When is the MUD too gooey?
James Sempsey, Ph.D.
In my research I have encountered numerous MUDers that have expressed to me the depth of their involvement and their fervor towards much that is special within these virtual environments. However, I have also noticed a trend among many of these individuals to cast aspersions upon certain realms of the MUD family that lay outside their personal preferences. It is quite common to hear advocates of gaming/role playing MUDs negatively refer to MOOs and such as mere "talkers" or "chatters" while MOOers will often refer to MUDs as "clash and slash" games. But there is one form of on-line VR that, although gaining in both popularity and sophistication, seems to elicit equal contempt from all sides. This miscreant creation is typically referred to as the GUI MUD.
GUI, which stands for Graphical User Interface (often pronounced "gooey"), is employed to varying degrees in many on-line multi-user environments. The Palace, Active Worlds, Interspace and Terra are among some of the most popular of these virtual spaces, with some claiming populations of over 200,000. They range in degree of technological sophistication from text based chat forums with static graphical avatars to quasi-3D environments complete with moving avatars and streaming audio. The number of these GUI spaces continues to grow and the well trafficked MUD Connector (http://www.mudconnect.com/mud_graphical.html) currently lists over 50 such sites. With advancements in computer processing capabilities, better compression and greater bandwidth capacity, the number and sophistication of such GUI MUDs should continue to climb. Yet many MUDers seem not to recognize GUI MUDs as "legitimate" counterparts to the more well established text-based MUDs. Indeed, such biases may even exist to an extent among MUD researchers. This very journal contains few references to graphical elements in MUDs and Keegan's (1997) classification of MUDs does not include GUI MUDs as part of the MUD "family tree". The basis for this discrimination appears to stem from the genealogy of computer code relationships, with certain MUDs related in terms of their being modifications or hybrids of formerly established text-based environments. However, this system of relationships is somewhat limited and will probably become even more so as new MUD-like environments make their debut. Although a limited number of GUI MUDs might fit within such a genealogical order, for example the experimental JackMOO system which is based upon LambdaMOO (CADETT, 1997), most of these new environments are more likely to resemble each other in terms of code (such as the ID software based gaming group) then any existing MUD groups. Coding issues aside, GUI MUDs appear to possess many of the psycho/social and interactional elements found among their text-based counterparts (Suler, 1996), and I believe that through this perspective they share much more in common with text-based environments than differences of any great consequence.
I am uncertain what the reasons are behind attitudinal discrimination towards GUI MUDs among MUDers. Perhaps they are viewed as less sophisticated in some respects, or perhaps they are perceived as a possible threat to the continued existence of established text-based MUDs. As a MUD researcher I am more concerned here with our professional attitudes, whatever the underlying causes, and I contend that if this field of study is to continue to progress, we must attempt to broaden our scope to include these new realms. There is no reason to believe that their inclusion would jeopardize the legitimacy of our inquiries nor undermine the validity of studies conducted in text-based environments, but it might very well help to insure that our research focus remains viable in the future. With this purpose in mind, I wish to suggest the following.
Although it has always been assumed that the JOMR readership understands what is meant by the term MUD, a clearer definition, in light of the above, may be in order. To begin with, such a definition might entail that these systems incorporate synchronous multi-user capabilities, avatars, and a sense of interactive "environment" that is either relayed textualy, or via sensory perception. Each of these criteria will naturally require some clarification (though a detailed definition would be outside of the scope of this particular commentary) since terms such as "avatar" and "interactive environment" may be construed as ambiguous. Likewise, such a definition must clearly delineate between certain environments (such as IRC) which possess a degree of MUD-like characteristics (e.g. multi-user capabilities, commands and "actions" that effect other participants, etc.) and true MUD environments. Such a carefully constructed definition will help to establish some useful guidelines for our field of endeavor that should serve to not only include present and probable future MUD environments, but will also establish parameters within which to more rationally discriminate among non-MUD environments.
Finally, I propose that JOMR consider some means to make clear to its readership that the journal is open to the inclusion of GUI MUDs within its research scope. Although the journal at present does not necessarily exclude these environments, I fear that the previously mentioned anti-GUI attitudes may tacitly imply their exclusion. Even the title of the journal may suggest to many that its auspices are confined exclusively to text-based systems. However, if a picture paints a thousand words, then JOMR might wish to consider the degree to which it may be left out of future dialogue as graphic environments continue to emerge.
Keegan, M. (1997). A Classification of MUDs. Journal Of MUD Research, 2, 2. Available: http://journal.tinymush.org/~jomr/v2n2/keegan.html
Suler, J. (1996). Life at the Palace: A Cyberpsychology Case Study. Available: http://GENIUS.rider.edu/~suler/psycyber/palacestudy.html