The Unbearable Likeness of Being
Are People still People when they MOO?
My first encounter with a virtual world was actually LambdaMOO. In my junior year in college, I was in a small seminar with Doug Davis (who later became my thesis adviser) that looked at the intersection of Freud and the Internet. Although strange at first glance, the hyper-textual nature of Freud's Interpretation of Dreams makes sense once you flip through the book and see the quantity of footnotes and pointers to other parts of the book. In the seminar, after reading Sherry Turkle's Life on the Screen, we had an assignment to try out a textual MUD/MOO ourselves. And so, one night in the late winter of 2000, I logged onto LambdaMOO.
As a gamer who grew up with graphical games, I found LambdaMOO's textuality eerily jarring. Every action had to be explicitly typed out and specified. Even looking at someone was a highly textual and specific action. In the real world and even in graphical games, looking at someone is a largely unconscious act, but in a MUD/MOO, looking at someone was a very deliberate and conscious action. To interact with anything and anyone in a MUD/MOO required an extraordinary level of articulateness and deliberateness. You can't just nod your head unconsciously. You have to "/nod" deliberately or "/em scratches head in utter confusion".
I was getting myself totally lost in the hallways and rooms of LambdaMOO when suddenly a female persona starting chatting me up in an isolated corridor. I told her I was a noob, and idle banter turned into a line of questions about having gone through medical physicals for sports or college entry. And suddenly this idle banter became a very serious question of: "Do you want to role-play one out? I'll be the doctor and you can be the athlete." Since I had nowhere else to go in LambdaMOO, I said yes. She then teleported us to a private room that she was able to lock. After all, you can't just go and do crazy things in the middle of virtual hallways. She then warned me, "If you do anything weird, I'm gonna teleport away".
What followed in the next ten minutes was the most sexually charged non-sexual experience I've ever had in a virtual world. The difference between physical nudity and virtual nudity is that you don't have to type everything out explicitly when you take clothes off in the real world. Typing out words about your clothing and your body requires a deliberate, conscious articulation that isn't necessary in physical reality. In the real world, your arms and legs just do what they're supposed to do. In the virtual world, you have to tell them exactly what to do. And doing so makes you hyper-aware of your physical body via the necessity of articulating your virtual embodiment.
My first experience with virtual worlds was the opposite of Barlow's. What struck me about LambdaMOO was how textual embodiment was able to highlight and make my embodiment salient in a way I'd never experienced in either physical reality or graphical worlds.
Tags: embodiment (1)
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