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Muds offer virtual adventures

(Written in 1996 and published in the Utah Statesman newspaper.)

You're in the hotel lobby. Because it is late at night, few people are here. A hotel janitor empties trash receptacles nearby. Cuddles is sitting on a sofa here. Cuddles waves to you. You say "Hi, it's been a long time." Cuddles nods at you. You say, "I missed you." Cuddles strokes your leg and smiles. You smile at Cuddles. Cuddles plants a big wet one on you.

A new kind of erotic novel? It could be. However, this is an example of how a virtual conversation might ensue on a MUD, a virtual environment accessible through the Internet.

MUDs have existed on the Internet for several years. To find out where MUDs came from, we need to go back to the Spring of 1979 at Essex University in Great Britain. Roy Trubshaw, a student at Essex decided to write a multi-user adventure game for one of the school's DECsystem10 computer systems. After two revisions to his original code, he began working with another student, Richard Bartle, to add more of an adventure style to the game and named it MUD (Multi-User Dungeon).

Not long after its inception, MUD code was distributed throughout the world. CompuServe still runs a copy of the original MUD game under the name "British Legends."

As soon as people experienced the MUD game, many (especially programmers) invented ways of making it more fun and more interesting. Variants of MUD, such as MUCKs, MUSES, and MOOs emerged and proliferated with varying features and capabilities. However, the term MUD generally encompasses all of these types of systems.

The source code for the MUDs that was distributed was the "server" program. This program runs on a computer connected to the Internet, often running the Unix operating system, and handles connections by outside users. The users of the MUD often connect to the computer with a program called telnet, a standard Internet application. In more recent years, client programs which offer users more flexibility in connecting to a MUD have replaced telnet as the preferred method of connecting to these online games.

The people who run a MUD server start with an empty database which they then add data to in order to create a virtual world the MUD users can interact in. Many MUDs allow experienced users to add data to this database themselves. This allows the users to create their own "rooms" on the MUDs. On many MUDs there are many variables which are modifiable. For example, you may enter a room and see a bed, a dresser, a picture on the wall, a lamp on a table, etc. But the variables are not limited to physical. For example, if you turn out the lamp, you may find yourself in the dark. If you move the picture on the wall, you may find a secret hiding place behind it.

What do people do on a MUD? Well, most MUDs are based on a theme of some kind. Many are based on fantasy or science-fiction books or role-playing fantasy games like Dungeons and Dragons. On MUDs which are based on themes like these, there is quite a bit of strategy involved. Participation on the MUD usually involves playing a role-play game in which you take on a character and interact with other characters and elements within the MUD. Users often have to accumulate certain items while fighting off enemy entities in order to attain some game-oriented goal and try to obtain a high score.

Other MUDs are social in nature. On these types of MUDs, users are not required to participate in any kind of game. They can simply log on and chat with other users.

Actions in the virtual environment of a MUD is all handled through commands that you type in.

Such commands may include "look", "go north", "take knife", and "say hello everyone". When you enter a command, the MUD server will usually issue some kind of response back to you like "You say hello everyone" or "You see a dead body here."

Despite (or because of) the simplicity of a MUD's operation, many first time MUD users become quickly attached. MUDs often run hand in hand with addictive behavior. Many MUD users become so involved in the virtual world they are either interacting with or creating, they begin to lose sleep, miss school, or skip work. MUDs allow a person's imagination to unfold before them and that seems to be a powerful attracting force.

While on the surface the MUD user community may seem like all fun and games, there are research experiments ongoing which explore MUD-type "worlds" as a way to provide virtual schools, virtual meetings, and virtual communities. Other projects include meshing World Wide Web technology with MUD technology giving a MUD an interface that users can access with Web browser applications like the Netscape Navigator. Other experiments include using Virtual Reality Markup Language (VRML), a three-dimensional interactive modeling standard, to provide a realistic visible graphics interface to the virtual world of a MUD.