Better Living Through Language

The Communicative Implications of a Text-Only Virtual Environment,
Welcome to LambdaMOO!

Eva-Lise Carlstrom
Grinnell College
15 May 1992

With the growth of computer technology and the resources available to colleges and businesses, new forms of communication have appeared. Computer chatlines and bulletin boards are now commonplace; these are both communication modes similar to a conversation, but held in text. Clearly, this type of conversation will have some fundamental differences from one held vocally in person, particularly the lack of paralinguistic features such as tone or expression.

MUDs, or Multi-User Dungeons, are an outgrowth of this technology plus the popularity of adventure roleplaying as exemplified by Dungeons and Dragons. They are environments which one can log into from a terminal connected to Internet, and then interact in text with objects, places, and other players within a gamelike setting. There are several kinds of MUDs and variations on MUDs, varying according to programming complexity and style, and called such names as UnterMUDs, MUSHes, MUCKs, etc.

The programming of the environment and commands affects what can be done in a MUD and the kind of activity that goes on there. Some MUDs are extremely adventure-oriented and involve little interaction between players. Others emphasize socializing, and still others are primarily a practice ground for programmers. These features are found in varying degrees in different MUDs, but there is usually a noticeable emphasis in some direction.

This paper will concentrate on one particular MOO (MUD, Object-Oriented), LambdaMOO. This MOO is one of the most active and social available. It combines the social, programming and gaming aspects more than many MUDs do. Also, it is extremely complex and elaborated, and so reflects the possibilities of many different kinds of simpler MUDs.

LambdaMOO is not only a new sociolinguistic environment, it is a new kind of sociolinguistic environment. To illustrate: on entering a new MUD for the first time, it is reasonable to ask about what commands can be used, how objects are defined, what one can change about one's character, etc. This is roughly equivalent to arriving in a new country and inquiring about the laws of physics. It is commonly said that speakers of a language construct reality by doing so. In a MUD it is literally true that "reality" is created through language, both by the actions of the players and through the code used used by the programmers.

The creators and maintainers of a MUD are known as Gods or Wizards, and have powers within the MUD that are beyond a normal player's abilities. On most MUDs, a player can become a Wizard by proving his or her programming and/or adventuring ability. Before this occurs, a player is limited to the actions and objects created by existing Wizards. LambdaMOO is different in this respect because it is a hands-on object-oriented system. Everything in a MOO is defined as an object with an identifying number, including things, places, and even players. Even new players have the ability to create new objects (although not to program new functional objects). There are also no barriers to becoming a programmer, which allows a player, by request, to gain the power to program new verbs and functional objects.


As a MOO ethnographer, I have a distinct advantage over an anthropologist arriving in most unfamiliar cultures. The MOO society is made up precisely of visitors from all over, of varying degrees of familiarity with the MOO environment and MUDs in general. As my character, PatGently, I am as much a member of the MOO population as is any other player, and, in fact, have been on longer than many players I meet there. I was fortunate enough to get into the MOO while it was still open to character creation without the requirement of requesting it from a wizard. The popularity of LambdaMOO has demanded this change to discourage the less-interested from creating characters which will then burden the MOO's memory capacity.

In doing fieldwork for this paper, I used several recording techniques which have different implications for the data collected. In the order in which I came to use them, they are:

1. Printscreen. This is inefficient, but good for capturing small fragments when not recording in any other way. It records everything appearing on the screen at the time directly on paper.

2. VAX log files. These keep a perfect record of everything typed displayed on the screen, including the user's commands, but they quit without notice after a certain file size.

3. A virtual camcorder device. This is the only recording method which is visible to other players on the MOO. Within the MOO environment, it is a "physical" object, which can be used with MOO videotapes, turned on and off, etc. The tapes can later be played back on a MOO VCR/TV. Unfortunately, the only way to record the tape content outside the MOO is to printscreen or log the playback session. Each line of playback is prefaced with "ON MOOTV" to separate it from anything going on in the room the TV is in. Just as in RL (real life), some people object to being videotaped. I had one player object to my taping not on the grounds of privacy, but because the device is fairly heavy in CPU use, which burdens the system. Since the MOO was not heavily burdened at the time and he seemed quite upset, I suspect it may really have been a privacy issue. Also as in RL fieldwork, I found that many of the people I spoke to with the camcorder had never seen one before and were curious about how it worked and what it did (in this case, they knew what a RL camcorder did, but had never seen the programmed MOO object before). At one point I spent an entire recording session demonstrating the camera to a group and recorded no other interaction. This was part of the reason for abandoning the camcorder, along with the objections to being recorded and the requirement of playback, which is slow and annoying.

4. Tinytalk. This is a log system which works for MUDs through Sun workstations. It keeps a record like the VAX log except that it does not record the user's commands, only their results. The commands are generally obvious from the results, but there are some exceptions, such as spoofing (described later). Tinytalk does not stop recording until the user leaves the MUD. This is by far the best recording method, but I did not learn about it until late.


Because the MOO is a programmed environment, I can and must delineate the distinct communication forms possible there. The speech modes are `say', `page', and `whisper'. Say is the usual mode, used for talking to anyone in the room. Page is used to speak to someone at a distance (it is private, and can be used in the same room). Whisper is used within a room, and is private. However, some player classes have the ability to notice when someone is whispering (though not hear the message), and may object to it.

Next to say, `emote' is the most common communication form. Emote is used to perform actions ("PatGently waves hello", "Xiombarg grins."). Emote is also used for speech when a verb other than "says" is desired, as in "Tequila coos, 'You're sweet'". Emote is very different from any RL mode of communication because, rather than merely enabling the physically or humanly possible, it allows anything that is verbally possible. For instance, a player named Sabrina can type, ":bobs around near the ceiling.", and the message "Sabrina bobs around near the ceiling." will appear on everyone's screen. Also, emote allows projection of thoughts in constructions such as "PatGently wonders about that, but decides not to ask", which can be amusingly paradoxical. Emote commands have no "real" effect; that is, if one player types ":sends Plato to hell", Plato will not in fact go anywhere. Emoting is purely show.

Most MUDs do not have free emoting--it is available only to wizards, or for a cost of spell points (needed for magic in adventure contexts). To fill the need for expression, most MUDs have a series of "atmosphere commands" such as smile, grin, laugh, kiss, pat, dance, yawn, cry, etc. which can be used by anyone and which produce a preprogrammed line on the screen (for instance, every time you type "dance" on a typical MUD, the action will appear on your screen as "You do the Disco Duck"). LambdaMOO has recently added a small set of atmosphere commands.

Mistakes do occur in the selection of communication modes, such as a player using say instead of emote and ending up with an action enclosed in quotation marks. This tends to be immediately obvious and is noticed and corrected by the speaker.

Actions, as in real life, may also have communicative intent. As mentioned above, emoting ":sends Plato to hell" will not send Plato to hell. To accomplish that, the player would have to type "@move Plato to #19232" (the object number for Hell), at which point the character Plato will in fact be teleported to Hell. But this would be considered rude. Leaving, shooting people with zappers or paintball guns, and throwing things at them can also be effective methods of showing disapproval. In one case, I even discouraged someone's unwanted affections by changing my gender. Actions meant as friendlier communication would include joining someone in the hot tub, removing clothing (if one is of a character class that can do this--players can change character class if they wish), giving someone objects, or using a healing spell on an injured player.

Because there are many programmers and so one frequently encounters verbs and functional objects that are unfamiliar, it is not always immediately obvious whether a line that appears on the screen is a simple emote or an action using a verb or object unknown to the viewer. Complicating the matter is spoofing.

To spoof to present a line of text as if originating from another player, or as if an independent event has occurred. Spoofing is possible under certain conditions in many MUDs, and may be done just for fun, or to cause confusion and gain advantage. Example: Player A may be able to produce on everyone else's screen the line "Player B hits you!", thus causing everyone to attack Player B in defense against a nonexistent offense. Since Player B has also received the message, though, everyone is likely to figure out what happened soon enough. Spoofing is usually considered rude to some degree, but may be considered funny or clever enough to make up for it. On LambdaMOO, spoofing is officially disapproved of, but it is possible to create verbs that allow players to spoof. There are several forms of spoof verbs on the MOO, most of which credit the user in some way so that they are not true spoofing and do not transgress the rules for acceptable behaviour.

Other modes of MOO communication include descriptions and move messages. The most obvious is the character name and description. The character name is the first thing created. Names are usually fairly exotic-sounding and unrelated to the player's name (there are exceptions). One of the first things a player does on creating a character is to set his or her description. This description may be very short (I have seen them as short as two words, but this is unusual) or very long (essay length). Usually they several lines long and provide a physical description of of the character and a sense of personality. Descriptions are often heavily poetic prose, describing the beauty or handsomeness of the character. There are some descriptions that parody this tendency, and many that depart entirely from it. Some players describe themselves in their character description, but this is not assumed by any means. As I have implied above, players may not even be the same gender as their characters (gender may be changed at will to any of 10 possibilities, only some of which are sensible), much less height, weight, hair color, age, level of attractiveness, historical period, or, sometimes, species. The most common character type is an attractive young man or woman looking like a character out of a popular fantasy, science fiction, or horror novel. Some player classes have the ability to take several forms with different descriptions.

Besides the personal descriptions, which are an obvious form of self-expression, descriptions of rooms and other objects may be communicative. Players may create personal rooms for themselves, describe them in any manner desired, and add any objects they like (including functional objects, if they know a parent object to copy from or can program objects themselves). Personal rooms usually expand on a theme clear from the character description. For instance, a vampire character might have a dim room full of candles and velvet draperies, with a coffin in the center. Just as some characters are more down-to-earth than others, some rooms are extremely bizarre, while others are simple studies or bedrooms.

Objects a character is carrying are seen by other players when they look at them, so they add to the impression the character makes. Objects also have descriptions. All objects can be created, exchanged, dropped or picked up, and recycled (destroyed). Programmers can create objects that do more, and most of these objects can be copied so anyone can make their own. The @exam command allows players to look closely at objects (including rooms and characters), and see not only the description, but the object number, owner (usually the creator), and obvious verbs that can be used with the object. @parent is another useful verb, allowing the player to identify the parent object from which a thing is copied. There are many "generic objects" in the MOO, which can be copied (have "children" made of them) and/or elaborated on by programmers.

Pets, puppets, and other followers are a distinct category of self-expressive objects. For instance, PatGently has a copy of the generic following dog modified into a cat, Asmodeus has a tiger named Hobbes, Xiombarg has a Sacred Chao and a puppet described as her "evil twin", and Sick has a fan club that takes pictures. Pets may be trained to perform actions on command or in response to other actions. The standard dog sits, fetches, rolls over, plays dead, and speaks, responds to pets and kicks, and also sniffs itself at random intervals. A player can train his or her pet to do anything, according to preference and sense of humor.

Just as pets have messages that can be modified, players do too. When a character teleports into or out of a room, the other players present see a message on the screen announcing that fact, and this can be rewritten however the player pleases. Most characters who have been on for a while have changed their teleport messages, some very humorously. There are also messages displayed to someone who pages a character, and other modifiable messages that play less of a role.


It will be readily seen that a text-only environment has important implications for the kinds of communication that take place there. Several important elements in RL communication are absent or changed:

1.) `Proxemics'. There is no spacing of players in a MOO room--all are simply there. Proxemics may, however, be implied by use of emote commands ("PatGently snuggles up to Xiombarg") or use of furniture or other objects ("Lilly sits on the sofa").

2.) `Silence'. This carries comparatively little meaning on the MOO. Unlike speech sounds, Internet typed messages take a measurable amount of time to reach the receiver. Usually the delay is small enough not to cause communication problems, but longer delays arise intermittently, caused by a general lag, or slowing of the system due to heavy processing. It is understood that MUD lag may increase at any time, and that individual players may be experiencing lag on their systems that the others do not see. Also, messages appear only when the player presses return at the end, so a long message will cause a longer pause while the player types. While a player is typing, he or she does not see messages about what else is going on. These will appear only after the return key is hit.

The features of a slower "speed of sound", variable lag time, and the fact that messages are shown only in their entirety, not heard as they are spoken (or seen while being typed, as with VAX phone) mean that a lack of immediate response to a comment or question is not taken as meaningful until it lasts for several utterances.

3.) Turn-taking. For the same reasons listed for silence, strict turn-taking is impossible and so does not exist. Similarly, interruption is generally an undefinable concept. Several conversations tend to be going on at once in a room, even if only two people are there, and utterances belonging to the various subjects overlap and intermingle. The conditions described above make this likely to occur, and it is also unproblematic because all messages appear on the screen and do not drown each other out as they would in speech. Also, a player who is confused by a seemingly contextless remark can look back up the screen for its earlier referent. This form of communication is slightly less ephemeral than sound, and spacing and timing are less important than in normal speech. One disadvantage of a text-only environment, however, is that events which do not interfere with vocal-aural communication do interfere with MOO communication. For instance, a programmed object that performs actions frequently is just as "noisy" (in terms of taking up screen space and reading attention) as a character talking, and if there is too much going on, speech messages may be missed in the confusion, or scroll off the screen too quickly to be read. I have been asked to stop playing with complex objects and verbs in the living room (the hub of the MOO and main social gathering place) for this reason. When one MOO character convened a meeting on VR that was open to all comers, there were enough people in the room to make it very difficult to keep up with the comments, and one of the first things done was banishing pets from the room so that they would not contribute to the mayhem. Similarly, we quickly realized that raising our hands before speaking did not help matters any.


The following transcript was made 6 Mar 1992 in the living room of LambdaMOO. It is unedited, and therefore includes both my own commands and the visible results of them. This allows the reader to see the effects of lag time on communication, as frequently several utterances from others come between my command and its execution. The sense of comments overlapping and passing each other is typical of the MOO. The lines are numbered for reference. The reader should assume that any orthographic peculiarities are recorded verbatim.

     1 Amarantha takes a cigarette from packet of Marlboros. 
     2 :asks Amarantha whether she could refrain from smoking.
     3 PatGently asks Amarantha whether she could refrain from 
     4 Cookie goes idle for a bit
     5 Skip doesn't think it's cool to smoke anymore
     6 Amarantha lights a cigarette.
     7 HardWare has disconnected.
     8 Cookie waves
     9 Moebius coughs furiously
    10 Skip too
    11 Amarantha sighs at fascism on the MOO.
    12 Skip grins
    13 Moebius wonders since when coughing was fascist
    14 :is amused at people coughing from MOO smoke.
    15 Amarantha takes a puff on her Marlboro cigarette.
    16 Mista says, "Let's just open the sliding glass doors, and 
       everyone will be happy."
    17 Amarantha says, "everybody needs a hobby!"
    18 Mista says, "...get a nice breeze in here."
    19 mandy says, "hiya dooby"
    20 PatGently is amused at people coughing from MOO smoke.
    21 Skip opens a window
    22 Amarantha says, "It's ok, my neo-nazi friends... I'll step 
    23 Mista laughs in rl.
    24 Mista smiles.
    25 Moebius says, "it's all right with the ventilation..."
    26 Skip shortens in rl to irl
    27 HardWare has connected.
    28 Moebius puts on a sweater
    29 Mista nods and smiles.
    30 Amarantha takes a puff on her Marlboro cigarette.
    31 HardWare is back.
    32 Amarantha says, "I'll blow smoke rings to entertain you!"
    33 look amar
    34 HardWare hats the stupid server.
    35 Amarantha
       a Muse, a Fury, a Siren, and Ethel Merman rolled into one. She 
       has a penchant for peaches.
       She is awake and looks alert.
	 wooden chest
	 Magic Rose  (worn)
	 a pack of Silk Cuts
	 packet of Marlboros
	 lit Marlboro cigarette
    36 Moebius waves and the waves form interesting interference 
    37 Moebius likes hats
    38 HardWare has to go.
    39 :serves the stupid hats.
    40 Amarantha blows rings resembling obscure parts of the 

At the beginning of this transcript, Amarantha takes out a cigarette. This could be an emote, but is in fact an action performed on her possession "packet of Marlboros", which appears in her inventory when I look at her later (line 35). I (PatGently) respond immediately to her action by using an emote to ask her not to smoke, as does Skip. The length of Skip's utterance and the brief space between my comment and his indicates that we must have been typing at the same time. Amarantha lights a cigarette anyway, probably done before our messages appeared.

Moebius and Skip respond to Amarantha's smoking by coughing (with emote). The conflict is now clearly recognized. In line 16, Mista suggests opening the sliding glass doors to the deck to get some ventilation. In fact, these doors cannot be opened and left open, they can only be opened in the process of going through them. This is in addition to the obvious fact that reading about someone smoking a cigarette is not irritating to anyone's lungs, and therefore the whole scene is spontaneous roleplaying within the MOO environment. Skip's grin on line 12 and Mista's laughing and smiling in lines 23-24 is probably provoked by consciousness of the humor of this, as was my emote on line 20.

Amarantha offers to step outside, still complaining about our complaints (line 22). At line 21, before seeing Amarantha's offer, Skip emotes opening a window. This is completely non-functional; there is not even a window to be opened. Nevertheless, it obviously satisfies Moebius (line 25) and Mista (line 29). There are no further complaints about the smoke from anyone else either, but Moebius emotes putting on a sweater, presumably to counteract the "cold air" from the nonexistent open window. At this point, the dispute is settled, a nonexistent problem solved by a nonexistent solution, and everyone is happy.

Clearly, players consider MOO events to have some effect for which there is an appropriate response, even when there is not even an effect as "real" as changing the description of anything in the room (as would happen if a functional window existed and had been opened). LambdaMOO is an involving world, and players simultaneously take it very seriously and treat it as a grand game. Things that happen on LambdaMOO can have very strong emotional impact, as evidenced by the existence of netsex and MUD romances.

Netsex is similar to phone sex, but conducted on a MUD and therefore with emote as well as say capabilities, so that the acts performed are psychologically closer to real actions than to descriptions of actions. Some people conduct sexual and social lives on the MOO, and on other MUDs there are even weddings between characters. The fact that netsex exists, and the way that emote is programmed, also makes "netrape" possible. It would be very easy to have happen, even accidentally due to a misunderstanding, since there is no way of preventing someone from saying they are doing something to you. Netrape can affect players emotionally almost like real rape would, despite the lack of actual contact. My point in bringing this up is that LambdaMOO is not merely a game to its inhabitants. It is an unreal environment in which real interactions happen.

Aside from the smoking issue, another point about MOO interaction appears in this transcript. HardWare's typo ("hats" for "hates") on line 35 shows that "speech errors" on the MOO are rather different from those in vocal speech. His utterance is understood by those present (he is frustrated with lag and the computer resources), but they take the opportunity to play with language. Moebius responds by saying that he likes hats, and I respond by rearranging the elements of the sentence. Wordplay is very common on the MOO, which is to be expected in an environment constructed of words.


I described spoofing earlier, and I have said that it is not always clear what is happening from the messages that appear on the screen. The following transcript, from 29 Feb. 1992, illustrates this phenomenon well.

     1 Reggie squirts a cloud of Love Potion in billy's direction.
     2 Billy's eyes meet Reggie's gaze from across the room.  It's 
       Love at First Sight!
     3 Xyphus looks at Melina
     4 Billy declares her undying love for Reggie
     5 Billy winks suggestively at Reggie
     6 Billy says, "lots of spoofing here"
     7 All eyes turn to Billy as she starts making kissing noises 
       at Reggie
     8 Reggie says, "nah... its just the potion, Billy!"
     9 Billy declares her undying love for Reggie
    10 Billy goes home.

Reggie has an object, Love Potion #9, which is unfamiliar to the others present (there were several people in the room, including myself and Catbutt in addition to those that appear in the transcript). Billy reasonably assumes that since she is not doing the things attributed to her, declaring love, winking, etc., someone must be spoofing her. I also thought this was what was happening, but Reggie clarifies by attributing Billy's apparent actions to the potion. In fact, the potion is programmed so that when sprayed at someone, it produces the messages shown, with the names of sprayer and sprayee inserted. Billy leaves, apparently in response to the experience, but it is unclear whether she understands the potion, and whether she is offended or merely confused and going somewhere calmer, a very common reaction on the MOO.


I hope that this paper has given the reader some sense of the power and possibility available to the inhabitants of LambdaMOO and of other MUDs. My own experiences with LambdaMOO have given me a taste of language-based virtual reality that I find addictive, both for its realism and for its profound differences from what I can experience IRL.

The technology of virtual reality is commonly understood to be an attempt to simulate real life and the interactions possible therein. Programming constructs are judged by the closeness of their approach to realism. Real-life simulation is indeed a useful goal for many practical applications of VR technology. However, experience in a text-based virtual reality has convinced me that the flavor of "reality" found there is not merely an imperfect reflection of real life potentials, but an independent system whose communicative and social forms arise from the modality itself. The ways in which interaction on a textual interactive system are different from real-life interaction should not be seen as flaws or signs of inferiority, but as indications of a different kind of reality.


Here are some sample character descriptions, to provide a feel for the form and of the personality of the MOO. Characters of player classes that can change clothes have their current clothing as the last part of their description. Some descriptions have flaws because of programming problems. Looking at a character produces the description, a line stating whether the character is alert, idle, or asleep (player logged off), usually "He is awake and looks alert", and the character's inventory list. The following consists of descriptions only. Also, it must be stated that Allysa's description below is not typical, and caused much comment and controversy when she entered a room. In addition, a few characters have "descriptions" consisting of text graphics rather than verbal descriptions.

rohan a lost soul looking for an education

Kougar He is a "recom", a genetically engineered human with short, tawny fur and a tail that sweeps slightly upwards short of the ground. A computer specialist, he has implanted a network interface into the base of his skull. He wears only a black leather vest and matching shorts. This is an append_msg.

Nightwatcher Nightwatcher looks at you, his steady green eyes sparkling. His pleasant but searching gaze roots you to the spot, as if in a trance. After a moment, he turns and his blonde hair waves in the breeze as he drifts away. You begin to wonder.. Nightwatcher is wearing nothing. Buck naked. Not a stitch. He is pondering the future contents of his append_msg.

Midnight-love medium height with a slight build have golden brown hair and brown eyes like to meet and make new friends enjoys talking to people wearing faded blue jeans with a light blue oxford shirt and carrying a black leather jacket Midnight-love is attired in the current vogue intimate fashion for females. She is pondering the future contents of her append_msg.

Allysa You see a tall, luscious young woman with long, wavy deep-auburn hair that gleams golden when it catches the light. She has fair ivory skin, the soft, supple kind that makes you want to reach out and touch its silkiness. Her deep emerald-green eyes are inquisitive, as well as coy and seductive. She is wearing a slinky black cashmere sweater that falls teasingly off her irresistable white shoulders, and a black leather mini that reveals the long, toned legs of a dancer. She glances at you shyly, but in a way that is maddeningly inviting. The delicate fragrance of her sweet perfume reaches you and tantalizes your nose, taunting you, calling for you to step up to Allysa and slip your arm about her slim waist. Basically, if you believe this, you'll believe anything. In real life, Allysa (whose name is actually Rebecca) is a homely nerd like all the other MOOers with ridiculous descriptions like this, or who knows? chances are she's probably a guy out for a netsex cheap thrill. how pathetic.

Skot An eighteen year old male of average height, with blue eyes and an unruly head of blondish hair. He is wearing black 10-hole boots (decorated), plain shorts, and a T-shirt declaring I DON'T NEED GOD.

autumn About five and a half feet tall with straight hair the colour of autumn leaves hanging just past her shoulders. She is dressed in a black and brown patterned skirt with a black sweater that is a bit too big. It constantly falls off one shoulder. She is barefoot, and you notice that she has a tattoo of a Celtic design on her left ankle. There is always a slight smile hovering around the corners of her mouth.


The default arrival message is simply " teleports in." The following are the customized teleport messages belonging to the first arrivals at the VR discussion. Departure messages are set separately, but are similar in effect (the default message is " disappears suddenly for parts unknown.").

Accumulated hair sheddings form into Hyperpelosity.

Taliesin appears in a flash of green, plucking a chord from his lute.

Ishmael appears in a flash of over-the-top special effects.

SoulToucher materializes before you with a gentle hum and a change in the feeling in the room.

You see a nose. You see a smile. You see a face. You see-- HerkieCosmo!

Dr.Sherry appears in a psychodynamically balanced fashion.

Tobin appears seemingly from nowhere about 2 feet up in the air. He drops to the floor and smiles.

ghond appears from behind a molecule.


Both of the following articles were taken from an ftp site on Internet, and were written specifically about LambdaMOO by inhabitants thereof. Pavel Curtis is also Lambda, the creator of LambdaMOO.

Curtis, Pavel. `Mudding: Social Phenomena in Text-Based Virtual Realities'.

Rosenberg, Michael S. `Virtual Reality: Reflections of Life, Dreams, and Technology; An Ethnography of a Computer Society'.