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Playing in Mud:
How Cyberspace and the Internet Can Change Our Identity?

Mey ELBI

Introduction

The social evolution of humanity is directly related to invention and to the degree of these inventions assimilate into the daily life. Each innovation, once assimilated, has some impact on the psychological and sociological aspect of human existence. Innovation changes the structure and organization of society. It affects the existence, thoughts, relations and continuity of human beings. Each century, a leading new technology exerts such an influence on human life (e.g.: print, radio, television, computer). Today, a new and globally effective information technology is changing the social structure of human existence. This new technology is the internet.

Today's, the computer plays an important and growing role in everyday life. The number of virtual communities is increasing at a considerable rate, and the amount of people who find a voice within these chats rooms is becoming larger and larger. In my essay, I would like to focus on virtual communities and analyze why people need to log on to chat rooms in order to communicate.

With the advance of electronic communication technologies, and especially with the invention of the internet, the border between machine and human is greatly reduced. There is new terminology to describe the nature of this new medium. For instance, for people connected to the internet, we apply the notion of 'cyborg' , a hybrid creature of machine and organism in a post-gender world. In these post-modern times, machine and human are dependent each other. They become inseparable - as one. A person, using a machine and his knowledge to manipulate this machine, experiences interactivity within the context of the virtual space.

The internet is considered by most as a new public sphere where a diverse group of people gathers to discuss issues of social concern. Of course, not everyone has access to this new medium of communication. Those who do belong to a high-level, educated class. I do not plan to discuss the nature of equality of access to the internet or the possibility of its democratization. Democracy, I believe, is a utopian notion which has never existed, even in archaic Greek society. It has been long been sought as the ultimate stage in human existence. But it has never achieved; and within this capitalistic, market-driven system where someone with power always dominates others, will probably never be realized.

My paper is, instead, a mosaic of ideas composed of my thoughts about cyberspace, the internet and Mud's - a popular on-line games.

The Nature of the Internet

The internet is a textual and graphical space where users log on for different reasons. Several activities take place within the realm of the internet: commercial interaction, academic research, netsurfing, real time interaction and chatting with interlocutors who are similarly "connected".

Cyberspace is very often described as disembodied space. Based on a Cartesian vision, or supporting Descartes' philosophy of duality of body/mind, many people argue that cyberspace is a virtual world where there exists a separation of body and mind. I do not agree this hypothesis. The way people interact is different from the real world where social interaction depends on embodied communications, like known, stable genders, sexualities, races and classes.. Cyberspace communication challenges all that. In cyberspace, identity is not given but constructed, chosen. But even though the promise of cyberspace is to free communication and movement from the limitations of the body, the body still exists, and can not be abandoned easily. The fact of the body remains.

The first thing that a user on Mud has to do is to create an identity. Very often, other users make assumptions about identity and gender. The way of communication is very different from the face-to-face relationship. In cyberspace, interaction takes place in a text-based virtual space where words become actions and what you hear is what you see.

The mind functions like the body. People are connecting to each other in a virtual space, -real people with emotions, feelings, fears. Even though the person is physically behind the screen, connected to the world beyond the screen by pressing a key on the keyboard, he or she is present psychically when connected to one of these environment. The majority of the people feel a sense of "being there" when an intense interactivity and communication process is happening. Several cases have proven that cyberspace is an existing physical world where people can be hurt, can have sex, even can be raped.

Because of the fear of AIDS and many other diseases, people escape to the realm of virtual world in search of intimacy. In the virtual world, people establish connections, find and create opportunities to meet people and even have sex not in action, but in words. In Sherry Turtle's book "Life on the screen", she describes a case where a couple got divorced because the woman discovered that her husband was having virtual sex in cyberspace, and she considered this cheating. She was not able to accept this act as purely happening in an imaginary world. Her feelings were hurt. This case reveals us that many people consider sex as starting not in physical action but in the mind. In cyberspace, although you do not touch somebody's body, you have an interaction with a real person in real time through words.

I believe that it is misleading to describe cyberspace as a disembodied medium. Whenever we enter cyberspace, our bodies are actively involved in the construction of virtuality.

Virtual reality, which is a simulation of real life, is an existing space. It is a space where information flows densely, where action and reaction are translated seen into a textual format. We can be totally immersed in the VR (virtual reality), with our body and mind. We can feel alive in cyberspace, where the physical self is transformed into a package of information. The body exists in a digitized form. Thus, because of the aliveness of our senses, we can still be hurt.

The case of a virtual rape in Tinymud further suggests that cyberspace is an existing world in words. Like in the real world, bad things can happen and danger exists. A character known as Mr. Bungle committed a series of sexual assaults in a virtual encounter with a female character known as Starsinger. Mr. Bungle was immediately censured. The Moo, surveyed by Wizards, had to enact the judicial system. In this virtual tribunal, the case was discussed on-line and toading Mr. Bungle was the recommend punishment. This case illustrates that sexual harassment can occur on-line, that people can get hurt.

The internet can also be a world of deceit where falsification can occur.

On Thursday, April 23, 1998, "New York Times" ran an article about internet support groups. It explained that althougth newsgroups offer a new form of community where diverse of people connect on-line to share experiences, feelings, and ideas, they also become places where people lie, some invent stories and intrude into networks of people who have come to care about one another, and to think of themselves as communities. One such case involves a 15 year old girl who communicated on-line with parents of premature infants. She lied about having a premature baby and got sympathy and affection from the members of the group. When the truth was revealed, the members who had supported her felt betrayed. Dr. Feldman, an expert on faked illnesses, call this "virtual factitious disorders". Individuals suffering from it long for sympathy, care, and attention that they feel unable to get in a more appropriate way. These people also take satisfaction from lying and deceiving others on-line. Dr. Feldman refers to this as "duping delight". The internet, where people can neither see nor hear each other, easily assists those people with factitious disorder. The Internet, because of its anonymity and prevention of control, becomes a place for faking pain and suffering. What should the ethics of this new medium be? How can we avoid such misleading behaviors on the internet? Where should restrictions be placed? These questions must be addressed. The purpose of newsgroups is to let people share their emotions and ideas. Some people take advantage of the medium to falsify and invent stories. In doing so, they do harm to other people who, though virtually connected, exist in real life. As in real life, falsification and deceit occur in the embodied world of the internet, and real people get hurt.

People do really feel involved cyberspace. The body is never left behind the screen. Although physical distance separates users from each other, the truth of "being there" is real. Cyberspace, a social, text-based virtual reality, is filled of emotion and action. Obviously, no one was really raped, in the Tinymud case, but someone was virtually raped. Whenever we enter cyberspace, we project our self into it; we never leave our human being. We re-present ourselves in a digitized form. Julian Dibble describes it well in his article "A Rape in Cyberspace": "Perhaps the body in question is not the physical one at all, but its psychic double, the bodylike self-representation we carry around in our heads".

I like to use the metaphor of motion to describe the activities on cyberspace. We associate the term "motion" with any object moving from one place to another. We are accustomed to seeing human motion only within the physical dimension. But, this vision has collapsed with the invention of the internet. On the internet, we move in a way that differs from the real world. Maybe in real life, we are still sitting in front of our computer; but we are definitely going elsewhere while connecting to cyberspace. I like to describe cyberspace as a land of roving motion and flow. It is a smooth world which allows us to wander and travel in multiple directions. The road on which we travel is not defined in advance. Like the nomads who draw their own paths to move ahead; we are also free to choose the direction in which we want to go, we can change our direction at anytime toward a new destination. Because of this, the virtual world is smooth and controllable, allowing pluralism, diversity, and community to flourish.

Those three terms - -pluralism, diversity and community- - are key to understanding the virtual world and I would like to describe what they mean in the context if cyberspace.

Diversity: Cyberspace is founded on the primacy of diversity. For instance, the first thing that a person does when entering in a Mud's is to create a character. You can be anyone that you desire to be. You give yourself a name and an identity, depending on the mood you are. You can be someone totally different from yourself existing in the real world. You can even change your gender and be someone that you would not dare to be in the reality.

Pluralism: The self on the internet is not limited to one. You can create multiple of selves, all very different from each other. You can change your role anytime you want. For example, a regular player of FURRYMUCK has created several characters: "Aileen" who denies her sexuality; "Tracey, who is a pretty, sexy, blonde girl; Tase" a young gay; and "Kari" a young women who is submissive. Depending on her mood, the player can choose which character to be.

Community: Cyberspace is seen as the new informal public space where people can rebuild a community. On the internet, each day, a new virtual community is being constructing where many international users are connecting simultaneously in real-time environment. Here, they are interacting, chatting, raising questions and discussing interesting topics.

Observations on MUD community

MUD (Multi User Domain) is an on-line game. Essentially a multi-participant virtual game which is accessible through telnet. It has become very popular among internet users.

The MUD environment lands somewhere between real life and other adventure-style computer games. Certain characteristic make it different from other computer games. For example, there is no goal, no score. Therefore, there are neither winners nor losers. In MUD, unlike in many other games, the player can manipulate the game by adding new

objects to the database. Finally the MUD player is not alone. He or she interacts with participants in real time. This feature brings a new social dimension to the game. These characteristics of MUD have some impact on the psycho-social aspect of the player. Many players start to think that they extend beyond the screen, and they see the virtual space

as a counterpart to reality. But they feel less inhibited when interacting in the MUD environment than they feel in real life circumstances. Without feeling the pressure that the society imposes upon the individual, they do things that they normally would not dare to do. Because there is no real judgment or no real harm occurring on the virtual space, they feel an increased sense of freedom.

Perhaps, the most significant reason for Mud's popularity is the anonymity that it provides. The first thing a user does is to give a name to this persona that he/she wants to be.

The user is creating an incarnation, an avatar, an identity on this virtual place. Through the game, people create themselves, reconstructing a new set of identity and roles. Based on words, virtual characters converse to each other, exchange gestures and express emotions.. But all interaction is anonymous. This anonymity gives users the comfort to

confess their deepest secret and to freely express their thoughts about the most critical topics. It allows participants to be whoever they want to be. They play a role or several roles that can be close to their real personalities; or on the contrary, they can add a new personality which is totally different from their real one. 

In MUD, reconstruction of the self is critical Identity is not limited to one dimension; on the contrary, a multiplicity of self can be displayed in this constructed environment.

Nothing is given, all constructed. Participants, rebuilding new identities, creating their own stories, can express unexplored parts of themselves without fears of censure or embarrassment.

MUD can be reached at anytime. In this interactive environment, people can almost be sure to find someone with whom to chat. Friendship can be built, and, intimacy can be reach a different level and dimension behind the screen.

Perhaps this emphasis on multiplicity, intimacy and freedom accounts for the gender swapping phenomena so prreviewent in the MUD realm. It is very common for an individual to adopt an identity of the opposite sex. For instance, a male can pretend to be a female; thus, he can begin to explore the secret of the opposite gender in a virtual social community. And identity is not restricted. Players can create as many identities as they wish, and switch whenever they want to do so.

MUDS are also considered as the new addiction of the new generation. There are people who spend more than 10 hours per week on the Mud's which shows that Mud's is the new social context of those people to create new friendship and share their feelings and ideas.

For instance, Robert, an addicted Mud's participant says: "Mud's, It is like a kind of addiction "It is my life" is, like, living on the MUD" Most of the time, I felt comfortable that this is my life. I'd say I am addicted to it."

Conclusion:

The computer and especially the internet are shaping our ways of thinking and feeling. The cyberspace environment engages our bodies and minds; it taps into both our emotional and mental capacities. Through this technology, we can experiment with different existences and visit two different worlds: the real and the virtual. The virtual world is a simulated world, a projection of the real one - but it is no less real to those who inhabit it. This technology allows us to experience other ways of being. In doing so, we cross the boundary between the real and virtual worlds. And that has the power to change us all.

- . -

Bibliography:
Leeson, Lynn Hershman. Clicking In (Hot Links to a Digital Culture., Seattle, 1996.
Moser, Anne Moser. Immersed in Technology (Art and Visual Environments). MA, MIT Press, 1996.
Turkle, Sherry. Life on the Screen, New York: Touchstone, 1997.

Related Web Sites:
Http://www.netaxs.com/~jamesiii/mud.htm
Http://mosaic.echonys.com/~women/Issue17/art-browning.html
Http://www.dc.peachnet.edu/~mnunes/pres_95.html
Http://www.cwrl.utexas.edu/~claire/textx/thoughts.txt
Http://www.iup.edu/en/workdays/Nakamura.html
Http://www-c.mcs.anl.gov/home/towell/presemce.html
Http://www.uiah.fi/bookshop/isea_proc/spacescapes/08.html
ftp://ftp.lambda.moo.mud.org/pub/MOO/papers/DIAC92.txt

1 Sherry Turkle, Life on the screen, page: 201

This essay was written for the "New World Orders" course given by Erika Muhammad at the New School University, in the Media Studies program.

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