Just about everyone knows the stereotypes associated with people nowadays who are obsessed with “Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs),” which eventually gave way to the twenty-first century moniker “massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs):” poor hygiene, living in squalor, out of shape, poor interpersonal skills – the list of negative connotations with intensive internet gaming goes on. These stereotypes were born in the midst of a new aspect of the internet in the late 1980s-early 1990s, MUDs, wherein people could construct entirely new identities at will and live the life of a citizen in the servers at the expense of cultivating their identities in the real world.
Sherry Turkle’s 1994 analysis celebrates the new outlet to cultivate an identity, as she claims the ability to build new avatars of oneself will facilitate new conversations about gender, identity and community. While these MUDs clearly gave players an opportunity to challenge the conventional norms (per her analysis), Turkle’s early assessment of the digital age is just that – early. Her comments about revolutionized communication and communities, however, were not far off of how reality shook out just over twenty years later. Of course, hindsight is always 20/20, but it’s fascinating how the theory behind something as foreign as the brand-new (at the time) and ever-changing internet culture still rings true for the most part. No, MUDs and their later incarnation, MMORPGs, did not become as popular as Turkle suggested. Gamespot’s most recent estimate suggests that there are over 24 million people playing MMORPGs today out of the nearly 3 billion people who have access to the internet, or 0.8% of everyone online. MUDs and MMORPGs couldn’t serve as the setting for new dialogues about the construction of identity, but the continued appeal of such games is what draws in millions of players year after year.
Over time, Turkle’s prediction of virtual reality diverged from reality as internet-based technology in the twenty-first century mostly lent itself to augment reality rather than to replace it. The heightened level of connectivity in the internet age – the digital community – allows for information to be shared with anyone else connected to the internet instantaneously. The new rapid spread of information fostered more globalization and an increased world view; people became more aware and connected to each other through the convenience and efficiency of informative websites and email. As technology progressed over the 2000s, tech companies through the internet provided a more literal sense of augmented reality. People, through the internet, which can be accessed on the streets of every major American city, can access information in seconds in order to make decisions about their lives. Devices like the Google Glass, which overlay a digital display on glasses frames, allow for ones field of vision to be augmented by internet connectivity and information.
Turkle’s assessment of the Digital Age is very dated given her use of the term “MUD,” “Star Trek: Voyager,” and offering an explanation of what the internet is in the first place, but her argument that people are connected like never before and the internet will serve as the platform where people will come together to challenge social norms of identity, gender, community (and really anything else) is still completely on point for what the internet’s future held. It still can provide the escape from reality Turkle addressed, but its greatest and most-utilized contribution to society today is how the internet improves real life through convenience, connections, and the flow of information.
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Turkle, Sherry, “Constructions and Reconstructions of Self in Virtual Reality: Playing the MUDs,” Mind, Culture, and Activity 3 no. 1 (Summer 1994), 158-167.