely by text.
As one of the oldest elements of the Internet (the first MUD got going in the late 70s), MUDs began as multi-player, networked Dungeons & Dragons-type games, in which players would dash from room to room, slaying dragons and solving quests.
The first MUDs, from which the acronym is derived, were based upon a simple networking protocol that allowed numerous users at a single site to interact online. Towards the end of the Œ80s, the popularity of MUDs exploded, concurrent with the production of numerous variations of the original technology.
By the first few years of this decade, MUDs had become so popular that they were banned from many universities, moving some to redefine the acronym "Massive Undergraduate Destroyer."
Though overlooked by many recent Net arrivals, MUDs continue to be hugely popular.
While some prefer the visuals and sounds of newer technology, text can prove to be remarkably versatile. Many say that MUDs didn’t die when network-capable games like Doom came online for the same reason that books didn’t die when television was created--and that these multi-user sites will continue to be popular as long as keyboards are part of computer packages.
Though a few crude graphical MUDs do exist, the hundreds of existent text-based MUDs all use the "telnet" protocol. Ask your Internet provider how to make use of telnet on their system. One great MUD resource is the Mud Connector, at www.mudconnect.com.
Or, if you have a telnet client and you’re ready to jump in right away, check out T-Dome at tdome.montana.com:5555 or Leviathan at shimoda.cis.temple.edu:1691. The creativity and experiences afforded by MUDs may not always be on par with literature, but they certainly get the imaginative juices flowing. Consider, for example, the following typical MUD conversation between two players.
Fluffy grins maniacally. Rocktor says: What’s up? Fluffy says: I just figured out this magic wand! Rocktor ponders the situation. Fluffy waves her wand three times and disappears in a tiny thermonuclear explosion. Rocktor groans loudly.
These few lines of text portray a detailed scenario--one which a purely graphical computer environment would be hard-pressed to reproduce accurately.
Therein lies the strength of MUD environments. Users’ rich imaginations provide the "visual" details, while establishing a framework on which to base the collaborative creation of an online world.
This framework may be of any imaginable genre: a fantasy world filled with princesses to save and dragons to slay; a demented bloodthirsty cyberpunk future; Missoula in 1997; or the office building of a single corporation. The framework is often game-based, but international scientific research MUDs have been in existence for some time, as have purely social MUDs.
As social environments, MUDs are powerful and provocative domains. While mere blips on the screen may seem inconsequential to the uninitiated, MUD veterans put a great deal of time and energy into the creation, portrayal, and preservation of their online persona.
Some choose to portray a personality radically different from their day-to-day selves; in so doing, the MUD becomes a sort of "identity workshop," where users can explore different sides of their psyches. You can even experiment with playing another gender.
Combine this identity play with the imaginative creation of the visual domain, and a potent brew of misunderstanding and misdirection can be created--a factor that has both advantages and disadvantages.
For instance, one user may decide to become a lusty princess, consequently arousing the interest of an emboldened warrior. After a lengthy online courtship, the enamored warrior may discover that his sultry young vixen is, in reality, a middle-aged man, playfully toying with gender and identity--and our warrior’s head.
Such identity-play can be viewed as disingenuous, even blatantly dishonest. But for postmodernist thinkers like Sherry Turkle, and cognitive philosophers like Daniel Dennet, there is no true self. For these theorists, we are continuously "cycling through windows" of self-hood; that of parent, employee, supermarket customer, lover, brother, and so on.
Is one’s online persona less real than any of those? While identity experimentation can lead to misunderstandings, MUDs can also establish honest, positive contacts between people all over the world. Whether it be for raucous game-play, idle chat, romance, therapy, scientific research, or technical conferencing, MUDs are a rich and dynamic way to connect with our global village.