Cybernetic Fantasies:
Extensions of Selfhood In a Multi-User Dungeon

Presented at the Annual Meeting
of the American Anthropological Association
December 3, 1994
Atlanta, Georgia
by Mizuko Ito
Stanford University
mito@leland.stanford.edu

-- comments welcome --

Virtual, or online spaces constitute new sites for anthropological inquiry, technosocial geographies of interconnected, computer mediated spaces, crisscrossing the globe in distributed informational networks. These new technosocial contexts enable constitutions of identity that are alternatively embodied in cyberspace, that are only partially connected to identities localized by the biological body. I use the term biological body ironically and with reservation, to talk about what some hackers would call "flesh." I'm going to use the term "character," with similar irony, to describe identities localized by virtual bodies. But the interest that I bring to online worlds is really in the complexity of the interrelationships between biological bodies, machines and machine networks, fantasy worlds and virtual bodies.

For the past few years, I have been conducting research in virtual worlds focusing on multi-user dungeons, or muds for short. Muds are text-based multi-user virtual worlds run over the Internet I will provide more detail on the actual mud interface in a moment.

I have been intrigued by muds as sites in which fantasy worlds and identities are made concrete through certain media technologies. As text-based fantasy worlds, muds are commonsensically symbolic, and seem to contrast to the materiality of biological bodies coupled with screens and keyboards. But rather than positing a dichotomy of disembodied, and deterritorialized virtual personas versus embodied and located biological bodies, I see virtual identities as very particular, contingent and embodied through the prosthetic technologies of computers and computer networks. Thus I would like to focus on virtual characters as alternative re-embodiments rather than disembodiments, and virtual worlds as neo or re-territorializations rather than only translocal deterritorializations. It is for this reason that in this discussion of mudder identity, I would like to examine the symbolic content of the virtual as it is located in particular and concrete processes of technological enunciation. In other words, extensions of mudder selfhood are contingent on couplings with enabling technological prostheses, which include computers, technical proficiency and discursive practices. Through these couplings, mudder subjectivity is distributed across different technosocial worlds.

I don't want to lose sight of the power dynamics at work that enable certain empowered people to engage with these technologies as an expansion and extension of agency, but I would like to do this not be describing these moves as unconstrained freedom of motion, but rather has highly dependent on local and material conditions.

The Internet seems unique in being an interactive, social, relatively distributed system for engagine with information technology, but I am not positing the Internet as a radical break with previous media technologies. Rather, I see it as an intriguing permutation that accentuates certain tendencies in other forms of media. Thus I find suggestive the moves in mass media studies to take seriously the active and multiple contexts of reception and production, seeing fantasy texts as interactive objects that operate within heterogeous social, political, and material contexts (i.e. Appadurai 1991; Bambara 1993; Gledhill 1994; Gupta 1993; Mankekar 1993a, 1993b; Mercer 1991).

I borrow, here, from Donna Haraway's image of the cyborg that is never whole (Haraway 1991), "compounds of the organic, technical, mythic, textual and political" (Haraway 1992: 42), Alluquere Stone's "multiple personality" (Stone: 1992), or what Marilyn Strathern might call circuits of partial connections (Strathern 1991). In describing "partial connections," Strathern describes a process by which one can "travel without motion" (Strathern 1991: 55), a kind of remote presence through coupling with prosthetic devices. In muds, the fantasy text, as it is enunciated through networked machines, is the prostheses that enables travel to immersive fantasy environments, providing opportunities for extensions of selfhood to alternative virtual characters.

What I would like to do, now, is to turn to the details of the particular online worlds that I study. As I mentioned, muds are text-based virtual worlds run over the Internet. The first muds were built in the early 80s around fantasy role playing themes reminiscent of Dungeons and Dragons, concretizing heroic fantasy stories in an interactive, social, distributed form. Currently, there are a proliferation of different types of muds with different themes and purposes, moos, muses, mushes, tinymuds, dikumuds, and lpmuds, to name a few. The muds that I study are lp muds, which are "traditional" and "mainstream" muds in the sense that they are combat and role-playing game oriented, and tend to use mediaeval metaphors. These combat oriented muds would contrast to "talkers" that are primarily social, muds that cater to professional communities or educational purposes, or muds with other role-playing themes such as futuristic, or around particular fantasy or science fiction novels. There are currently hundreds of muds running worldwide with tens of thousands of users. The sorts of tropes around violence, conquest, and colonzation operating in many of these worlds, as well as in the discourse around the Internet more general, is rich material for a more explicitly critical analysis, and I would just like to point at these dimensions operating in the worlds that I study. In this brief presentation, however, what I would like to focus on are the technosocial contingencies that structure and enable character development, looking at some examples of multiple character construction.

As a player on an lpmud, what you see on your computer monitor is text that describes the environment, and other people in the environment, as well as the actions that you and others perform [Figure 1]. The who command gives you a list of other participants, and their titles [Figure 2]. You can talk to other players in private, or using public chat channels [Figure 3]. Lps usually support a variety of what are called soul commands that enable your character to express activity such as smiling, frowning, waving, pouting, blushing, etc [Figure 4].

When first creating a permanent character, you are asked to choose a character name, a gender (usually male or female), and a race (such as elf, dwarf, human etc.), and begin playing as a first level player. Your character has certain attributes and assets that improve as you accumulate more treasure and kill monsters and other players, and solve quests on the mud. By typing certain commands you can see your current attributes and possessions [Figure 5]. Gaining experience points, loot and levels, as well as social recognizability and connections, is an extremely time-consuming process, thus commitment to a particular character and mud are solidified as one's character develops. While the first two or three levels might be gained in the first few days of playing, achieving the higher ranks of levels fifteen and above, out of a usual twenty to thirty or so levels, can take months of very active engagement. Sense of presence and location in the virtual world is strengthened through a progressive customization of social position and material accumulation. Higher level players construct elaborate residences, costumes, and social cliques.

Above players in the mud hierarchy are wizards, who have gained the highest levels and accomplished all the quests, and are responsible for actually building the mud environment and administering the mud [Figure 6]. Lp muds are unabashedly hierarchical. Highest level wizards are often called Gods, and as the name implies, have near absolute power to implement decisions on their muds. It is often the idiosyncratic visions of particular wizards that become coded into the mud environment as concrete, structuring resources.

When I first started playing Farside, the primary mud that I have been studying, it resided on a machine at an English university, where it had been set up by some computer science doctoral students in their free time. Since then, it has changed sites to a couple of different machines in the US. The files that contain all the information about the mud operating system, the world, and every character resides in the server unless there are backups made on other machines, or unless particular wizards are building areas on their own local machines. Muds are anathema to many universities because they take up valuable space on computers, slow down network responsiveness, and tie up terminals in computer labs. They have been banned at various universities across the country, yet they continue to proliferate.

Connectivity to the mud server is enabled by the Internet, and for the particular mud that I have been following, access is open for anyone that has telnet capabilities on the net. Technically speaking, if one has the right kind of Internet access, it is possible to have multiple connections either to the same mud or to a number of different muds open at the same time. There is generally little restriction on the number of characters that one can create or the number of muds that one can be logged on to concurrently. What is restricted, however, is the number of characters that one can run concurrently on a particular combat mud. Otherwise, a number of virtual characters connected with a particular biological body could collectively gain unfair advantage, ganging together to attack a monster or another player. Dispensable adjunct characters could die sacrificial deaths in order to consolidate experience points and treasure in a single primary character, creating a monstrous collective organism that defies established subject boundaries. In other words, most combat muds require multiple characters of a single physically located self to be either spatially or temporally distanced from each other.

Connectivity to the mud server is enabled by the Internet, and for the particular mud that I have been following, access is open for anyone that has telnet capabilities on the net. Technically speaking, if one has the right kind of Internet access, it is possible to have multiple connections either to the same mud or to a number of different muds open at the same time. There is generally little restriction on the number of characters that one can create or the number of muds that one can be logged on to concurrently. What is restricted, however, is the number of characters that one can run concurrently on a particular combat mud. Otherwise, a number of virtual characters connected with a particular biological body could collectively gain unfair advantage, ganging together to attack a monster or another player. Dispensable adjunct characters could die sacrificial deaths in order to consolidate experience points and treasure in a single primary character, creating a monstrous collective organism that defies established subject boundaries. In other words, most combat muds require multiple characters of a single physically located self to be either spatially or temporally distanced from each other.

"One of the disadvantages of being a mud is I can't say, okay you're Paul who lives in X place, you can't play the game any more. I can only banish his character until he says oh, okay, and comes back with another character name a second later and starts laying into me with all kinds of language... things.... some of them are even more ingenious and will do things like log on, with a program running in the background, that tells me, to be impolite, to eat shit and die, because I have had that happen, continuously..... Eventually I'll get the command through to force that person to either quit or be banished, and then once again then character Y shows up and starts doing it, and soon as I get rid of him, Z and on through. We've had that on several occasions occur. When that happens, generally what we'll have to do is ban the entire site, which would mean everybody from that computer can no longer play. All that generally does on most systems is slow that person down, because most schools have 3-300 IP ports, and I can only banish one port at a time."

In other words, the freedom of travel enabled by computer networks makes it extremely difficult to fix a singular subject position to a particular virtual body. Even though investment of time and energy promotes identification with a particular online character, the ability to connect to unmarked newbie characters is unimpeded.

The rule on multiple synchronous characters on a single mud does not, however, limit the range of intriguing possibilities around multiple virtual identities more generally. Different muds provide different pleasures, fantasies, capabilities, and features, and different social positions within muds provide opportunities for experiencing different social locations. Most mudders navigate a number of different muds with different virtual bodies, and distribute their subjectivity across multiple sociotechnical worlds. Some mudders have confided in me the pleasures and difficulties of gender swapping, and occasionally a story circulates about a chagrined mudder's discovery of the unexpected biological gender of a mud intimate. Wizards, who have to act as responsible administrators or coders on their home muds often create player characters on other muds to revisit the pleasures of combat and play. Or sometimes they will log onto their home mud check out the environment and social scene from the point of view of a low-level player, checking rooms and interface elements that could contain bugs. Unmarked newbie or guest characters also provide opportunities for anonymous lurking, enabling freedom from a socially recognizable virtual body.

In closing, I would like to underscore the very local material contingencies that qualify the freedom of mudder travel, with a sad epilogue to my story of Farside. In August, the machine that Farside was living in experienced a system failure, and all player files and interface elements were lost. There were no backups. Soon after, the university that Farside was residing at announced a ban on mudding. Farsidians immigrated en masse to, among other muds, Kerovnia, a mud that many Farsidians also had characters on, and Marius, the administrator of Farside, would post occasional notes on Kerovnia as to his efforts at reconstructing files, or trying to find a new site. Farsidians waited in helpless distress for some good news. I pined at the loss of my fieldsite, not to mention the character that, for me, was quite an accomplished ninth level. I created a newbie character on Kerovnia, and began conducting interviews with former Farsidians there, happy to see old friends using the same names on a mud that had many shared elements with Farside. Shedding all pretense of scientific distance, I offered Marius a site on a machine that I had access to, but unfortunately, I lacked the computational power and support systems to sustain Farside.

Just a few weeks ago, I received a letter from Marius, forwarded through many email boxes around the world, that he had tried his best, but had to conclude that all was lost for Farside. I have not yet had a chance to discuss with many fellow Farsidians about the loss, so I can only speculate as to their reactions. I do recall, however, a number of years ago, when I was a newbie on Farside, there was a mud called Sushi that was often used as an alternate by Farsidians. Some months later, Sushi, for reasons unknown to me, was expired. There was a sudden influx of new characters on Farside with the tag "Sushiite" appended to their titles. For a few months, they comprised a highly visible enclave within the Farside social and political scene, a displaced but proud sub-community.

Perhaps Farsidians will similarly rally around an imagined community in a displaced locale, or perhaps they will quietly disperse and assimilate to other worlds, virtual or otherwise. Or perhaps they will try to reonstruct their world out of fragmentary code and collective memory. I wonder if a Farsidian can still be considered a Farsidian if their virtual body has been decimated into unreadable bits in an unfriendly hard drive? While mudders are free to couple and decouple from different virtual bodies, one body is not as good as any other.

Aknowledgements

Many thanks to Debbora Battaglia who gave me the initial inspiration to pursue this project, and followed it patiently through many drafts and revisions. Thanks also to the many people that commented on and guided this paper through numerous iterations: Carol Delaney, Ray McDermott, Joan Fujimura, Sylvia Yanagisako, Purnima Mankekar, Julian Bleecker, Stefan Helmreich, Brian Cantwell Smith, Scott Fisher, Joichi Ito, Momoko Ito, Howard Rheingold, Timothy Leary, Pavel Curtis, Mike Dixon, and Sherry Turkle. And perhaps most importantly, I would like to acknowledge the help, engagement, and tolerance of all Farsidians, especially Scott Frank, Cliff Li, Benjamin Stickney, Melissa Delaney, Andrew Blythe, and Matt Messier.

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