The First Noble Truth of CyberSpace: People are People Even in the MUD

Diane Schiano, Interval Research

Seminar on People, Computers, and Design
Stanford University January 10, 1997


The use of the Internet to provide a sense of personal connection and community is a large and rapidly growing social phenomenon. In particular, MUDs ("Multi-User Domains") evolved from early text-based adventure games to afford more rich and varied forms of online behavior and social interaction than is possible though conversational mechanisms (like email and chat lines) alone. MUDs and MOOs ("MUDs, Object-Oriented"), though typically still text-based, are shared, persistent and navigable virtual environments in which user-created characters and objects can interact with one another and with the environment in surprisingly rich and compelling ways.

A great deal of media attention--and social science research--has been focussed on MUDs recently, with some provocative claims made about widespread MUD addiction, rampant cybersex, and even the loss of the psychological sense of a "singular self" with the use of multiple online character identities. Such claims tend to be based only on qualitative and anecdotal data, typically from the subjective observations of the author-as-community-participant and from interviews with a small sample of the community population. While such data can provide invaluable information, they can also yield results that are limited in scope and generalizability, making the findings difficult to assess.

In the project that I will present in this talk, we tried to characterize what "life in LambdaMOO" (a classic social MUD) is like for most (or at least many) community members. We used a "convergent methodologies" approach, combining qualitative and quantitative research methods. Data was obtained from participant observations, surveys, interviews, map-drawing tasks and from time-stamped logs of system status information (recording "who was where when" at approximately minute intervals for two-week periods). Results were analyzed for overall trends as well as for experience and gender differences. Robust patterns of findings concerning: 1) user and use characteristics, 2) sociality and community, 3) identity and gender play and 3) spatial cognition and behavior will be discussed. Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the results reveal deep correspondences between behavior "in virtual reality" and "in real life", debunking some apparently exagerrated claims. Moreover, the patterns of findings demonstrate the utility of the convergent methodologies approach in characterising online interactions while also suggesting that psychological models of "real life" behavior may well benefit from the kinds of observations that can only be made online.


Diane Schiano is a Member of Research Staff at Interval Research Corporation. She has a PhD in Experimental Psychology from Princeton, took a post-doc at Stanford and worked at Oberlin College, NASA/Ames Research Center and Sun MicroSystems before coming to Interval. Her primary area of expertise is in visuo-spatial cognition; her current interests focus on constructing a synergy between basic psychological research and computer interface design.


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