Draft of a paper presented at the Midwest Popular Culture Association, Pittsburgh, PA, October 7-9, 1994. The author's email address is cherny@csli.stanford.edu. All rights reserved.

"Objectifying" the Body in the Discourse of an Object-Oriented MUD

Lynn Cherny
Stanford University

The position of the ``body" in cyberspace is problematic. Haraway's Cyborg Manifesto paved the way for a discussion of the identity issues at stake in a technological frame of reference. ``Clean distinctions between the organism and the machine'' are breaking down in our information age, and new creatures are forming that beg new theories rather than recycling of old ones (Haraway 1989). Virtual reality technology poses particularly obvious challenges to a politics of identity. Walser (1990), discussing immersive virtual reality, says, ``Whereas film is used to show a reality to an audience, cyberspace is used to give a virtual body, and a role, to everyone in the audience. Print and radio tell; stage and film show; cyberspace embodies.'' Hayles (1993) theorizes ways in which conception of the physical changes given an immersion virtual reality setting: bodies becomes patterns of information, ``flickering signifiers, characterized by their tendency toward unexpected metamorphoses, attenuations, and dispersions'' (Hayles 1993: 76).

Stone (1993) discusses the blurring between the body and computer prosthesis that can occur: the technology we use to communicate with can become an integral part of us, and the body, when not there physically, is still there as a social construct. Bodies, in a virtual space, can be created with a bit of programming: gender can be switched, skin color can be forgotten temporarily, age or infirmity can be escaped.

In purely text-based virtual realities, however, the conceptualization of the physical is perhaps more complex, since there is no echo of real physical movement, sound, or shape involved. Yet, text-based virtual reality seems to offer as many challenges to notions of identity and definitions of body as immersion virtual reality does.

For the past 9 months I have been analyzing conversation in a MUD, or multi-user dimension, accessible over Internet. The site I have been participating in is JaysHouseMOO (JHM), a place where people hang out and discuss networking, mud programming, and virtual reality. [Footnote: A MOO is an object-oriented MUD, named after the programming language it uses.] In this paper I discuss the discourse creation of problematic bodies in JHM. Because the community at JHM is very closely tied to that at LambdaMOO (LM), and LambdaMOO has a slightly different programming culture, I also present some examples from LambdaMOO in the text that follows.

First, a brief introduction to MOO conversation. All interaction in the MOO occurs in text. Each user has a character with a name and a description that serves as the reflection of herself in the MOO environment. This character can converse synchronously with the other characters in the MOO.

Conversation in most muds consists of two types of utterance: the say command and the emote. A say command produces an utterance issuing from the character which every character in the same MOO room sees: lynn says, "hi." An emote produces an action similarly seen by everyone in the same room: lynn sits down for a rest. In this way, the body can be evoked with suggestions of physical actions, even though text is the sole channel of communication.

Problematic Pronouns

In a MOO, which is an object-oriented MUD, all characters are technically objects, as well as all scenery and all props. The simultaneous identification and distinction between the real person and the character object are a complex matter. I will only be looking at a small corner of this problem, with some examples of behaviors that enforce the differences and the similarities between the two.

A. R. Stone reports that phone sex workers, who are working in another virtual medium, conjure their bodies by hints and suggestions in the space that the phone connection create: they report ironically that after encoding and decoding of sound bytes happens, they all look white, 5'4'', and have red hair (Stone, 1991: 105). At least one of my informants reports that he feels more ``embodied'' in the MOO than when talking on the phone, despite the lack of even the vocal channel. This sense of embodiment is an entirely constructed feeling, coming largely from the conscious use of physical ``actions'' during conversations, like backchannels: lynn nods, lynn smiles.

An excellent and compelling example of the complexity of the relationship that holds between a character and a user is illustrated below. People greeted Karen when she entered the room, as usual, only to find out to their surprise that this time she hadn't entered the room under her own volition:

1  Karen arrives from the eastern end of the patio.
2  lynn waves.
3  Shelley waves.
4  ls [to Karen]: Hi.  I just walked you here at your request since
    you're in the car and nowhere near a computer on the net.
5  Penfold whuggles Karen.
6  Tom eyes Karen warily.
7  lynn eyes Karen and ls warily.
8  Tom says, "WHY"
9  ls says, "she, uh, thought it would be cool to hang out with you
10 lynn laughs
11 Tom says, "BUT SHE ISN'T"
12 ls says, "oh, but she is."
13 lynn says, "hang out in scrollback?"
14 Penfold shakes Karen.

ls had been talking to his wife Karen over their portable phones, and had told her about his conversation with their friends; she asked him to move her character for her. ls's statement to Karen's character in line 4 sums up the confusing split reality shared by user and character: I walked you (the character) here (the virtual room) at your (the user's) request since you're (the user) in the car (in real life). Karen can be in two places at once with her character, and can ``hang out'' even when she isn't at her desk looking at the conversation as it happens. She can read it later, since it will all be in her ``scrollback'' in her MOO window. The unusual explicitness of the difference between Karen as user hanging out with friends via her character interface and Karen's character hanging out without her at the terminal ``behind it'' was disturbing to the witnesses of the event, however. As Stone (1991) says, ``In virtual systems, an interface is that which mediates between the human body (or bodies) and an associated `I' (or `I's'). This double view of `where' the `person' is, and the corresponding trouble it may cause with thinking about `who' we are talking about when we discuss such a problematic `person,' underlies the structure of most recent virtual communities'' (Stone 1991:87).

I will take the notion of the character as prosthesis as a given and move on to more complex examples of objectification during interactions in the MOO. The point to be gotten from the above is that it is out of the ordinary to refer to the character as distinct from the user. It creates a break in the usual understood state of affairs: that the user is the character, for purposes of isolating agency.

Null Emotes

In the discourses on JHM, a speech act called the ``null emote'' plays a large role in the mutability of the character signifier: the character can become identified with other objects, locations, people, or even processes or events. Null emoting also provides an excellent example of the jointly constructed nature of discourses in the MOO - an audience can seize someone's remark and turn it into the first part of a joke, entirely rewriting the speech event.

In the most straightforward examples of null emoting, another character answers a question with his character name on a line alone, e.g., as Tom did in the first example below, implying that the character is the answer to the question.

** what
Lenny says, "what's weird?"
** why
Ted explains to Woodkey why DSM sucks.
**  who
You say, "who's Will Couch?"
Tom er

** where
Shelley needs to find out where Tanya should deposit her tomorrow night.
** how long
Rob says, "how fuckung long does it take 1.1.45 ro compile on a 386/40"

Null emotes seem to be appropriate in most question contexts: who, what, where, why, how. [Footnote: I don't have many examples of ``how'' null emotes, but one character's automation of his null emote responses is triggered by ``how'' and ``wonders how'' said in the environment around him (indicating that he considered it a fine context for a null emote).]

The null emote phenomenon, however, is fairly complex semantically. Null emotes also occur in the context of an embedded question or an indefinite or a plural:

** embedded question
lynn wonders what she came here for.
** indefinite pronoun
George pssst, "I think Penfold has something hanging from his nose."
** plural
Tom says, "i was trying to think of behaviors you could disallow
  programmatically without just removing programmer bits from everybody"
** indefinite
Honda | There is an open ballot on which you have not yet voted:
** indefinite
Ralph says, "gameboy??"

In semantic terms, the null emote seems to function as an assignment of a value to an available argument position, i.e., an individual that could satisfy the predicate denoted by the indefinite or plural (``satisfy'' in a playful, nonrealistic sense, clearly). This analysis is supported by a rarer form of null emoting, in which it seems as if a character is intended to control either a subject position or an adjective's argument position.

** adjective controller (ugly)
Will tries to do that thing with @describe here as "This is a nice
  place.  [couch]  Blah blah blah etc."  Oitis HARD.
Will says, "Or at least, comes out really ugly."
** subject controller (making)
lynn . o O ( making love in the afternoon )

The adjective and the participial phrase semantically represent one-place predicates of individuals, thus allowing a similar binding of their argument position (loosely speaking, they are missing something, and the character name provides it).

Interestingly, textual adjacency is needed for a null emote to feel ``successful.'' The ``presentation'' of the speech act apparently matters a lot. Line 2 prevented a good null emote opportunity below:

1  Kit [to Henry]: so what do you operate?
2  Jon says, "It was all that rain talk"
3  Largo hehs.
4  Largo [to Jon]: You spoiled the most purest of null emote 
    opportunities for that.  I hope you're satisifed.

Other cases are group participation events, where either multiple responses seem to be appropriate, or a null emote is actually expected. Tom pokes Penfold in the second example because he expected an emote and didn't receive it immediately. [Footnote: The vertical bar, or pipe, in lines 1, 4, and 1 indicate that Tom is quoting from another text source, like email. The representation in line 4 of the second example indicates a thought bubble.]

1  Tom | Two members of your company are invited to attend at no cost.
2  Ray 
3  Patrick 
4  Tom | If you would like additional members of your company to 
    participate, the cost will be $200 per person.  Non-Forum members 
    may attend for $500 per person.
5  lynn 
1  Tom | 1. Good interactive stories emerge from:
2  Tom pokes Penfold.
3  Penfold
4  Tom . o O ( whew )
5  lynn says, "Blatant NULL-EMOTE prompts"

Historically, null emoting evolved out of a group participation act called a ``roll call.'' In a roll call, a character calls a roll call in capital letters, and the characters present who feel they fit the subject or attribute in the name of the roll call answer with their names on a line alone (the virtual equivalent of raising hands, perhaps):

Pete | Blotchy_Guest says, ``Don't you oppress me!  I have freedom 
  of expression so I can do whatever I want here, you fascist running 
  dog power elitist!''
Pete giggles
Karen eyes Pete warily.
Karen ?
ms [to Jubilee]: You wish.

The null emote speech event is one clear way in which the audience participates in defining and changing the speech context, and it illustrates how characters can briefly alter their own character's signification, to fit them into the conversation under different temporary identities (cf. the discussion of text and audience in Brenneis 1986).

Interestingly, the habits of cyber discourse can become real life discourse habits as well. And more intriguingly, they can undergo physical translations: the null emote survives among some MOOers in real life, translated as a physical gesture (like a slight hand-raise) during conversations or while listening to talks or television. Notably it survives for them as a physical, bodily involvement in a discourse, suggesting the body is involved in identity for them. Among a few other MOOers, null emoting in real life consists of the mention of a name, however. (JHM community members tell stories about almost or actually null emoting in real life during conversations with non-MUDders, who of course have no idea what this behavior means.)


A variation on the null emote speech event is what is known as ``Xythian-completion,'' after a character on LambdaMOO.

Ray says, "I think it's in question whether DAWN knows what the ballot says"
Bonny giggles.
Ray says, "xythian-complete at will"

Possible Xythian-completions for this context might be:

in question whether LYNN knows what the ballot says

in question whether DAWN knows what lynn says

In Xythian-completion, aka ``x-completion,'' the character replaces a noun or sometimes another part of speech in a sentence or phrase.

The wall twists and groans as it tries to force itself into the
  shape of Khaki_Guest. With a crack it snaps back into shape.
Ray snaps back into shape.
1  Conner nods.  i know.  was wondering what this license thing entailed, then.
2  Patrick
3  Border says, "not necessarily v.32, etc"
4  Conner says, "hm."
5  v.Patrick

A subsort of Xythian-completion that occurs frequently consists of the embedding of a character name in punctuation, especially odd punctuation. According to one informant, this was the probable origin of Xythian-completion; it was intended to draw attention to odd typographic entities, and has since become generalized to include name subsitutions elsewhere (there is some disagreement among the population about the historical evolution, however).

1  Phred [to Vermont]: how would I invoke it?  'gdb core'?
2  Vermont [to Phred]: gdb ../../bin/driver --core=mudlib/core
3  Henry says, "--core= is optional there"
4  --tom=

Finally, a rarer form of completion results when some character evokes something unspoken in the context and substitutes her name into it, as in line 6 below. The number for film listings is 777-FILM, which is what fungus is completing into.

1  fungus [to Brett]: hey.  yr alive.  what time would you want to go?
2  Brett [to fungus]: late
3  fungus [to Brett]: i.e., do you have a paper, can you tell times?
4  Brett [to fungus]: no, but i can call the theatre, hang
5  Brett says, "oit is buusy"
6  777-FUNGUS


Against this backdrop of multiple-participant discourse construction and metamorphosis of identity, a greeting ritual evolved between the characters Ken (who is also the character Xythian) and Karen. When Ken enters a room, Karen says the first part of a word ending in ``ken'' and then Ken null emotes to complete it:

Karen says, "forsa"

An amusing ruckus occured one day when it was discovered that Ken had automated his completions of ken-words. Reactions to this varied from startlement to disbelief to amusement:

Tom says, "woah, you cheat?"
lynn says, "I am so disappointed."

Tom [to Ken]: do you ever feel like you're on puppet strings?
Karen says, "nonono, he couldn't have"
1  Ken hides his head in shame.
2  Karen [to Ken]: SO.  you can't greet me on your OWn, you have 
   to AUTOMATE it, EH?
3  Ken [to Karen]: Wait!  Blame jhm! Isn't in in the jhm 
   charter to automate useless things?
4  Karen says, "WHAT!?"
5  Ken held out for AS LONG AS HE COULD!
6  Karen says, "greeting ME is USELESS???"
7  Ken says, "NO!"
8  Karen sniffs
9  Karen is giggling irl

Of course people were amused at his audacity. In line 9, Karen says she is giggling in real life, creating a distinction between her pretense of outrage in the MOO and her reaction of amusement in real life. To mitigate their reactions, Ken explains his own worries about automating the action, having to do with mistrusting his own code's accuracy and coverage:

1  Ken says, "I worked long and hard to get that completer right."
2  Shelley actually found that verb some time ago, but don't tell ken
3  lynn [to Ken]: no, it's ok, you just didn't suffer as long as I thought.
4  Ken says, "I ddi!"
5  Ken says, "I had to watch for days to make sure I had all the completes!"
6  Ken says, "And then be paranoid!"
7  Karen [to Ken]: you don't have them allHAHAHAHA
8  Karen says, "why paranoid?"
9  Ken says, "Can you IMAGINE the STRESS of NOT BEING SURE if I had 
   a complete."
10 Tom
11 Ken says, "Someone makes one, I am unsure.  I complete and then IT 
   completes and I look silly!"
12 Karen giggles.
13 lynn [to Ken]: ok, that makes me feel better.
14 Karen has seen a couple of doubles and really wondered
15 Ken says, "or WORSE, I MISS THE COMPLETE and FALL DOWN on my MORAL 
   OBLIGATION as a KEN to complete."

Finally, Ken responsed to my surprise, drawing the line between human and character object explicitly; he focuses on the character itself as a location for agency, in a surprising attempt at comfort:

16 Ken [to lynn]: You could look at it this way:  It was the ken character that
   did compeltions.  That never changed.  The ken CHARACTER still completes.

Human Toys

Other automation appears in the MOOs, although usually not as confusingly as the custom-Ken-completion code. The character r'm has code that automatically moves him out of crowded rooms once they get too ``loud''; he also has code that automatically null emotes for him if he hears certain question words.

Other sorts of minor automation on LambdaMOO include idle twitches, which look initially as if said by a person, but are actually just triggered by mentions of the character's name in its vicinity while it is idle. E.g.:

lynn [to Jay]: so when you come back, I have a question...
Jay lies, ``I'm awake, I'm awake!''

An amusing example of code that functions even when a player is not connected is illustrated below, sent to me by one of the participants. Joe has a bit of code that removes people from his room when he is not connected, by first trying to move them through the door, and if it's locked, ejecting them. In the example below, Jay was ejected to his home, where his idle twitch then went off. The user saw this exchange in his scrollback later. (From the point where ``Joe stirs'', all activity was automated.)

1  Joe says, ``filfre to hang out here until my parents get home''
2  Penfold says, ``should we sneak out?''
3  Joe has disconnected.
< disconnected: Joe. Total: 156 >
4  Penfold leaves too!
5  Penfold goes home.
< disconnected: Penfold. Total: 156 >
6  Joe stirs, opens his eyes, and notices there are people in his 
     room while he's trying to sleep.  He quickly ushers you outside.
7  The door seems to be stuck. You get a little claustrophobic.
8  Joe frowns.  ``You're still here?  Well, if asking politely doesn't 
9  Jay's Home
10 Jay's home is a biology lab taken over by scores of slightly obsolete
     computers:  Apple IIs, first generation PC clones and an Amiga 1000. 
11 #3920:
12 Jay (#3920) arrives.
13 Jay lies, ``I'm awake!  I'm awake!''

Some users have special verbs [Footnote: MOO programs.] on their characters that allow other people to ``do'' things to them, producing amusing output; this sort of code is considered ``human toy'' code. Joe, for instance, has a ``throw'' verb on himself which allows people to throw him around, and generates a random exclamation from Joe. (The text after > is what I typed at my prompt in the MOO.)

>throw joe at bed
You throw Joe at an old-fashioned bed.  Joe is now slumped over an
  old-fashioned bed.
Joe says, "Ooch!"

The character Dave on JHM produces nonsense utterances when ``poked'' or ``kicked''; some of those utterances actually orginated on LambdaMOO, recorded by the Cockatoo bird object in the living room (which babbles things it has heard LM characters saying in the living room). Dave simulates bird-behavior in response to being poked (line 2 below), and then spouts messages recorded by the Cockatoo, shipped to JHM by network link (lines 3 and 6). This example was gotten while Dave was idle.

1  >poke dave
2  Dave shifts about on his perch and bobs his head.
3  Dave squawks, ``BRB - gotta help out somewhere else''
4  >kick dave
5  lynn kicks Dave.
6  Dave babbles, ``long time Listen, Purple, Dharma is away from 
     his keypad right now, I guess. you hold tight and work on that 
     beer; I be right back!''

In a rather extreme example of cyborg metamorphosis, the character Tari turned herself into a Human Appliance while she was programming a washing machine object for JHM. In line 3, Berke activates her, and she continues to interact normally while meanwhile her code generates output messages appropriate to a washer working. (At least one character complained about her being able to function simultaneously as a character and as a washing machine, however.)

1  Berke says, ``Hey, are you a washing machine?''
2  Tari says, ``no...i was messing with the washing machine adn 
     copied the verbs that worked to myself so i wouldn't have to 
     start over if i screwed up.''
3  Berke hands Tari four quarters and a pile of dirty clothes, and 
     presses the button on Tari's left shoulder.
4  You hear Tari fill with water.
5  Berke hee
6  Karen hehs.
7  Tari giggles.
8  Tari makes a clunking sound.
9  Tari begins to jump around the room, agitating the clothes.
10 Berke lol
11 Tari will take it off soon.
12 Tari stops and you hear water draining.
13 You notice that Tari is beginning the rinse cycle.
14 Berke [to Tari]: So add an `unplug tari' verb which will shut the 
     washing machine off.
15 Tari goes silent for a moment, then suddenly begins to spin round 
     and round, water spraying everywhere.
16 Tari [to Berke]: yeah...i'm just waiting to have someone jump me 
     about turning myself into a toy.
17 *PING*
18 Tari drops a pile of clean, wet clothes.  You have a feeling she's 
     kept at least one sock, though.

Note that she has some uncertainty about whether she has crossed into a territory that isn't acceptable for the occupants of JHM. There are limits to the transformations the body can undergo, metaphors that are considered too bizarre to be comfortable anymore.

Anthropomorphic Objects and More Toys

Humor often depends on objectifying characters or, indeed, on anthropomorphizing other objects in the MOO. One day's play revolved around attacking the trees in the park, in response to a ``spoof'' from me in line 5. [Footnote: A spoof is a message that does not appear as a normal utterance from a character; this type names the author after a dash at the end. Almost all of the interaction with the trees was produced with the set of ``antisocial commands'' on JHM that produce stock text phrases; the commands constitute a record of many community in-jokes.]

1  Jon stands up from the tree stump.
2  Jon [to the trees]: Come to Perkins!
3  Jon [to a tree]: Come to Perkins!
4  Jon giggles
5  The trees groan and pull their roots out of the ground; they 
     advance on Jon threateningly...     --lynn
6  lynn eyes herself warily.
7  Ray giggles
8  Ray nails a tree down.
9  Jon detonates a low yield nuclear device over a tree.
10 lynn shakes the trees.
11 Ray spraypaints ``WAKE UP'' on a tree in dayglo orange.
12 Ray giggles
13 Jon takes off and nukes a tree from orbit.  ``It's the only way 
     to be sure.''
14 Ray [to a tree]: I will not support what I see as a flagrant runaway,
     illegal and rogue decision here.

In line 6, I eyed myself warily because I just did the strange spoof in the line above; impossible physical actions like this one play a regular communicative role in the MOO.

Objects in MOO are often at ontological risk as much as bodies are; abstractions like plans or projects can become ``real'' objects which can be carried or dropped like other objects. For instance, on JHM, plans for MOO development are embodied as MOO objects, making it possible for Tom to drop the Appliances Project in a room. [Footnote: Note that I wanted to type ``drop the Appliances Project at someone's feet'' (there are no feet to drop it at, strictly speaking) or ``drop the Appliances Project on the floor''! Rooms exist programmatically, but floors and feet do not.] Dropping an object in front of people is an action that has some communicative force, usually meaning ``take a look at this'' or ``use this.''


In this paper I discussed the ways in which the simulation of the body has become semi-``real" in virtual reality or even ``hyperreal" (cf. Baudrillard 1983), and the status the virtual body has as an element in a multi-party constructed discourse. The body is intimately involved in the discourse of the MOOs I discussed. It has become what Hayles (1993) called a ``flickering signifier'' of identity, changing its terms for comprehension and circumscription regularly.

Immersive virtual reality has been claimed to be a radical new technology for viewing the body and playing in cyberspace, shifting perceptions and altering mental models (Walser 1990). After a demonstration of an immersive virtual reality system, several MUDders discussed the rhetoric around the idea of ``putting on bodies'' in immersive virtual reality. The experience of the physical and experience of identity clearly change in an immersive virtual reality setting, but the MUDders agreed that they did not find this so different from a day in the MOO; they thought of null emotes and Xythian-completion immediately: [Footnote: Jay's second comment is a programming joke, intended ironically. In the MOO, properties of objects are inherited from their parent objects; changing a character's parent to an exit object would be somewhat crippling, since the character would lose its ability to communicate and move around.]

Jay once said something like ``xythian-completion is about exploring 
  alternate lifestyles''
Jay also said this about the joys of ``@chparent me to $exit'' though

Identity-shift, even to nonhuman or abstract discourse entities, is commonplace in the course of playful conversation in a MUD. Even in nonplayful conversation, the user is subjected to the split identity of being physical and corporeal at a terminal, and being an entity of code which can be manipulated by herself or other characters. The self is constantly in question and open to redefinition in such an environment, even through the narrow bandwidth of text.


I owe big debts to the creative community at JHM for making this paper possible, especially to Ken, Jay, Dave, Joe, and Tari. Special thanks to Erik Ostrom and Doug Orleans for reading the draft carefully and giving detailed comments, as well as Jeff Blaine.


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