Discussion Index

Why Study Muds?
by Alan Schwartz

1996 Topic Archives

Posted by Sabella on 09/19/96


Alan Schwartz
Department of Psychology
University of California, Berkeley


Why would a social scientist wish to study MUDs or use MUDs as research sites? Research on MUDs to date suggests three broad approaches to MUDs in research: differences between MUDs and "real life",[1] MUDs as windows into real life, and MUDs themselves. Each approach uses MUDs differently and offer unique advantages and disadvantages.


A great deal of writing on MUDs and other virtual communities has focused on how they differ from traditional communities. Bruckman (1994) has described gender-swapping behavior. Reid (1994) considered how MUD players develop alternatives to conventional interactions.

Finding that MUD interactions differ from real life interactions could be interesting frequently, however, studies of differences between MUDs and real life suffer from methodological difficulties, some of which are discussed below.


A MUD can be an excellent research site it offers unprecedented opportunities for observation, manipulation, and control of relevant variables. For example, Schiano (1996) has used a MUD to help understand how the mind conceptualizes space.

A MUD also offers unprecedented opportunities for research without informed consent, confidentiality, debriefing, or other procedures that are essential to the protection of human subjects. Researchers who study MUD players must carefully consider how to proceed ethically.


Of course, research on MUDs and their players can also be useful to the MUDs themselves! In this issue, Richard Bartle proposes a theory of MUD playing styles which suggests how administrators might influence the balance of playing styles on their MUD. Using Castle D'Image as a laboratory, Melton (1996) conducted an experiment on the effects of the availability of broadband channel communication on the formation of player cliques.


MUD research is not easy. Researchers face a number of impediments and difficulties when they study MUDs. MUDs themselves have a certain illegitimate status as "simply games", despite their increasing prevalence as educational and professional tools (Schneider, 1996 Evard, 1993). Yes, most MUDs are recreations -- and recreation is a vital part of human social behavior, and equally deserving of study.

Not the least of the impediments to MUD research are methodological. Experiments are idea for testing theory and establishing causal connections between variables, but the requirements of random assignment of subjects to experimental conditions and control of irrelevant variables are very difficult to meet when studying MUD players.

Survey research has been popular, perhaps because it is perceived as easy to do. In fact, conducting a scientifically valid survey using MUD players is quite difficult. There is no unbiased procedure for sampling MUD players. The common approach of posting surveys to Usenet newsgroups introduces enormous bias: there's no estimate of the number of players who read the newsgroups or how they might differ from MUD players, responders are self-selected, and there is no way to insure that readers don't send in multiple responses. Sampling players within a MUD may be more promising, though time and care will be required to prevent active players from being sampled more heavily than inactive players. Sampling MUDs from the population of MUDs is possible with the help of the many fine mud lists that are available, though again the sample will be biased in favor of publicly-accessible MUDs which choose to advertise.

Finally, much research has been done using participant-observation, ethnographic, or interview methods. Qualitative methods can capture the full complexity of interactions of MUDs and suggest areas of theoretical interest, but are the weakest of the methods in reliability they depend greatly on the observer's perceptions and they almost never provide strong tests of theory.


The obstacles to MUD research are obstacles which can be overcome by careful and clever researchers. Research can be driven by interesting phenomena which a MUD research notices on a MUD, or by applying or testing theory developed outside of MUDs. Here are some areas of study which are particularly relevant to MUDs:

* Psychological theories of group behavior, altruism, aggression, spatial representation, and attention. Attention may seen surprising, but consider that splitting attention between multiple streams of conversation and game-play is extremely common among MUD players.

* Sociological theories of organizational structure, social norms, and exchanges. For example, it's common for experienced adventure-style MUD players to retrieve the items from a more novice player's corpse and return them to the novice. The same was likely done for the experienced player when s/he was a novice, and creates a system of exchange between players.

* Organizational behavior work on training, management, leadership, satisfaction, turnover, job characteristics, and organizational citizenship. Under what conditions do MUD administrators "burn out"? What is player satisfaction -- and does it relate to the degree to which players have input on the MUD?

* Political science. Aspects of many MUDs can be understood in terms of political structures, coalitions, and mechanisms of governance.

* Sociolinguistics, cognitive linguistics, and pragmatics. The language MUD players use has already received some attention (see, for example, Carlstrom, 1994 Cherny, 1994, Serpentelli, 1992)

* Anthropological theories of culture, ritual, and folklore. If the players of a MUD constitutes a subculture, with shared beliefs, understandings, rituals, etc., anthropology has much to offer. Clodius (1994) discusses the use of MUDs in ethnographic fieldwork.

* Computer science work on distributed databases, graphical interfaces, virtual reality models, and client-server computing.

Many other approaches are also possible: MUDs as educational institutions, tools for game design, communication and control systems, etc. Reputable scientific research is waiting to be done (as is an extensive review of the current literature.)

The function of this journal is to encourage high-quality research which offers interesting and replicable phenomena, testable theories to explain the phenomena, and empirical tests of the theories. The Journal of MUD Research hopes to provide an arena for dissemination of research on MUDs and the education of future MUD researchers.


[1] MUDs, of course, are an aspect of every MUD player's real life. While I'll continue to use the term "real life" as a generally accepted shorthand for activities which take place away from a computer screen or in the physical presence of other people", I don't want to suggest uncritical acceptance of this dichotomy.


Bartle, Richard. (1996). Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players who suit MUDs. Journal of MUD Research, 1(1). Available: http://journal.tinymush.org/~jomr/v1n1 (19 May 1996).

Bruckman, Amy. (1994). Gender Swapping on the Internet. Available: ftp://media.mit.edu/pub/asb/papers/gender-swapping.txt (19 May 1996). Asb@kilpikonna.media.mit.edu or asb@media.mit.edu

Carlstrom, Eva-Lise. (1994). Better Living Through Language: The Communicative Implications of a Text-Only Virtual Environment, or, Welcome to LambdaMOO! Available: ftp://parcftp.xerox.com/pub/MOO/papers/communicative.txt (6 June 1996).

Cherny, Lynn. (1994). Gender Differences in Text-Based Virtual Reality. Available: ftp://parcftp.xerox.com/pub/MOO/papers/GenderMOO.ps (6 June 1996).

Clodius, Jen. (1994). Ethnographic Fieldwork on the Internet. Anthropology Newsletter, 35(9). Available: http://tinylondon.ucsd.edu/~jen/afa.html (19 May 1996).

Evard, Remy. (1993). Collaborative Networked Communication: MUDs as Systems Tools. Proceedings of the Seventh Systems Administration Conference, 1-8. Available: http://www.ccs.neu.edu/home/remy/documents/cncmast.html (19 May 1996).

Melton, Ralph. (1996). Personal communication. Reid, Elizabeth. (1994). Cultural Formations in Text-Based Virtual Realities. Master's Thesis. Available: http://www.ee.mu.oz.au/papers/emr/index.html (19 May 1996)

Schiano, Diane. (1996). People are People, even when they MOO. Presentation at Cognitive Colloquium, Department of Psychology, University of California, Berkeley.

Schneider, Daniel K. (1996). Educational Technology: Educational VR (MUD) sub-page. Available: http://tecfa.unige.ch/edu-comp/WWW-VL/eduVR-page.html (19 May 1996).

Serpentelli, Jill. (1992). Conversational Structure and Personality Correlates of Electronic Communication. Bachelor's Thesis. Available: ftp://parcftp.xerox.com/pub/MOO/papers/conv-structure.txt (19 May 1996).


1996 Topic Index