Sunday, October 31, 2004


I have to say right here at the first, I spent probably 3-4 hours playing Zork. It was a great stroll down memory lane. My brothers and I beat Zork, back in the day, before walkthroughs. We beat it by struggling with it for months and months, checking with our friends, and begging for help from dad… We used to program our own 'games' in some really old programming language.

10 print "You are standing on a hill."
20 If "s" then goto 30.
30 Print "You are now standing on a cow pie."

Playing Zork was an enjoyable way to spend a few lunch periods this week Now, on to the topic of the week…

Communication is an interesting topic, and you can’t discuss technology, in particular the internet, without eventually ending up discussing communication. Before the invention of the alphabet, if one person wanted to convey ideas to another, both parties needed to share the same space and the same time. Only then could ideas be communicated between two people.

With the invention of writing, suddenly people could share ideas without sharing the same space and time. Words could be recorded and sent to far distant places, read by people at a different place and a different time. But written conversation is different than face to face conversation. When was the last time you got a letter like this?

Jennifer, how are you doing?

If I’m speaking to Jennifer face to face, that is what I would say. Then I would wait for Jennifer to tell me how is she is doing. Then based on what her reply is, I would form another piece of communication, and this exchange would go back and forth until Jennifer claims she left the stove on, and excuses herself (wow, flashback to the days when I was single.)

Writing forces you to engage in a type of monologue. Over time you eventually interact with another person, but as you write letters you are engaged in asking questions, telling stories, describing events, data, or ideas, without any feedback from the intended receiver. There is no feedback until after you have completed the writing, the recipient has received it, and replied to it. Our writing is usually meant for a different place, and a different time.

Now consider the following: IRC, instant messaging, MUDs, and similar program, we are now communicating by writing, sharing the same time, but a different space. This is a fairly recent phenomenon. Written conversation no longer needs to be a written monologue with a significant amount of time between exchanges, rather immediate written feedback can be expected.

This is a subtle, but important change that leads to all sorts of interesting side affects.

When conversing face-to-face, not only do we get immediate oral feedback, but nonverbal feedback as well. If a communicative partner rolls their eyes, that is a signal that they may not agree with something just spoken. Even the tone we take becomes a non-verbal signal to our intended message. Consider the following sentence.

I didn’t sleep with your sister.

Now read the sentence 6 times, placing an emphasis on each of the words in order. The exact same 6 words, in the exact same order give 6 completely different meanings. For example, “I didn’t sleep with you sister” implies that somebody else did. Or, “I didn’t sleep with your sister” implies possible amorous relations with some other member of the family.

There have been many methods developed to overcome this loss of non-verbal communication such as emoticons and abbreviations. It is interesting to note that we have social norms that exist because of our method of communication, and we attempt to replicate those norms when the medium changes. If I want to communicate something that may be a bit harsh, I can soften the message by making a joke of it, winking, or saying it tenderly with a soft hand on the shoulder. Online there is nothing but words. No tonal variance, no comforting squeeze of the hand, and on the positive side, no slap on the face when offence is taken. There is nothing but words.

MOOs allow for yet another interesting aspect. Suddenly a person is no longer just chatting; they are now interacting within an environment. Instead of typing, “You drive me crazy, I am very angry.” One can say, “You drive me crazy”, and then proceed to throw a chair through the wall. A person now has objects and an environment with which to interact.

I should mention that ‘back in the day’, I spent much more than 4 hours in a MUD environment. I guided a fledgling character upwards of level 9 (or something) by killing bugs, rabbits, and wildebeests in some MUD probably long gone. While spending time this week in a MOO, I was surprised how little activity was going on. Players were hanging out in the living room talking about, what else, politics. I was anxious to join in the conversation, but being a newbie, I did not attempt to jump right in to the foray. I did politely ask where a new visitor might want to visit and was told to go “north, south, east, west, up and down.” This spot, I was told, was apparently a great place to visit. I’m not the quickest guy in the cubicle, but I was able to figure out where this would lead me before I actually embarked on the journey. When I mentioned this I was told to feel free to sit on the couch, which I did. None of the active participants was overly anxious to spend time on a person who may never visit the site again, which is a very interesting topic for another day.

I explored a few other places in the LambdaMOO environment, and interacted with some of the objects, but did not have as much time as I wanted. Because of a firewall issue at Weber State, and having no internet connection at home, the only opportunity to log on was while on vacation at my brother’s house in Las Vegas. And after exploring for a bit my wife said something to the affect of “drove 400 miles to play on the computer”. I didn’t catch it all, but the non-verbals and tone was enough to get me off the computer, post haste. :)


UnPhiltered said...


You have far more MUD & MOO experience than anyone I know. Either you are the MUD/MOO King or I just don't know that many people.

While I enjoyed Zork and interacting with objects in LambdaMoo, I'm not certain I could find an instructional value to this environment outside of limited collaboration. What's your take on the educational value of MUD & MOO environments?

Matthew Buckley said...

You know I tried to impress girls back in college by declaring I was the MUD king. For some reason it never worked quite like I thought...

Again you raise a good question that has got me thinking; thinking, questioning my reasoning, wondering if I got it wrong, wondering if I got it right, playing devil's advocate, day dreaming, getting back on topic, thinking for some more...

Wait, maybe that is the answer? Isn't the fact that I'm conversing with others, getting their point of view, re-thinking what we have stated part of learning? Social learning maybe?

I know ever since I've frequented a particular bulletin board, I really feel like I have 'learned' a lot; a lot about current events, new music, culture, art, even history. Just by discussing, reading, and sharing with people from around the globe. Sure I know that there are 'single parent families' out there, but I don't REALLY know what it is like to live in one. Now I have a better idea. I know more about living in a country with tighter laws, looser laws, using drugs, etc. etc. etc. I know more because I’m interacting with others.

How do the MOO objects play into that? How is a MOO different than chat? I'm not sure. Maybe it's just one more level on which to interact. Maybe not.

I'll have to think about it.

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