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Jayson Farrell





Social Interactions In Online Communities


This paper is about how online communities, especially Multi-User Dimensions, can generate interesting psychological studies. MUDs are described and traits that make them interesting to psychologists are suggested. Examples of psychological studies of MUDs and their participants are discussed. Topic relates to many internet trends of identity and how our lives are increasingly influenced by cyberspace.

Keywords: cybersocieties, cyber community, psychology, addiction, digital life, cyberspace, MUD, internet identity










I am looking over my friend’s shoulder at his computer screen as he rocks rhythmically in his chair. He is running his fingers over the keyboard with blazing speed and chatting amiably to me about the source of my curiosity--his online persona. As he types and deftly maneuvers his mouse, I watch his virtual representation (a wizard cloaked in a purple robe) salute the onlooking virtual crowd. "Salutations," the text on the screen appears as he types. "Today we are gathered here in a most momentous ceremony, the joining of two of our guild members in holy matrimony." Dozens of characters like my friend’s are scurrying about, talking to other characters, looking around, or cheering on my friend’s speech. They range from hulking ogres toting enormous clubs to voluptuous elves sporting bows and arrows. What I find remarkable is that behind each group of pixels is a live person, controlling the most minute aspects of their character. Moreover, two such individuals have "fallen in love" in this virtual world and are taking the logical step--a virtual marriage, over which my friend is presiding. What sort of interactions (and people) would lead to such a peculiar relationship? I don’t have the answer to that question, or at least anything beyond hand-waving ideas. However, the question itself raises an interesting point: virtual worlds explore interesting aspects of human psychology and our social interactions. In this paper I will describe some of these online worlds, argue that they aid psychologists in the study of humanity, and illustrate how they have sparked psychological studies.

The virtual worlds I will consider in this paper are called MUDs, a term which stands for Multi-User Dimensions (or Dungeons, or Dialogues). [14] They go beyond mere chat rooms by adding spatial organization to social interaction, giving participants rich environments to explore. [12] MUDs are also known as MOOs, MUSHs, or MUCKs--variations that are primarily characterized by their coding style or the ease with which participants can modify the virtual world. In joining a MUD, a person designs the look of his or her character, sometimes customizing to meticulous levels. They then log into a server where other participants and computer-controlled beings roam the MUD world. Typically the world is of the sword and sorcery variety, as in the case of MUDs like Everquest, Ultima Online, and the upcoming Dawn. Usually the player tries to improve his character and achieve fame or influence in the virtual universe. Endless side-stories are also available, ranging from "find the new sword" to "defeat the dragon." Some MUD gamers simply run around and talk to people. In short, MUDs are a special type of internet community.

From my perspective, there are three attributes of MUDs that make them especially good vehicles of psychological study. First of all, MUDs are quest-driven. As in all video games, there are goals to achieve and various ways to achieve those goals. Second, MUDs encourage social interaction by design. The Everquest manual informs beginners that "the best way to survive and prosper is to join up with a group of players." [3, p. 34] The upcoming game Dawn leaves it "up to the players to create a society that punishes criminals," as opposed to traditional games supervised directly or indirectly by programmers. [10] Further, in most MUDs there are many goals that are completely unobtainable without enlisting other characters; for example, some powerful artifacts require small armies to obtain. A final aspect of MUDs that makes them useful as psychological devices is that they are fiercely addictive. The distinction between the virtual world and reality has become so sharp in the MUD community that the term "RL" has become a widespread abbreviation for "real life." [17, p. 186] In one study of Everquest players, the AVERAGE playing time reported was 22.4 hours a week. [19]
The above three factors lead to a rich online society that encapsulates and accentuates how people interact. In fact, by removing much of the tedium out of living (for example, the need to eat and sleep), MUDs represent an accelerated version of our real life interactions. One theorist observes "the speed with which individuals [in an online society] become polarized and fixed in their opinions." [4] Participants are forced to deal with others--whether through cooperation or conflict--because of the game design. Alliances between large groups of people are quickly formed, to grow or die out in a matter of weeks in real-time. Factions form and contest each other for bragging rights or dispute aspects of the game. The addictive nature of MUDs further enhances the speed with which such social events occur. The three aspects of MUDs and internet communities that I suggest above are only a part of the reason why they have created a wealth of psychological and sociological commentary on the fledgling hobby. While I can’t do the entire spectrum of ideas and studies developed due to MUDs justice, for the remainder of this paper I will describe some of them. Such studies strengthen our understanding of what makes us work in addition to having value in the social sciences.

Firstly, a host of psychological material has arisen regarding the appeal of MUDs. Three such theories are described in brief here. In the first theory, one commentator suggests that the rise of MUD-like environments fills the gap caused by the so-called "American disillusionment." He notes that "sociological texts written in the fifties and sixties were very concerned about alienation in modern life" but that "that concern [has since] evaporated." [18, p. 74] He goes on to suggest that "the cultural fascination with cyberspace" is "a manifestation of longing for community." [18, p. 74] Another theory as to the appeal of MUDs is advocated by Sherry Turkle, a respected analyst of the psychology of modern computing. She details case studies of individuals who use MUDs as an "escape valve," to live out personas or emotions that they otherwise couldn’t. [17, p. 189] Some gamers would enter a MUD world before they would be tested or placed under stress in the real world. There they would release some of their emotions by communicating with their MUD friends or acting out their frustrations. Turkle points out that the "escape valve" theory is aided by the richness of MUD worlds: the game puts participants in situations they could never experience in real life. Some players even construct virtual hide-aways in their MUD, realms of pure fantasy that they can share with others. [17, p. 194]

A final psychological theory regarding the appeal of MUDs is termed "the Virtual Skinner Box." [19] This concept is based on the writings of the psychologist B.F. Skinner, who developed an idea known as Operant Conditioning. In Operant Condition, a subject is coerced into performing complex tasks by repeatedly doing much easier tasks. The key is to provide frequent "positive reinforcement"--rewards--for the easier tasks. The subject is then eased into fewer rewards, as they have to perform increasingly elaborate tasks. In MUDs, early rewards come in the form of obtaining low level abilities and objects, which are plentiful, for the gamer’s character. [19] Gradually, the reward system enters the background and players will play for lengthy periods before receiving tangible benefits. [19] Hence, the "Virtual Skinner Box" is designed to addict a player from the start. In general, the above three ideas illustrate how MUDs have sparked debate in terms of what the human mind finds appealing.

Another aspect of psychology that has emerged around MUDs is the topic of what makes them unique communities. These observations are useful to keep in mind when undertaking any psychological studies involving the participants of a MUD, as they demonstrate how data does not directly reflect real life situations. For example, one criticism of online communities (and their capacity to simulate a real life community) is their limited diversity. One observer points out that "the Internet serves less than one percent of the adult global population" and further notes that online communities tend to reflect a high degree of specialized interest. [4, p. 36] According to several internet studies, MUDs are also primarily male-driven. Thus it is argued that the limited population of an online community casts doubt as to how realistic a community it is (although this argument ignores the role-playing that is pervasive in MUD communities). [17, p. 191] Another theoretical aspect of MUDs that has been discussed is how they compare with other Internet chat services. For example, in the field of temporal structure, MUDs are synchronistic. This simply means all participants are online simultaneously. [4, p. 43] There are a multitude of traits like temporal structure that classify MUDs as communities. One theorist observes at least five: in addition to the aforementioned participant characteristics and temporal structure, elements such as external contexts, system infrastructure, and group purpose contribute to the dynamics of a MUD community. [4, p. 49] Studies such as this compound on the growing body of theory that psychologists use to analyze MUDs.

A final category of psychological study involving MUDs that I will consider in this paper is pure statistical analysis. Concentrating just on Everquest, I found several web sites that compiled statistical data about gamers’ experience on Everquest which have telling psychological ramifications. The best of these studies that I found is entitled "The Norrathian Scrolls" and features a good body of statistical evidence drawn from nearly 2000 Everquest players. Here I will briefly pick out some of the more interesting statistics from that study and suggest how they may be interpreted. For example, about 25% of female gamers in this study reported falling in love with another player and an additional 20% reported falling in love with an actual character. [19] This compares to 18% of male gamers who reported either of the above two events, suggesting that perhaps females are able to find more meaning in virtual friendships. In a related statistic, nearly 50% of all male gamers have a character of the opposite sex in their MUD, whereas only 25% of female gamers reported such a character. [19] This may indicate how gender roles and identity differ between the sexes. Supplementing this idea, the reasons behind opposite-sex character creations also differed depending on the sex of the gamer. Females cited "sexual exploration" as a much more prominent reason for this so-called "gender-bending" than males did. [19] A final demographic of interest reports that nearly 80% of gamers have been a leader at some point in their Everquest experience. [19] I found this statistic interesting because the stereotypical MUD gamer is not a leader by any stretch of the imagination in real life. Perhaps this result comments on a person’s ability to get past certain inhibitions in limited circumstances. While the above statistical observations have yet to undergo professional analysis, they undeniably highlight interesting aspects of MUD gamers and people in general.

I hope that in the above I have convinced you of the psychological interest that MUDs can generate. As MUDs become richer and more powerful, I believe the usefulness of such studies will grow further. I will consider two upcoming MUDs here, and suggest how they could shed new light on the human psyche. One unreleased MUD is called Neverwinter Nights. The game designers for Neverwinter Nights are giving a player the power to create his own world and quests, and then invite other gamers into his world. To suggest one possibility, Neverwinter Nights may provide insights into how people deal with power and handle a "God complex." Another upcoming MUD, the aforementioned Dawn, goes a step further than today’s MUDs to simulate a realistic environment. Besides encouraging player-created codes of law for the virtual world, Dawn features a number of realistic enhancements such as the ability to hunt creatures to extinction, the capacity to build (and destroy) structures, and simulations of reproductive processes. [10] The advent of games like Dawn suggest to me that eventually we will be able to simulate complex social structures in the accelerated online world. Perhaps the time may come where we can judge entire systems of government or law using a MUD before they are actually implemented. Even if such lofty goals are never attained, I believe MUDs will continue to play an expanding role in the field of psychology, as evidenced by the discussion they have created today.



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  2. Amnaria MUD - Links. 2000. 30 February 2001. <>.
  3. Everquest Manual. 989 Studios: 1999.
  4. Jones, Steven. Cybersociety 2.0. London: Sage Publications, 1998.
  5. Jordan, Tim. Cyberpower: The Culture And Power Of Cyberspace And The Internet. New York: Routledge, 1999.
  6. Lee, Sangchul and McKenna, Katelyn. mud paper. 23 February 2001. <>.
  7. Leong, Lydia. The MUD Resource Collection: Research. 1998. 27 February 2001. <>.
  8. Menefee, Sami. New Pop Psychology Journal Looks At Cyberspace Addiction. 1998. Newsbytes. 27 February 2001. <>.
  9. MUD-Info Page. 27 February 2001. <>.
  10. Official Dawn FAQ. 2000. 23 February 2001. <>.
  11. Psychology Of Cyberspace. 23 February 2001. 1996. <>.
  12. Schneider, Daniel K. Educational VR (MUD) Sub-Page. 1995. Tecfa. 27 February 2001. <>.
  13. Sempsey, James. Papers Pertaining To The Psychology Of Cyberspace. 1998. 23 February 2001. <>.
  14. Smith, Jennifer. Basic Information About MUDs and MUDDing. Lysator. 27 February 2001. <>.
  15. Smith, Marc. Communities In Cyberspace. New York: Routledge, 1999.
  16. The Journal Of Virtual Environments. 2000. PennMUSH. 27 February 2001. <>.
  17. Turkle, Sherry. Life On The Screen: Identity In The Age Of The Internet. New York: Simon & Shuster, 1995.
  18. Valovic, Thomas. Digital Mythologies. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2000.
  19. Yee, Nicholas. The Norrathian Scrolls: A Study Of EverQuest. Haverford University. 23 February 2001. <>.
  20. Yee, Nicholas. Through The Looking Glass. 1999. Haverford University. 27 February 2001. <>.
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