Erotic Computing

EC 1.8 (7-27-94): Adventure
by Douglas Davis, Ph.D.  


This week, let's put an ear to the optic fiber, abuzz with ASCII, and try to hear the MOOsic.

First, there were "Adventure" and "Dungeons and Dragons." Then came email and mainframe "phone" routines. Now we have MUDs, MOOs, MUSHes, and IRC. In the dimly digital days of the 60s (wasn't it?), wizards of the mainframe terminal world programmed a text interface that allowed anyone with some billable CPU cycles and a TTY keyboard to examine and interact with a simple virtual world in which a seemingly endless set of branching decisions led one into the great cave, to the canary and its cage, and on to confrontations with monsters, labyrinthine paths, and virtual treasures whose accumulation added to one's score. The computer at the other end of the line responded to directional and movement commands ("north," "take bird," "read message") with boilerplate prose ("To the north, you see a rusty gate guarding the entrance to a dank, forbidding cave. There is a piece of paper on the ground in front of the gate.").

Generations of undergraduate programmers had a hand at improving the natural-language-handling capabilities of the Adventure user interface, making it ever more robust at handling the remote associations, typos, and obscenities of the next generation of user. A philosopher colleague of mine told with glee of visiting his mainframe-fluent son at college in the late 70s and being ushered to a terminal and pointed toward the Adventure cave. His son watched Dad get further and further into one of the logical puzzles, until finally--overwhelmed with frustration at a series of "You can't see that here"s and "I don't understand that"s--the professor typed "Fuck you." The keyboard went dead for a full minute, the screen blanked, then returned to life with the message, "That was wonderful! Now, shall we return to the game?"

Near the dawn of the microcomputer revolution, the clever folks at Infocom ported Adventure to the Apple, further improved the cleverness of the text-handler, and offered us Zork--on which I spent hours of retreat from the less predictable challenges of a Moroccan town in the early 80s. Zork rewarded patience, cleverness, and perhaps a certain attitude toward conflict--and I began to think of collecting personality data in the form of records of the choices a given player made at each cusp. Zork's sequels--a bewildering variety of single-player games of exploration, treasure-accumulation and conquest--exploited the burgeoning RAM and disk resources of PCs, and one began to hear of "addiction" to the game-world and its happy-ending scenarios of control and ever-increasing, ever-meetable, challenge. A fine alternative to the actual social world of the 80s, at least for the plastic-pocket-liner crowd. Infocom moved on to "Leather Goddesses of Phobos," with PG-toggle and its horny lounge lizard in search of titillating encounters with programmed maidens in a Martian setting. Seems to me he's still around, apparently with graphic enhancement for Mac and Windows systems.

In a parallel evolutionary process the board and dice-based role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons allowed a generation of mostly pubescent, mostly male fantasizers to take on the guise of wizard, swordsman, or (perhaps) maiden and put simulated strength and magic to the test. Finding a set of neighbors or suite mates willing to stay in role and allow one to play out Marvel Comics qualities otherwise unsustainable past middle school seems a powerful enticement, and a skillful dungeon master was a treasure to his friends. Where Adventure and its successors were a solitary, D&D is a collective vice--and a persistent one, judging from the variety of D&D paraphernalia in my local comic shop.

The Internet now provides hundreds of settings in which persons from around the physical world can interact, with only the constraints imposed by login costs, user-load, and typing speed. The last is a real constraint for many, since a busy MOO or IRC channel can create the sense of being both shouted at and ignored by a dozen drunks at a frat party where the air is strangely viscous and each comment is lost in the ether for many seconds, then repeated louder!!! Most of these settings have large numbers of occasional participants, including at any time numerous "lurkers" -- tourists who have logged in as guests and are watching the text flow by without contributing.

The proliferation of Bitnet and then Internet connections to college campuses in the middle 80s gave tens of thousands of students a chance to replace late-night runs to smokers and pizza palaces with Relay and Internet Chat (IRC) sessions, with all terminals logged to a particular node displaying the text typed by each participant. With readily-available networked or modem-connected PCs, the text-entry interactive possibilities of Adventure and the complementary fantasy ethos of D&D began to fuse, and the acronyms to proliferate. Anyone with net-access can now find their way into a Multi-User Dungeon/Dimension (MUD), in which the ambiance is reminiscent of Adventure but the entities encountered--the elfin thieves, heavy-pected warriors, and graybeard wizards--are less likely to be bits of program code than players logged in from wherever in cyberspace gamesters are awake and ready to slip into character. "Object-oriented" MUDs (MOOs) and Multi-User Shared Hallucinations (MUSHes) are relatively free-form settings in which characters can interact without the D&D ethos, and users are allowed to add to the shared fantasy setting by adding rooms and objects accessible to all subsequent players. Several years ago two of my students (are you out there, Jill and Amy?) became players in Lambda MOO, the grand wizard-dom of MOOs. Sharing the character of an empathic and slightly daft psychoanalyst of shifting gender, they created a therapist's office adjacent to Lambda University's virtual Psychology Department and deposited a questionnaire on the table there for other Lambdans to find and complete. They also became participants in Lambda's world, logging in for hours each week to take part in something combining elements of Mardi Gras, a slumber party, and a game of sardines. Residents might play multiple characters, putting on attitudes and interpersonal styles like garments--and their physical self-descriptions could easily mislead as to age, size, and sex. We learned a lot about verbal cleverness, romance, and the kind of ready aggression called acting out.

I plan to address in the coming weeks some of the psychological features of this new social medium, where personae can be spun off in minutes and relationships can take shape with almost no check on the self-presentation of each participant. The best way to think about these matters is in the context of a trial session in one of the role-playing settings, so feel free to take a detour here to LambdaMOO or try out one of the available MUDS. After you've at least lurked in a MOO-like setting, I urge you to read the fine story Virtual Love by Jess Weiss, from the June issue of Cyberkind, which nicely evokes the ambiance of MOO-dom and leaves the reader with the right questions.
Next week: Virtual Love.

Reference

Leather Goddesses of Phobos, copyright 1986, Infocom, Inc.

Serpentelli, Jill. (1992). Conversational Structure and Personality Correlates of Electronic Communication. Haverford College Psychology Thesis.

Weiss, Jesse. (1994). Virtual love. Cyberkind.

Douglas Davis, Ph.D. <ddavis@haverford.edu>


About the author ...

Copyright (C) Douglas Davis 1994. All rights reserved.