The Fabric of Virtual Reality

-- Courage, Rewards and Death in an Adventure MUD

Introduction -- Making Sense of the (Virtual) World

1Computer games are never "just games". Computer games are models of reality and if they were not, we would never be able to understand them. Models serve three functions; they capture important, critical features of that which is to be represented while ignoring the irrelevant, they are appropriate for the person and they are appropriate for the task -- thereby enhancing the ability to make judgements and discover relevant regularities and structures (Norman 1993).

2Despite the inherently unvisualisable nature of computer code -- the flexible material of which all software constructs are built -- computer code is still the most "salient" ingredient in computer games. Less salient are those assumptions that are "built into" the software. By filtering out those parts of reality that are deemed irrelevant or unnecessary, different sorts of assumptions, different sorts of bias are automatically built into the software, reified in the very computer code (Friedman 1995, Friedman and Nissenbaum 1997).

3Here I will analyse some of the built-in structures that constitute the fabric of a special sort of game, a MUD. A MUD is an Internet-accessible "multi-participant, user-extensible virtual reality whose user interface is entirely textual" (Curtis, 1992). The specific MUD in question is a nine-year old Swedish-language adventure MUD called SvenskMUD ("SwedishMUD") that is run by Lysator, the academic computer club at Linköping University, Sweden. I have done field studies of SvenskMUD over a period of three and a half years (Pargman, forthcoming 2000).

4How is the SvenskMUD adventure world structured and what are the rules that are built into the fabric of this computer game? I will describe some of the ways in which danger and death, good and evil, courage, rewards and wealth are handled in the game. I will conclude the paper with a short analysis of the purpose of configuring the player according to those structures.

Revocable Deaths

5Characters (personae/avatars) in SvenskMUD can be divided into two categories, players and magicians. Making a career as a player to a large part involves solving quests and killing "monsters" in the game. The magicians are all ex-players who have "graduated" and gone beyond playing the game of SvenskMUD. They have become the administrators, managers and programmers of SvenskMUD. A watchful eye is kept on the magicians by "God", the creator, owner and ultimate custodian of SvenskMUD.

6My own first battle in the game, in a sunlit graveyard with a small mouse, is an example of a bit-sized danger suitable for newcomers, or "newbies". I correctly guessed that the mouse was a suitably weak opponent for my newborn character, but still had to "tickle" the mouse on its belly (a euphemism for hitting it without much force) 50 times before I managed to kill it. Other parts of this epic battle included 45 failed attempts of mine to "tickle" the mouse, 39 successful "tickles" of the mouse and finally a wild chase around the graveyard before I caught up with the mouse, cornered it and managed to kill it and end the fight. Although I was successful in my endeavour, I was also more than half dead after my run-in with the mouse and had to spend quite some time engaged in more peaceful occupations before I was completely healed. It was only later that I learned that you can improve your odds considerably by using weapons and armour when you fight...

7Should a SvenskMUD player fail in his (or less often, her) risky and adventurous career and die, that does not constitute an insurmountable problem. Should such a thing pass, the player's ghost only has to find the way back to a church in one of the villages. In the church, the player is reincarnated, albeit with some loss of game-related abilities and experience.

8The way the unfortunate event of an occasional death is handled is part of the meta-rules of SvenskMUD. The meta-rules are the implicit, underlying rules that represent the values, practices and concerns that shape the frame from which the "ordinary" specific rules operate. Meta-rules are part of the "world view that directs the game action and represents the implicit philosophy or ideals by which the world operates" (Fine 1983, 76). Despite the adventure setting with all its hints of medieval lawlessness and unknown dangers lurking, SvenskMUD is in fact a very caring and forgiving environment. The ultimate proof of SvenskMUD's forgiveness is the revocable character of death itself.

Fair Dangers

9Another SvenskMUD meta-rule is that dangers (and death) should be "fair". This fairness is extended so as to warn players explicitly of dangers. Before a dangerous monster is encountered, the player receives plenty of warnings:

10You are standing in the dark woods. You feel a little afraid. East of you is a small dark lake in the woods. There are three visible ways from here: east, north and south.

11It would be foolish to direct my character to go east in this situation without being adequately prepared for encountering and taking on something dangerous in battle. Those preparations should include a readiness to flee if the expected danger proves to be superior. If, in the example above, a player willingly and knowingly directs a character to walk east, that player has to face the consequences of this action. But if another player is very cautious and has no reason to suspect a deadly danger lurking behind the corner, it is not considered "fair" if that player's character dies or is hurt in such a way that it results in damage that has far-reaching consequences within the game.

12The dangerous monsters that roam the SvenskMUD world are restricted to roam only "dangerous" areas and it is considered good manners to warn players in some way when they enter such an area. Part of learning how to play SvenskMUD successfully becomes a matter of understanding different cues, such as the transition from a safe area to a dangerous one, or the different levels of danger signalled by different situations. Should they not know it in advance, players quickly learn that it is not advisable to enter the "Valley of Ultimate Evil" unless they have reached a very high level in the game and are prepared to take on any dangers that come their way.

13As with all other meta-rules, both players and magicians internalise this rule to such an extent that it becomes unquestionable and any transgression (such as a dangerous monster roaming around in a village, killing newbie characters who happen to stray its way) would immediately render complaints from players and corresponding actions on behalf of the magicians to rectify the situation.

Meta-Rules as "Folk Ideas"

14Fine (1983, 76-8) enumerates four meta-rules that Dundes (1971) has described and applies them to the fantasy role-playing games he has studied. Dundes's term for these meta-rules is "folk ideas" and they reflect existing North American (and Western European) cultural beliefs. Fine shows that these folk ideas capture core beliefs or central values of the fantasy role-playing games he studied. Three of Dundes's four folk ideas are also directly applicable to SvenskMUD.

Unlimited Wealth

15The first folk idea is the principle of unlimited good. There is no end to growth or wealth. For that reason, treasure found in a dungeon doesn't need a rationale for being there. This folk idea is related to the modernist concept of constant, unlimited progress.

16"Some referees even 'restock' their dungeons when players have found a particular treasure so that the next time someone enters that room (and kills the dragon or other beasties guarding it) they, too, will be rewarded" (Fine 1983, 76). To restock all treasures and reawaken all killed monsters at regular intervals is standard procedure in SvenskMUD and all other adventure MUDs. The technical term is that the game "resets". The reason why a MUD resets at regular intervals is that, while the MUD itself is finite, there is no end to the number of players who want their share of treasures and other goodies. The handbook for SvenskMUD magicians contains "design guidelines" for creating quests:

17You have to invent a small story about your quest. The typical scenario is that someone needs help with something. It is good if you can get the story together in such a way that it is possible to explain why it can be solved several times, since the quest will be solved, once for each prospective magician. Perhaps a small spectacle a short while after (while the player is pondering the reward) that in some way restore things in such a way that it can be solved again. (Tolke 1993, my translation)

Good and Evil

18The second folk idea is that the world is a battleground between good and evil. In fantasy literature or a role-playing game there is often no in-between and very seldom any doubt whether someone encountered is good or evil, as "referees often express the alignment [moral character] of nonplayer characters through stereotyped facial features or symbolic colours" (Fine 1983, 77).

19"Good and evil" certainly exists as a structuring resource for the SvenskMUD world, but interestingly the players are not able to be described discretely in these terms. As distinct from role-playing games, a SvenskMUD player is not created with different alignments (good, evil or neutral). All players are instead neutral and they acquire an alignment as they go along, playing SvenskMUD -- the game. If a player kills a lot of mice and cute rabbits, that player will turn first wicked and then evil. If a player instead kills trolls and orcs, that player first turns good and then saint-like.

20Despite the potential fluidity of alignment in SvenskMUD, some players cultivate an aura of being good or evil and position themselves in opposition to each other. This is most apparent with two of the guilds (associations) in SvenskMUD, the Necromancer's guild and the Light order's guild.

Courage Begets Rewards

21The third folk idea is the importance of courage. Dangers and death operate in a "fair" way, as should treasures and rewards. The SvenskMUD world is structured both so as not to harm or kill players "needlessly", and in such a way that it conveys the message "no guts, no glory" to the players. In different places in the MUD (usually close to a church, where new players start), there are "easy" areas with bit-sized dangers and rewards for beginners. My battle with the mouse was an example of such a danger/reward. A small coin or an empty bottle that can be returned for a small finder's fee are examples of other bit-sized rewards:

22The third folk idea is the importance of courage. Dangers and death operate in a "fair" way, as should treasures and rewards. The SvenskMUD world is structured both so as not to harm or kill players "needlessly", and in such a way that it conveys the message "no guts, no glory" to the players. In different places in the MUD (usually close to a church, where new players start), there are "easy" areas with bit-sized dangers and rewards for beginners. My battle with the mouse was an example of such a danger/reward. A small coin or an empty bottle that can be returned for a small finder's fee are examples of other bit-sized rewards:

23More experienced characters gain experience points (xps) and rise in levels only by seeking out and overcoming danger and "there is a positive correlation between the danger in a setting and its payoff in treasure" (Fine 1983, 78). Just as it would be "unfair" to die without adequate warning, so would it be (perceived to be) grossly unfair to seek out and overcome dangerous monsters or situations without being adequately rewarded. And conversely, it would be perceived to be unfair if someone "stumbled over the treasure" without having deserved it, i.e. if someone was rewarded without having performed an appropriately difficult task. Taken from the information on etiquette in an adventure MUD, Reid's quote is a good example of this:

24It's really bad form to steal someone else's kill. Someone has been working on the Cosmicly Invulnerable Utterly Unstoppable Massively Powerful Space Demon for ages, leaves to get healed, and in the interim, some dweeb comes along and whacks the Demon and gets all it's [sic] stuff and tons of xps [experience points]. This really sucks as the other person has spent lots of time and money in expectation of the benefits from killing the monster. The graceful thing to do is to give em [sic] all the stuff from the corpse and compensation for the money spent on healing. This is still a profit to you as you got all the xps and spent practically no time killing it. (Reid 1999, 122, my emphasis)

The User Illusion

25An important objective of the magicians in SvenskMUD is to describe everything that a player experiences in the SvenskMUD world in game-related terms. The game is regarded as a stage where the players are supposed to see only what is in front of, but not behind the scenes. A consistent use of game-related terms and game-related explanations support the suspension of disbelief and engrossment in the SvenskMUD fantasy world. The main activity of the MUD users should be to enter into the game and guide their characters through a fascinating (and, as much as possible and on its own terms, believable) fantasy world. The guiding principle is therefore that the player should never be reminded of the fact that the SvenskMUD world is not for real, that SvenskMUD is only a game or a computer program. From this perspective, the worst thing players can encounter in SvenskMUD is a breakdown of the user illusion, a situation that instantly transports a person from the SvenskMUD world and leaves that person sitting in front of a computer screen. Error messages, e.g. the feared "you have encountered a bug [in the program]", are an example of this.

26If a magician decides to change the SvenskMUD world, that magician is supposed to do the very best to explain the change by using game-related jargon. This is reminiscent of the advice to "work within the system": "wherever possible, things that can be done within the framework of the experiential level should be. The result will be smoother operation and greater harmony among the user community" (Morningstar and Farmer 1991, 294). If for some reason a shop has to be moved from one village to another, a satisfactory explanation must be given, e.g. a fire occurring in the old shop or the old shop being closed due to competition (perhaps from the "new", relocated shop). Explanations that involve supernatural forces or magic are also fine in a fantasy world. Explanations that remind the player of the fact that the SvenskMUD world is not for real ("I moved the shop to Eriksros, because all magicians decided that it would be so much better to have it there"), or even worse, that SvenskMUD is a computer program ("I moved the program shop.c to another catalogue in the file structure") are to be avoided at all costs.

27Part of socialising magicians becomes teaching them to express themselves in this way even when they know better about the machinations of SvenskMud.

28There are several examples of ingenious and imaginative ways to render difficult-to-explain phenomena understandable in game-related terms:

20There was a simple problem that appeared at times that made the computer [that SvenskMUD runs on] run a little slower, and as time went by the problem got worse. I could fix the problem easily when I saw it and I did that at times. After I had fixed the problem the game went noticeably faster for the players that were logged in. For those occasions, I made up a message and displayed it to everyone who was in the system: "Linus reaches into the nether regions and cranks a little faster". (Interview with Linus Tolke, "God" in SvenskMUD)

29When a monster is killed in the game, it rots away (disappears) after a while. However, originally, weapons and armour that the monster wielded did not disappear; a lucky player could find valuable objects and take them without having "deserved" them. This specific characteristic of the game was deemed to be a problem, not least because it furthered a virtual inflation in the game that tended to decrease the value of "honestly" collected weapons and loot. The problem was discussed at a meeting of the SvenskMUD magicians that I attended. It was decided that when a monster is killed and the character that killed it does not take the loot, the loot should disappear ("rot") together with the monster. But how should this be explained to the players in a suitable way if they approach a magician to complain about the change, a change that in their opinion was for the worse? At the meeting it was suggested that from now on, all weapons and shields were forged with a cheaper, weaker metal. Not only would objects of this metal "rot" away together with the monster that wielded them, but it was also suggested that all weapons in the whole game should in fact be worn down as time goes by. (Not to worry, new ones appear in all the pre-designated places every time the game resets.)

Conclusion -- Configuring the Player

30SvenskMUD can easily be perceived as a "blooming buzzing confusion" for a new player and my own first explorations in SvenskMUD often left me confused even as I was led from one enlightenment to the next. Not everyone feels inclined to take up the challenge to make sense of a world where you have to learn everything anew, including how to walk and how to talk. On the other hand, in the game world, much is settled for the best, and a crack in a subterranean cave is always exactly big enough to squeeze through...

31The process of becoming part of the community of SvenskMUD players is inexorably connected to learning to become an expert in the activities of that community, i.e. of playing SvenskMUD (Wenger 1998). A player who wants to program in SvenskMUD (thereby altering the fabric of the virtual world) will acquire many of the relevant concepts before actually becoming a magician, just by playing and exploring the game of SvenskMUD.

32Even if the user illusion succeeds in always hiding the computer code from the player, the whole SvenskMUD world constitutes a reflection of that underlying computer code. An implicit understanding of the computer code is developed through extended use of SvenskMUD. The relationship between the SvenskMUD world and the underlying computer code is in this sense analogous to the relationship between the lived-in world and the rules of physics that govern the world. All around us children "prepare themselves" to learn the subject of physics in school by throwing balls up in the air (gravity) and by pulling carts or sledges (friction). By playing SvenskMUD, a player will become accustomed to many of the concepts that govern the SvenskMUD world and will come to understand the goals, symbols, procedures and values of SvenskMUD.

33This process bears many similarities to the "primary socialisation" of a child into a member of society, a socialisation that serves "to make appear as necessity what is in fact a bundle of contingencies" (Berger and Luckmann 1966, 155). This is the purpose of configuring the player and it is intimately connected to the re-growth of SvenskMUD magicians and the survival of SvenskMUD itself over time. However, it is not the only possible outcome of the SvenskMUD socialisation process. The traditional function of trials and quests in fantasy literature is to teach the hero, usually through a number of external or internal encounters with evil or doubt, to make the right, moral choices. By excelling at these tests, the protagonist shows his or her worthiness and by extension also stresses and perhaps imputes these values in the reader (Dalquist et al. 1991). Adventure MUDs could thus socialise adolescents and reinforce common moral values in society; "the fantasy hero is the perfectly socialised and exemplary subject of a society" (53, my translation).

34My point here is not that SvenskMUD differs from other adventure MUDs. I would imagine that most of my observations are general to adventure MUDs and that many are applicable also to other computer games. My purpose here has rather been to present a perspective on how an adventure MUD is structured, to trace the meaning of that structure beyond the game itself and to suggest a purpose behind that organisation. I encourage others to question built-in bias and underlying assumptions of computer games (and other systems) in future studies.