Charles J. Stivale
Department of Romance Languages and Literatures
Wayne State University
Detroit MI 48202

[Please do not cite without permission]

"Between Work and Play: Protocols of Friendship and Community
in Text-Based VR"

[Updated August 9, 2000]

In preparing for this talk, I have decided only to refer very briefly to the introductory material that has been available on the conference's Web site in my abstract. I can indicate as introduction that all of the operative concepts in my title - work and play, friendship and community, and text-based VR - could be the subjects of individual papers, and when any of these terms are juxtaposed with the others, the potential complications are enormous. Let me select one example, the term "community," what Lynn Cherny refers to in her recent book as "the 'C word'" (1999, 247). This concept has taken on myriad connotations in the cyberspace realm, indeed has almost become its own growth industry, evoking at once customer groups for marketing on e-commerce sites, group support exchanges on an array of chat sites and newsgroups, local cyber-government experiments in various real-time sites, and the potential for dynamic educational exchange and learning within pedagogically oriented groups. This list is incomplete, admittedly, but it speaks to the complexity of the "community" term, a complication extended considerably when we add the issues of "equity in access" to Internet resources across the globe, and issues of "race" and bias in cyberspace.

Clearly, I can barely begin to discuss these matters, so I limit my discussion to some protocols and problems that arise for friendship and community along the nexus of "work and play" in the online, real-time sites known as MOOs. In the abstract for this talk on the Web [ under Program], I refer to Richard Lanham's paradigm in The Electronic Word, what he calls a "new rhetoric of the arts" based on a "bi-stable decorum . . . rather than on a stable, unselfconscious transparency" in the burgeoning electronic technologies (1993, 14). I provide Lanham's polar matrix to envisage this decorum, through which he explores the ways in which the oscillation between looking-AT and looking-THROUGH the expressive surface has functioned in contemporary art.

Rather than embrace this bi-polar model, I take it as a starting point to discuss "virtual worlds" within MOO-sites and also to complicate this bi-polar model. For participants in MOOs engage the text by means of this constantly shifting and also enfolded perspective, at once immersed within a constructed environment and so engaging in pixeled dialogue and activities via text (what Lanham calls a "prosaic use of language," 1993, 76), and yet also interacting with, and thus (self-)conscious about, the tools at their disposal (moving toward what Lanham calls "poetic use of language"). We might situate this engagement in bi-polar terms, that is in relation to Lanham's "motive axis," fluctuating between the "serious" purpose of hierarchy (and work) and the "playful" game orientation. And yet, just as with the fluctuating oscillation between looking-AT/looking-THROUGH, there is a mix, an overlap, as well between "work" and "play" that needs to be accounted for more fully. Hence, I depart from Lanham, first, by linking the hierarchy/work motive to the opaque, looking-AT mode of interaction, whereas I associate the immersive enjoyment of play motivation with more transparent, looking-THROUGH relations, especially as this oscillation occurs through online activity. But I also depart fro Lanham more completely by problematizing the very notion of a bi-polar model when attempting to distinguish between work and play.

Here I would like to introduce a brief, no doubt incomplete, so therefore heuristic typology of these oscillating relations in MOO-sites. At one end of the spectrum, relating predominantly to "work" relations within this expressive domain, one finds real-time sites -- such as LinguaMOO, MediaMOO, DiversityUniversity, to name but three -- conceived in communitarian terms as virtual spaces that find their raison d'être in pedagogical and/or professional, work-related potentials for interaction, with various manifestations of the performative and of play as important, yet secondary considerations. To those of you unfamiliar with these sites, I must ask you to forgive this very quick and allusive reference, since time limitations here require that I take for granted a familiarity both with the structures and modus operandi of these programs. Suffice it to say that in a site such as LinguaMOO - a site in which many of us have clustered thanks to the enlightened programming and spirit of the arch-wizards there --, the possibilities for online, real-time collaboration are maximized. I argue that in such sites, the potential for cyber-community is maximized, enabling intercultural and global exchanges and learning. And, this emphasis on the pedagogical, work-related end of the immersive spectrum does not preclude the performative and playful aspects, and the different protocols of play and performance that grace the social sites (about which I speak next) are available in the pedagogical and professional MOOs as well.

Since my discussion model here is a spectrum, there must be sites that more deliberately combine work and play in different ways. And indeed, in terms of the online interactions of viewers with the expressive domain, most of the specifically role-play sites would seem to operate on principles that combine rule-governed, hierarchical requirements (i.e. various forms of work) with different amounts of free play, depending on the kinds of roles dictated by the site.
One example called StrangeBrew MOO, recently reactivated after an considerable hiatus, provides an interesting illustration: the paradigm within this MOO is that of BDSM (bondage-domination-sadomasochism), with the submissive and dominant roles clearly delineated and available as specific sub and dom player classes that participants can adopt. Each of these player classes introduces specific hierarchical relations and commands not simply between the sub-dom role players, but also with any other participant who might not wish to perform within these strict hierarchical relations. For example, whereas on most MOOs, one can simply page another player privately to establish contact "point-to-point" on the MOO, such communications are monitored for all submissives so that the masters could maintain strict control at all times, even when not logged on. From one perspective - that which promotes free social interaction online --, these restrictions on the MOO protocols for establishing contacts and creating community seem to hamper exchanges considerably, drawing non-sub/dom participants into the dominant paradigm of the MOO. From another perspective, however, that of the old dictum "love it or leave it," anyone who logs on to this MOO - or any MOO, for that matter - necessarily adopts the operative "purpose" of the site. If that purpose is defined as a form of specific role play, then the non-role-player necessarily will be out of synch with the self-defining community standards since he, she or it insists on adopting different norms. In any case, I believe that this kind of MOO offers an example both of a necessarily mixed model of hierarchy vs. play, and of a site where community, while strictly defined therein given the operative paradigm, is nonetheless just as inclusive a model as the more professionally oriented MOOs.

I suggest in the abstract that the other extreme in the performative/pedagogical spectrum is the social kind of MOO instantiated through a site like LambdaMOO, and also BayMOO and MOOtown, among others, but these are not, strictly speaking, extremes, just more open-ended, playful sites in terms of their participants' possible interventions. In these sites, one finds that the constant mobility of personages and the consistent expansion of the site offer a broad array of examples of play as work (through programming) and work as play (through the enormously creative and humorous development of virtual "objects" and "locales"). It was in such sites that the vast array of protocols for enhancing and extending community were first devised: for example, commands that allow one to define and then access lists of friends, designated as "interesting" or as "pals," other commands that provide surveillance capabilities in order to view the arrival and departure of participants, as well as descriptions of those currently logged on. Paging and remote-emoting are other ways to establish and maintain such contacts, and a whole range of playful (some would say "spammy") commands exists to develop these relations. On some MOOs, internal channels, like IRCs but within the MOOs, function as topic-oriented networks for establishing and maintaining sub-groups within the larger community. At LambdaMOO, at least in the past, certain individual player classes functioned in similar fashion, having their own "shout" or group-contact command, although without the hierarchical structure imposed on the sub-dom players at StrangeBrew. Yet, a formal Role-Playing-Game structure also exists within Lambda in the original Dungeons and Dragons mode with its inherent hierarchies and social groupings. Certainly, some of these possibilities of exchange are available in pedagogical and professional MOOs, but in the so-called social MOOs, such exchanges tend to be more random, more free-wheeling and even raucous, and certainly are used more playfully and performatively.

Another facet of the citizenry question is what I call the "tiny-political" dimension, that is, the many questions and controversies over governance that have assailed the social MOOs such as LambdaMOO for most of the decade. I refer here to Julian Dibbell's account of his experiences at Lambda in the 1998 My Tiny Life (1998), and Lynn Cherny's 1999 study, Conversation and Community. Chat in a Virtual World. Cherny provides a detailed and theoretically informed analysis of a number of disputes as they relate to community. These texts emphasize the extent to which creative play can be hampered by cyber-feuds that all too starkly come to emulate similar altercations in work-related environments "in real life." These conflicts show the painful sides of community, and yet by tending to establish the hierarchical dynamics as dominant over any possibilities for play, they conflicts reveal another facet of the mix or enfolding of play within work.
An additional facet of the "work-play" enfolding on these sites is quite pertinent for our discussion at a conference such as this, the issue of research protocols online. These protocols are still in the process of being defined within the social sciences, and Cherny provides a postscript on "Method and Ethics" in MOO research. The problem that often arises is where the play stops and the works starts when someone is engaged in online research. This topic has arisen in discussions intermittently on different sites, with MediaMOO having devoted an online conference to it several years ago. More recently, the topic arose on LambdaMOO this spring in a flurry of posts on an internal discussion list. The immediate subject, the catalyst, as it were, was the persistent and public presence on the MOO of a software agent, or "a learning 'bot'," called Cobot, whose sole function is described by its creators as "to interact with other members of the community and to become a vital, useful and accepted part of its social fabric. Toward this end [they continue], Cobot has the ability to engage in conversation on a variety of topics, and to provide useful information in the form of social interaction statistics" (1999: 1). The specific objections related, on one hand, to whether or not the researchers obtained all necessary permissions to cite participants who interacted with Cobot, and on the other hand, why the researchers did not provide an "opt-out" function so that participants who did not wish to interact with Cobot could have opted not to do so.

However, the discussion expanded to the general topic of privacy on the MOO, of whether or not to allow participants to "do research" on the MOO at all, and if so, what restrictions to place on them in informing their subjects. One clever suggestion was that all researchers should be forced to describe themselves as wearing a multicolored pompom hat. On the most permissive and, I would argue, realistic side of this argument, one interlocutor reminded the discussants that everything one types could be logged (i.e. recorded) and that, in fact, it is every participant's right to do so, without regard for concerns about privacy. The other side of the argument maintained that no research should be published that does not shield the privacy of the participants and for which the researchers have not obtained proper permissions. However, one interlocutor on this side of the argument made a succinct and cogent distinction (whom I quote with permission): "I'd like to note that some of the researchers here have helped enhance this community . . . I want to encourage the research that helps strengthen the community instead of only mining this rat maze for outside interests," specifically the AT&T Shannon Labs for which the Cobot researchers worked.

Let me be clear that I believe that socially responsible research protocols are certainly advisable, especially when logs of conversations and citations from author-specific descriptions are to be used. However, the concern here is the impact of research activities in terms of the work-play oscillation and in relation to online community building. Judging from the discussion at Lambda and elsewhere, online researchers are frequently viewed as intrusive, at best, and occasionally shunned outright by MOO participants. In every case, these researchers are held to an impossible standard, expected to preserve "privacy" for participants in a public MOO site usually run on a corporate or university server, AND to come to conclusions generally agreeable to most, if not all participants there! Thus, in terms of community on so-called social MOO-sites, the work-related activities of researchers appear to be antithetical to the presumedly social purposes of these sites. Certainly the pedagogically and professionally oriented sites do not offer the most fertile terrain for observing and studying how playful and performative interchange between online participants can contribute to the constitution, and sometimes disagregation, of community. However, given the very definition of sites such as LambdaMOO -- that is, admitting participants from all sorts of locales, classes, races, age and professional groups --, they allow for a broad range of interventions by all participants. These, I would argue, are precisely the best domains in which we can understand better the complicated enfolding of looking-AT (work and hierarchy) and looking-THROUGH (immersive play and performance), especially as they contribute to the development of community.

These complex issues are only beginning to be understood in relation to real-time cyber-sites, and in this presentation, I have suggested but the bare outline of issues and overlaps that relate to work and play in text-based VR. I believe that the forms of community emerging within these sites can be ever expanding, constantly renewed, and that the contributions to these communities, whether lasting (work-related) or ephemeral (playful), can admit an array of performative and pedagogical facets. Yet, the bi-polar model is one that immediately becomes enfolded within the practice of pixeled dialogue, a mixture that John Unsworth captured well in 1995 when he said: "If technology, born from useful play, becomes an environment in which work can be carried out in the guise of play, then either we will never really work, or we will never really play, after this. It remains to be see which of these - or both, or neither - proves to be the case" (1995).

Cherny, Lynn (1999) Conversation and Community. Chat in a Virtual World. Stanford, CA: Center for the Study of Language and Information.
Dibbell, Julian (1998) My Tiny Life. Crime and Passion in a Virtual World. New York: Owl Books.
Isbell, Charles Lee, Sr., Michael Kearns, Dave Kormann, Satinder Singh, and Peter Stone (1999) "Cobot in LambdaMOO: A Social Statistics Agent." American Association for Artificial Intelligence (
Lanham, Richard (1993) The Electronic Word. Democracy, Technology and the Arts. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Unsworth, John (1995) "Living Inside the (Operating) System: Community in Virtual Reality." Working Paper,

Top of Page

 Text-based Virtual Reality

 Charles Stivale Home Page