From MUD to MOO to a whole Second Life

This week’s CBC Web column…


The search for new worlds to visit isn’t confined to the crew of Star Trek’s U.S.S. Enterprise, nor does it necessarily involve outer space. These days, you can find all the strange worlds you could ever want to visit right on your computer–worlds populated with other visitors from the “real world” just like you.

For instance, I recently spent an hour exploring a beautiful island with exotic architecture, strange musical instruments and lovely gardens. As I walked (or, occasionally flew, in that dream-like way of flying where you just lift off the ground whenever you want to) around the island, I crossed paths with many other tourists. But none of us had actually gone anywhere: I was sitting in Regina, and for all I know, that green-furred cat-creature I sat down next to was a car salesman from Toledo.

That was in Second Life, certainly the online world that is getting the most attention right now, but these kinds of shared online worlds have a very long history in the computer world.

It all started with MUD, which in this case isn’t watery dirt but an acronym for Multi-User Dungeon (or Multi-User Domain or Multi-User Dimension). The first versions of these appeared on mainframe computers on college campuses in the late 1970s. This, not coincidentally, coincided with a huge surge in popularity for the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game (which was pretty much what I majored in in university, even though I also managed a journalism degree on the side).

In these games the computer essentially took the role of the dungeon master, the guy in charge of a D&D game. Multiple users could log onto computer workstations and all work together to fight monsters and find treasure. It was all based on text: you’d see something on the screen like, “You’ve entered a 10 X 10 room. There is an orc waiting for you,” and then you would issue commands. “Hit orc,” maybe, or “Run.”

MUDs still exist; in fact, one early MUD, called Avatar, is apparently still accessible and playable at, which is an emulation of one of those old mainframe computers.

In the 1980s, relatively cheap home computers like the Commodore 64 and Apple II came along. So did modems, which allowed you to communicate with other computers over the phone. MUDs prospered, but now you could fight monsters in dungeons with people from all over North America, or even the world, on computer networks like CompuServe and Genie.

MUDs were very much games, for the most part (although in some chatting with other users was more important than achieving very many game goals). MOOs (for MUD Object-Oriented) are a little different: they’re also text-based, but they’re not so game-focused. MOOs have been used for online conferences, for example. They’re also a bit different in that users can actually create new spaces and objects within them, thus expanding them for everyone.

Flash forward to the more recent past, and suddenly these kind of online worlds, inhabited at any given time by multitudes of people from all over the world, are everywhere. You can hardly buy a computer game today that doesn’t include some option for playing online. The first time I really got involved with this kind of gaming, for example, was in Fighter Ace, in which you flew World War II fighters against other people, as opposed to against the computer. Other people are usually much more interesting and dangerous opponents than the computer, and often the skies in the game world would be full of dozens of planes at once.

The biggest, baddest gaming-oriented online world out there right now is World of Warcraft ( It’s not called a MUD, or a MOO; it’s a MMORPG–a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game. You have to pay to play WoW, but lots and lots of people do: it’s currently at something around 8 million subscribers. Players battle monsters and other players and try to increase their own in-game character’s status, power and wealth.

Astonishingly, considering my D&D-playing background and love of fantasy and science fiction, I’ve never played it. I’m rather afraid of its well-known capability to devour all free time.

There are many other MMORPGs out there–in fact, combined global membership in both subscription and non-subscription games worldwide was well over 15 million in 2006, with worldwide revenues of over $1 billion U.S.

Though I personally find it hard to understand, there are people whose eyes glaze over at the mere mention of Dungeons & Dragons or hacking monsters to pieces with swords–no, really, there are! But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a virtual world for you. In fact, there’s a whole second life waiting for you…at Second Life (

Second Life was developed by a company called Linden Labs. Anyone can sign up, for free: you just visit the home page and download a program. This enables you to interact with other “residents,” and to see everything the Second Life world has to offer. As of May 1, 2007, Second Life has more than six million registered accounts, although when I logged on this morning just to check, there were only 34,000 people actually active in the world–a pretty typical number, in my experience.

There’s a lot to see in Second Life, and most of it is created by users: Second Life makes it easy for anyone to build…well, anything they can think of. Buildings, clothing, gardens, night clubs, art galleries…anything. Many large companies and organizations have set up their own in-world pavilions. Musicians can stream music from their computer to a specific site in the world, so that anyone who visits can hear a “concert.” If the musician sticks around, he or she can chat with visitors and even take requests. There have been literary readings, political press conferences…just about anything you can do in real life, you can do in Second Life, albeit with much clunkier graphics and a total lack of the senses of taste, smell and touch. You can also do lots of things you can’t do, such as fly and teleport. Second Life even has its own currency, the Linden Dollar, which is convertible to true currency at rate of about $270 Linden Dollars to $1 U.S.

Second Life is an adult world, but there are online worlds aimed at the younger set, too. One of the first, and one of the most popular, is Disney’s Toontown Online ( play a Toon, an animated character (dog, cat, monkey, rabbit, etc.) you can customize yourself, and you run around areas themed around Disney characters. You have your own house that you can customize, using jellybeans you earn by playing games in the playground that centers each area. You can spend all your time fishing, if you want–another good way to earn jellybeans. However, the focus of the game is on the never-ending battle against Cogs, ugly gray robots that keep taking over colorful Toontown buildings and turning them into soulless corporate gray Cog buildings. The game is aimed at kids 7 and up. For the most part, characters only communicate through a series of stock phrases, so privacy and anonymity can be assured. I signed on early for my daughter’s sake, but I think I enjoy playing it almost as much as she does.

And now there’s another major kid-focused virtual world coming along: Barbie is about to get her own online world.

Currently in the beta (test) phase, will allow kids to create their own characters, maintain and furnish their own private “bedrooms,” and earn “B Bucks” through playing video games to go shopping. As in Toontown, kids will not be able to chat unrestrictedly with strangers they meet in the game, so they won’t be able to exchange real names, phone numbers, real-world locations or anything like that. The site will be constantly monitored by adult administrators.

In July, Mattel will be launching the Barbie Girl Device, a portable MP3 player which, among other things, will act as a key to unlock new content on the site. Girls (it’s presumed girls will make up the majority of the Barbie Girls users, which I think is probably a pretty safe assumption) will be able to use their Barbie Girl Device on a friend’s computer to unlock less secure chat and email abilities so they can communicate with people they know in the real world online.

The huge growth of these kinds of online, multi-user worlds is just one more sign of how deeply the Internet is becoming ingrained in our everyday lives.

Even if you can’t get a real life, it seems, you can always get a Second Life.

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