copyright 1997 by Jen Clodius
This paper was presented at the Combined Conference on MUDs in Jackson Hole, Wyoming on January 15, 1997.

Earlier versions have been presented as a guest-lecture for David Albert's course on computers and community at Harvard in March 1996, and at the American Anthropological Association annual meetings in San Francisco in November 1996.
Several people have made supportive and useful comments; I'd like to particularly thank Drs. Todd Satogata, Reed Riner, and Barry Kort, as well as David Albert and his students.

Creating a Community of Interest

"Self" and "Other" on DragonMud

Table of Contents


community: 1.a. A group of people living in the same locality and under the same government. b. The district or locality in which such a group lives. 2. A group of people having common interests: the scientific community; the international business community. 3.a. Similarity or identity: a community of interests. b. Sharing, participation, and fellowship. (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 383)

What is a "community"? It is tempting to ignore a discussion of what constitutes "community" and just plunge into the more interesting topics. But as tempting as that may be, the lack of definition allows the entire discourse to be moved from suggesting future investigations and back into the realm of topics that are "mildly interesting". Traditionally, we have defined a community as a group of folks who live proximate, geographically. However anthropologist Arjun Appadurai points out that, as groups migrate and become less homogenous, configurations of "group identity" become problematized (1991, 191). Groups, whether ethnic, religious, or national, no longer create identity based solely on residence patterns or geographic location. But if "communities" are no longer defined by their geographic boundaries, how, then, do we define them?

As the above-cited dictionary definition suggests, shared interests and self-identification of belonging to a group are viable alternatives. Moreover, the very nature of transglobal migrations lends an international flavor to mobile cultures. As Clifford suggests, "Twentieth-century identities no longer presuppose continuous cultures or traditions. Everywhere individuals and groups improvise local performances from (re)collected pasts, drawing on foreign media, symbols, and languages" (1988,14). Moreover, the international flavor of these non-homogenized improvisations creates, as Appadurai argues, "a wider set of 'possible' lives" for groups and individuals (1991, 197).

This enlarged set of potential alternatives, then, allows individuals to select from among a range of identities. Moreover, individuals may choose parts of various alternatives, without necessarily incorporating the entirety. The ability to make these choices creates the opportunity for the formation of whole new "communities of interest", bound together by choice rather than geography.

My goal is to explore how a specific Internet community creates and defines itself. I argue that, wholly without geographic boundaries and containing many of members who have never met each other face-to-face, DragonMud nevertheless constitutes a "community". Moreover, I argue that concepts of the other are problematized within a community that celebrates diversity, as the Other is reduced from an oppositional "Them" to merely "not us". The importance of this particular point lies in the fact that human history repeatedly demonstrates communities being formed in direct opposition to outside influences. I write from a bifurcated stance of "hybridity" and "native", as an anthropologist who is a member of the community, as an anthropologist who actively studies this community, and whose participation within the community informs and recreates my anthropology (Limón 1991, Narayan 1993).

Parenthetically, I have no ethical issues about writing about a community in which I'm an active participant; I'm overt about my research, I'm scrupulously conscientious about getting explicit permissions to use quotes and private materials, and anyone with access to a web-browser can read what I've written about DragonMud and DragonMudders. Where I do have some personal issues, however, is in the awareness that (following Dwyer, against Geertz) I'm not merely eavesdropping; my presence necessarily influences what I'm told, which, in turn, influences my interpretations [1] (Dwyer 1982, 262). I appear, in the excerpts that follow, as "Bedouin".

DragonMud

My examples today are drawn from my fieldwork on DragonMud, the oldest continuously running MUD on the net. Originally put up in November 1989, DragonMud just celebrated its seventh anniversary. At the rate that social-questing MUDs rise and disappear on the net, a pal recently pointed out that my six years of work there -- and DragonMud's longevity -- relates roughly to having studied Egypt continuously since the era of the Pharaohs. DragonMud is, as I mentioned, a social-questing MU*, not an educational system. In the same way that there is a recognized difference between "VR" (virtual reality) and "RL" (real life [2]), mudders distinguish between the "character" or "avatar" they role-play and themselves; the human being is the "player" or "operator". This nomenclature is not firmly established, though the concept is universally accepted. The "style", attitudes, physical description, quirks and idiosyncrasies of the character are all generated by the player. While some people play roles, generally "characters" who have been around DragonMud for a while closely represent their "players" - that is, "players" "play" themselves.

While many people initially log on for the recreational [3] aspects of DragonMud, those who continue to log on are integrated into the community. Many social MU*s are predicated on playing a fantasy "role"; DragonMud is not. Players are informed when they log in that "In DragonMud, mudders play themselves in 18th century London." or, as The Dragon [4] puts it, "We don't have strange people in a familiar place, we have real people in a strange place." The sense that the people with whom one is interacting are "real" (though, of course, there are issues of anonymity on the Internet as a whole) facilitates the formation of a truly created community, one in which people come together to support and care for each other (personal communication 1/5/94, Anderson 1983).

DragonMud has a current population of over 5000 players, with a "core" community of between 700 and 900 people. Many are college students, but, compared to other MU*s, an unusually high percentage are post-docs and professional people (O'Brien 1992) [5]. The youngest regular player (who logs in through his professorial father's university account) is 13, the oldest (the author of a programming language) is in his mid-70s. These core players define themselves as a "community", or even as "family". They share a common history, and assume a common future. Within the community there are social and political hierarchies [6], systems of exchange (albeit non-monetary), fictive kinships, ritual processes, factions and friendships. As Randall put it, "We have everything a RL community has except agriculture... but we grow ideas instead."

Players generally begin to form friendships by asking other players about solutions to quests[7], then gradually become involved in conversations. For many, DragonMud becomes a "third place", a place they can just hang out apart from work (or school) and home (Oldenburg 1991, 14). Discussions cover a wide range; a single recent evening's topics included installation problems with Microsoft's Windows95, the federal budget, possible responses to emailed chain letters, an up-coming DragonMud gathering on the east coast, legislating morality versus legislating behavior, the liturgical origin of the magical incantation "hocus pocus", writing actions for database objects, and marriage law. Because people log on to DragonMud from all over the world, it is noteworthy, but not unusual, to find a conversation occurring in Town Square in a language other than English.

While some conversations are serious in nature, there can also be moments of ludic by-play embedded within them. Since conversations occur in real time, tangents are occasionally followed briefly before the discussion returns to its previous path. The ability to spontaneously understand and create interactions is valued. In the following example, for instance, Bedouin is being plagued by "lag", best defined as the unpredictable interval between typing something and actually having the message wend its way through the net and into DragonMud's host computer before appearing on other players' screens. Lag is sometimes felt by a number of players when the entire Internet is affected by heavy computer traffic, at other times it can be local to the machine through which an individual player is logged on. In this instance[8] (which took place while the Academy Awards were being broadcast, driving the primary topic of conversation), Wilhelm announces that he's leaving for the evening (line 1), pauses a moment to allow other players to say goodnight (lines 2-4) [9],then leaves (lines 5-6). Bedouin, who has typed her message before Wilhelm's departure, sees that her message is lagged and not delivered until after Wilhelm has left (line 7). She comments on her lack of success (line 9), and the following interchange occurs spontaneously. [10]

1  Wilhelm says "Ah, well. Time to sleep. Goodnight folks! Have a
   hug or wave, whatever suits ya."
2  Aegean says "Nite, Wil!"
3  Ganna says "Night, Wilhelm!  Sleep well."
4  Myxolydian waves to Wilhelm.
5  Wilhelm wanders over to the Announcement Wall.
6  Wilhelm has left.
7  Bedouin hugs Wilhelm g'night!
8  Aegean says "too late"
9  Bedouin unsuccessfully leaps that lag-wall!
10 Ganna throws Bedo[11] a rope
11 Aegean offers a shoulder as a boost
12 Ganna applauds. "Nice form.  9.7"
13 Aegean grins
14 Myxolydian grins.
15 Bedouin needs to point her toes more :-/
16 Ganna nods "You'll get it in practice:) 
17 Aegean says "Hey..she gets two passes :-)"
18 Bedouin says "D'ja like the little hand-flip on the dismount 
   though?"
19 Ganna smiles. "Nice touch! I liked:)"
20 Bedouin whews. (Y'never know what the judges will think 
   beforehand... ;-)
21 Ganna wonders why anyone would want to go over the lag-wall 
   twice???
22 Aegean suddenly feels like he became a 'pommel horse'...or is  
   that "pummel" ;-)
23 Ganna hands Bedo a towel..."true..:)"
24 Bedouin mops her face, then realizes her coach is too far away 
   to hug gratuitously.
25 Ganna awwws "how nice:)"

Ganna and Bedouin play off of each other's comments spontaneously, with Ganna taking the role of gymnastic judge (lines 12, 16, 19, 23) and Bedouin taking the role of gymnast (lines 15, 18, 20, 24). Except for Ganna's almost parenthetical comment in line 21, Aegean's attempt to participate (lines 11, 17, 22) is largely ignored[12]. After this brief interchange, the conversation returns to the Kirk Douglas's award for Lifetime Achievement.

The Creation of "Self"

When an individual initially logs onto a MU*, the first thing she or he does is "create" themselves. While this creation is literal in the sense that the individual must first create a character with which to move around DragonMud's landscape, it is also figurative. As Abu-Lughod points out, "the self is always a construction, never a natural or found entity" (1991, 140). Players describe themselves, and act in a manner consistent with the image they wish to project. People play with various facets of their personalities and, I would suggest, even those facets that feel unfamiliar to the player initially are in some way the product of the player's personality, either through prior exposure to those traits or as products of the individual's imagination. Some players are quite overt about using DragonMud as a Goffmanesque "backstage", using it to practice characteristics they want to carry over into their lives away from the keyboard[13].

DragonMud's inhabitants, the spaces in which they dwell, and the objects they create and manipulate all exist within a realm comprised solely of text (Clodius 1994, 12). Participation in a MUD is recreational; people log on by choice. Encounters between specific individuals may be happenstance, but everyone who logs on does so expecting to interact with other people on some level.

Players report that they log on to DragonMud for a variety of reasons, most commonly relating to friendship and levels of comfort. Recently Bedouin walked into Town Square and said, "I need a few pithy comments from ya'll -- Why DragonMud? Of all the MU*s around, why do ya'll log on here?" and got the following responses:

wapini grins..easy..it's home.
Czhorat says "dammit..that was my answer."
Wilhelm points at the above conversation. [about legislating 
   "moral" behavior]
Czhorat says "In all seriousness, I hang around here because, 
   very early in my virtual life here, I met people who made me  
   feel a part of the community..."
Czhorat says "..and I think that this place strikes a good 
   balance between being real people and enjoying each others' 
   company and questing and role-playing and such."
Dryad says "I come here because I have found more intelligent 
   conversation here than any other mud.  The city itself is well 
   thought out and simple enough to not get lost and because 
   people are courteous and friendly."
Wilhelm can disagree, and not be castigated.
Dryad says "and because there's not much in the way of hierarchy, 
   and what there is, is based entirely on experience and  
   contribution to the community"
X'zquala hmms.. Yep, this place definitely has a community 
   feeling to it.. We are all very unique.. very different 
   people here.. Yet we all accept, support and genuinely love 
   each other.  This place has a great warmth to it
Naibu says "I come here because the people I like come here 
   consistently and have formed a community -- part of that 
   community is that it manages to squeeze out a lot of the jerk-
   y-ness that seems to be around elsewhere online."
Dryad says "and people aren't all obsessed with 'hit points' or 
   killing evil creatures. [14] "
Czhorat says "Although one of the other things I like about this 
   place is that there is an occasional [verbal] 'fight' for 
   me..."
Czhorat says "and that the combatants will still love each other 
   the next day."
wapini says "Maybe it is the season..but there's little 
   contentiousness here tonight."
wapini nods..Cz[15]  and I couldn't be more different..but we 
   agree..
Wilhelm notes to Bedo and Jopsy that another attraction DragonMUD 
   has is that its format isn't particularly attractive to 
   adolescents, except for the more thoughtful ones.
Bedouin logs on 'cause she can walk into TS[16], ask a non sequitur 
   of a question, and get straight answers :-)  (You guys are 
   terrific!  Thanks! :-)

As Appadurai suggests would occur in his commentary on "ethnoscapes", people form friendships across a multiplicity of boundaries, broadening their perspectives and expanding their horizons (1991). Naibu recently commented, "I'm not all that antisocial... it's just that in my life, everyone I know is just like me! This mud has made me able to meet people from backgrounds that I never would have met otherwise."

The Creation of "Community"

It was a non-anthropologist who first undertook defining the specific characteristics that define non-geographic Internet communities. Scime suggests that true Internet communities (as opposed to, say, collections of people who happen to be on the same mailing list) have in common shared interests, shared values, caring and nurturing, discourse, and a moral voice (1994). I add another requisite to Scime's list: time. I will discuss each of these traits in terms of their applicability to DragonMud, with examples.

Shared Interests

As mentioned previously, most DragonMudders consider DragonMud to be a "third place". Neither "work" nor "family" (though it should be noted that some members do use DragonMud as a means of keeping in contact with distant family members), DragonMud is a place where people "hang out". People log on to chat with their pals, to keep in touch with old friends, and to make new friends. Logging on, of course, requires some knowledge of the Internet and some basic computer skills, but that is the extent to which assumptions can be made about shared intellectual interests. Rather, the most significant shared interest is in other people and frequently (as Naibu suggests above) in people different from themselves.

This is not, however, to suggest that people spend all of their time logged on and have no interactions with people away from their keyboards. DragonMudders are still people, and have social lives away from and apart from computer-mediated friendships. Moreover, few DragonMudders remain strangers; most know at least one other person in their geographic region, and people travel great distances to attend an annual gathering in San Diego over Memorial Day weekend. [17] Other smaller regional gatherings occur whenever anyone gets around to organizing and announcing one. DragonMudders, then, are not merely names scrolling up a screen, they are real people with real friendships and shared interests.

Shared Values

DragonMudders also share common values, although certainly not in terms of "political values", and not necessarily those traditionally considered to be "moral values". Rather, what DragonMudders share and value is the right to be heard. As Wilhelm suggests in the excerpt above, one can disagree without fear of being criticized -- although, as Czhorat (who is notoriously politically right-wing) notes, this is not to suggest that an espoused view will not garner some heated disagreement. What is valued, then, is the agreement to disagree, and the expectation that other conversational participants will remain civil in their disagreement. Verbal attacks that are perceived to be ad hominem are condemned as being contrary to community values.

Rather than a set of Official Rules, DragonMudders operate within a system of social values that is, perhaps, more easily defined in terms of what behaviors are not acceptable. Rudeness, for instance, is not acceptable -- which could lead, of course, to a debate over what constitutes "rudeness". In practice, however, the definition is simple. If a player is offended by another player's actions or words, the behavior or statement was rude. Rather than the Biblical "Golden Rule", DragonMudders tend toward a more anthropologically sensitive "Do unto others as they would be done by," or more colloquially, "Treat others as they want to be treated."

If this sounds as though I am suggesting that players are socialized into the DragonMud community, I will be more explicit: that is exactly what occurs. Moreover, experienced DragonMudders are overtly aware that there are implicit rules of conduct within the community, and try to guide newer "clueless" players into line when the "newbie" pushes the boundaries of acceptable behavior. Without physical or legal means of coercing "proper" behavior, DragonMudders rely on social control. Believing that most new players are more likely to be unintentionally ignorant rather than intentionally rude, experienced players generally initially explain how and why the newbie's words or actions were inappropriate. If the newbie persists in being obnoxious, DragonMudders will simply ignore them (it is difficult to pick a fight, if no one fights back), which generally bores the newbie into leaving DragonMud and finding different MU* to harass. In other words, those who cannot, or will not conform to community standards are "not us". For example: [18]

Enobarbum says "so who of you are girls"
elfi says "does that matter, eno[19]?"
wapini hmmms..does it matter?
Rhuarc raises his hand. "I'm not."
elfi notes that irc[20] is a great place for pickups.
Czhorat was a girl in his past life. He thinks.
Tobin looks around. She sees several women, but no girls.
Enobarbum says "of course it matters i want to talk to girls not 
   guys"
elfi says "wrong MUD, pal"
Topher says "eno, you've just managed to insult half the 
   population of this mud in one fell swoop."
Tobin is sorry, Enobarbum. You may be in the wrong place. Guys 
   who log in here to pick up women generally don't do too well.
Enobarbum says "i always do well, tobin"

This level of conversation continues for a while, with Enobarbum insisting that it is his right to try to pick up any female players he happens to meet. The following ensues:

Tobin explains. "Let me try that again, Enobarbum.  We have a 
   very strong policy against sexual harassment. In fact, it's 
   one of the few reasons that'll get you barred.  IF a woman 
   is interested in you, she'll let you know.  IF you persist 
   in pursuing a woman who is not interested in you, I will 
   personally make your life miserable, as will the rest of the 
   population.  NOW have I been clear?
Enobarbum says "i get it but its not fair"
Tobin gives Enobarbum a Look. "Excuse me?"
Rubinia blinks.
elfi says "it's not fair for you to think that you are allowed 
   to try and netsex every woman you see here?"
Topher says "People come here to be friends and relax. We aren't 
   here to get laid."
Tobin makes shushing motions. "Wait, folks -- I want to hear this. 
   Why is treating women as equals, as people who have a right 
   to say 'no', unfair Enobarbum?"
Enobarbum says "have you read the bible, tobin?"
Tobin sure has, Enobarbum.
Enobarbum says "well it says man is more important than woman in 
   genesis"

The conversation continues with several attempts on Enobarbum's part to cite Biblical sources for the subjugation of women, all incorrect and refuted by several people. Finally Enobarbum drives the others in Town Square to explicitly inform him that they will no longer talk to him, and they leave Town Square to continue their conversation elsewhere.

Enobarbum says "yeah well im glad im a guy because all women are 
   slaves ok"
Malacar loses interest in the dim-witted little creature calling  
   itself Enobarbum.
elfi shuns eno.
Rubinia shuns eno
Tobin mutters "Malcony, folks? NE, up, 3, north" to everyone 
   except Enobarbum.

After Tobin gave directions to another location (excluding Enobarbum), the players left Town Square. Enobarbum attempted to page several players, who continued to ignore him. Eventually, he became bored and logged off of DragonMud, never to return. Enobarbum was initially welcomed as a potential new member of the community, but, unable to abide by community rules, was rejected by the community.

Caring and Nurturing

The caring and nurturing aspects of the DragonMud community extend beyond the Internet. A player in financial, medical, or emotional trouble will find support from other players, many of whom the troubled one may never have met. Whether it's a cash loan or sleeping space for someone traveling through, DragonMudders help each other out.

One popular player recently had to have abdominal surgery to fix a massive hernia. wapini is a Lakota shaman, and was greatly concerned about allowing practitioners of Western forms of medicine to cut into her body. It was anticipated that she would be in Intensive Care for an extended period of time, so the community set up an information network so that updates on her recovery would be available. However, the hospital where wapini stayed restricted her phone calls to family members only, but she has no siblings and neither of her parents are alive. Several ingenious DragonMudders nominated themselves as her "brothers-in-law" to get past the hospital switchboard and let the rest of the community know how she was doing. wapini said later that it was the caring and support of DragonMudders that had gotten her through a frightening and lonely time.

Discourse

The characteristic of "discourse" hardly needs elaboration. Most DragonMudders log on specifically to talk to other people, and, as mentioned previously, subjects cover anything and everything. Students log in with homework problems and, while they won't find answers, they will find help in finding the answers themselves. Politics, religion, gatherings, computer hardware and software, hot dates, job searches -- all of these are on-going topics of conversation. Most players log on expecting conversation; it is not unusual for a player to walk into Town Square and, after greeting other players, ask "What's the topic?"

Moral Voice

And finally, DragonMudders definitely speak with a moral voice. Again, this "voice" has a rather broad definition of "morality", but it exists nonetheless. There are two issues which are guaranteed to provoke a reaction from DragonMudders: harassment and addiction.

Harassment, whether based on perceived, reported, or known gender or sexual preference, is not tolerated. DragonMud's administrators, who usually take a fairly "hands off"[21] role in constructing DragonMud's social space, have worked to create a safe place for all sexes and sexualities. Players who harass other players are warned once; if they persist, their character is removed from the database. If the offender creates a new character and persists in harassing behaviors, the administrators will alter the computer code so that new player creations will not be accepted from the harassing player's host computer[22]. This allows established players to continue to log on, but prevents any new players from that site from joining the community.

It is interesting to note that, while we tend to think of women and homosexuals as being the objects of harassment, there have recently been several instances where harassment has been directed toward men and heterosexual people. A woman recently logged on and, apparently unaware that being anonymous did not give her license to act out her sexual fantasies, made some rather graphic advances to a number of men, causing several of them to become extremely uncomfortable. They informed her of their discomfort, and she persisted. At this point a (female) administrator stepped in and suggested that, had a man acted toward the new player in the same way that she was treating these men, the new player would likely have been legitimately offended. "Harassment is harassment," said the administrator, "regardless of the direction it travels." The new player fled, changed her name, and returned a considerably more polite individual.

In another example, a gay man (for whom homosexuality is a political statement, not merely a sexual preference) began referring to heterosexual players as "breeders". Several players pointed out that, just as he expected them to tolerate his preferences, so, too, did they expect him to tolerate theirs. He desisted. This is, I think, one of the greatest strengths of the DragonMud community. Not only is diversity tolerated and encouraged, but there is (at least among most players) a desire to treat all forms of diversity equitably.

As mentioned previously, being logged on for too many hours is also liable to cause comment. Players are urged to log off and find activities away from the keyboard. While DragonMudders support and care for each other, there is also an awareness that too much time spent on-line detracts from, rather than enhances, the rest of a player's life. Occasionally players are reminded that, if they flunk out of college, they'll lose their internet access.

In other cases, however, players are logged on precisely because DragonMud is a safe environment where they're already known. In one case, a young man was having difficulties dealing with being away from home and his high school friends when he went away to college. Rather than make new friends in his new location, however, Rash was spending a considerable portion of his free time on-line. Initially, he was mildly teased. Gradually, however, it became clear that Rash was using DragonMud as an excuse not to interact with his peers in his dorm. Two months into the term, Rash commented that he was thirsty, then complained about his roommate, then suddenly noted that he was getting up the courage to go downstairs.

zingdol wonders what's going on downstairs, Rash? :) [23]
Rash says "nothing...just wanna drink"
Bedouin grins. "It's not gonna get easier with delay."
zingdol says "It's something like the ocean at night, or that 
   first dip in the pool in spring. Just jumping in is much 
   easier than the slow approach. :)"
Rash agrees.
Rash is going now...really
Bedouin says "Laters, Rash!"
Rash is really really going to go this time...
zingdol grynz. =) "Hope you get your drink, Rash! Take care!"
Bedouin is gonna @boot[24] yer ass, if you don't! ;-) :-)
zingdol almost (accidentally) types --> @boot Rash. :)
Rash is really going to TRY this time!
Rash says "bye"
Rash goes home.
Rash has left.

Concerned players moved from gentle teasing, to encouragement and suggestions, to mild threats (phrased in an affectionate manner, as evinced by the smilies) to move Rash out of the realm of computer interactions and into RL. Indeed, it worked. Rash reported the next night that he had, in fact, managed to go downstairs to fetch a soda and, he proudly added, someone had spoken to him in the hall and he hadn't stammered "TOO much" when he'd said "Hi" back.

Time

Moreover, one of the primary requisites of "community" (not included in Scime's list) is time and attention. Sheer time is necessary; you cannot create 'community' by just throwing folks together. A community has a shared past, a history, myths and legends. Moreover, there must be the assumption of a continuing relationship among the participants. Friendships take time to develop, I would argue that you must truly care about other people before being willing to devote the energy to nurture community.

The Creation of "the Other"

DragonMudders prize diversity. This makes it difficult to explain precisely how the Other is defined. Rather than an oppositional "Them", I have the sense that the Other is merely "not us". Occasionally this creates the Other as people like Enobarbum, who do not, or will not, conform to community standards. At other times, the Other comprises people who assume that anyone who socializes on the internet must be wholly without social skills or lives away from the keyboard, or are pedophiles or mad bombers depending on the media's sensation of the moment. There is a real awareness among players that most of the public does not understand how the internet works, much less, how a MU* works.

Naibu says "There's some guy book-touring right now about 
   communities on the Internet... he says that network  
   communications is devaluing human interaction..."
Buttercup says "Yeah right."
Pirate says "My wife would say "yes it is." But I totally 
   disagree. Not to give her a hard time. But I don't enjoy 
   veggin' in front of the television set."
Buttercup says "Like all us antisocial-because-of-shyness people 
   are going to go out and interact with drunken slobs in bars. 
   I'm sure."
Naibu says "I think his point is that people feel that they can 
   just turn people on and off like the tv when they have access 
   to them over the Internet."
Pirate plays with his beard. "The fact is, you can be antisocial  
   with or without the Internet."
Buttercup says "Yeah, and some people freak out because of their 
   imagined anonymity on the net and run around acting stupid."
Naibu says "Well... I'm not all that antisocial ... it's just that 
   in my life, everyone I know is just like me! This mud has made 
   me able to meet people from backgrounds that I never would have 
   met otherwise."
Pirate says "People are just looking for an excuse to their own 
   problems so they blame it on new, and what may seem like 
   strange, things. They don't understand this online stuff, so 
   they give it a hard time."

A primary difference I see between this reaction and other more typical examples of Othering is the lack of animosity toward the people who don't understand. DragonMudders' reaction is not so much oppositional, as much as it demonstrates their awareness that the Other exists somewhere outside of the Internet.

Discussion

In creating the DragonMud community, players celebrate diversity. A multiplicity of potential barriers are overcome, allowing people access to cultures other than those in which they normally live. A wide variety of opinions and stances are acceptable; allowances are made for those who are inflexible in their stances. Remarks from rabidly right-wing Czhorat or belligerently left-wing Topher will generally cause someone to explain to a puzzled newbie, "Oh, he's just like that." A player's professional title, grade-point average, physical appearance, age, or gender have minimal impact on perceptions of status in DragonMud. Rather, friendliness, wit, creativity, the ability to communicate via text, and a willingness to share information are valued characteristics.

The question, then, of how the Other is created is problematized and even the definition of the other is decentered from usual explanations. Rather than an oppositional "Them", against which the community defines itself, the Other is perceived as being those individuals who, whether by choice or sustained ignorance, don't understand.

This lack of a monolithic Other forces DragonMudders to make decisions about accepting or rejecting participants in the community on an individual-by-individual basis. New players are welcomed; the newbie's response determines ensuing levels of interaction. DragonMudders readily accept new players who exhibit the same attributes that they cherish--diversity, willingness to disagree agreeably, and respect for alternative points of view--and encourage Others to go elsewhere.

This is a community of choice, of shared interests. And this "living laboratory" (to borrow Rheingold's phrase (1993, 146)) continues to serve as a means of looking at potential human futures.

References Cited

----
1992 The American heritage dictionary of the English language: Third edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Abu-Lughod, Lila
1991 "Writing against culture" in Recapturing anthropology: Working in the present. ed. Richard G. Fox. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press.

Anderson, Benedict
1983 Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. London: Verso.

Appadurai, Arjun
1991 "Global ethnoscapes: Notes and queries for a transnational anthropology" in Recapturing anthropology: Working in the present. ed. Richard G. Fox. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press.

Clifford, James
1988 The predicament of culture: Twentieth-century ethnography, literature, and art. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Clodius, Jen
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1994 "Concepts of space and place in a virtual community". unpublished paper. Available: http://dragonmud.org/people/jen/space.html.

Crane, John
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Footnotes

[1] My co-administrator's response to my occasional angst about the potential effects of my anthropological presence on the community is generally, "Yeah, so? You're a good influence."

[2] Even "real life" is problematized on DragonMud, as many players would contend that what happens on-line is every bit as "real" as what happens off-line. The generally accepted definition of "RL", then, is merely time spent away from the keyboard.

[3] See Huizinga (1949, 7) for a discussion of recreation and play.

[4] The only "dragon" in DragonMud is The Dragon, player #1. As has been noted by several players over the years, "DragonMud" would be more appropriately named "Dragon's Mud".

[5] I have had to rely on players' self-reported ages, genders, and professions in my research; coming up with actual statistics of how the population breaks out in these areas is not possible without face-to-face interviews.

[6] DragonMud's social system is hierarchical, comprising of "mortals", who control themselves and the objects that they have created, "wizards", who act as "junior administrators" and can see, but not affect, most things regardless of ownership, and "gods" or "senior administrators", who can see and control anything.

[7] "Quests" are the puzzles and text-adventures that form a large portion of the DragonMud landscape; solving specific quests earns rank and eventually, permissions to change the database by creating objects and potentially adding one's own quest to the realm.

[8] March 24, 1996, in Town Square.

[9] See Clodius 1993 for a discussion of greeting and departure rituals.

[10] As I cite logs, surveys, and email, I have taken the liberty of cleaning up spelling and punctuation except when characteristic of a player's personality or typing patterns. The original logs, surveys, and email all remain intact, of course. Additionally, I should note that text taken directly from the screen is, by Internet convention, left in Courier font as it is the one font all computer systems read and format the same way.

[11] Bedouin

[12] This happens fairly frequently to Aegean. He has successfully annoyed so many people so often that many deal with his presence by ignoring him. Methods of social control will be discussed later in this paper.

[13] See Riner and Clodius 1995 for further discussion.

[14] A large number of MU*s on the net allow (and even encourage) the "killing" of other players by causing their characters to disconnect from the system. DragonMud's code does not allow player-killing, and new players who are looking for "killing MU*s" are encouraged to look elsewhere.

[15] Czhorat

[16] Town Square, the central point in DragonMud.

[17] While I justify going to MemDay as being "fieldwork", others take vacation time to do so. One Australian couple working in London, for example, arrange their annual trip to the States in conjunction with MemDay activities.

[18] March 29, 1995, Town Square

[19] Enobarbum

[20] Internet Relay Chat

[21] In fact, DragonMud's two primary administrators refer to their administration as "benign dictatorship", with the emphasis on "benign".

[22] The only other action that provokes this reaction from DragonMud's administrators is intentional abuse of DragonMud's host computer.

[23] November 4, 1995, Town Square

[24] @boot is a command (restricted to wizards and gods) that disconnects a player from DragonMud.

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