We all know what happened to MUDs. The text-based online dungeon crawls of yesteryear begat Meridian 59, Ultima Online and finally EverQuest, which begat so much raw cash that it spawned an industry within an industry. But what happened to MOOs? […] MOOs fulfill the other side of the promise of immersive worlds (AKA cyberspace, the Metaverse, or whatever you want to call it). EverQuest puts you in someone else’s world, but in a MOO, the world was yours to help create. Perhaps for that reason, MOOs tended only to attract the upper echelon of intelligent, technical freaks – the sort of people who have weblogs these days.
I had, of course, answered my own question there. The Web is what happened to MOOs, and it’s why they still languish today while MUDs are eating the gaming industry whole (even more than they used to be).
Where MUDs are typically very gamelike, have a central theme that’s well-adhered to, and a small committee of coders, in a typical MOO the game is coding. Or at least, it’s markup… or what we used to have before we had markup. Maybe not all players have coding privileges, or can understand the design of the cryptic, unfriendly early object-oriented language known as MOOcode. But you can create your room, and describe it in your own words – and since words are all the place is made of, there’s no central control of the world’s design. MOOs are open in a way that MUDs are not. And in most MOOs, virtually the whole game is in building things, and showing others the cool things you’ve built and the spaces you’ve made.
What the Web, 2.0 and otherwise, lacks compared to MOOs is a sense of immersion. Even if you have a really big monitor and turn out the lights in your office, you can’t really enter the Web the way you can a MOO. It doesn’t represent a wondrous other world – it represents this one, and its voice is pitched at people who don’t necessarily want to escape. (What does it say about me that my interest in MOOs has increased just when I’m bored with web work and of spending so much time in front of monitors?)
There are Alternate Reality Games, of course… but they still don’t address you as part of the world in a way that lets you enter in the same way. It’s a subtle thing that I’m trying to describe; I’m thinking of Scott McCloud‘s conception of the iconic lead character. Comic books and cartoons (for children, anyway) succeed in part because their lead avatars are relatively featureless, letting readers step into his/her shoes and project onto them any features or qualities that would aid identification. Web pages of any kind tend not to give you shoes to step into. (Somehow, a box on the page containing “You are logged in as misuba – Logout” and an icon with my face on it doesn’t fill the bill.)
It’s tempting to conclude that any world that’s open and connected enough to reward building-play (to the level that the Web does, anyway) is always going to be too open to create a sense of wonder, too flat and well-indexed to be transporting. And yet it was so simple to log into the second GNE prototype and feel like I was somewhere else.
I have all these ideas for making spaces, but I’m done making things people don’t come and appreciate. Is there any way to open up alternate/immersive worlds to really take advantage of network effects? Is that simple sense of elsewhere-ness you can get by opening the right chat window something that only a few people value? I can’t answer either question right now, although I think ARGs may eventually show us. But in the meantime, feel free to discuss.