Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 2, Number 1/ January 1, 1995 / Page 10

Reconceptualizing the Virtual:
Bringing CMC Back into this Reality

by Greg J. Siering (

As Computer-Mediated Communication grows in popularity and application, the metaphors and analogies we use to describe it have taken off in numerous directions. We ponder the relationships between various electronic discourses and writing or speaking, see theorists drawing connections between real-time communication and physical and verbal performance, and look for analogies between the growth of this technology and other advances in our technological past.

While such analogies may help us begin to sort out the nature and possibilities of CMC, many connections can ultimately be misleading and limiting if taken too far. We have made great progress in the development of CMC in the past decade, but we may have reached a crucial point at which we must rethink our use of certain metaphors. More specifically, we need to rethink the concept of "virtuality," particularly in terms of real-time communications via Multi-User Dungeons/Domains (MUDs). The explosion of non-gaming MUD applications will make this reevaluation a prime task for the coming year.

Overcoming a MUDdied Image

With the rapid growth of educational and professional MUDs, academics are beginning to feel pressure to legitimate the use of MUDs, as well as other real-time Internetworked CMC; overcoming the images of social, bawdy, or violent MUDs is often not an easy task when computer resources are already strained. Convincing systems operators of the scholarly or educational use of MUDs, however, is ultimately more complex than pointing to a MUD that hosts classes or meetings rather than battles or hot tub parties. The root task falls more toward reconceptualizing the interaction within MUDs.

Two of the most common ways of describing MUDs that we see on the Net are "networked virtual realities" and "text-based virtual realities." Key to both of these descriptions is the concept of virtuality itself. Although more philosophic and technical arguments can be made about the nature of the virtual, a key to how the concept affects our thinking about MUDs can be seen in the simplistic dichotomy regularly drawn between virtual reality and real life; the phrase "in real life" (IRL) pops up regularly during MUD conversations to make the distinction between the physical and imaginary worlds.

This popular aspect of virtuality, its separateness from reality, is possibly the greatest barrier to the acceptance of MUDs; only the "real life" contexts of the Academy or Business are valued and prioritized, while anything other than the real is seen as secondary, trivial, and often disruptive to the Real Purposes of institutions. We should not underestimate the power such concepts have in shaping the way people approach CMC, particularly when unfamiliar or partially-understood technologies such as MUDs are involved.

The core task now before us as advocates of CMC--and our challenge for the next year--is to reconceptualize and legitimate real-time CMC, particuarly MUDs. This weighty task can lead us in two directions, a split in strategy that is inevitable: we can either work to shift the core concept of educational and professional MUDs from the virtual to the communicative, or we can attempt to change popular opinions of virtuality and the value of playfulness. While these internal and external emphases may seem to hold conflicting goals--the former to reduce virtuality and the latter to legitimatize it-- these efforts may combine to create some valuable middle ground beneficial to real-time CMC. No one of these actions is valuable--or even legitimate--by itself; the following overview is offered primarily as an example of the range of possibilities.

To Reconstruct or to Reconceptualize?

Shifting from a virtual to a communicative framework itself involves two possible routes, one that physically (or virtually, as the case may be) reconstructs MUDs and one that reconceptualizes them. The first solution, which will surely be the most controversial among experienced MUDders, involves changing MUDs in order to change popular views of them. This surface-level change would involve removing virtual-only actions such as teleporting, limiting building and programming in order to control the virtual environment, and managing the interaction that takes place on-line. Some of these actions have already been implemented on some MUDs (Diversity University MOO, for example), and have initiated heated debates as to the benefits and costs of such limitations.

On a more conceptual level, we can begin promoting MUDs as "communicative environments" rather than alternate worlds. Without the above restrictions, our ability to reconceptualize MUDs would be limited, but the effects may still be valuable. As a way of explaining this shift, we can turn to the terms "characters" and "players," names for MUD users still with us from the early days of gaming MUDs. CMC tends to construct a psychological filter of sorts that allows individuals to separate their real selves from the characters they portray on-line, encouraging the view of the online persona as separate from the "real life" individual. While this filter can prove valuable in certain communicative situations, excessive separation of the selves can break down some of the communicative benefits of MUDs. In essence, the question becomes one of how much educational and professional MUDders are bringing characters on-line, and how much they are bringing themselves on-line. Again, this might be an artificial dichotomy, but the conceptualization of MUDs and the larger views of their value can certainly be effected by this interplay between the real and the imaginative on-line.

Rethinking Virtuality, Work, and Play

While both of these actions place the burden of change on the shoulders of those building and using MUDs, the alternative involves changing the way others in the Academy and Business view not only MUDs, but also the way they think about virtuality, work, and play.

As it stands now, play is divorced from work in most settings; you work first, then you play. More enlightened individuals and institutions have recognized the value of playfulness in work, but that enlightenment usually stops at the keyboard. Perhaps the turning from "real life" to "virtual" colleagues plays a role in this limitation; the dynamics of online interaction are still alien to most, and thus the value of online play (and work) have yet to be fully realized or appreciated. On a deeper level, though, the dichotomy between work and play is still strong, and changing those deep-rooted cultural concepts is not an easy process; imagination and make-believe are for children, and the popular concept of virtuality still resides in that world of play.

Shifting the academic and business views of play and the virtual will be the hardest task of all, but probably would be the most valuable in the long run; to work within current concepts and values is to limit ourselves to the world those views were formed in. To move ahead into new possibilities for CMC, we'll have to eventually revise these conceptions in order to take full advantage of the possibilities of real-time CMC in MUDs, not just change MUDs to match current conceptions of work.

The issue of how to legitimate MUDs as valuable educational and professional resources goes beyond any one of the suggestions above. In fact, a world of debate surrounds just about every idea put forth here. But that's okay; our first step should be to encourage discussions of how to best promote CMC through MUDs--how to revise our metaphors, analogies, and concepts in order to encourage a positive and productive view of our on-line work. That revision, I suspect, will shift emphases from virtuality to communication, and allow us to see MUDs as unique media rather than entirely new worlds. And as we start acknowledging this new media we will spend even more time researching the communication that goes on there. Much depends upon how we portray the environments we use for CMC, and while we probably do not want to buy into that albatross "Information Superhighway" image, we must bring real-time CMC back into this reality if we want to see MUDs take their place as legitimate on-line resources. ¤

Greg Siering is a Doctoral student in Composition/Rhetoric at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. Along with Tari Fanderclai, he coordinates the Netoric project, a series of real-time conferences about computers and writing based at MIT's MediaMOO. His current interests center around online professional interaction/development, and the interplay of administrative and pedagogical concerns in networked computer-assisted instruction.

Copyright © 1995 by Greg L. Siering. All Rights Reserved.

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