Cultural Formations
in Text-Based
Virtual Realities

By

Elizabeth M. Reid

emr@ee.mu.oz.au
emr@rmit.edu.au

A thesis submitted
in fulfillment of the requirements
for the degree of Master of Arts

Cultural Studies Program
Department of English
University of Melbourne
January 1994



Copyright 1994 by Elizabeth Reid, all rights reserved. This text may be freely redistributed among individuals in any medium so long as it remains unedited and appears with this notice. Any commercial use or republication requires the written permission of the author.


Publications related to this thesis:


Introduction:
Virtual Reality--Imagined Space

Cyberspace.... A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding...[1]

Virtual Reality, or "cyberspace"... takes alternate reality a step further [beyond books and movies] by introducing a computer as mediator, or imagination enhancer.[2]

Cyberspace: A new universe, a parallel universe created and sustained by the world's computers and communication lines... a new stage, a new and irresistible development in the elaboration of human culture and business under the sign of technology.[3]

Since William Gibson coined the term in his best-selling novel Neuromancer, cyberspace' and virtual reality have been part of late twentieth century culture, and have been infused with a variety of cultural and emotional meanings. Gibson himself envisaged a direct neural connection between humans and computers against a background of urban decay and personal alienation. The film The Lawnmower Man depicted a meld of mind-altering drugs and computer-controlled sensory stimulation which offered a new stage for the evolution of mankind, either toward godlike wisdom or satanic evil. The popular media have posed cyberspace as the new frontier and the new promise of the twentieth century. Gibson's 'console cowboys'--virtuoso cyberspace users hacking at the edges of the law--have been incarnated in media coverage of groups such as the infamous 'Legion of Doom'. Arcade games incorporating datagloves and headsets have become the latest fad in entertainment. Business Week filled its October 5 '92 issue with special features introducing virtual reality technologies and applications to its readers. Clifford Stoll's best-seller The Cuckoo's Egg promoted cyberspace as the site of new levels of international espionage, betrayal and tyranny, inhabited by glamorous foreign spies and dedicated heroes.

Technically speaking, the term 'virtual reality' is most commonly used to refer to systems that offer users visual, auditory and tactile information about an environment which exists as data in a computer system rather than as physical objects and locations. This is the virtual reality depicted in The Lawnmower Man and approximated by the 'Virtuality' arcade games marketed by Horizon Entertainment. This thesis is not about these kinds of virtual reality. I do not wish to talk about cyberspace or virtual reality as technological constructions but as cultural constructs. In common with Howard Rheingold I do not see virtual reality as a set of technologies, but as an experience.[4] More than that, I believe that it is primarily an imaginative rather than a sensory experience. I wish to shift the focus of attention away from the gadgets used to represent a virtual world, and concentrate on the nature of the user's experience of such worlds. I contend that technical definitions of VR beg the question of what it is about such systems that sustains the illusion of reality in the mind of the user. A list of technical components does not explain why it is that users are prepared to accept a simulated world as a valid site for emotional and social response.

The systems that I will describe in examining virtual reality as a cultural environment are technically simple. I have chosen to refer to a family of computer programs known as MUDs. MUDs are networked, multi-participant, user-extensible systems which are most commonly found on the Internet, the international network that connects many thousands of educational, research and commercial institutions. Using a MUD does not require any of the paraphernalia commonly associated with virtual reality. There is no special hardware to sense the position and orientation of the user's real-world body, and no special clothes allowing users to see the virtual world through goggles and touch it through 'datagloves'. The MUD interface is entirely textual; all commands are typed in by the user and all feedback is displayed as text on a monitor. A simple PC can act as a gateway into this kind of virtual world.

Instead of using sophisticated tools to see, touch and hear the virtual environment, users of MUD systems are presented with textual descriptions of virtual locations. Technically, a MUD software program consists of a database of 'rooms', 'exits', and other objects. The program accepts connections from users on a computer network, and provides each user with access to that database. As Pavel Curtis describes, users are presented with textual information describing them as being situated in an artificially constructed place which also contains those other participants who are connected to the MUD program.[5] There are many hundreds of MUD programs running on the Internet, each with its own unique database of descriptions of localities and objects. Within each of these systems users can interact with each other and with the virtual environment which the MUD presents to them.

As Curtis has commented, the virtual worlds within MUD systems have many of the social attributes of physical places, and many of the usual social mechanisms apply.[6] Users treat the worlds depicted by MUD programs as if they were real. However, it is not the technological interface itself that sustains the willingness of users to treat this simulated environment as if it were real. Rather it is the degree to which MUDs act not only as a tool for the expression of each user's imagination, but mediate between the users' imagination and their communication to others of what they have imagined. Cyberspace--the realm of electronic impulses and high-speed data highways where MUDs exist--may be a technological artefact, but virtual reality is a construct within the mind of a human being. Within this construct a representation of a person can be manipulated within a representation of a real or imagined environment, both of which can be manifested through the use of various technologies, including computers. Virtual worlds exist not in the technology used to represent them, nor purely in the mind of the user, but in the relationship between internal mental constructs and technologically generated representations of these constructs. The illusion of reality lies not in the machinery itself, but in the users' willingness to treat the manifestation of their imaginings as if they were real.

The technical attributes of these virtual places, comments Curtis, have significant effects on social phenomena, leading to new modes of interaction and new cultural formations.[7] The lack of actual physical presence, indeed the great physical distances between individual participants, demands that a new set of behavioural codes be invented if the participants in such systems are to make sense to one another. The problems posed by the lack of cultural cues which physical presence carries influence behaviour in virtual environments. The solutions to these problems which participants devise constitute the culture of the virtual world in which they are played out. It is the tension between the manifestation of conventional social and cultural patterns, the invention of new patterns, and the imaginative experience of these phenomena as taking part in a virtual world that is the subject of my thesis.

My primary sources in this work fall into three categories. Firstly, I will quote from logs taken of sessions on MUDs. Secondly, I will quote from electronic mail, or email, sent to me by MUD players in which they discuss such usage. Lastly, I will be using articles from the USENET newsgroups devoted to discussion of MUD and MUD playing. These groups include alt.mud, rec.games.mud, rec.games.mud.admin, rec.games.mud.announce, rec.games.mud.diku, rec.games.mud.lp, rec.games.mud.misc and rec.games.mud.tiny. I have been monitoring these groups since December 1991, during which time these groups have seen an average traffic of approximately fifty articles each day. In all quoted extracts the original (sometimes very original) grammar and spelling have been preserved, and in all cases I have secured permission to quote from the individuals concerned. In some cases I have been asked to withhold identifying information, and where this is the case I have indicated in the footnotes that the item of mail or the news article is from "anonymous". However, in most cases the names of players and characters as well as the names of the MUDs themselves have been preserved. The most important exception is the case of 'JennyMUSH', which is an alias. For reasons that will be made clear in the body of this thesis, the unique nature of this system and the experiences of its users have led to a great concern with the issue of privacy. The administrator of the MUD has asked me not to reveal any information that might identify the location of the system, and has suggested 'JennyMUSH' as a pseudonym which retains the flavour of its actual name.

This thesis will be divided into three chapters, preceded by a section detailing the historical background to and context of the evolution of MUD systems. The subject of the first and second chapters is the nature of the social changes that these forms of virtual reality engender. I will examine the impact of MUDs on the practices of interpersonal communication and interaction, and on community formation and social cohesion. The third chapter will describe how the nature of human existence is altered by entrance or translation into virtual reality. In this last chapter I will explore the nature of social identity, sexuality and the body in the virtual environment.

Conclusion:
Cultural Formations in Text-Based Virtual Realities

Traditional forms of human interaction have their codes of etiquette. We are all brought up to behave according to the demands of social context. We know, as if instinctively, when it is appropriate to flirt, to be respectful, to be angry, or silent. Words do not express the full extent of our cultural and interpersonal play. The greater part of our interaction is expressed through signs and symbols--in tone and nuance, in styles of dress, in postures and facial expressions, in rules and traditions. Smiles, frowns, tones of voice, posture and dress--Geertz's "significant symbols"--tell us more about the social contexts we are placed in than do the statements of the people we socialise with.[92] Physical context is a part of social context--place and time are as much loaded with cultural meaning as are dress and gesture. Words, as we use them in everyday life, are insufficient to create a context for our existence. It is the scenery, props and action that complete the social stage. On MUD systems, however, these structures for communication are dismantled. The conventions that we are accustomed to rely on are not present in these virtual realities. The environmental cues that feed us our cultural lines become ambivalent and problematic. Communication and cultural context must be expressed through new channels, and new systems of meaning must be forged by virtual denizens who wish to make sense of and to one another.

The medium itself blocks some of the social constraints that players would, under other circumstances, be operating within. Cultural indicators--of social position, of age and authority, of personal appearance--are relatively weak in a computer-mediated context. They might be inferred, but they are not evident. MUD systems leave it open to users to create virtual replacements for these social cues. Interaction on MUDs involves the creation of replacements and substitutes for physical cues, and the construction of social hierarchies and signifiers of authority. The results of this creation are self-regulating communities that include systems of hierarchy and power that allow for the punishment of disruptive members. The textual replacements for context cues utilised on MUDs are the tools of interpretation that enable players both to overcome the cultural problems created by their environment, and to create unique environments that house their own specialised cultural understandings. These tools, these symbols, constitute cultural knowledge. It takes specialised knowledge and dramatic skill to create a social presence on a MUD. With practice and with these skills MUD players form communities which enable members to form close attachments, and to regulate and punish disruptive members. The objects in this virtual environment serve as the stage on which these cultural plays are enacted--houses and toads facilitate the marriages and public trials which are the virtually physical manifestations of players' common cultural understandings. MUD systems contain communities that are "created through symbolic strategies and collective beliefs."[93]

MUD players share not only a common virtual environment, but also a common language and a common textuality. Within the context of the former, the latter two allow MUD players to make sense of one another despite the limitations of the medium in which MUDs exist. MUD players share a stage, and share an understanding of the rules and ways of breaking rules that allow them to speak meaningful lines. They are able to read each other in far more than a textual fashion. With inventiveness and lateral thinking has come a set of understandings and symbols that allow MUDs to become a social environment. Within this environment, MUD players experience human dramas as strongly as they might in actuality.

These communities are by no means idyllic. Free expression may be encouraged by the disinhibiting nature of the medium, at least in the early stages of play, but that is not always as socially constructive that many liberal ideologies would claim it to be. Free expression allows not only the voicing of views that might be 'politically correct', but also of 'hate speech'. All sides of any social or political debate can find a voice on MUDs, and so the social characteristics of MUD systems vary widely. Some, like FurryMUCK, provide an environment that some would call liberated and others perverse. Other systems provide environments that uphold that breed of 'family values' generally promoted by the more conservative elements of the political spectrum. This diversity is the key to characterising virtual environments. In themselves, they are amoral-- virtual reality is a promiscuous tool, capable of reflecting any environment imagined. In compensation for the sometimes anti-social effects of disinhibition there exist methods of preventing and punishing behaviour which could pose a threat to the delicate balance of understanding on which MUD communities exist. Technical measures have been built into the MUD program to deal with disruptive players, and social conventions that act to exclude and punish have been developed. Both technical and social sanctions rely on a social hierarchy that is based on relative degrees of control over the virtual universe.

Within this ambivalent virtual space, notions of human identity and existence are problematised. MUD characters have no actuality, only virtuality. They are never immutable. MUD characters are not fixed and they are always in the process of redefinition. They are cyborgs- -entities made up of ones and zeroes and imagination, without bodies and without physical restrictions in the virtuality they inhabit. Erik Erikson writes that "the playing adult steps sideward into another reality."[94] On MUD systems the games that are played involve not just a stepping into but the creation of another reality, the creation of virtually physical contexts, and the emergence of new forms of being. The virtual environments designed on MUDs exist not in the databases and computer networks that make up these systems, but in the ways in which players can use those technologies to realise what they have imagined, and to explore the results of other players' imaginings. The program mediates between the players' imaginings and their realisation in a form that can be experienced by others. MUDs allow each player to design and interact with computer-generated objects that are imbued with cultural meaning by the players who have created them. The objects in MUD universes are treated as if they had the properties of the everyday counterparts. Houses are lived in, roses are smelt, food can be eaten and other players can be kissed.

MUD systems problematise the selfhood of their players. In MUDs, the player is in two places at once. The body is on the actual world, but, as Stone describes, the social delegate, the 'I' that belongs to the body, is in an imagined social space enabled and constructed with the assistance of the particular technology of the MUD program.[95] Such technology is a device which mediates between the physical and the imagined. It is an interface between the imagined world and the world of the body. In social terms, as Stone continues, virtual reality is an interface that mediates between the human body and an associated 'I'.[96] It is in the spaces between the body and the self that cyborgs exist. Such entities are a simulation, an approximation, of the physical, untrammelled by the confines of the flesh. In the virtual universe, biological sex is separated from imagined gender and physical sex is separated from the erotic imagination.

The designers of an early military simulation system, SIMNET, a product of the (now thought to be) low-tech early '80s, believed that it was the technical simplicity of their creation that made it so compulsively addictive to those military personnel who had the opportunity to play wargames in its virtual spaces. SIMNET's designers believed that the low resolution of the graphical data that made up the virtual manifestation made it all the more engaging, since it required that "the participants actively engage their own imaginations to fill in the holes of the illusion."[97] This 'suspension of disbelief', this immersion of disbelief in the imagined and imaginal, is what enables a MUD program to become a social and cultural environment. The MUD program allows what is imagined by players to be controlled and channelled into meaningful cues upon which other players can base their actions. The imagination of each player creates the context in which all other players can act. The virtual scenery provides the dramaturgical cues which tell each player what actions are possible within the MUD world. The more willing each player is to invest his or her imagination in creating objects and descriptions, the richer and more successfully dramaturgical the environment and the player's experience will be. The MUD program serves to actualise what is imagined by one player in ways that become 'real' to others. The process through which players take the MUD program is one of transforming the "thin abstracted space of the machine into a culturally thick" and emotionally concrete world.[98]

The virtual environments created on MUDs are both cultural products and cultural entities. The systems of meaning and context that are created on MUDs are the result of a need amongst players for a set of cultural understandings in which to define both themselves and their actions. Those meanings and contexts serve to create a cultural system which substitutes for, and is distinct from, the shared networks of meaning of the wider community. These cultural systems become the means to perpetuate and regulate the integrity of the MUD environment. The virtual nature of the MUD world lies in its culturally symbolic identity; the unique cultural understandings found on MUDs lie in the specialised meanings that allow the communication of imagined realities. Interaction and experience in this virtually real corner of cyberspace produces a cultural space that is deeply textured in its textuality and richly imagined in its manifestation.


Electropolis:
Communication and Community
On Internet Relay Chat

Elizabeth M. Reid
1991
University of Melbourne
Department of History

Email:
emr@ee.mu.oz.au
emr@rmit.edu.au

IRC:
Ireshi, emr


Copyright 1991 by Elizabeth Reid, all rights reserved. This text may be freely redistributed among individuals in any medium so long as it remains unedited and appears with this notice. Any commercial use or republication requires the written permission of the author.

Adapted from an Honours thesis written at the University of Melbourne, Australia in 1991.


Abstract:

This paper discusses interaction on 'Internet Relay Chat', the synchronous computer-mediated communication system available on that network. It is shown that the structure of IRC forces users to deconstruct many of the cultural tools that form the basis of more conventional systems of interaction. Within this environment new methods of creating shared systems of significance, and methods of enforcing that new hegemony, have developed. IRC's internal system of cultural deconstruction and regeneration is mirrored in its implications for the external system of academic discourse. It is proposed that the forms of interaction seen on IRC problematize and necessitate the reconstruction of some of the methods of analysis that have been applied to computer-mediated communication. IRC - and computer-mediated communication in general - offer challenges to disciplines such as linguistics, sociology and history that demand a reconstruction of those discourses.


Conclusion:
Discourse and Moral Judgement

It is tempting to view IRC in moral terms. I have sought to show that IRC provides a medium in which behaviour that is both outside of and in opposition to accepted social norms is accepted and even encouraged. I have demonstrated the ways in which the IRC community has developed its own distinctive system of significant signs and symbols. But this is not to imply that the IRC community is democratic or liberating. This freedom - from old conventions and to create new ones - can be both positive and negative. 'Positive' forms of human interaction exist on IRC - there is friendship, tolerance, humour, even love. There is also hatred, violence, shame and guilt. The 'freedom' of computer mediated communication is expressed in a lack of conventional social controls, not in any utopian implication.

I feel that it would be a mistake to project future societal effects from the kinds of phenomena that I have described as happening on IRC. But the temptation is there. On this issue, Johansen, Vallee and Spangler say:

Whenever a new technology emerges, it is tempting to predict that it will lead to a new and better form of society. The technology for electronic meetings is no exception. The new media invite a look at alternative organizations and alternative societies. Combined with current social concerns, they also encourage utopian visions... In this vision, electronic media create a sense of community and commonalty among all people of the world...(77)

Such a wide-ranging conclusion is unjustifiable. As I have shown, IRC users can share a sense of community and commonalty, but they can also exhibit alienation and hostility. It is impossible to say which, if either, will prevail in IRC's future.

Nevertheless, the cultural play that occurs on IRC does have implications for individual players beyond the scope of the virtuality of the computer network. If, as Hiltz and Turoff have said, users of CMC systems can come to feel that their most highly emotional relationships are with fellow users whom they rarely or never see, then this indicates the potential for computer-mediated communication systems to influence the lives of their users. Certainly for 'Lori' and 'Daniel', and for 'Allison', the virtual reality of Internet Relay Chat has strongly affected their relationships with others and their view of themselves. For them, and others, 'virtuality' is reality.

IRC has the potential to affect users of the system in many and often opposing ways. For the shy and socially ill-at-ease, computer mediated communication can provide a way of learning social skills in a non-threatening environment. It may also provide a crutch and an excuse not to develop social skills that can be implemented in the 'real world'. Relationships formed on IRC may be supportive, deeply felt and may give users much happiness. They may also lead to a reluctance to form relationships outside the electronic medium, and may be in themselves painful due to the lack of possibilities for the expression of more conventional forms of affection. The cross- cultural, international nature of IRC can create a sense of empathy and tolerance for differing cultures. It can also provide a medium for the uninhibited expression of racial hatred. Little is as yet known about the potential psychological and social effects of computer-mediated communication. At present we have, as Hiltz and Turoff admit, "only the skimpiest of insights" into what those effects might be, and which might predominate.(78)

It would be easy to gloss over the less attractive aspects of IRC and to stress the more positive side. IRC is, after all - as it was intended to be - fun. Nevertheless, those unattractive aspects cannot be ignored. IRC, in common with other examples of computer mediated communication, has no intrinsic moral implications. It is a cultural tool, of a kind whose specific discursive background I have located in postmodernism, that can be used in a number of differing and contradictory ways.

Moral judgement of IRC is fruitless, since the possibilities are so balanced that it is unclear which aspects of IRC might be dominant - if any are. IRC is essentially postmodern, and as such its cultural subversion can be as effectively channelled at egalitarianism as at racism, at feminism as at sexism. IRC cannot be made to serve a moral point - but it can be used to problematise the discourses of many academic disciplines.

Interaction on IRC presents many anomalies that cannot be understood in the light of present discourse. Its mode of communication is synchronous, yet interlocutors are neither proximate nor necessarily known to each other. There is a lack of conventional social and emotive context cues - yet conversation can be highly personalised, and a social structure has emerged. IRC is a social phenomena, yet its existence is in the nowhere of electron states and its artifacts in magnetic recordings. If IRC, and computer-mediated communication in general, is to be fully understood and analysed, then the conventions of many disciplines must be deconstructed. Linguistics, communication theory, sociology, anthropology - and history - are challenged by the culture shared by the users of IRC. The divisions between spoken and written, and synchronous and asynchronous forms of language, are broken down. The idea that as the communication bandwidth narrows interaction should become increasingly impersonal does not hold true for IRC. Understandings of cultural significances as relying on physical display are challenged. Factors of authority, hierarchy and social control are reconstructed. IRC deconstructs and reconstructs not only its own structure but also the conventions of the discourses that might address it.

If these disciplines are to be able to address postindustrial, postmodern phenomena, they must be able to incorporate the challenges that those phenomena offer them. IRC is only one example of the kinds of interaction that are increasingly common in media utilising high-tech, computerised technology. As it becomes more common - as more corporations take to electronic mail and news systems to facilitate communication, as more academics from non-science disciplines begin to utilise the facilities offered by the Internet, as more people come to rely on the styles of communication, community and culture that have developed on Internet Relay Chat - discourse, and therefore disciplines, must alter to encompass these media.