Metaverse as Medium | 2220

Why I think the metaverse is important, MUDs, the web as 30 year long distraction, and why worlding worlds means shaping reality.

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Metaverse as Medium

On my blog the other week, I wrote about Wind-up Worlds. World Running, Simulations, DAOs and the urgent collective pivot we need to make towards Slow Social experiences. It generated a lot of fruitful discussion with people much smarter than me. 

I thought I’d use today’s episode to MUDdy the world running waters further. I want to briefly cover two topics that have repeatedly come up during conversation. Worlds as medium, and why the metaverse is important. 

So β€˜Worlds as medium’.

The role of a World Runner’s is to continually steer an existing world towards more aliveness. I give some examples of worlds in the wind-up worlds essay. But I’d also add concepts like β€˜The Roman World’ or β€˜The Art world’ to the list too.

So what are worlds and what is the medium?

Worlds as Medium

For expediency:

A world is a place. A place in which things that become apparent, as part of its goings on, persist and further contribute to the world’s aliveness.

I use the word β€˜apparent’ here not in its modern sense. Being understood, or perceived. But its Latin root, meaning β€˜manifest’. This etymological history still echoes down to us in words like apparition.

We also need to have some understanding of a world’s reality. But let’s not get too wound up about what’s β€˜real’ and what isn’t. 

For the purposes of this initial discussion. I’m adapting and extending Richard Bartle’s metaphysical framework of virtual worlds from 2003.

There are three qualities of a worlds reality.

  1. The Real: That which is apparent.
  2. The Imaginal: That which is not apparent. 
  3. The Virtual: That which isn’t apparent, having the form or effect of that which is.

Worlds are persistent places where the imaginal meets the real. 

The Virtual is the world’s edge, its surface.

Artaud’s 1938 definition of Virtual Reality in The Alchemical Theatre reflects this too:

All true alchemists know that the alchemical symbol is a mirage as the theatre is a mirage. Theatre (should be) understood as the expression of an identity existing between the world in which the characters, objects, images, and in a general way all that constitutes the virtual reality of the theatre develops, and the purely fictitious and illusory world in which the symbols of alchemy are evolved.

The Alchemical Theatre, The Theatre and Its Double – Antonin Artaud 1938

Worlding worlds and running them is therefore about taking responsibility for the worlds medium.

The shape of reality itself. 


The second major discussion point has been β€œwhy am I so bullish on metaverse?”

β€œIsn’t it” I’m asked. β€œJust failed reheated nonsense. Being pushed by Facebook seeking a monopoly over certain parts of people’s realities.”

If we don’t do something about that future then it could well be. I’m trying in my own small way to prevent that. The thing is, I’m excited about the idea of the so-called metaverse, because I’m still the same person who was obsessed with the Internet as a kid.

For most people, the Internet means the World Wide Web. In 1989, Tim Berners-Lee proposed connecting the concepts of hypertext with TCP and DNS technologies. Internet access (for various social and infrastructural reasons) exploded in the early 90’s. The eternal September began the same year that CERN made the Web protocol and code available royalty free – 1993.

The thing is, the web is just a collection of static pages. Hyperlinked together yes. An exciting concept yes, but not a new one (see episode 22-16). The web really, was a fairly pedestrian idea. Yes I did just call one of the most important innovations of the 20th century pedestrian. 

You see, a far more important invention. A more radical one. With far bigger (and as yet unrealised) consequences, had emerged a decade earlier…

In 1978, Roy Trubshaw, then a student at the University of Essex wrote a program in MACRO-10 assembly language for a DEC PDP-10 mainframe. He later handed over its development to Richard Bartle, a fellow student, in 1980. What they created together was MUD. Or multi-user dungeon. Later known as MUD1 or Essex MUD. 

So named, because MUD was conceived as a multi-user version of the 1977 interactive fiction adventure Zork. Known to Trubshaw by the name of its PDP compatible port. DUNGEN. All, and I mean all, virtual worlds are made in MUDs image. First birthed in Essex 1978. 

This is a point worth hammering home. Before the world wide web, before search engines, before web2.0, Facebook, Fortnite, VRchat and everything else. People were creating and experiencing shared persistent worlds, on the internet. 

Throughout the 1980’s pioneers went online via screeching modems to spend time collaborating, coordinating and exploring worlds together. By 1993, a study of traffic on the NSFnet backbone showed that just over 10% of all bits belonged to MUDs. 

That’s right before the World Wide Web, β€˜worlds’ constituted 10% of all internet traffic.

Soon after AOL decided to offer access to the hypertext transfer protocol in addition to MUDs as part of its online portal, and the rest is recent history. 

I believe the web has been a 30 year long distraction from the business of worlding.

I understand why. To the general public in the 90’s Hypertext and the web is far less of an alien leap conceptually than the idea of shared, persistent computationally mediated virtual worlds online. In 2022, however, not so much.

It’s for this reason that I think the metaverse, or the idea of it, is something we should all have opinions about. What should it be like? How should it work? Worlds predate the web, they’ve been there all along. 

They aren’t new, but they are places that we are now finally ready to rvturn to.


The script above is the original script written for the episode. It may differ from what ended up in the edit.

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8 responses to “Metaverse as Medium | 2220”

  1. […] in 1996, the father of all virtual worlds Richard Bartle – see episode 22-20 – published a taxonomy of player types in virtual worlds. A heuristic still deeply embedded […]

  2. […] Over the years, I’ve talked about how software makes you feel, the topology of transcendental objects, about wind-up worlds, metaverse as medium. […]

  3. […] interesting. Richard Bartle, the godfather of all online worlds, wrote in his book Designing Virtual Worlds back in 2003 about how one should judge an online […]

  4. […] in Episode 2020 ‘The Metaverse as Medium’ I […]

  5. […] MUDs, for example, are organised around a virtual world with rooms, corridors, etc. BBSs, forums – think roman forums and message boards. These spatial metaphors helped to create a sense of place and community.Β  […]

  6. […] answer the question we must go back 15 years before the web was even invented to MUDs. Being text based, they are the most pure of virtual worlds and were sites of rapid and wild […]

  7. […] the three qualities of a reality from Episode 22-20. Maps represent that which is not apparent. But allow us to think about a place as if it was […]

  8. […] The sense of Presence then flowed into Virtual Reality and Virtual Worlds research. Having a sense of presence in a MUD for example.  […]

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