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8:53am on Wednesday, 7th November, 2012:
Because I teach a final-year module on virtual worlds, one of the things I need to ensure is that my students have actually played one.
I teach the programming language Lua for the first few lectures of this term, for which I have a computer lab available. I managed to get timetabled an extra lab slot for the week following the end of the Lua labs, so this is the one I have to use to show the students what a virtual world "is". Which virtual world, though?
Regular MMOs aren't good for this. The main problem is that the client needs to be updated regularly, which is not convenient on laboratory PCs that are re-imaged every night in order to stamp out the viruses with which students happily infect them. That means I have to use a browser-based MMO, of which there are legion. OK, well I can do that.
The trouble is, the students have only had one actual lecture on virtual worlds. I haven't yet explained what they should be looking for in them. They would be playing as players, not as designers-in-the-making. All I have taught them is what virtual worlds are, how they came about, and why that's still important for the MMOs of today (in a lecture I loathe giving because I myself played a big part in their genesis and it comes across as self-aggrandisement).
Over the summer, a possible solution occurred to me: have them play MUD, or at least MUD2. Experience with a textual precursor to today's MMOs would give the students a sense of what's the same between them (that is, what makes something a virtual world isn't to do with its interface, graphical or otherwise, but is a deeper concept). You can play MUD2 using vanilla telnet. I can arrange for a batch of ready-made account IDs and passwords to be available — no to-ing and fro-ing exchange of emails to register. Also, given that hardly any of them will have tried a textual world before, they may get some idea of what it would have been like back in the day when people came across MUD with no previous experience of anything like it. If I could get perhaps 10 or 20 of them playing at once, that could be critical mass enough for them to recapture some of the sense of wonder people had in the early years.
So, yesterday I ran the lab. I gave them a handout explaining how to log in and what the basic commands are, then let them loose.
It was, very pleasingly, a big success. Because they were all being obliged by the dictates of academic authority to do something they never would have before, that gave them permission to try to make the best of it and have fun. Most of them did. They followed the early development paths that I first saw 30 years ago: start off by testing the social boundaries by killing one another and shouting profanities (ah, it's been a long time since I FODded anyone). Then they moved on to exploring the environment and the commands. Some got as far as starting to achieve, amassing points and going up levels (one reached level three, which, given that MUD2 only has a dozen levels and they start at level zero, is pretty good). They learned of concepts such as permadeath and resets that are now off the radar, which at least puts them in the position of being able to understand why these are off the radar. Overall, most of them seemed to have a blast.
Some things I wasn't expecting:
By the end, I was getting flashbacks to those weekends in the early 1980s when there would be a room full of people playing MUD; the banter was the same, the atmosphere was the same, the fun was the same. Once people get over their reservations, MUD is the same place it always was. You do need to have a critical mass of players to attain that, though.
I definitely intend to repeat the exercise next year.
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