Imagine a world in which the inhabitants create their own physical environments and characters by writing them into existence. In this world, it is possible to converse, exchange gestures, express emotions, and even have sex. Such are the virtual worlds of MUDs (Multi-User Domains) - popular computer-based multi-player simulations which have evolved from the fantasy role-playing game “Dungeons and Dragons.”
In “Dungeons and Dragons,” players assume the roles based on characters described in the game’s manual. They have the appearance and abilities defined therein, and game play takes place on a game board that is like a map of the imagined territory of the game. In a MUD, all the action is mediated by a computer. Users invent their own characters as well as create their own physical environment through a combination of textual description, dialogue (like computer chat rooms), and simple programming.
MUDs feature evocative themes that are rich in creative and mythic possibilities. Popular motifs include medieval worlds, the universe of“Star Trek,”and a world whose inhabitants are tiny libidinal furry creatures. Unlike the world of mass media, in which users are pure consumers of professionally generated content, in a MUD the users create the collective content of the space and can truly to be said to be scripting their own lives.
Another key feature of MUDs is their anonymity, which permits players to express multiple and unexplored aspects of themselves and to experiment with the construction of new selves. For teenagers and those in their twenties, whose life work is very much involved in the construction of adult identity, MUDs provide compelling environments for a form of developmentally useful serious play. For instance, a shy and socially awkward person may posture himself as more aggressive and self-confident. She may act from that persona to see what it feels like and to experience how others react to a different self-presentation. Sometimes men will assume female roles and vice versa. Further, there is nothing to prevent a single person from simultaneously playing different characters in several MUDs at the same time, one in each window of the screen. Each MUD persona may be an expression of a different, possibly contradictory, aspect of the player’s identity. All these experiments in identity have correspondences to tantric visualization practices.
In the words of social scientist Sherry Turkle, “A MUD can become a context for discovering who one is and wishes to be. In this way, the games are laboratories for the construction of identity.” Turkle, an Massachusetts Institute of Technology-based researcher on computer life and a sympathetic observer of emergent cultural forms, has written a fascinating new book Life on the Screen which contains an extensive study of MUDs and their participants.
Turkle’s work raises profound questions about the nature of identity in a technological world, ones that Buddhists should find highly pertinent. In a very concrete way, MUDs challenge the conceit that we have a single real identity and offer instead the very postmodern notion that identity is always fluid and shifting. In this, there is a strong postmodern echo of Buddha’s doctrine of anatta, the essential absence of an independent self-identity.
How does the discovery of the relativism of self affect MUD life? Some players report that MUDing enables them to become more fully themselves. For them it is a positive experience, although frequently they are disappointed by the difficulty of translating the easy intimacy and rapidly deepening relationships of MUDs off the screen. Other players become enmeshed in virtual worlds to the point, in the words of one player, where “RL [real life] is just one more window.” Sometimes a player will rationalize a hostile or violent act as acceptable because, after all, “it’s not real.” This kind of nihilism represents an extremist misinterpretation of the shifting nature of reality. One MUD community was almost torn apart by a virtual rape that took place in it.
For Turkle, who has had psychoanalytic training, the best hope is that the multiple selves disclosed by MUDs can be integrated in a way that leaves us resilient and flexible, not fragmented. If we learn to accept the multiplicities within ourselves, perhaps it will help us relate more compassionately to other beings as well.
For my part, I think it would be fascinating to see how a Tibetan lama might use a MUD as a tantric sadhana. Imagine being directed to envision oneself as a thousand-eyed, thousand-armed, wise, compassionate being of light illuminating and healing the entire world. Then become that being within the virtual universe of the MUD. You are capable of doing all that can and needs to be accomplished. Now, if anything is possible, the teacher might ask, what would you do?
Mitchell Kapor founded Lotus Development Corporation and designed Lotus 1-2-3. Until 1995 he was the chairman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation; he now lectures at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.