MUD crawling is another way to go. Software constructions known as MUDs, Multi-User Dungeons, have burned up countless thousands of log-in hours since the early 1980s. 17 These provide settingsoften very large and elaborately detailed ones-for online, interactive, role-playing games, and they often attract vast numbers of participants scattered all over the Internet. They are cyberspace equivalents of urban neighborhoods.
The particular joy of MUDville is the striking way that it foregrounds issues of personal identity and self-representation; as newcomers learn at old MUDders' knees, your first task as a MUD initiate is to construct an online persona for yourself by choosing a name and writing a description that others will see when they encounter you. 18 It's like dressing up for a masked ball, and the irresistible thing is that you can experiment freely with shifts, slippages, and reversals in social and sexual roles and even try on entirely fantastic guises. You can discover how it really feels to be a complete unknown.
Once you have created your MUD character, you can enter a virtual place populated with other characters and objects. This place has exits-hyperlinks connecting it to other such settings, which have in turn their own exits. Some heavily frequented MUDs are almost incomprehensibly vast, allowing you to wander among thousands of distinct settings, all with their own special characteristics, like Baudelaire strolling through the buzzing complexity of nineteenth-century Paris. You can examine the settings and objects that you encounter, and you can interact with the characters that you meet.
But as you quickly discover, the most interesting and provocative thing about a MUD is its constitution-the programmed-in rules specifying the sorts of interactions that can take place and shaping the culture that evolves. Many are based on popular fantasy narratives such as Star Trek, Frank Herbert's Dune, C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, the Japanese animated television series Speed Racer, and even more doubtful products of the literary imagination; these are communities held together, as in many traditional societies, by shared myths. Some are set up as hack-'n-slash combat games in which bad MUDders will try to "kill" your character; these, of course, are violent, Darwinian places in which you have to be aggressive and constantly on your guard. Others, like many of the TinyMUDs, stress ideals of constructive social interaction, egalitarianism, and nonviolence-MUDderhood and apple pie. Yet others are organized like high-minded lyceums, with places for serious discussion of different scientific and technical topics. The MIT-based Cyberion City encourages young hackers-MUDders of invention-to write MUSE code that adds new settings to the environment and creates new characters and objects. And some are populated by out-of-control, crazy MUDders who will try to engage your character in TinySexthe one-handed keyboard equivalent of phone sex.
Early MUDs-much like text-based adventure video games such as Zork-relied entirely on typed descriptions of characters, objects, scenes, and actions. (James Joyce surely would have been impressed; city as text and text as city. Every journey constructs a narrative.) But greater bandwidth, faster computers, and fancier programming can shift them into pictorial and spatial formats. 19 Lucasfilm's Habitat, for example, was an early example of a graphic MUD that had its first incarnation, in North America, on the QuantumLink Club Caribe network (a precursor of America Online) and Commodore 64 computers. Later, it spawned a colony, Populopolis, that reputedly attracted a lot more paying customers on the NIFtyServe network in Japan. 20
As a citizen of Habitat, you could customize your character, known as your Avatar, by selecting from a menu of body parts and choosing a sex. 21 (That was a one-bit choice, since Habitat was marketed as fairly conservative family entertainment.) Players conversed with one another in comic strip speech balloons. A region-one of as many as 20,000 similar ones in the original Habitat at its zenith-was a place that you can walk your character around, and it had doors and passages to other regions. These regions were filled with functional objects such as ATM machines to provide cash, bags and boxes to carry things in, books and newspapers to read, weapons, flashlights, and garbage cans. You could walk, take elevators, or teleport to other regions and explore them; you could exchange conversation, buy and sell goods, and even swap body parts. And, if you got tired of your character, you could reconfigure it, give it some drugs, or take it to the Change-o-matic sex-change machine.
As the creators of Habitat soon found, their task became one of reinventing architecture and urban design for cyberspace. They commented:
For 20,000 Avatars we needed 20,000 "houses" organized into towns and cities with associated traffic arteries and shopping and recreational areas. We needed wilderness areas between the towns so that everyone would not be jammed together into the same place. Most of all, we needed things for 20,000 people to do. They needed interesting places to visit-and since they can't all be in the same place at the same time, they needed a lot of interesting places to visit-and things to do in those places. Each of those houses, towns, roads, shops, forests, theaters, arenas, and other places is a distinct entity that someone needs to design and create. 22
Only limitations in bandwidth and processing power inhibit taking the next step-the realization of whizzier World Wide Webs, superMUDs, and other multiparticipant, urban-scale structures consisting of hyperlinked, three-dimensional, sensorily immersive spaces. And these limitations are temporary. The online environments of the future will increasingly resemble traditional cities in their variety of distinct places, in the extent and complexity of the "street networks" and "transportation systems" linking these places, in their capacity to engage our senses, and in their social and cultural richness.
But no matter how extensive a virtual environment or how it is presented, it has an underlying structure of places where you meet people and find things and links connecting those places. This is the organizing framework from which all else grows. In cyberspace, the hyperplan is the generator.