Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 9. Nr. Oktober 2000

Fictional Context and Human Interaction in Internet Games

Ragnhild Tronstad (Oslo)

This paper is about text interpretation and character interaction in Multi-User Dungeons. Multi-User Dungeons, or MUDs, are text based virtual spaces accessible via the Internet, and what distinguish them from ordinary chat rooms is that each room in a MUD is described and connected to other rooms in a way that likens them to small virtual worlds. It is possible to navigate within these worlds, and it is also possible to interact with some of the objects described in the text by typing text commands. Additionally, one can interact with the other players through one's character. There are many different types of MUDs: some are designed for social interaction, some for educational purposes, some aim to provide textual versions of live action role-play, and some are text based versions of the adventure game genre. In this paper I will concentrate on the adventuregamelike MUD, where the essential activity is quest solving.

I will examine how the interpretation and experience of these MUDs can be related to Paul Ricoeur’s concept of a 'world of the text', taken from his articles on hermeneutics. According to Ricoeur, what must be interpreted in the reading of a text is "a proposed world which I could inhabit and wherein I could project one of my ownmost possibilities." (Ricoeur 1981: 142)

Since entering a MUD is often described as entering a world, I thought it could be interesting to see how far we can go in applying this theory to MUDding. When I am restricting my comparison to MUDs of the adventuregamelike kind, it is because the quests in these MUDs provide us with a number of separately structured narrative units which can be considered separate ‘works’ within the ‘work’ and analysed accordingly. Interpretation as interpretation of a ‘work’ is very important for Ricoeur’s ‘world of the text’-theory, therefore it has been a necessary point of departure for this paper to try to identify such entities within the MUD environment.

I draw on my own MUDding experience, which can differ from the experience other people have of MUDding, since there exist thousands of MUDs, different in complexity, structure and content. This means that I am not trying to generalise MUDding as such, when I am generalising my own experience of questing and relating it to Ricoeur's theory of interpretation. Still I think the problems raised concerning questing and interpretation are of such a general kind that they can be relevant to most adventure oriented MUDding.

In adventure oriented MUDs, also the development of a character will be closely connected to the solving of quests. On one level, because the solving of a quest will provide the character with items and level points that give the character a higher status within the MUD environment, but also on a less technical level, where the character identity can be seen as a result of interpretation. In the second part of this paper, I will look at how the fictional ‘world’ affects character identity, and also on what consequences this have for the interaction between players in a MUD.

Questing and hermeneutics

Questing can be described as a journey through room descriptions that need to be interpreted in order to make sense. This is because they are part of a bigger unit, the quest, or the potential or anticipated quest the player hopes to find and solve during the journey. In this way, questing can be seen as a prototypical hermeneutic activity. In order to succeed (without cheating) one has to go round after round, looking for hints in each room, paying attention to what is being told, reading all descriptions carefully, in search for the context providing the story. When the story is interpreted the quest is solved. Then the text is often exhausted, and so is the space. This of course depends on the complexity of the text space; some quests will have different solutions that make them worth re-solving. And some rooms can, in addition to being part of a quest, also have other purposes that make them worth revisiting. Nevertheless, solving a quest will often require so much exploring into every little aspect of each room that if the rooms don’t serve other purposes than leading to the goal, the text space will be experienced as exhausted afterwards.

This could indicate that questing is nothing like the interpretation of other works, which, according to Gadamer, never can be fully interpreted. Or doesn’t the exhaustion of space necessarily imply that the 'work' is fully interpreted? To approach an answer to this question, I will continue by explaining some fundamentals behind ‘the world of the text’, and its relation to the world described in the text.

Context as 'work'

According to Ricoeur, all words in natural languages are polysemic, which means they have more than one meaning. To fix the meaning of a word through interpretation we need a context, at least a sentence. This marks the difference between language as system, and discourse, which is the actual use of language. On system level there can be no interpretation, and no meaning. On discourse level language is realised first as event (when spoken or written), and then, when interpreted, as meaning: "To produce a relatively univocal discourse with polysemic words, and to identify this intention of univocity in the reception of messages: such is the first and most elementary work of interpretation." (Ibid.: 44)

To get from the "first and most elementary" kind of interpretation to where the concept of a 'world of the text' becomes relevant, we need a certain composition, presenting discourse in the form of a 'work':

First, a work is a sequence longer than the sentence; it raises a new problem of understanding, relative to the finite and closed totality which constitutes the work as such. Second, the work is submitted to a form of codification which is applied to the composition itself, and which transforms discourse into a story, a poem, an essay, etc. [...] Finally, a work is given a unique configuration which likens it to an individual and which may be called its style. (Ibid.: 136)

Quests normally consist of a certain amount of rooms defining a limited area within the MUD. This limited text space defines the narrative unit that is to be interpreted in order to solving the quest, and we can therefore liken it to Ricoeur's notion of a 'work'. As quests are often written by one, single wizard-author it should not be too complicated to recognise their physical limit, either by style or by content. Thus, to define which rooms belong to the quest narrative and to restrict the searching for hints within that space, should be the rather elementary part of quest solving.

The work's 'world'

[...] we can reserve interpretation for the sort of inquiry concerned with the power of the work to project a world of its own and to set in motion the hermeneutical circle, which encompasses in its spiral both the apprehension of projected worlds and the advance of self-understanding in the presence of these new worlds. (Ibid.:171)

It could be interesting to apply the notion of multilinearity to this, had it been practically relevant. Multilinearity, if defined as multiple ways of solving the quest, would imply, if following the above definition of 'work', that the quest-realm consisted of several 'works', and of multiple potential 'worlds of the text'. But, according to my experience, most quests are rather conventionally structured, providing one main story, unfolding as the player interprets certain rooms and their relations in a certain sequence. (This doesn't mean that the player has to visit the rooms in a certain sequence, although remembering something significant in one room because of a hint in the next could lead the player to revisit the first room.)

While the clues given by the text can often be false, seducing the player to waste a lot of time trying to include them in the big scheme, such clues do not really provide the quest with alternative routes, as they normally lead to dead ends. During the "right" interpretation leading to the quest's solution, false clues will be forgotten, disregarded, as something insignificant in the context of the "real story". Or they will, in some cases, puzzle the player enough to make him or her actually re-solve the quest, or at least revisit the area, in which case the quest's solution has not exhausted the interpretation of the 'work'.

As MUDs consist of different 'quest works' connected and combined to represent a world, the safest way to create ones own, personal path through a traditional quest is maybe by radical misinterpretation of the limits of the 'quest work'. When this happens, and a misreading leads to the including of rooms from areas outside the quest-realm in the interpretation of the quest, does this not also affect ‘the world of the text’? But if it does, what happens to the quest’s status as a ‘work’? Or, is it the MUD as a whole, and not the single quest that is to be considered the 'work'?

Interpretation as understanding ourselves

In Ricoeur's theory, interpretation is based on a dialectics between distanciation and appropriation. Written discourse is objectified and separated from the meaning of the author that produced it. This is the distanciation. To identify some kind of meaning in the text we need to interpret it, and in the interpretation, appropriation is necessary. Interpretation is both understanding the text and understanding ourselves. To understand ourselves in front of the text is connected to the ‘fusion of horizons’, known from Gadamer, where the two horizons meeting are, on the one hand, our background knowledge and expectations of the text, and on the other, the horizon of the text. When we approach a text, we will have certain expectations of it, and these expectations will during the interpretation continuously be corrected until we - more or less - get an understanding of the text. In this process, we are subjecting our life-world to an alien kind of life-world described and represented through the text, and to inhabit and experience this world, we have to adapt: to change. So understanding ourselves is the result of an initial misunderstanding, where we are confronted with our own prejudices, and the later appropriation, when we "make [our] own, what was initially alien".

To understand ourselves in front of a text is quite the contrary of projecting oneself and one’s own beliefs and prejudices; it is to let the work and its world enlarge the horizon of the understanding I have of myself. (Ibid.: 178)

But to interpret a quest, we have to project ourselves, represented by our character, into the text. In this operation, our interpretation of the text becomes itself objectified and distanciated, presenting in the text as text our character's interacting with the 'work'. Does this mean that our character, a visible, textual representation of our prejudices moves ‘the world of the text’ into the text again, or will ‘the world of the text’ now simply include the interpretation of ourselves as text? If we are to follow Ricoeur, the latter must be the case. The world of the text cannot be in the text, it is in front of it, in our interpretation of the text.

Character development

I said in my introduction that the development of a character in adventure oriented MUDs is closely connected to the solving of quests. The technical explanation of this is that the solving of quests will provide the character with level points allowing the character to reach a higher level which in turn may provide the character with privileges and improved skills making him or her or it able to proceed towards further goals. The hermeneutic explanation of it is that the quest, as ‘proposed world’, represents the environment within which the character ‘grows up’, so to speak. The character identity can be seen as the result of a continuous negotiation between the alternatives provided by the text space, and how the player wants his or her character to be. Some actions will be unavoidable if the player wants to solve the quest. During the interpretation some of these actions will seem obvious to the player, while others will require more exploring of the text space before the logic behind performing them occurs. Some actions will be easily performed, while others need preparation, either ‘physically’ (this would normally apply to the character) or psychologically (f. ex. when performing the action violate some moral values of the player.) This means that the player never has complete control of how his or her character develops, as all these choices, actions and refused actions will become part of the character’s history, which defines its identity.

Distanciation of speech acts

Ricoeur's concept of distanciation through writing also applies to the verbal interaction between players in the MUD. In the essay "The model of the text: meaningful action considered as a text", he describes how fixation in writing affects the meaning of spoken discourse. In this, he uses the speech act theory of Austin and Searle:

The act of speaking, according to these authors, is constituted by a hierarchy of subordinate acts which are distributed on three levels: (1) the level of the locutionary or propositional act, the act of saying; (2) the level of the illocutionary act or force, that which we do in saying; and (3) the level of the perlocutionary act, what we do by saying. (Ibid.: 199)

The locutionary act is easy to identify structurally and semantically in the sentence, and it is therefore also easily transferred from speech to writing. The illocutionary and perlocutionary acts are more difficult to fix, because these will often rely on meta-communicative aspects or non-verbal signs, like the authority of the speaker, gestures, facial expressions etc.

He writes: "Written discourse cannot be rescued by all the processes by which spoken discourse supports itself in order to be understood - intonation, delivery, mimicry, gestures." (Ibid.: 201)

In MUD conversations this is only partly true. Several conventions for expressing feelings, gestures and facial expressions verbally through writing are already established in MUDs. Situational, real time events of conversing through writing that is made possible through media like MUDs and chat rooms also make the transference of a speaker's authority possible, dependent, of course, on the situation and relation between the interlocutors. Such possibilities are not taken into account in Ricoeur's descriptions. (Of course.) On the other hand, even if it is possible partly to ‘rescue’ the transference of meaning by adding non-verbal signs like face-expression and feelings through the emote commands, these will never be as complex as in the real world. There will still be a lot of gaps to fill in the interpretation, which makes the interpretation of other people maybe the most difficult part of MUD interpretation.

Character as ‘work’

Is it possible to regard also the other character as a ‘work’ within the ‘work(s)’? If, for instance, the other player consciously constructs and role-plays a coherent character, couldn’t this be considered a ‘work’ just like the quest is a work? To fit the above definition of a ‘work’, characters would then have to be "finite and closed totalities", "submitted to a form of codification which is applied to the composition itself" and "given a unique configuration which likens them to an individual and which may be called their style." Again it is the ‘finite and closed totality’ which causes trouble, since the character, consciously role-played or not, develops within and in relation to the other ‘works’ of the MUD.

This gives us one reason not to pay too much attention to whether there is a consciously role-playing player behind the character or not. Another reason is that the opacity or distanciation inherent in the medium will provide enough theatricality in itself to prevent the player and character from appearing identical. The character will necessarily "project a world of its own", different from the world of the player/author behind it. When this works, it is similar to the way theatricality works.

Theatricality can either be intentional, when a situation is theatrically framed by an actor, director or spectator, or unintentional, when someone misinterprets a situation, framing it unconsciously as either theatre (when it doesn’t belong to the fictional sphere) or as ‘real’ (when it is in fact theatre.) When viewed this way, theatricality is connected to the spectator’s need to establish some meaningful context for a situation, to understand it. This is a broader definition of theatricality than the one Josette Féral aims for, when she claims that the only prerequisite necessary for theatricality is that a situation is theatrically framed, or identified as theatrically framed, by a spectator subject. Féral’s definition does not cover misunderstandings and misinterpretations, but since I think these are often sources for theatrical constructions, I include them in my definition.

Ricoeur writes:

[...] only the meaning 'rescues' the meaning, without the contribution of the physical and psychological presence of the author. But to say that the meaning rescues the meaning is to say that only interpretation is the 'remedy' for the weakness of discourse which its author can no longer 'save'. (Ibid.: 201)

To communicate with the other, and identify meaning, the reader will vitalise discourse by "adding" meta-communicative aspects in his or her conception of the other player. Thus, the other player (author of the other character) is imagined by the player (reader) in the context of (at least) three ‘worlds’: the player’s (reader’s) life-world, the player’s ‘world of the MUDtext’, and the ‘world of the text’ the player conceives of as the life-world of the other player.

It should be obvious that it is impossible to reach the life-world of the other player, even if it plays a role in the interpretation of the other character. We could talk about an implied, or imagined life-world of the other player that partly shines through, partly is constructed like the rest of my ‘world of the text’. It is important to remember that a player who aims to present him- or herself through the character never can fully succeed, partly because of the opacity of the medium, and partly because of the fictional context interfering with and messing up the transference of his or her world.

This also applies to the "consciously role-playing player" ’s ability to control the appearance of his or her character. If we say that the ‘worlds’ projected by the different ‘works’ in the MUD works together to provide the fictional frame for the players’ interpretation, we must also remember that these ‘works’ often will be interwoven and practically impossible to identify as separate units. Even if a quest room is easily exhausted as the result of having solved a quest, few players will be able to exhaust every room in the MUD, or even to find them all. This makes MUD interpretation less ‘controlled’ and probably even more subjective than the interpretation of the ‘works’ Ricoeur is writing about.

© Ragnhild Tronstad (Oslo)

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Féral, Josette (1997): "Teatralitet", 3t-tidsskrift for teori og teater, 2.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg (1960): Wahrheit und Methode (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr)

Ricoeur, Paul (1981): Hermeneutics & the Human Sciences, edited and translated by John B. Thompson. (Cambridge: Cambridge UP and Paris: Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l'Homme)

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