Other texts by Julian Dibbell

MUD Money

A Talk on Virtual Value and, Incidentally, the Value of the Virtual

By Julian Dibbell


(Presented at "Stages of the Virtual," a conference cosponsored by Rutgers University's Center for the Critical Analysis of Contemporary Culture and Princeton University's Program in European Cultural Studies, April 1995)

Uncredentialed as I am in the realms of theory to which most of you have dedicated your careers, I'm as surprised as pleased that the organizers of this conference should have invited me to join in the dialogue taking place here today. But as for the topic they've asked me to talk about, and in which I suppose my credentials are about as bonafide as the infancy of the field will allow them to be, I can't say I'm the least bit surprised at any eagerness to see it addressed in a setting as theoretically informed as this one. The topic is MUDs, and those of you who are already familiar with it may also readily appreciate what an attractive little topic it can be for anyone seeking an approach to the presently overheated discourse of the virtual from the not-exactly low temperature perspective of literary and cultural studies. For the sake of the rest of you, however, I should begin with some explanations.

For starters, the acronym: it stands for Multi-User Dungeon. You may sometimes hear it glossed as standing for Multi-User Dimension, but that's just an attempt on the part of certain high-minded arrivistes to obscure the phenomenon's origins in the disreputable milieu of Dungeons and Dragons-style role-playing games, and I would ask you, in the name of historical accuracy and of my own childhood sword-and-sorcery obsessions, not to participate in that particular obfuscation.

As a generic description, however, multi-user dimension does the job pretty well. Because even though what a MUD is, as a matter of cold technological fact, is just a middlingly complex database accessible via the Internet, the salient features of MUDs as an experience are, on the one hand, the dreamlike and just about halfway convincing sensation that one has entered into a physical dimension distinct from the immediate one, and on the other and not at all unrelated hand, the complexity and emotional depth introduced into that dimension by the presence of other people, and sometimes quite a lot of them.

The way it works is, by the standards of William Gibson novels and other popular depictions of virtual reality, and certainly in comparison with the richness of the experience, almost astonishingly crude. You connect to a remote computer, you log in, and you are presented with a small burst of text, describing a location. You might see a coat closet in a vast and haunted mansion, say, or an open field at the entrance to an underground cavern, or a welcome mat outside a suburban shopping mall. But whatever you see, all you really see is text. It's only words, as Catherine MacKinnon might say -- and it's only through words that you interact with the place described. No pointing or clicking, no waving of data gloves, just those dreary old performative utterances known as computer commands. Type "go north," for instance, at the shopping mall welcome mat, and you'll instantly see at the bottom of your screen a description of automatic doors swishing open and closing behind you, followed by a description of the inside of the mall. That description might tell you that there are other people logged in and hanging out in the mall, and if you type the "look" command you can see the descriptions they've written for themselves and the gender they've chosen. Typing the "say" command lets you talk to those people, while other commands allow you to interact with their representations in a variety of virtually physical ways ranging from the affectionate to the violent to the magical.

You get the picture. But since the picture, narrowly perceived, is of a lone computer geek watching reams of often sorely banal text scroll slowly up a screen while he or she drifts in and out of often equally banal fantasies, then you might not get the fascination. On the other hand, though, I'm not sure that even the most fascinated of MUD users themselves always entirely understand what draws them. It's not that I don't grant the abundant face value of the most popular uses of MUDs, which include playing a variety of roles inspired by both popular and private fantasy, trolling for cybersex and other forms of disembodied cathexis, and just generally hanging out. Nor do I disdain the increasing repurposings of MUDs as professional watering holes for geographically dispersed researchers, experiments in the self-government of virtual societies, and other such "serious" applications.

But at least in part because almost all of these purposes are also served elsewhere on the Net, I'd want to argue that the unique appeal of MUDs lies in something broader and more subtle than any of these more obvious uses. It lies, I think, in the MUD's foregrounding of the tension between the real and the fictional, a tension that of course also can be found lurking just about anywhere cyberculture starts to get interesting, but that in MUDs really suffuses the whole enterprise. Starting with that gap between the richly realistic presence of MUD spaces to the imagination and the glaringly artifactual nature of the material those spaces are made of, the life of a MUD-dweller continues constantly to ask of her that she operate simultaneously on both sides of the divide between reality and fiction. Jokes will be made that play on the interaction of those two terms; friendships and other associations will be formed in which the question of what is really known about the other and what is only projected will refuse to lie down and shut up; arguments will carry on for days over the relative amounts of playful make-believe and emotional authenticity to be found in a MUDdish universe. Granted, these arguments can be and very often are reduced to the opposing injunctions, on the one hand, to "Get a life" (i.e., and stop taking the MUD so seriously) and on the other, to "Get a clue" (which is to say: recognize that real and consequential human interactions are taking place there). But like so much else in the daily experience of a MUDder, such arguments do in the long run tend to train minds toward a relatively sophisticated attitude vis a vis the relationship between the actual and the imaginary within MUDspace -- an attitude that seeks not to reduce the ambiguity of that relationship, but to delight in it, sensing that it's inside the gap between the real and the virtual that the whole point of MUDding lies.

Is it any wonder then that I have found in my travels through the realms of MUDs that they increasingly are haunted by theoryheads of the most impassioned sort? They show up curious at first, intrigued by rumors of a world in which the social construction of reality is not a matter of debate but of basic physics, in which the fictional dimensions of such weighty phenomena as gender, identity, and the body are recognized not as a critical discovery but as an existential truism. Those who find their expectations met then usually arrange some pretext for sticking around, almost invariably the writing of some paper or another on one of the aforementioned weighty phenomena and its daily deconstruction in the MUD, but it's rarely long before they drop all excuses and go stark, raving native, letting the writing of the paper take a back-seat to some frighteningly unjustifiable local project along the lines of building a life-size, working model of Deleuze and Guattari's plane of consistency down there in the basement level of the shopping mall, just outside the entrance to some other lost soul's life-size working model of Borges's Garden of Forking Paths.

This may sound like a cautionary tale, but I don't mean it to. In fact, my main purpose in coming here today is to do my best to lure as many unsuspecting theoryheads into the temporal sinkhole of MUDs as I can, because the truth is that eventually some of those papers do get written, and some of them have been of considerable help to me in my efforts to understand what's really going on in those places. To that end, then, I'd like to spend what remains of my time talking about one weighty social fiction whose MUDly manifestation, unlike those of gender, identity, and the body, remains relatively underexamined by visiting researchers, myself included. The fiction I refer to is money. It's weighty indeed, and I don't intend to offer anything more than the rough beginnings of an investigation into its workings within MUDs. But if my report inspires even one of you to go native and take a proper whack at the subject, then I'll consider my mission here accomplished.

Now then. For brevity's sake I'll skip the preliminary ruminations on money as the world's oldest virtual reality technology, but now that I've revealed myself to be capable of such flights, you can that much more easily imagine my fascination when I first came across the existence of MUD money. This was some time after I first discovered the world of MUDs itself, and not long before I was to undergo a three-month-long immersion into that world, a frighteningly unjustifiable project undertaken ostensibly in preparation for the writing of a book I suppose I may even finish one of these days. I had by that point already come across a MUD or two in which pennies appeared randomly on the ground, so that if you spent enough time walking around looking for them, you might actually accumulate enough of them to pay for a virtual cab ride so you wouldn't have to spend so much time walking around. And this was fun, but it somehow seemed, well, unreal to me, a decorative toy, though I wasn't then sure what more I might have expected from it.

So I date my intellectual discovery of virtual money to a later moment, when I heard a talk touching glancingly on the subject at a symposium on MUDs at MIT. The speaker was a man named Randall Farmer, who had helped design and run an early experiment in commercial MUDding called Habitat. Habitat wasn't in fact a proper MUD, since it used animated graphics to represent players and spaces, in conjunction with text-filled balloons hovering over the players' heads to convey their speech. But it worked enough like a MUD to virtually be one, and all of the features Farmer described could easily have been ported over to the MUDs I was more familiar with. These features included the monetary system that caught my attention -- a system based on virtual coins that Farmer and his collaborators called tokens. A certain amount of these tokens was doled out to players every day they logged in, Farmer explained, and additionally, I quote, "players could acquire...funds by engaging in business, winning contests, finding buried treasure, and so on. They could spend their Tokens on, among other things, various items for sale in vending machines called Vendroids. There were also Pawn Machines, which would buy objects back (at a discount, of course)."

Here, in other words, was a rough stab at a full-fledged economy, and I was intrigued by its workings and possibilities. But I found myself equally intrigued by my own sense that Habitat's tokens were somehow closer to "real" money than the random pennies I'd encountered previously, and by the concomitant reminder that, as many MUDders experience, it felt possible to distinguish among relative degrees of realness within these spaces in which everything seemed nonetheless to be at once true and false. I started to suspect, and I still do, that figuring out the difference between genuine MUD money and what I considered play MUD money might shine a good deal of light into that buzzing gap between the real and the imaginary that's at the heart of VR's appeal.

Certainly Farmer's account of the Habitat experiment offered ample food for thought in that regard. For if the token system looked like an interesting first step towards a robustly organic virtual economy, it's failure to take off in that direction was equally interesting, and seemed mostly related to the ways in which the dictates of maintaining a believable make-believe world overrode the possibilities for evolving something like functional markets. Some of these obstacles were just temporary glitches of course. There was, for example, the Habitat world-builders' attempt to replicate the real-world phenomenon of local price variations by arbitrarily establishing price differences from Vendroid to Vendroid, which accidentally resulted one day in the sale-price of crystal balls at a certain Vendroid falling well below the amount being offered for the same item at a certain Pawn Machine on the other side of town. This was quickly discovered by a small band of players, who one night while the Habitat gods were sleeping spent hours shlepping crystal balls between the Vendroid and the Pawn Machine, buying low and selling high until by morning they had increased the balance in their bank accounts by two or three orders of magnitude.

Needless to say, that bug was fixed in pretty short order, but the programmers were never able to tackle the deeper problem that might have allowed them to let, say, supply and demand rather than their own code determine price variations, and that was that the economy they had created was just an absurdly and inevitably inflationary one. After all, it didn't appear possible to compell the players to get virtual jobs -- they were there to play -- so that it seemed necessary if the tokens were going to circulate at all to continue doling them out, automatically creating 100 new ones out of thin air every time a player logged in for the day. The result in the long run of course was that tokens grew increasingly worthless, while the objects most valued by players turned out to be these prosthetic heads you could acquire in contests and adventures of different sorts and use to replace your own head as the mood struck you. Affluence became a matter not of how much money you had in the bank but of how many heads lined the walls of your home, and nobody bothered translating the value of those heads into tokens, or creating a token-based market in heads, or indeed even trading heads for anything but other heads, as far as I know. In the end then Habitat's tokens were just play money too.

And so I began my three-month expedition into the MUD zone on the lookout for experiments that might take what Habitat had begun to the next level of virtual realism, which it seemed to me at that point would consist of successfully anchoring the monetary system in what seemed most real about the MUDs, namely the human emotions invested in them. Desire, in other words, what MUDders really wanted out of the place, and what they were willing to pay for it, would have to be what regulated the creation of MUD money at every point in the system. This was pretty basic economics, I guess, but in practice it didn't seem all that simple to implement. I came across an interesting attempt fairly early on, a place called Pt. MOOt, run out of the University of Texas under the distant supervision of celebrity-theorist of the virtual body Sandy Stone, if I'm not mistaken, and predicated on the notion, among others, that if you did not go out and acquire enough MUD money to buy some MUD food on a regular basis, your virtual body would end up flat on its back in the MUD hospital. Tying the circulation of money to the player's fundamental desire to keep circulating seemed like a sharp move to me, and I spent a fair amount of time on Pt.MOOt testing the system out -- mainly I occupied myself digging for gold in the virtual hills around the town of Pt.MOOt (yes, digging: there was a command for wielding a pickaxe and I spent hours typing and retyping it in hopes of finding a nugget) or roaming the countryside in search of bees to capture and sell to a bee-eating robot back in town who paid a fair amount for them. But it wasn't long before I realized that I was just selling the nuggets and bees back to the database, and not to any other player who really wanted them, so that what I was participating in was just a more elaborate version of Habitat's old mechanisms for creating MUD bucks out of thin air. It wasn't that interesting things didn't happen in Pt.MOOt's economy. They did -- joint-stock corporations emerged, as did lotteries, but in the end the money was still, at bottom, funny.

So I stopped spending time in Pt.MOOt after a while and retired to my home base of LambdaMOO, a surreal and overgrown country house virtually located in the Northern California hills and actually located in the hard drive of a Sun computer owned by the Xerox Corporation's Palo Alto Research Center. I didn't go there looking for MUD money, because I hadn't heard till then of any serious attempts to implement it there, but sensitized now to the problematics of the phenomenon, I soon realized that the most interestingly realistic experiment in MUD money so far had been going on right under my nose. The only reason I hadn't noticed it before was because nobody called it money there. What they called it was quota, and quota, in principle, was something else altogether. It was the amount of hard drive space each player and all his possessions and creations were allowed to occupy. The more stuff that gathered on the hard drive, the more likely the MUD was to crash, so quota was a limited resource, and naturally so. A small amount of it was apportioned to each new player, but after that, if players felt they needed more, they had to go before a small body of fellow-players known as the Architecture Review Board, who would take a look at their existing creations and depending on whether those were judged to be of value to the MUD at large, award more quota.

This system worked fine for most of LambdaMOO's life, but by the time I got there its bureaucratic nature had fallen out of step with the social spirit of the times. For LambdaMOO had recently become a direct democracy, governed by nothing more than a majoritarian system of petitions and ballots, and among the first ballots to pass was a measure divesting the Architecture Review Board of its monopoly over the granting of quota. The ARB was still the only body capable of creating quota at will, but all players would from now on also have the ability to transfer any portion of their own existing quota to any other player. Players who felt stiffed by the ARB or just didn't feel like humbling themselves before it could now appeal to the private sector for support instead. On its face, the measure was just a simple move toward microdemocracy. Quota still wasn't really money, since the token of exchange and the good represented by that token were still one and the same.

But the bond between the two had been loosened, and how long would it be before signifier and signified went their separate ways, to circulate in a fully monetarized economy? Not long, thought some of the strongest supporters of the quota-transfer ballot, who in the run-up to the vote had even outlined a rough scenario of how it would happen. At first, it would be only builders and programmers who sought private-sector quota, and it would be given to them in a spirit of charity by the rest of the population, who were mainly just interested in hanging out in the builders' rooms and playing with the programmers' objects and really had no need for extra disk space, and thus no need to raise quota for themselves. But sooner or later some player who had built a particularly popular room or programmed a widely played-with toy would hit on the idea of funding further projects by charging for the use of the existing ones, and suddenly the need would be there. You might not want disk space for yourself, but if you wnated to maintain the quality of your MUD life you'd have to go out and rustle some up, which now would mean earning it somehow. You might go do wagework on some master programmer's project, or you might go into business for yourself. Prostitution would be an obvious first enterprise, given the amount of casual sex going on in the MUD already. Games of chance. Banking. And before long, without anyone really planning on it, a life-size, fully working model of a real-world economy would be in full swing. It was just a matter time.

But a year and more has passed now since quota transfer was voted in, and the economic miracle still hasn't happened. Most builders still get the quota they need from the ARB, and none of them has taken to charging for the use of their creations. Next to nothing has changed, and whether this is because more time needs to go by for the promised economy to emerge, or whether the conditions for the possibility of its emergence still need to be tweaked in a few more ways, I couldn't say. But in light of the various anemic economies I've looked at in MUDspace, I am starting to wonder if there isn't something about virtual reality that makes it inherently resistant to money -- whether perhaps the suspension of disbelief required to make money work simply dissolves in the unwillingness of MUDders to either fully suppress or fully indulge their disbelief in the make-believe worlds they inhabit.

That's a fanciful notion, I suppose, and before I feel entirely ready to endorse it I'll want to think about MUDs and money a good deal more. In any case, as I said, I do hope some of you may now want to as well.