Computers: Nonverbal Communications
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 later become.
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,
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
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 exposition.
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 conversations.
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
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
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 monsters therein.
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
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
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 conversations.