Experiencing Presence in a Text-Based Virtual World

I’ve been invited to participate in an online panel on MUDs, MMORPGs, and the Metaverse which includes Edward Castronova, a professor of telecommunications at Indiana University. He was heavily involved with the early MUDs and virtual world scene, and has written both papers and books about virtual worlds and their economies.

The DikuMUD Family Tree

The DikuMUD Family Tree

As part of my pre-panel research, I brushed up on my own involvement with MUDs during the 1990s. Much of my time was spend in the DikuMUD family tree, and mostly with ROM, the Rivers of Mud variant.

In the early 1990s, it was easy to sum up the MUD experience in just a sentence. You could say, “It is just like Zork, except, multiplayer” and most technical types would nod their head in quiet appreciation. Today, it is much more complicated to explain only because text-based games are unfamiliar to most people.

Elemental Gateway    

To the west a path dips and winds among some flowing
firepits. To the northeast a path goes toward the
river. Beyond toward the northeast and northwest are
outcrops which rise up from the canyon floor. To the
east there is a cave mouth which leads into the canyon
wall.  And to the south the path leads up, away, and
out of the canyon.
Various pure and cross-breeds of elemental forms
wander the canyon floor, which extends in a wide
swath northwards.    
A girth made of magical ice has been left here.
A small elemental approaches from the east.

(Source: Rivers of Mud, Canyon Zone)

A typical MUD was an internet based server that you log into with a text based terminal. The entire world and the actions therein are described in nothing but words on the screen, followed by a prompt for your action. Wait too long, and the world moves on without you.

There were many variants of MUDs. Some were purely social, and some roleplaying. There were a few that focused on player-vs-player combat. Far and above, the most popular type of MUD was the traditional hack-and-slash environment.

In the hack-and-slash variant, environments are populated with appropriately themed mobs (mobile monsters), which when slain, yield experience and perhaps gold for your effort. Slain monsters can also offer equipment or items which will help your character or advance a particular quest.

As you gain better equipment, you are able to take on more powerful foes. As you gain experience, your character levels up and becomes stronger. Reach a high enough level and you may taste some of the many powers held by the Implementers, the lofty rulers of the virtual world.

What made MUDs different from a PC-based text adventure like Zork is that you shared your experience with other players. They, like you, logged in from around the globe to play the game. A popular MUD could have over one hundred players logged in at the same time, playing in the same virtual world.

It was the single player hack-and-slash player-vs-environment gameplay that drew many of us in. Once inside, we found that we had a lot to gain from working together. As we teamed up to slay countless foes, we realized that we had a lot in common with each other. At first, we’d talk about the game, but then we’d move on to real-world conversations. MUDs became a social environment.

Over the years, the in-world communication between players continued to develop and improve (including in-game actions known as emotes). Social hierarchies were coded into forms such as guilds. Special environments were created for group events and hangouts. For us, the experience was just as rich as any social VR application today. Perhaps even more so. We all shared the common experience of an engaging and interactive virtual world.

While investigating some topics for my upcoming panel, I came across a research paper on presence. It suggested that multiple factors, including the vividness of the environment, the level of interactivity, and the degree to which users influence the environment… they all contributed to the degree of presence felt by the participants.

Many of us are familiar with presence as it relates to virtual reality, but what many may find curious was that paper wasn’t even considering 3D computer graphics, directional sound, or head mounted displays. It focused on MUDs. Their finding? People were experiencing presence with others in a text-based virtual world. You can read it here.

That’s something to consider as we talk about presence and creating social experiences in VR. If we are able to achieve presence with nothing more than words scrolling across a screen, perhaps we have something more to learn from the MUDs of the 1990s.

If you’d like to attend our upcoming panel on MUDs, MMORPGs, and the Metaverse, a head mounted display is not required. You can join us in the Convrge online theater this Monday June 8th, 2015 at 9pm eastern.

2 responses to “Experiencing Presence in a Text-Based Virtual World”

  1. Shaun says :

    Is there a recording of this panel?

    • jmccorm says :

      It turns out that Edward Castronova’s appearance was tentative and he couldn’t make it. I’m told there was a partial recording and it may go online in the next week or two. I’m actually dreading it because I’m a very poor speaker.

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