copyright 1995 by Jen Clodius. This is a draft, originally written for a graduate seminar about the Anthropology of Religion.

Ritual and Religion in DragonMud

Table of Contents

A ring of colored disks glow on the stone floor of an otherwise darkened room. Jopsy steps onto the green spot, Bedouin claims the red, wizards choose places to stand surrounding the unseeing initiate in the center of the circle. As Jopsy speaks, columns of colored light begin to swell from the spots on the floor, dancing over the heads of the wizards. Jopsy speaks about the responsibilities of the initiate to the realm, Bedouin adds a few practical suggestions. The wizards stand silent, watching.

The colored lights dance around the room, occasionally breaking apart into prisms of light only to reform into long shafts of rainbow hues as Jopsy and Bedouin speak. Eventually the lights coalesce into a glowing ball, coming to rest over the initiate's head. The lights pause, absolutely still, when Jopsy asks the initiate "Do you understand? Do you accept the responsibility placed before you?"

The process of promoting a "mortal" player on DragonMud to "wizard" status is an event of significance on several levels. Not only is the new wizard garnering public recognition for their contributions to the DragonMud community, they are also being granted some very real powers to manipulate their surroundings. However, before I can discuss ritual and religion in DragonMud, some background is necessary.


For the past three years my fieldwork has been conducted on DragonMud,= the oldest continuously operating multi-user domain [1] on the international network of computers known as the Internet and the site of the ceremony partially described above. A "Multi-User Domain", or MUD, is a kind of computer program that allows numerous people to log into a single computer and use the same program simultaneously. Unlike "chat" systems, a MUD creates a sense of "space" which allows player-movement between "rooms". Users have the ability to change and modify the database. Unlike Email, interactions occur in real time; the conversation "scrolls up on the participant's screen looking like a play script" (Riner and Clodius 1995, 99), or as "a communication soup in real time, with a flavor of improvisatory theater" (Rheingold 1993, 149).

When an individual initially logs onto a MUD, the first thing they do is "create" themselves. 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 [2]. Encounters between specific individuals may be happenstance, but everyone who logs on does so expecting to interact with other people on some level.

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

Players generally begin to form friendships by asking other players about solutions to quests [5], 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(tm), 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.

DragonMud has a current population of over 5000 players, with a "core" community of between 700 and 900 people. Many are college students, but an unusually high percentage are post-docs and professional people. 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, systems of exchange (albeit non-monetary), fictive kinships, ritual processes, factions and friendships [6]. As Randall put it, "We have everything a RL [7] community has except agriculture... but we grow ideas instead."

Players report that they log on to DragonMud for a variety of reasons, most commonly relating to friendship and levels of comfort. Recently I walked into Town Square and said: "I need a few pithy comments from ya'll -- Why DragonMud? Of all the MU*s [8] around, why do ya'll log on here?" and got the following responses:

wapini's home.
Czhorat says "dammit..that was my answer."
Wilhelm points at the above conversation. [about "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 
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. [9]"
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 [10] 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 [11], ask a non-sequitur
   of a question, and get straight answers :-)  (You guys are terrific!
   Thanks! :-)

People form friendships across a multiplicity of boundaries, broadening their perspectives and expanding their horizons. 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."


Of the 5000-plus players on DragonMud, less than 40 hold the rank of wizard. While everyone has the ability to see and modify objects they personally own, wizards have some limited abilities to see and modify other players' objects as well as their own. Wizards serve as "junior administrators", but lack the permissions to make changes in the code that actually creates DragonMud's database, an ability reserved to the five senior administrators, or "gods". "[The] question this brings to mind," zingdol commented in response to the wizard-survey (more about which momentarily), "is:

"Why do wizards exist at all?" I can think of two possible reasons, each of which is perhaps true to different degrees from different perspectives. The first, of course, is administrative: the relative few gods cannot be online or available constantly, nor can they necessarily deal in their normal online time with all the administrivia that a 5000-plus player base generates. Wizards provide a filtering and buffering service, bestowed with certain simpler powers, while the decisions and duties of considerable impact are still retained only by the gods.

The second is social and organizational, even political: wizards are players who have been recognized either by you [Bedouin] and Jops (or, in rare cases, by the populace in consensus [12] :-) for their presence and devotion to the community.

The ritual described at the beginning of this paper outlines the basic format of the on-line ceremony that elevates a player from "mortal" status to that of "wizard". The initiate is brought into a darkened room, shapeless lights of myriad colors drift and dance around the room, responsibilities and warnings are delineated, and finally, the initiate is given the opportunity to accept or reject the elevation in status. Once the initiate accepts, the wiz-bit [13] is bestowed, the lights are turned on, and the new wizard can see. In fact, the new wizard sees with new eyes; information they may not have known existed now appears on their screens, including the database reference number for virtually every object they observe. (Most wizards comment that it takes several days before they become accustomed to seeing (and occasionally, learning to ignore) all the "stuff" on their screens.)

To find out how wizards felt about being wizards, I emailed a survey to those for whom I had email addresses [14]. The survey consisted of nineteen open-ended questions, including asking what they liked about being a wizard, what they disliked, whether a ceremony marking their elevation to wizard was necessary, and if their change in status had changed their relationships with other players. It should be noted that not all wizards have had on-line ceremonies: some players' promotions were announced at RL gatherings [15], others predate the inception of wiz-ceremonies.

Responses to the survey revealed some interesting comments when I asked if it mattered whether people had had their ceremonies RL or VR. Across the group, people preferred the type of ceremony they'd actually had. Sample comments from those who had been promoted RL include: "It was more pleasant being wizzed in RL - the camaraderie of actual breathing human beings made the moment more enjoyable" (Aiken-Lugonn). "I don't think it would have been quite so amazing if it had happened VR" (Celeste). "I was wizzed RL, which was wonderful because I could actually hear voices, see expressions, and get the full effect of people's reactions" (Star). "I was wizzed at a Flagstaff party, and it was nice to celebrate with a real beer!" (Kadiya). "The online ceremonies are nice, but an RL ceremony is truly special" (Mortis).

On the other hand, those who had had an on-line ceremony commented on the appropriateness of the virtual setting: "It wouldn't have seemed real if it had been done in RL" (Malacar). "I was wizzed in VR and it was a significant moment for me" (Katharyn). "I was wizzed VR, and it had a more magical feel" (Foolsbane). "I've seen some very nice VR and RL ceremonies both. I think the VR ones are really more appropriate" (Rin). "The ceremony was much more dramatic than it could have been RL (the special effects would definitely have suffered ) and because ...hmmm. It just seems more appropriate..." (Tierlyn). And:

I enjoyed the ritual aspect of being wizzed in VR more than participating in Star's RL wizzing at MemDay '95. There are several reasons for this, but the primary one feels to be a matter of geography and environment, community and placement. Though the mud community extends to RL for many of us, its prime arena is the mud itself, and it is that environment where these ceremonies feel they have the strongest meanings and associations for me.

Consider the impact of extending another original VR ceremony, a TinyWedding, to RL. I have participated in a few TinyWeddings (and have even performed one), and the impact of the ceremony is heightened by the purity and relevancy of the medium, by the conveyance of text written specifically for the occasion and by the idea that, though geographically dispersed, a group of real people are somehow creating an experience that for all intensive purposes is 'real'. For me the environment and ceremony cannot be divided, and the line between VR and RL cannot be crossed so easily -- on each side things are different. To steal the title of a lovely Dean Ing short story, there is something 'lost in translation' of even a wizard ceremony to RL. (zingdol)

Wizards agreed that actually BEing a wizard changed their role within the community, and most felt that the change in role was marked by the wiz-ceremony. As Malacar succinctly put it, "In going through that ceremony, I changed. Permanently." Wizards divided in opinion as to why the ceremony was necessary, however [16]. Tradition was one reason cited: "To keep the respect for the tradition, and to create an air of importance, I think it was only proper to have a ceremony" (Lorrick). "It's a nice tradition, and I think it should be continued" (Rin).

Others called upon the ritual symbolism of the transition: "I guess, like most Rites of Passage, it's more to allow the spectators to accept someone's change in status, than for the participant. In that sense, maybe the ceremony is what makes it a social thing, as well as a technical one" (Calum). "I feel that a rite or ceremony of some sort is necessary to mark a dividing line, a time of change or a change of status. The separation makes it more meaningful, at least to me" (Mortis). "Going through the ceremony in the Tower of the Magi certainly made the event more memorable than if Jopsy had just slapped on the bit and said, 'There ya go, have fun.'" (Druid).

Others referenced the awareness of new responsibilities: "It served as a definite demarcation between what had been and what was going to be. There was this definite sense of 'the mantle' of sorts being laid on my shoulders, and that I now had a significant responsibility to the MUD" (Shar). "I think it [the wiz-ceremony] is necessary, fun, impressive, and awe-inspiring, all of which contribute to the honor and responsibility of the position" (Katharyn). "To me it seemed a symbol of the non-triviality of wizard-hood. Without the ceremony, perhaps I would have taken the status and powers more casually" (Foolsbane).

Two longer responses combine a variety of aspects in how wizards view the importance and necessity of the ceremony:

The wiz ceremony is necessary -- it is a singular event, a bestowal of power (in the form of the bit) and a change in status, and in that sense should be ritualized. Important information (don't @tele into #0 [17], for instance) is conveyed, and there is a strong sense of reward and awe with the presence of power figures, online or in RL, focused on the wizard. This is also a rare event, of considerable social and administrative impact, and the role of ceremony within tradition (both modern and primitive?) has been to celebrate and demarcate these singular events both for the individuals involved as well as for the community. (zingdol)


Damn right, it's necessary! There's quite a bit of difference between, "Hey Bubba, we gave you a wiz-bit last night. Don't go crazy with it, ok?" and a full blown ceremony. The first is likely to invoke an, "Oh, cool. Thanks," response, while the second is likely to promote a feeling of community, acceptance, and responsibility in the receiver. The question goes back to initiation rites, and the horrible lack there-of that exists in the current culture I find myself having the misfortune to live in. As an example of a physical role-playing environment (or perhaps I should say RL sub-culture) that has fiercely dedicated members, let's consider the SCA. With the pomp and ceremony of awards and honors that are presented at royal courts to SCA members, such as myself, for example, I *know* I'm accepted, I *know* I belong, and I *know* what actions are expected of me toward others and vice-versa, because I've just completed an elaborate initiation rite and have been acknowledged by the tribe.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, we're all tough, individualistic hombres and hombresses these days, and self validation is all that any of us need and all that's necessary, by ghum!; _bullshit_!. To the question of "Why doesn't anyone care about anything, anymore," my answer is, "Because their society has not given them anything to care about, with the exception of global fears that are beyond the individual's effort to effect, let-alone sometimes even comprehend."

Initiation rites are important. We're still tribal as hell although we've traded in our rocks and wooden clubs for Pentium laptops. Long live ritual; it keeps chaos at bay. (Frost)


Even if the ritual process is constructed as a necessary means of acknowledging a change in status, all of this still doesn't answer the question of whether or not there is a religious "aspect" to DragonMud. Certainly, religious tropes are utilized. Players joke about muttering incantations to the (nonexistent) "gods of the net" in the hope of surviving a nasty bout of system lag without being disconnected. DragonMud's senior administrators hold the rank of "God", junior administrators are "Wizards", and players occasionally invoke the name of a god or wizard in casual conversation. Players refer to the pantheon as a collectivity also, interjecting "Oh, +gods [18]", or "Thank +gods!" into conversation.

Still, the invocation of a deity is usually done in jest. For example, Topher recently typed:

Topher kneels down in front of the Great Goddess Bedouin and prays "Oh Goddess... thou of the builder's bit and Wizard's Wand... creator of this and maker of that... knower of Arabic and speaker of many things uninterpretable... pray grant your unworthy supplicant one teeny weeny, minor, insignificant boon?" (log 3/29/95)

at the beginning of a conversation about a robot [19] that Topher finds annoying.

Other religious symbols are used throughout the landscape: Stonehenge is north of town, a magical occurrence transports you back to the Valley of the Kings, a cross-cultural range of mother goddesses are represented in the Museum of the Moon, one can complete a quest to become a Shamanic Master (written, in part, by a Lakota medicine woman). Even the layout of the town follows Eliade's paradigmatic model whereby village space replicates sacred space (1959, 45): the four main streets (Narthat, Austral, WestMudster, and Easter) move in the cardinal directions outward from a central open space, Town Square.

But does the conscious [20] use of symbols imbue them with meanings? We intentionally invoke commonly-understood symbols on DragonMud specifically because of their evocative properties. If a player is in a setting where images of England in the 1800s are invoked, then telling the player that they see a "thatch-roofed cottage" creates a mental image that needs little or no further explanation. In this medium, the use of commonly-understood referents allows the author to use the rest of the database space allocated to describing a scene to write about the window boxes filled with bright flowers, the flagstone path leading to the cottage, the river flowing by, and the nearby trees -- instead of having to describe the thatch-roofed cottage itself.

Moreover, a case could be made that even the players on DragonMud themselves are symbolic; they represent, in any number of ways, the personalities that created them. But again, are these symbols religious? Throughout this phase of my research into how DragonMud works, I was, frankly, skeptical that there was any tinge of religiosity to the community whatsoever. I thought I might make a case for a Durkheimian "community worshipping itself" at best, or even possibly a Levi-Straussian functionalist framework for the position of the deities as administrators, if not an actual religious meaning inherent in the position itself (and certainly the Levi-Straussian binary oppositions in the ritual described at the beginning of this paper are obvious enough) -- but the suggestion that the players themselves might see religious aspects within the community seemed far-fetched.

Several weeks after I'd Emailed the survey about ritual practices to DragonMud's wizards, a friend (and wizard on DragonMud) was visiting Madison. Completely out of the blue, totally unrelated to any other topic of conversation we'd covered while fixing dinner, zingdol asked, "Do you think there's a religious aspect to DragonMud?" I refrained from commenting how much simpler this paper would be to write if there was, and instead commented that, while DragonMud has deities, they certainly don't function as "gods" in the canonical sense. Some discussion of what constitutes "religion" ensued (and whether or not "religion" even required "deities"), during which I hauled out Geertz's definition (1973, 90). Reading it caused zingdol (who is an accelerator physicist) to sarcastically aside, "Well, that's helpful!" zingdol contended that anyone who has the power to literally change the rules (the "laws of nature") by which a universe operates does, in fact, fulfill the role of "god", even if that universe is circumscribed within a computer program. We eventually decided that we needed more opinions, and zingdol agreed that I could use our dinner conversation as the basis for calling a Bedo-question [21].

Before calling the question, I Emailed a copy of zingdol's and my conversation (including Geertz's definition of religion) to several people whose input I value, and then posted the same conversation in a "help" file accessible to anyone on DragonMud. Twenty-five people participated in the ensuing conversation at varying degrees of interaction [22] over almost five hours (and 60 pages of single-spaced log!). Participants included the accelerator physicist whose inquiry had prompted my calling the question, a graduate student in bio-mathematics, an electrician on a military base, law students in the US and Australia, a professor of anthropology, a lineman for a telephone company, a psychiatrist, a Lakota medicine woman, numerous computer-science-types, a couple of folks with degrees in philosophy, and undergraduates from a variety of disciplines, including one who lives in France [23]. Oddly, there were more useful contributions from practitioners of the "hard" sciences than from philosophers or anthropologists [24]. My pattern is to pose the question, then sit back and let the discussion happen. I try to ask questions only when I'm unclear as to a person's intent or meaning; I try not to guide the discussion but rather leave it as open-ended as possible. (This is not, however, to suggest that I sit as a silent observer, as the following discussion will demonstrate.)

The conversation started at a rather non-specific level, with, for example, Jopsy's comment that, "If you define it in terms of 'brotherhood' and 'sisterhood', faith in common principles, and similar definitions of what is good vs. bad... I'd say yes, there was an aspect of religion to the net... but it's currently been shaken up by the massive influx of new, and uninitiated, er, well, souls. ;-) [25]" After agreeing that no single definition of "religion" was possible, (and, as Xanthe pointed out, "having a religious aspect doesn't necessarily mean that there needs to be a 'religion'" on DragonMud,) at Star's suggestion the group turned to Geertz's definition to try to organize the discussion in some comprehensible order and to see if the definition "fit" DragonMud in any way [26].

Symbolic Systems

The first question Star posed was, "Is there a system of symbols on DragonMud?" The group discussed several categories of possible symbols, including groups, objects, places, gifts that other players had made for them, and even their characters as representations of individuals. But, as Tenniel pointed out, "lots of these things are symbols, but not appropriate to the religious framework... like the Coke logo compared to the cross or something." Star responded, "I consider the coke label as being something a symbol of the religion we call consumerism or capitalism."

zingdol countered, "Consider, for example, some of the pins and baubles that have REAL-LIFE meanings to several people here, just as much as they would in actual real life. I would find it hard to argue that we don't have symbols here that are valid enough to support Geertz's definition of religion." At that point the group decided that, yes, there were in fact symbols on DragonMud. The next section of the definition, however, proved considerably more difficult.

Moods and Motivations

Star said, "[the symbols] 'act to establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations.' This is where we get into more detail about these symbols - do they act this way on DragonMud?" Initially there was quick agreement, as Star pointed out that the desire for a builder-bit, questing ranks, wiz-bits, and even god-bits act as motivators. Bedouin added that DragonMud's largest symbol, The Dragon, also filled that role. Then zingdol pointed out, "Check closely. Geertz's phrasing requires the symbols THEMSELVES to be motivators. Are they here? Really?"

zingdol says "Not power.  Not a quest for a c-bit [27].  Not some obtuse
   ability.  We're talking about the symbols themselves now, not the
   side-effects of technical rises within the ranks."
Tenniel says "I consider the symbols of questing achievement to be
    powerful motivators of... me, yes."
Bedouin still thinks so, zingdol.  Referring again, to The Dragon
    who, whether or not He intended it, embodies (in that personae) the 
    mood and motivation of DragonMud.
zingdol ahs to Bedouin and would have to nod at that one.  That's
    a particularly good example.
zingdol considers.  "The presence of *any* group is a symbol in itself,
    Star.  But, when looking for representations that might be extended
    to a religious significance, I start to see DragonMud in a completely
    new light.  It's not something I'm willing to acquiesce quite so 
    totally as the first point.  This spot on the lamp needs more rubbing 
    before it is shiny."
zingdol nods and actually does agree that the Dragon is a symbolic
    representation worthy of religionhood. :)  "However, I'm not so
    sure I would contend that groups fit that bill, nor do most 'common' 
    symbols within our community."
zingdol says "But, like they say, all you need is one. :)"
Star says "I rember when I was made +Elder [28] - it was a first formal
    indication that I was respected and admired here, in a way - to
    me it was almost a religious experience."
zingdol nodnods.  "Certainly.  The experience transcends the environment,
    and the shackles of the definition of 'reality' within that environment.
    Naturally it's nearly religious. :)"
Star says "I would say that, for quite a few people here, becoming
    a +Wiz, or a +QE [29], is a goal to obtain, that they want that SYMBOL of the
    group-name, and that there is motivation because of that symbolic-group."
Shar says "But is that just a status symbol like a Rolex?  How do
    you equate that with elevation to religious status?"
wapini oh, nos... anyone with a credit card can buy a Rolex... you
    have to work to get +QE.
Shar says "My point being, I'm not seeing how we're differentiating
    symbols of social status from symbols of 'religious' significance?"
Star is really trying to stay away from religions (of all things)
    here and stick to the definition we're looking at.
Shar says "I see the religion as distinct from the trappings.  The
    trappings are just how you express the values embodied in the belief
Star says "Do the symbols (objects, groups, people, DragonMud as
    a whole, The Dragon) here establish a powerful, pervasive and long-
    lasting mood or motivation?"
Shar says "Symbols, yes.  That was [point] #1.  Long-lasting and
    powerful motivator? Mm.  Is Dragon the motivating force for getting 
    +QE? Like Tenniel said, she's never met him.  Why the hell would 
    -he- be a motivator for someone in that position?"
Bedouin isn't talking about +QE.  She's talking about DragonMud.
Bedouin says "That is, The Dragon symbolizes, in many ways, what
    DragonMud is."
Star says "And Shar - I'm not saying The Dragon is a motivator for
    +QE - there are other motivators for +QE..."
Shar says "Exactly.  The motivation for +QE is social status.  Not
    an esoteric symbol."
Shar grins and shuts up.

Conceptions of Order

Star decided to put a "mostly-check" next to the second point, acknowledging one "hold-out", and moved on to her third section, asking if there were conceptions of a general order of existence. Again, there was rapid initial agreement, with several participants commenting that there was an implicit "code of conduct" and a fluid, but organized, hierarchy of "power". It was the word "order" that turned out to be the sticking-point, when Star pointed out that her "room is off WestMudster, but she can step thru a door there and get to Ireland - that is not order to her." Xanthe agreed, adding, "we can have holes in the ground and massive palatial mazes on 2 floors of rickety old buildings." Bedouin responded, "Ah, but can't the chaos have order? The rules of _this_ world allow it." Wilhelm pointed out that he could repeatedly follow the same paths from one place to another. Shar added:

Re: this discussion and Bedouin's discussion some time ago of 'where are we' when we're logged in, which would up in one of the articles on her homepage [30] -- I would assert that there's already an order implicit in the place despite the symbols we've created here, because the people sitting at the keyboards perceive the world (RL or VR, either one) in a certain 3-dimensional aspect, and we bring that conception with us. So whatever artificial symbols we've created, we use them to express the 'sprit/essence/whatever' of an order already conceived.

wapini agreed, but commented that "but by the very nature of the place... we all bring in very different... mmm... concepts." Star supposed that she could reconcile the disorder of the symbols to herself with the explanation of "magic". Xanthe asserted that "magic is an order in DragonMud." Star nodded to Xanthe, and said, "Yes - that's how I see it - in a skewed way, in the laws of THIS world, then yes."

Auras of Factuality

Then the question became whether the symbols "[clothe] the conceptions (of order) with an aura of factuality". Star said, "This point, to me, goes back also to the question of 'Is TinyLondon a real place?'", adding that "it's a fact that she can type 'tf' [31] at her unix prompt and about 99% of the time she ends up in this space called TinyLondon, as the character Star."

Star further mused that "the symbols on the MUD have to clothe the order with an aura of factuality, by definition (and this is a thought she didn't have before). 'If I type 'out' - which is part of the order of the place - it is a fact that I will end up in TS.'" zingdol disagreed with the example, but not the definition, stating, "It's that the symbols have some permanence -- *that* what really clothes them in factuality, along with their meaning to the regular cast of characters who are also semi-permanent. :)"

Unique Realism

Discussion of the fifth segment was short. Star didn't see how moods of any sort could be anything but unique, and there was general agreement. There was some disagreement, however, about what happened to Geertz's definition when the fourth and fifth portions were linked:

zingdol says "So, the question by stringing #4 and #5 together is,
   are those conceptions of a general order of existence so well-accepted
   within the community that they create a generally unique system of 
   beliefs and motivations?"
Star shakes her head at zingdol.  "That isn't how I read it."
Star says "I think I have a problem with the "well-accepted in the
   community" part."
zingdol ahs and waits for Star to rephrase then. :)
Star says "Maybe I do mostly agree with what you said zingdol...
   or at least I can't figure out how to rephrase it.  I just have a 
   problem with the one part, because I think that implies consciousness 
   of this stuff"
zingdol reads back over his statement.  "I still stand by the community
   part, Star.  I don't think one can legitimately call something 
   'religious' if it doesn't have a certain community and organizational 
   aspect to it, at least not in the sense that we're trying to discuss."

But does it mean anything?

But then Star said, "I took this definition apart for myself (during a class Monday ;^) ) so I could understand it, and ended up with my 5 sections... Again, though - do the parts make up the whole?" At this point, the discussion rapidly went beyond Geertz's definition, as participants struggled with why and how his definition of religion fails, and returns (in this admittedly long extract, for which I beg the reader's indulgence) to the question I originally posed, that is, "Is there a religious aspect to DragonMud?"

Dybs says "Yeah.  It DOES all fit nicely.  That doesn't mean that
   I agree with Geertz as the 'last word' on 'religion'.  I will argue 
   that Geertz's 'definition' doesn't define anything more than a merely 
   secular worldview."
Star doesn't either, Dybs - but this is how the question was posed
   to us, and most of us do not have the background for this question 
   you do.
zingdol nodnods.  "I definitely agree, in that Geertz seems to be
   lacking something."
Dybs says "Geertz's definition seems to avoid the 'awe' of the 'sacred'."
Xanthe says "I think the definition tries to simplify and elementalize
   religions... almost impossible to do that"
Bedouin quite agrees, Xanthe.  "So what we've got is "technical"
   agreement, but some concerns about the "sense" of the definition?"
Dybs nodnods.
Bedouin wonders if DragonMud has a religious aspect because it provides
   the setting for religious experiences?
zingdol hmmms.  "Though the setting itself is not all that's required,
   Bedo.  It's almost as if the culture, consciously created by the
   players -- the community itself -- is what gives the religious 
   aspect, in that somehow the communications here transcend the typical 
   communications encountered in everyday life."
Sigmund may be a day late on this, but... isn't there a religious
   aspect in the tacit and explicit agreements about behavior, mores, 
   rituals, and so on which mirrors such aspects of everyday religions?
zingdol raises an eyebrow.  "But is that all that's needed for religion,
   Sigmund?  That's something that we've been discussing and arguing
   about.  :)"
zingdol thinks that religion, by nature, requires a certain (sorry,
   sorry, but it IS the best word) ineffability, a certain transcendence.
Sigmund thinks so, zing.  Look at some religions which appear to
   be little more than social structures and agreements about a few 
zingdol says "I would contend that those aren't real religions then,
   Sig. :)"
Star totally agrees with zingdol (after looking up the word ineffable)
   and said that before - that to her religion is more a feeling, and 
   can't be expressed in words, or else words are inadequate
Bedouin says "So now we come down to the Hard Part.  Does that 'feeling'
   exist?  Or can it? Or does it, for some people?"
Star says "Not as much here as it does in the Real World for me,
Star says "But I am a very visual person - I can't look at the tree
   in TS and feel the same sense of wonder I can with a real tree
zingdol nodnods to Star -- naturally, because this place is both
   more understandable, and lacking in some of the details that 
   occasionally inspire the 'childlike' awe in everyday life.
zingdol says "However, I still think that feeling DOES exist, though
   it's a vastly different feeling than the feeling I have when I'm 
   experiencing that awe in real life."
Bedouin says "Or are we just so jaded by the technology that we lose
   the sense of awe inherent in being able to talk to folks all over
   by logging on?"
Star says "That is the biggest part of the awe for me Bedouin"
Star considers zingdol to be her best fried.  She doesn't know if
   that would be true anymore if they couldn't keep in touch 
   electronically like they do
Star says "And even email isn't the same as being able to have a
   convo [32]"
zingdol can still remember the dizziness he felt when he visualized
   the net in all its glory, the various connections required and 
   responsible for all these communications, even just to talk to someone 
   down the hall (like Star), yet across the country and back again.  
   "It's very similar to the dizziness I feel when I look into a REALLY 
   clear night sky, and see all the stars, the universe before me, and 
   realize that I understand even some little part of that."
zingdol still feels the awe.  Somehow he doesn't think (and really
   REALLY hopes) that he'll ever lose that, for that's part of the 
   inspiration, and the wonder.
Caern is more scared than awed, he confesses, since (as he never
   tires of pointing out, though others do get tired of it), he helped 
   build it, and it's hard to be awed by the wires one's pulled oneself.
Xanthe doesn't lose sense of the awe... she still can't believe sometimes
   that it is possible to talk to you in the US.
zingdol says "And that transcendence, to me -- of some grand design
   and scale so much larger than I am, yet I have some role within it,
   some little nook that I can 	call my own -- that perhaps is as good a
   description as I can write on the fly of what the personal aspect
   of religion is to me."
zingdol grins to Caern. =) "But what of your creation growing beyond
   those bounds, Caern?  What happens when it runs out of control, when 
   the scope grows beyond your bounds of vision?  What happens when -- 
   dare I say it -- some scope of it becomes almost as ineffable as any 
   commonplace deity?"
Caern says "I don't know - nothing I've helped build inspires awe
   in me for some reason.  Pride yes, but no awe, no matter how big it 
Star says "But - if I really think about it (and I have to think
   about it) this place is an intricate and large design as well - which 
   does give me some sense of awe.
zingdol says "Ahhh, okay -- people are visual.  It's difficult for
   visually-inspired people to have a sense of awe about something
   as seemingly trivial as a text environment, no matter the depth, 
   symbolism, clarity or conviction.  However, that's not true for all 
   people -- I'm much more abstract than that, for example, to the point 
   where some visual awe-inspiring scenes leave me cold, but a great idea 
   has me completely thunderstruck."
Star says "Again, religion to me is emotional."
zingdol says "So what in religion inspires awe?  I would argue religion
   is a meme, and by that it must be the ideas and ideologies *behind*
   the religions, as much as the cultural and environmental trappings that
   surround it."
Star says "The trappings are just a symbolic way to express the ideologies."
zingdol shakes his head.  "Not necessarily.  Sometimes they're not
   expressing the ideologies at all, but are merely serving as place-holders,
   as visual and symbolic catalysts for the more fundamental representations
   of the religion."
zingdol says "So here, for example... The Dragon is a player, #1
   in the universe.  The Dragon has ultimate power, ultimate control, 
   ultimate status within the community both by virtue of that power and 
   by the fact that he created this place.  However, the Dragon is also a 
   *symbol* of something that transcends that, of the community and what 
   we have created, of this medium and the awe that it embodies.  I have a 
   hard time mudding ANYPLACE any more without thinking of this place as 
   symbolic of that awe."
Star nods to zingdol and doesn't mud many other places (if any) because
   it's not the same... that feeling... that is her religious experience
   on DragonMud, perhaps.


Frankly, I'm hesitant to draw conclusions; it is tempting to suggest that all of the forgoing is merely an attempt on the part of the participants to reify a secular religiosity. Perhaps, like Caern, I find it difficult to be awed by something I've helped create. Perhaps when it comes to "religion", I've become too much an observer and not enough of a participant. Perhaps I'm so imbued with anthropological theory that I'm unable to see past the liminality of ritual process to get at the personal meanings.

But it seems obvious that, for some players, there IS a religious aspect, a transcendence above the "common", within the community of DragonMud. It is for that reason that I included the long excerpt immediately above without commentary, to let the DragonMudders speak for themselves.

References Cited

Clodius, Jen
in press "Computer-mediated interactions: Human factors". In Learning Spaces. ed. Christopher Landauer.

1994 "Ethnographic fieldwork on the internet". In Anthropology Newsletter. vol. 35 no. 9 p. 12.

1993 Space and place in a virtual community. unpublished paper.

Eliade, Mircea
1959 "Sacred space" in The sacred and the profane: The nature of religion. New York: Harcourt Brace. pp 20-65. excerpted in Anthro 343 reader, ed. Frank Salomon. Fall 1995.

Geertz, Clifford
1973 [1965] "Religion as a cultural system" in The interpretation of cultures. New York: Basic.

Goffman, Erving
1959 The presentation of self in everyday life. Garden City NY: Doubleday Anchor.

Huizinga, Johan
1949 Homo ludens: A study of the play-element in culture. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.

Oldenburg, Ray
1991 The great good place: Cafes, coffee shops, community centers, beauty parlors, general stores, bars, hangouts, and how they get you through the day. New York: Paragon.

Rheingold, Howard
1993 The virtual community: Homesteading on the electronic frontier. Reading: Addison-Wesley.

Riner, Reed D. and Jennifer A. Clodius
1995 "Simulating future histories: The NAU solar system simulation and Mars settlement". In Anthropology & Education Quarterly. vol. 26, no. 1 pp. 95-104.

Turner, Victor
1969 The ritual process: Structure and anti-structure. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.


[1] DragonMud was founded in December, 1989 by John P. Crane while he was a student at Northern Arizona University. Originally housed in a computer at NAU, DragonMud now resides (as much as a computer program can be said to "reside") in a computer at University of California, San Diego. Additionally, while I have only been conducting systematic study there for three years, I have been a "resident" of DragonMud for five years.

[2] See Huizinga (1949, 7)

[3] 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".

[4] As I cite logs, surveys, and email, I've 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.

[5] "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.

[6] Some players are also quite overt about their use of DragonMud as a Goffmanesque "backstage", using it to practice characteristics they want to carry over into their lives away from the keyboard. (See Riner and Clodius, for further discussion.)

[7] RL stands for "real life", the definition of which is debatable since many players contend that what happens on DragonMud is also "real". For the most part, "RL" is considered to be "time away from the keyboard". The contrast to RL is "VR" (for "virtual reality"), a term that will also appear throughout this paper.

[8] A "MUD" is just one kind of server; there are also MUSHes and MOOs and MUCKs. The genre, as a whole, is frequently referred to as "MU*", with the asterisk representing the UNIX "wild card" letter(s).

[9] 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.

[10] Czhorat

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

[12] zingdol is referring to a single occasion where there was the appearance of an election of wizards. The logs reveal that the gods had already decided promote one person, and were still undecided between two other people they were considering for promotion. The only thing the "election" contributed was the decision to promote all three people to the rank of wizard.

[13] The term "wiz-bit" is derived from the conflation of "wizard" and the long-standing computer jargon where one is said to be "flipping bits". Since computers only understand ones and zeros, bits are said to be "on" or "off". "Giving someone a wiz-bit" implies that the fictional bit that signifies their status as a wizard has been flipped from "off" to "on". ("Wiz" is such a common shortening of "wizard" that it is used frequently throughout this paper both by myself and in cited material from players.)

[14] I sent the survey to 31 of the 36 wizards and gods, and got 26 responses for a return-rate of 84% -- a percentage which, frankly, surprised and delighted me. There's a whole 'nother paper waiting for me to find time and excuse to write it about what being a wizard "means" to the respondents and about the wizard community within the DragonMud community.

[15] DragonMudders do not confine their socializing to on-screen interactions. Two large gatherings are held annually over Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends, and people have come from as far away as Australia to attend. Smaller, regional "mini-gatherings" occur whenever and wherever people decide to organize and host them.

[16] I feel compelled to point out that, in spite of some of the language used in the quotes that follow, none of these folks are anthropologists, sociologists, or other brand of social scientist.

[17] "Teleporting" into Room #0 causes more than 20 screens of information to scroll by, when one has been granted the ability to see "dark" objects. Wizards and gods dread having to go into #0, even with cause.

[18] The plus (+) sign indicates that the object in the database being referenced is a "group". +God includes all five gods, +Accomplished Quester includes all players who have achieved the rank of "Accomplished Quester", +Czhorat's Second Family is a group of Czhorat's friends, and so on. (I would contend that "groups" act not only as markers of rank, accomplishment, and friendship, but also as "sites of memory" -- but that's a different paper.)

[19] A "robot" is technically a player, but the character is generated and run entirely by a computer program, not a human at a keyboard. There are three primary robots on DragonMud: Newt, who wanders around mapping locations and answers simple requests for directions; Thoth, who is stationery and collects and tells stories; and Fudge, a cat whose presence amuses (or in Topher's case,) annoys players.

[20] Or even their unconscious use -- I'm absolutely confident that when Jopsy wrote the first four streets of London, he wasn't intentionally trying to reproduce Eliade's model of sacred space.

[21] "Bedouin" (nicknamed "Bedo") is my most frequently used character on DragonMud and is known to be an anthropologist studying the community. I occasionally pose discussion questions where I'm looking for opinions and answers in a more condensed form than is obtainable in casual conversation (like "where are we?" or "if the database was destroyed, what object would you most miss and why?"); this form of solipsism-whacking has entered the DragonMud lexicon as "calling a Bedo-question". When I "call" a question, the announcement goes to everyone logged on at the time. I announce the subject, the location where the discussion will take place, and then add the warning "Serious discussants only, please, and please be aware that I will consider participation to be explicit permission to use your comments (with attribution, of course!) in possible future academic papers and publications." This warning is also posted at the entrance to the discussion room, and additionally in the room itself.

[22] As is typical with most public conversations on DragonMud, players wander in and out. Folks log off to go eat dinner or because their school's computer lab is closing, folks log in to take a break from studying or when they get home from work. Players leave to take care of other DragonMud-related problems and return later in the conversation, or wander away because they "just don't feel like thinking this hard tonight."

[23] Participants included, at various time and at various levels of interaction, four gods and five wizards; the rest were "mortal" players. (Rank doesn't count for much, when it comes to the expression of opinions on DragonMud!)

[24] The professor of anthropology who was present made numerous comments, for example -- but his comments were often tangential and occasionally completely unrelated to the subject at hand.

[25] All of the following commentary is extracted from my logs of November 29, 1995. Again, I've edited for clarity, continuity, spelling, and punctuation, all the while trying to maintain the "sense" intended by the players; my original logs remain intact.

[26] When I Emailed and posted Geertz's definition, I omitted his section-breaks. Interestingly, Star, who had never seen the definition before, broke it into almost exactly the same phrases that Geertz does.

[27] A "c-bit" is also known as a "builder-bit". ("C" stands for "constructor".) Setting this bit allows the player to add to the database.

[28] +Elder is the lowest of the honorary ranks; it carries with it no increase in power, but is an acknowledgment of the contributions to the community made by the mortal player so designated.

[29] +Quester Emeritus, the highest rank that can be earned by solving quests on DragonMud. Approximately 150 people have earned this designation.

[30] "Space and Place in a Virtual Community",

[31] "tf", or "tinyfugue" is a UNIX program, or "client", that players use to connect to connect to DragonMud and other sites. Unlike "telnet", tinyfugue keeps what the player is typing separated from everything else scrolling up on the player's screen.

[32] conversation

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