What can happen when you make contact in a MOO

John Sutherland

  • My Tiny Life: Crime and Punishment in a Virtual World by Donald Dibbell
    Fourth Estate, 336 pp, £16.99, January 1999, ISBN 1 84115 058 4

Thoughtcrime, as conceived by George Orwell, was one of the black flowers of Thirties totalitarianism. By criminalising thought the dictatorial state planned to erase individuality – even an individuality as insignificant as Winston Smith’s. In the Orwellian dystopia the state’s apparatus was primarily bureaucratic: new technology – in the form of the ubiquitous telescreen (TV that watched you) – was instrumental but not central.

Earlier forms of thoughtcrime are familiar enough. The Puritans’ favourite text, ‘whoever lusts after a woman commits adultery with her in his heart’, equates virtual with actual sin. Old soldiers have a less than fond spot for the offence of ‘dumb insolence’, as it used to be defined in King’s Regulations, whereby a sideways look at an NCO could land you in the glasshouse. Generally, however, Anglo-American law does not trespass on thought. We are free to commit crimes in the head, and do so all the time: sex in the head, murder in the head, even reckless driving in the head. Some psychiatrists recommend it as therapy.

The Internet has created many opportunities for wrongdoing – probably more than the automobile, if fewer (so far) than the handgun. Much cybercrime is banal: pornography, fraud, racism, stalking, offences against the Official Secrets Act, all thrive on the Web. More interesting are the novel felonies which the Internet makes possible and which mean that thoughtcrime is only a keystroke away.

Since the early Eighties there has been an explosion in game-playing on computers. It began with the Dungeons & Dragons cult among students who had access to mainframes and Local Area Networks. The students grew up, desktop computers grew more powerful, the Net came along. The offspring of D&D’s Zork now flourish under such acronyms as MUD (Multi-User Domain), MOO (MUD, Object-Oriented), MUSH (Multi-User Shared Hallucination) and MUSE (Multi-User Simulated Environment). These games are based on USENET links (also called newsgroups and chatrooms) which allow congregations of players to interact in a virtual world of their joint construction. USENET is attractive in that it allows everyone to talk uninterruptedly at once, choosing whether to ‘whisper’ to a single fellow player or to ‘shout’. A tower of un-Babel, one might call it.

These second-generation role-playing games have been text-based and generally use a non-pictorial telnet connection and the powerful but taciturn UNIX operating system. This limits players to the Ascii code, and allows of no expressive typography (bold letters, italics or point-size variation), illustration or soundtrack. Ingenious fixes have been devised to make up for these typographic shortcomings: ‘emoticons’ (primitive icons formed of colons and brackets to convey ‘affect’), slang, a bewildering lexicon of ingroup shorthand (IRL = in real life; OOC = out of character; IC = in character; BBL = be back later), screen patterning. But the poverty of signification available to MUDders has put a premium on literary skills, snappy dialogue and theatrical inventiveness.

Terry Pratchett has allowed his intellectual property to be used free of charge in the Discworld-MUD. Launched in 1993, this advanced game supports 125 concurrent players, all of whom inhabit the Pratchett universe simultaneously. As in other D&D-derived games, the narrative is made up of riddles to be solved, treasure to be gained, duels to be fought, goblins to be foiled, alliances to be formed, trials and ordeals to be undergone. For outworlders (of whom I am one) Discworld-MUD is about as exciting as Exchange & Mart. But if you are interested you must queue to get in.

The defining features of MUDs are that they are rule-governed, that they have fixed environments, and that their social organisation is rigidly hierarchical. The players are subject to the authority of the ‘Wizards’ – masters and architects of the game. The more democratic MOOs foster role-playing of an exploratory kind. The environment of the MOO is an infinitely extendable constellation of ‘rooms’ and conversazioni. Two variants have proved successful. With social MOOs you can hang out, develop your assumed character and interact with other players, in a kind of electronic bal masqué. Such interactions are described (for reasons no one ever explains) as ‘tiny’. Thus, in a Social MOO, you can have tinysex or engage in tinytalk. As described in one of the many ‘Netiquette’ guides, ‘tinysex is the act of performing MUD actions to imitate having sex with another person, usually consensually, sometimes with one hand on the keyboard, sometimes with two. Basically it’s speed-writing interactive erotica. Realise that the other party is not obligated to be anything like he/she says, and in fact may be playing a joke on you.’ (Go to Furry MUCK at furry.com if you are a tinybit curious.)

It’s not all fun and games. Some promising educational initiatives use MOOs (go to telnet ‘moolano.berkeley.edu 8888’ for a demonstration). Educational MOOs create never-ending seminars and clustered sub-seminars in which teaching and learning can happen. Or not. The problem is that while players line up round the electronic block to be one of the lucky 125 who can play Discworld, and while Social MOOers spend on average thirty to forty hours a week logged on (there are, inevitably, 12-step recovery groups), Educational MOOs are coercive. They may be fun but they are still classrooms, imposing teacher-student roles which cramp play.

Educational and Social MOOs, in fact, remain spin-offs. Games are what power innovation on the Internet. The market is huge and growing uncontrollably. It’s thought that this year American consumers will spend more on electronic entertainment than on buying movie tickets. Twenty years ago there was no electronic games industry, beyond the Space Invaders and fruit machine in the local pub; twenty years from now, the movie industry may well have shrunk back to its original peepshow status.

There are currently two main forms of electronic entertainment: graphics-based systems (dominated by Sony, Nintendo and Sega), and text and MUD-based, role-playing games. The first you pay for (you must buy a console, or a CD-Rom); the second – assuming you have a computer and access to a server – are free. In the first, the game dominates the player; in the second, the player creates the game. The first form is Japanese; the second American.

In the very near future, these two forms will merge. The pioneer hybrid is Ultima Online. This MUD game has already attracted 125,000 users, who have proved willing to pay $50 join-up fees and $10 a month to stay in play (the beauty of this money-machine is that the paying players are creating the product they are buying). Sony and Microsoft have announced the launch later this year of a new generation of commercial, multi-player, role-playing, Net-based games, inspired by Ultima and loaded with state of the art Japanese graphics. A new dimension of virtual reality is becoming available for a modest ten bucks a month. The boom in Nasdaq high-tech stocks has generated unlimited research money for investment in anything that looks promising. And nothing looks more promising at the moment than the Internet games market.

The first task in role-playing games is to create your role. Once in, as his/her pseudonymous character (‘LRBaby’, say – the conventions are largely adopted from the ‘vanity plates’ which decorate American cars), the skilled player needs to be something of a dramatist if he/she is to make a mark. Using what are called ‘pose’ and ‘atmosphere’ statements to back up dialogue and action, the player creates what Henry James called ‘solidity of specification’. A rich and diverse narrative (a ‘matrix’, as they like to think of it) is assembled.

For many players the ‘role’ (especially in Social MOOs) represents the most exciting element of the game. A survey in the April edition of the MUDders’ magazine, Imaginary Realities, reveals that at some point in their careers almost all males ‘crossplay’: that is, play female characters (fewer than half the women who responded admitted to playing male characters). Many of the men reported being ‘freaked out’ by the experience of being ‘hit on’, or sexually propositioned. But they liked it well enough to go back for more.

Anonymity and pseudonymity encourage sexual adventurousness. The timid become daring, the conventional gamesome, and the virtuous villainous. Games after all are traditionally zones of freedom: you can do things on the rugby pitch or in the boxing ring that would land you in jail if you did them in the street. A number of MUDders have fallen into the error of imagining that their game-zone is where they can do things in VR (virtual reality) free from the constraints of RL (real life) – a dangerous misapprehension. Unlike in boxing, the rules of MUDding are embryonic. It has taken two hundred years, the Marquis of Queensberry, and innumerable governing bodies to establish the point that killing a man in the ring is permissible, but not biting his ear.

In October 1998, a 22-year-old Southern Californian college student, Aidin Ghaffari, under the pseudonym ‘JAMINinLA’ (jamming in Los Angeles) made contact in a MOO with a character who identified herself as a 13-year-old female, ‘Cal_Girl’. In character, JAMINinLA said: ‘We’re gonna have sex, OK?’ Cal_Girl (Call-girl, Californian girl) responded provocatively, going into teasing detail about her immature physical attributes and her precocious sexual proclivities. In fact, Cal_Girl was a middle-aged FBI Special Agent, Bruce Applin. A rendezvous was set up in a local park. ‘Bring your rubbers,’ Cal_Girl instructed several times, in her sexy electronic falsetto. The park in Westwood was staked out by a 29-year-old FBI agent, Stephanie Green, trying (with limited success, apparently) to look half her age and hot to trot. Ghaffari showed up, but simply inspected Officer Green from a great distance. He made no attempt at contact and never even came within talking range. Voyeuristic thrill and curiosity had evidently brought him to the park. An experienced game-player, he probably suspected that Cal_Girl wasn’t what she said she was – who is in these games? He’d lied online about his own age. Quite plausibly, he simply wanted to see what his fellow player looked like, IRL and OOC.

Ghaffari took his look and went his way. Even so, he was arrested by a waiting posse of officers and agents. Two condoms were found in his car (not unusual for a prudent 22-year-old bachelor in LA). It was enough. On 23 April, JAMINinLA, a.k.a. Aidin Ghaffari, was found guilty of ‘attempting to send harmful matter to a minor’. He faces up to three years in prison. His name will remain on a paedophile register for the rest of his (professionally blighted) life. He had, apparently, no former convictions. ‘What did he do?’ his mother asked tearfully in court, as he was sent down.

Ghaffari’s defence was that he was role-playing all the time. So was Officer Applin. There never was a Cal_Girl. Arguably, there never was a JAMINinLA. A fictional predator had sent a fictional minor a fictional message. It was thoughtcrime. Ghaffari might be thought sleazy and you wouldn’t want him to babysit your daughter but what, as Mrs Ghaffari asked, had he done wrong? He had impersonated a sex-fiend. As well arrest and convict Anthony Hopkins for cannibalism. Hopkins gets $15 million to star in the sequel to Silence of the Lambs: Ghaffari gets ‘hard time’ and lifelong stigma.

There are other cases currently going forward in the Californian courts. ‘Entrapment is what cops do,’ Sean Connery says in his latest film. So they do. And the opportunities for entrapment on the Internet are mouthwatering. It gives the forces of law and order entry into the brains of the population, no warrant required. ‘The entire law enforcement on this subject is in its babyhood. We are examining this case as a model,’ the head of the LA High Technology and Litigation team remarked apropos Ghaflari’s successful prosecution.

So, too, is the Internet in its babyhood. No one can see where it is going. What is clear is that it is growing monstrously fast and that the fuzzy border between VR and RL, between game and crime, will need to be mapped more carefully if more citizens are not to be entrapped by their bad thoughts and an over-vigilant thought police.

‘A Rape in Cyberspace’, the first chapter of Julian Dibbell’s My Tiny Life, already has classic status in the MUD community. It was first printed in the Village Voice in 1993 (you can read it, free of charge, in the April edition of the Net magazine, Imaginary Realities). It describes the repercussions in a Social MOO (telnet ‘lambda.moo.mud.org’) of a sexual rampage perpetrated by a ‘Mr Bungle’. Specifically, he raped a number of fellow players with a ‘voodoo doll’, a program which allows a player to hack into the game and attribute actions to characters other than his own. Bungle was subsequently visited by the VR equivalent of capital punishment. He was ‘toaded’, that is, banished from the game. (He was lucky Officer Applin was not yet patrolling his electronic beat.)

The cyber-rape episode led Dibbell to immerse himself over the next year in LambdaMOO and his book is a freewheeling anatomy of the peculiar sociology of the electronic community. An epilogue brings the account up to 1998 (already a long time ago, given the hectic speed of change). Game-players will know it all already. For interested outsiders, Dibbell’s is an excellent introduction to the heroic age of MUD-ding, although its relentlessly hip narrative is sometimes difficult to follow. Too much ‘pose’. Best start with Howard Rheingold’s The Virtual Community and Sherry Turkle’s Life on the Screen. Then you can get one – a tinylife, that is.