"The Lost History of the Internet" on wall plaque on stone wall in 8-bit style

Jason Reed/The Daily Dot

How Multi-User Dungeons built the internet

MUDs connected people, created worlds, and established communities.

 

Xing Li

Internet Culture

Published Nov 12, 2021   Updated Nov 12, 2021, 10:20 am CST

The story of Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs) is the story of the birth of the internet. MUDs were there when the first transatlantic computer signals were being sent. MUD players designed much of internet architecture, from Telnet to C. On rickety code and limited bandwidth, they linked people from the far reaches of the earth. 

But as the internet has evolved, new tools and new people have taken over its evolution into middle age. Video games have long ditched text and ASCII graphics for complex 3D shades, even virtual reality. An experienced player named Kadin told me, “MUDs are basically dead now.”

That sentiment is hardly unique. But it’s not quite right, and not just because some MUDs still host hundreds of players on a daily basis. MUDs represent much of what the modern web is supposed to be: humans connecting in immersive environments. Social media sites, multiplayer games, RPGs, and more were founded on the principles, and in some cases, the technology, of MUDs. The web wasn’t built by billion-dollar corporations and AAA game studios; it was pioneered by independent creators, piecing things together one line of code at a time.

There’s another important way MUDs live on: in the people that they changed and the communities that they brought together. Just like MUDs guided the internet through its adolescence, it did so for players who grew up cherishing the friends and experiences they made through these innovative, expressive games. 

Connections 

Ever since computers were invented, humans have wanted to make and play games. In the decade after electronic computers were built, programs like Bertie the Brain and Oxo were created in university labs. In the 1970s, the first adventure game—aptly titled Adventure—was written by Will Crowther, a programmer working on ARPANET, the predecessor to the internet. He was digitizing his experiences exploring real-life caves in Kentucky for his daughters.

Some of Crowther’s design choices proved enduring. He wrote it for a non-programming audience: “[It was] for the kids. My idea was that it would be a computer game that would not be intimidating to non-computer people.” Players explored the text-based environment using plain English commands like ‘go north’ and ‘get treasure.’

Games like Adventure and a later derivative, Zork!, grew in popularity, but as single-player affairs. Roy Trubshaw, a programming student at the University of Essex, played both and admired their structure, but he wanted more flexibility and connectivity. In his words, “I liked the idea of multiplayer—doing stuff to or with other folks in the same game as you was an unutterably cool idea.”

Trubshaw began building his game in 1978 working on a DEC PDP-10 computer. A fellow student, Richard Bartle, filled it with content. They established roleplaying, puzzle-solving, and character progression elements that became staples of the genre. Trubshaw called his creation the “Multi-User Dungeon,” or “MUD” for short, hooked it up to the university network, and the first MUD was born.

A lot of the early work was tedious coding. Trubshaw and Bartle’s battles with technology constraints produced two things: a resource-light system and coding in the BCPL language, a grandfather of C, which most subsequent MUDs were built on. They rarely spoke of the scope or importance of the challenges they overcame. “I might ask Roy why he was doing something a particular way, but I never asked why he was doing it,” Bartle wrote. “I never needed to. We simply knew what we wanted, and there was little point in talking about it. We had the same motives, we were both capable: we just did it.”

Worldbuilding

The first MUD also pioneered the concept of virtual worlds. “1978 was a wondrous, exciting time to be making a world,” Bartle wrote. “Everything was being done for the first time. It was bliss.” At first, MUD wasn’t even really a game—Trubshaw disliked combat and hoped that if he provided a world, players would fill it on their own. 

That wasn’t happening. Bartle later wrote that “players didn’t believe they had permission to roleplay. It was not part of the culture of the game, because it wasn’t part of real-life society. They needed to be shown that MUD offered them a cultural shield, so that they could pretend to be someone else without fear of mockery.” Bartle helped make that shield by creating and playing a female character named Polly. “This freed [other players] up to explore different facets of themselves.”

Still, building diverse worlds wasn’t easy. Bartle himself laments that “I thought more designers would have more to say than it turned out they did.” According to Michael “Aristotle” Hartman, a veteran game developer, that was because early MUDs were predominately created by programmers with coding chops but not writing or game design skills. When Hartman began building his own MUD, Threshold, in 1993, he wanted it to be different.

“We had really good game mechanics,” he told the Daily Dot. “We had interesting stories and the writing was good. Those are things people really get hyped about. The number one thing was that we were one of the only roleplay-required games. You have to build a story around your character. That was a huge selling point. We had tons of systems that rewarded creativity and customization.”

Creative players were often enlisted to help build worlds, a kind of democratization of MUDs. Obscura, a player who became a builder, then an administrator, said, “I generally didn’t care about leveling or equipment. I built the things I was looking for—hidden portals, puzzles, interesting hidden descriptions, a lot of the time with ASCII art. People were always asking me to make weddings for them. I like character-driven role play, and designing things, so that was a good fit.”

Creativity and roleplaying were taken to another level with the creation of a host of descendant genres like TinyMUD, MUCK, MUSH (multi-user shared hallucination). These different forms of games offered unique codebases and styles. Some even eschew traditional gameplay mechanics to focus on imagination and roleplay. “I enjoyed telling stories and creating characters,” Wes Platt, who founded OtherSpace, a science fiction MUSH, in 1998, told the Daily Dot. “I started with hack and slash games, but then discovered the ecosystem included story-driven games.”

Sharing

Bartle and Trubshaw were not alone in working on shared worlds—Bartle later called the tech they built, “inevitable.” At the same time that they were developing the MUD in the U.K., programmers in the U.S. were building Bulletin Board Systems (BBS), an interface through which people could dial via direct phone lines to read bulletin boards—hence the name—and chat. But long-distance dialing and its associated charges put a cap on how big BBS could be and then the internet made direct links obsolete. The scalability of the web and the ability to share worlds with thousands of players won the day.

Around when the MUD was first turned on, the University of Essex was hooked up to ARPANET in the United States. University officials allowed international users to connect in the early hours of the morning when network bandwidth wasn’t in high demand. Word of the MUD began to spread worldwide. 

Bartle would eventually leave the University of Essex behind to work on a commercial MUD in conjunction with CompuServe, one of the first internet providers. Before doing so, he did something that embodied the hacker culture of the time: He gave the original MUD away. 

“I gave the code to anyone who wanted to run or study it,” he told the Daily Dot. “It was a conscious decision. We encouraged other people to write their own virtual worlds, because we didn’t like how the real world was set up and the more alternatives there were out there, the better it would be for everyone.”

Giving away the code and putting the concept of virtual worlds in the public domain led to the vast majority of MUDs being created by independent programmers instead of corporate entities. It also happened at a perfect moment in history, when millions across the world found themselves online for the first time.

Every player I spoke to for this story started playing MUDs as a student. A player named Asmodeus talked about how he started playing in a high school programming class where the “clack, clack, clack” of typing obfuscated the fact that he and his friends were playing games.

Part of the success of MUDs during the early days of the internet was because they were built to handle technical limitations. The code that started with Trubshaw was lighter than chat rooms. For many young people discovering the internet, MUDs were the only way they could play games online.

“I was a freshman in college,” Obscura said. “My dorm had these horrible computers in the lobby that basically just let you check email, and the only fun thing you could do was to connect to MUD. I liked it better than chat rooms because men weren’t sending me gross messages all the time. It felt like a safer place.”

MUDs are not perfect, and they never were. But in the right communities, they could be havens for women and other people underrepresented in gaming. Threshold’s 50-50 male-female player base is a point of pride for Hartman, and informs in-game mechanics like politics and religion. “Our religions, half of them are women and they’re very strong women. I’ve always had super strict policies against any kind of harassment or stalking or dicey stuff. There are huge benefits [to having women represented]. When your community is 50-50 male-female, it’s less toxic because it’s more like a normal society. And that created a feedback loop which made the community more appealing to women.”

For a player named Kezzy, the right community was an adult MUSH where all the characters—though not necessarily the players—identify as female. It’s a safe place that has made playing deeply personal for them: “The theme really appeals to me since I am non-binary and Aspie [Asperger’s], so this makes it easier in general for me to interact with people,” Kezzy said. “Where I grew up there wasn’t really a LGBTQ+ community or understanding. Role-playing made it easier for me to figure out what part of my personality fit where. But with the MUSH’s very little structure and complete freedom to play as you like, that opened up a new world for me.”

Community

On its face, Bartle may be right in that MUD diversity isn’t as great as it could be. Even with the freedom to be anything, many MUDs revolve around a fantasy element, be it Tolkein, Norse mythology, or Dungeons and Dragons, and feature a turn-based combat system.

But as Kezzy noted, there is more to the world of MUDs and their derivatives than the base thematic. MUDs were different from each other because they brought together unique groups of people. Player after player emphasized the importance of community as the primary reason they kept playing. “MUDs offer a connection to the game and the community that still can’t be mimicked in other similar types of games like MMORPGs,” said Kadin. “You can drop into the game quickly, alone or with a group in ways that make modern games seem clunky.”

To Hartman, MUDs are uniquely equipped to develop communities because they’re text-based. Because everything is typed, from exploring to puzzle solving to combat, chatting is a natural extension of the game. “I think [for] all online games, community is the strongest thing that ties people to the game but for MUDs, it’s especially strong because of the text interface,” he said. “The fact that you’re at a command line makes it so much easier to chat.”

Today’s graphical games hinder that because of the different ways players interact with each other. Hartman continues: “If you’re playing World of Warcraft, your left hand is on W-A-S-D and your right hand is on the mouse. If you want to chat, you have to take your hand off the mouse, move it over, hit enter or usually backslash to go into chat mode. You sometimes see someone chatting and all of a sudden you’ll see ‘wwww’ because they were chatting and got attacked and now they’re running but they stayed in chat mode.”

“I think that’s a huge reason why MUDs have always stayed much more social than graphical games,” he concluded. Today’s games have implemented voice chat and other networking features, but many gamers use outside tools like Discord to stay in touch. It’s likely because of what Hartman said—the games are inherently less social.

Another unique aspect of MUDs is how many there were. The Mud Connector, one of the definitive sources for a MUD list, used to have thousands of entries. Almost every player I spoke to tried multiple MUDs until they found the community that most resonated with them. The diverse, indie nature of the games made that possible. “It’s the other players,” Kezzy said about what keeps her playing. “They are fun to play with and they are friends I can talk openly with about what I am thinking and feeling.”

The friendships people made in MUDs often transcended the virtual world and many players recalled their out-of-character (OOC) relationships fondly. Asmodeus was robbed as a freshman and was sent a couple of pizzas by Obscura even though they’d never met. Others traveled to different countries to meet MUD friends, often for the first time. 

These online relationships were different from those made via chat rooms because of players’ control over how they were made. Players’ imaginations decided what the scope of in-character (IC) associations would be, and how they turned into OOC friendships. MUDs gave these teenagers and early twenty-somethings agency over who their friends were and what they’d become as adults.

“I grew up in rural Kentucky; my frame of reference for the world was so small,” Obscura said. “Not because I was small-minded, but there just wasn’t anything for me. No diversity, nothing really to do. I made some weird friends on MUD that broadened my horizons.”

Growing up

MUDs reached their heyday in the late 1990s and early 2000s as the internet took over as the dominant form of communication. The internet itself would not exist without games: Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thompson invented C and Unix partly because they loved SpaceWar! and didn’t want to pay to play it on a mainframe. MUD players were directly responsible for much of the internet’s foundation, establishing and writing protocols like Telnet, TCP/IP, UDP.  

Some players turned MUDding into careers, from writing code to writing stories. “I met my wife on my own MUD,” Hartman said. “It’s taken me to my career. [Without] that, I would have felt like something was missing—I took for granted how important creativity was to my life. The most important things about my life I owe to MUDs.”

Eventually, the internet grew out of the MUD era. As speeds surged, newer technologies were invented to take advantage of the faster web. Graphics took over with games like EverQuest; video cards killed the MUDs. Some games are still played—MUDstats, a website that records MUD activity, keeps track of them—but many fell by the wayside. 

What led players away from MUDs wasn’t always technological. Drama, especially the OOC type, was a constant battle. Many players were assholes, acting out control fantasies in-game, or simply just too immature. Nearly every MUD has a story of when people left after OOC fights. It wasn’t always rainbows and butterflies, no matter how good your imagination was.

Others left simply because they grew up. They had families, moved away, went to school, or changed jobs. Just as the internet moved into a new phase, so did the players’ lives.

“I got antsy to leave Kentucky,” said Obscura. “I stayed with a big group of players in Ohio. It took away my safety net in a way that launched me into learning who I am and what I want without people from my past cementing me in place. I just wanted to be creative and make people feel welcome and encouraged. I’m like that in real life too. I spent the last six years running a teen volunteer program at an animal shelter, and being a weird, trustworthy adult.”

Many players maintain OOC friendships via text, Discord, or other means. Some play other games with each other. Most still feel the impact of MUDs on their lives even if they no longer play. MUDs are like The Giving Tree from Shel Silverstein’s classic book: they asked very little but gave and gave and gave.

Last year, Hartman had surgery to fix a burst disc in his back, a yearlong ordeal. His MUD community rallied around him during his recovery. Some shared with him similar experiences with surgeries. When he started watching Star Trek while rehabbing, other players did so too just so they could talk with him about it. 

“Having this community that was tightly knit, that really cared about what I was doing, my recovery, meant a tremendous amount,” he said. “There’s still something special about MUD communities, they’re still a cut above. The user interface is more social and it’s more niche—people feel more fortunate that they even exist anymore.”

Share this article
*First Published: Nov 12, 2021, 6:30 am CST