StickMUD: A Game Model for an Evolving Society

This article originally appeared on the StickMUD website in the 1990’s and was recently resurrected from the WayBackMachine Internet Archive.

Written by Rodney J Andrews

“Not only is it an escape and relief from boredom, it provides a sense of adventure lacking in rl [real life]…” – Silverlock.

“The first death was quite exciting … I assure you that my heart did not beat for two seconds when the screen said ‘You Die’. After that something that can only be described as total panic freezed me for about ten seconds, After that my veins were filled with adrenaline and the rage could begin (broke the space-key on my keyboard (hit it with a fist)). Some excitement, I could tell you. And to date I remember it very vividly. One cannot get any closer to real death and life to tell about it.” – Chthonian.

What could be the bases for a game that would cause both a 24 year old Finn and an 18 year old U.S. citizen to develop such strong feelings about it? StickMUD is a game with over one hundred active players, many of whom spend a substantial portion of their free time each day playing it. There are over 30 administrators and coders for StickMUD who devote many hours a week to a game they are excluded from playing themselves, solely for the purpose of improving this computer generated world for those who do play. A special language has developed for use by the residents of this world; it is based on English, but bears many words from the more then 10 different nationalities represented as well as a set of jargon that is incomprehensible to many when first encountered. What about this game could draw such a diverse group of people from many different backgrounds together around a single game? The answer to this is a common, shared culture and society. The world of StickMUD (referred to as Stick by its residents) is one of a common culture, with its own special rules and accepted behaviors. Stick is also a society that is evolving and changing through time. Because this time scale is greatly accelerated, it is easy to track the changing views of Stick’s inhabitants. A “kill or be killed” barbarism has given way to a chivalric code out of Mallory, which in turn is being slowly changed into a society governed by laws that are enforced by police. This simple computer game became a society when those humans who interact through it stopped “playing a game” and began to use their imagination and minds to “live” in this software world. This paper is intended as a brief introduction to the world of StickMUD and its people. It is based on personal interviews, written surveys, and almost one and a half years of “physical” observation form within Stick.

MUD stands for Multi-User Dungeon. A MUD game is an interactive role playing game on a computer where more than one player may simultaneously play the game and interact with other players. The StickMUD Project was begun almost 4 years ago at the University of Jyvaskyla, Finland by the present Game Administrators, Frobozz and Graah, as an lpMUD, a type of MUD system. It is based on a medieval fantasy world, and has its own capital city, Triztezia, as well as numerous other areas of interest in the surrounding countryside. There are castles, dungeons, other countries, an Underground Empire, an entire demon world, and many others. And, of course, Stick has an abundant indigenous population of monsters and permanent residents for the players to interact with. In order to understand Stick as society, it is first necessary to understand how the game itself is played.

A player logs-in to StickMUD through the Internet communications system and is asked for a name and a password. Once these are successfully entered, either to begin a new character in the game or to resume playing an already existing one, the player is active in the world of Stick. This player then can move from room to room. A room is the basic unit of the game and is a small area in which the player can interact with other players or monsters in the same room. Players move from room to room by entering the direction they wish to travel: north, south, east, west, up, down, swim, etc. A player may decide to attack and try to kill a monster in a room. This is done by entering the command “kill”. Players kill monsters in order to get experience points; the harder the monster is to kill, the more experience points one is reward for killing it.

As players collect experience points (EXP), they can use this experience to advance in level. All players start at level 1 and can advance as far as level 54. With each successively higher level, the player becomes stronger and gains more powers and skills to be used in the game. Levels greater than 20 are considered lord levels. Those who get to these levels are referred to as “lords” and are rewarded with special powers lower ranking (non-lord) players don’t have, as well as a title: Squire, Lord, Baron, Duke, Prince, Legend, etc. The most significant special feature about lord level is that the player also receives the “lords’ channel”. This is a special feature which allows players who have it to communicate with everyone else who has it without the lower ranking players being able to “hear” what is said. This lords’ channel is where most of the true governing of players behavior in the game is mediated. Player’s can be killed by monsters. When a player is killed, the player loses a fraction of his or her experience as well as a level ranking. The player also loses a level in all of their stats. Stats are the players abilities: Strength, Intelligence, Dexterity, and Constitution. These stats effect the players ability to heal, fight, use magic, and overall ability to function. A player who’s stats are make him or her stupid and clumsy has a much less chance of surviving then one whose stats are intelligent and agile. Player’s may also attack and kill other players. This is referred to as player-killing (pk) and is much more common in lords then in non-lords. However, if the player is killed by another player, the loss of experience is less severe, and no stats or levels are lost. Upon death, the player is reincarnated after the penalties have been enforced.

Players maybe one of five different races: human, dwarf, elf, hobbit, or half-orc. This is done to add variety to the game as each of these different races has some qualities that are betters than the others. Each race also has a special language that only players of that race can understand. Players may be either male, female, or neuter. there are also five guilds to which players may belong. A guild is an organization which grants to its members special skills and abilities. Most guilds also have a special channel similar to the lords’ channel which allows the guilds members to communicate with each other but excludes those not a part of the guild. The guilds that exist are Priests, Fighters, Thieves, Fighters, and Mages. In general, activity of the players is very similar to that of real life people. The players’ characters can talk to each other by “saying” sentences, they can exhibit emotions such as anger, laughter, sadness, boredom, impatience, aggression, attraction, and hunger. Players may drink and smoke, and often tease each other as to being drunk. Players collect armor and weapons to use when fighting, and they may also sell surplus items in order to make money. This money can be stored in the local bank, or used to purchase food, alcohol, or better armor or weapons. It is also possible to buy a house or, at great expense, have a castle built to your designs.

Administrators and Coders are those in StickMUD who keep the world running and expanded it from time to time. The Administrators are responsible for keeping the game running and for issuing punishment to players who cheat or who are acting in a way that interferes with other players enjoyment. The Administrators also regulate what the Coders make and insure that the new areas developed by Coders are within the general genre of StickMUD. Coders are those players who have reached at least level 20 as a player and who then decide to no longer play the game as a regular player but rather apply for and are accepted by the Administrators as a Coder. Coders write the computer code which makes up the game (LPC 3.1 language). Coders create and maintain “areas”: groups of rooms that contain monsters and objects for players to interact with, as well as create the monsters and objects such as weapons or armor for these areas. Coders are no longer allowed to actively gain experience or interact with other players in a way that would help that player.

The “official” rules of StickMUD as designated by the Administrators are pretty simple. They can be summarized as follows: do what ever you want, but don’t take advantage anything that is obviously the result of a bug in the computer code to gain experience or money, this is considered cheating. The true rules dictating player behavior in the game are much more complex and have been developed and are enforced by the players themselves. One of the most significant sets of rules that the players have developed to regulate the actions of that are acceptable in their world are those rules concerning the treatment of lower level or weaker players. One such rule is that a lord level player may not attack or kill a non-lord player unless the lord has a good reason. That lord must seek permission from the lords in the game at the time before taking any action against a non-lord. According to Silverlock, a high ranking Thief character, “…killing non-lords is a major nono. In a way, I think we work off a modified chivalric code…kill someone who is incapable of defending themselves and people will jump down your throat…treat people with respect” and you will be left alone. The way in which this rule is enforced maybe that a player higher in level than you will make you apologize and help the non-lord get any EXP he lost back, or you might simple be killed by the higher ranking lord in retaliation. The rules governing how lords have to act towards lower level players were developed over the last two years in response to several instances where a high level player got mad about something and took out his or her frustrations by killing anyone on the game that he or she could. Other players of close to the same level have a chance to defend themselves and fight back, but players of significantly lower rank have no chance at all, and so it was decided that they should be protected from this sort of behavior. Because Administrators and coders are forbidden by there own rules from interfering in the day to day activities of the players, the players themselves developed this method of having higher ranking players protect those weaker then themselves and punishing those who decide to break this rule. This insures that the lower ranking and therefore newer to the game players have a chance to play and enjoy themselves, while still allowing higher ranking players to settle their own disagreements in what ever manner they choose. An off shoot of this behavior is the dueling code that has developed. Players who have a disagreement with each other may choose to duel one another.

Duels are highly regulated by rules developed by the players themselves. Some examples of this is that using a potion which restores a players spell points (their ability to use magic) during the duel is illegal, as is drinking alcohol, which restores a player hit points (physical condition). The two players dueling may choose to duel to the death, or to a certain level of damage (i.e. first to lose 90% of their hit points loses), and they may choose to stand in one room and slug it out or make it more difficult by using an area of 5 or 6 rooms. A player who intentional breaks these rules during a duel is considered to have cheated and will most commonly be attacked by the other players in the game. This insistence on following proper etiquette in dueling is a result of several things. The first reason for it is that many players wager money on the outco me of such duels, and fairness is therefor desired. Secondly, the prestige of the guild to which the losing player belongs is in jeopardy. If the member of the guild loses, then this is a bad reflection on the skills and powers associated with that guild. No players wants his or her guild to look bad, and so the insistence that things are fair eliminates the possibility that your guild looks weak when the lose is actually the result of cheating. Finally, and most significantly, the experience lost by being killed in a duel takes time to recover, and to lose it through someone else not following the accepted rules is unacceptable. Everyone insists on enforcing this code so that if they in turn are treated unfairly in the future they can have a reasonable assumption of retaliation then. Many of the rules developed by players have to deal with what is perceived as fairness in playing. Players have to invest large quantities of the time they spend playing to collecting armor and weapons to use when fighting. If a play owns a house, this collection of armor and weapons is often stored there. While the players houses have locks on them, at one time these locks often failed to really close. Some players began to sit in the housing area and check all the houses in order to find those which were left open and then these players would enter the house, steal all the equipment there and sell it or use it themselves. Other players, members of the thieves guild, would use a lockpick and their special skills as a thief to break into the house for the same reason. The thief was complained about but congratulated as a good thief, the player who simply entered open houses was immediately killed if caught. This differences in behavioral acceptance stems form the thief being expected to use his skills to steal, where as the other player was taking advantage of a deficiency in the game and therefore was not playing fairly. Of further interest here is that many players began to act as a form of police force to prevent this type of behavior. The players would take turns hiding near the homes and would protect them from those attempting to steal from them.

One of the largest areas for which rules governing behavior have developed is the treatment of female players. Females are treated with much more respect then male players of the same rank. The reason for this is that higher ranking male players will immediately punish you for not treating a female player politely. The female player Jesha explained this as “the other players, especially the other male players , seem to be more willing to offer to offer help to female players than to other male players. This is especially true of novice [beginning or new] players. I’ve had more offers [to be given] armor and help with quests and money (and a lot of roses!). There are a lot of really nice people on there and it seems that they are all willing to help a novice in distress.” Sorcha, another female character seconded this “lady in distress theory” by saying “Females are helped a lot more quickly than males … I think human male instinct is to help a woman in what we’d call distress ..” Besides giving the female players aide in complete quests and loaning them money, the players of StickMUD have developed ridged rules governing improper behavior towards a female character. A male player is not allowed to harass with any form of sexual connotation a female character, and if a player does that player is immediately attacked by the higher level players in the game. One such example is the case of the female player Mirandolena and the male character Bal. Mirandolena was a popular female character, well liked by the other players in the game. Bal was a level 18 male character. Bal began harassing Mirandolena by making unwelcomed sexual overtures in a part of the game where emoting is allowed. (emoting is where Player A can type “emote and everyone else in the room sees “Player A “. This allows players to exhibit emotions and actions not normally available.) Bal refused to stop when Mirandolena asked him to, and even began to emote a rape sequence. Mirandolena then a sked the other players to help. When it was discovered what Bal was doing, he was immediately killed. Sense that time, nearly a year ago, when ever Bal enters the game he is killed by the other players. This is done to insure that everyone understand that that type of behavior is unacceptable to the majority of the game’s players. It is also done so that females will want to play the game and provide them with an escape from what is unfortunately a part of real life. Chthonian explained this desire to make the game attractive to female player by pointing out that “it’s always good to have a few of the other sex in the game.” Excalibur, another male player, seconded this belief by pointing out that an added advantage of having female players in the game is “falling in love in rl [real life] … lucky she was from my school too.”

The gradual evolution of StickMUD society can be illustrated by comparing the view of the game from characters who have been playing the game for several years to those who have begun playing recently. Chaotic, a player for almost two years, summed up the rules of StickMUD as “don’t fuck with anyone you can’t kill” while Jesha a veteran of one week of StickMUD life said the “rules on the MUD are to be nice to other players, be helpful and have fun.” Neither of these players is wrong, and Jesha’s answer is not the result of naivet. Rather, Chaotic describes his world in terms of the way Stick was when he was gaining experience as a non-lord, while Jesha is describing what Stick has become in the last two years. Chaotic was a non-lord when the higher ranking players in the game didn’t regulate their behavior towards one another or towards the non-lord players in the game. Jesha, however, is seeing the world of Stick as it is now. Jesha is playing at a time when the inhabitants of Stick have decided that di splays of power by high level players at the expense of lower level players are counterproductive to everyone’s enjoyment of the game and so this behavior is no longer tolerated. This evolution from the barbarism of “might makes right” to the more chivalric code of protection of the weak is not the final step in StickMUD’s societal evolution. Presently, the players have asked for and are being given a legal system. This system is a step towards the rule of law, with consequences for criminal behavior ranging from fines and imprisonment to hanging or beheading and enforcement of these rules by a police force. A feature of the societal change of StickMUD is the development, separately from any actual coded portion of the game, of secret societies and religions.

As the residents of Stick have begun to concentrate on their society rather than simply playing a game, they have developed certain social institutions that are not necessarily inherently part of the game. One example of this is the formation of “The Black Company”, a collection of players who devoted themselves to enforcing what they felt was a necessary social order. They developed their own code of acceptable conduct and used their collective influence to enforce it. As with most vigilante groups, this group eventually met resistance from the majority of StickMUD’s citizenry. Another example of social change in StickMUD was the emergence of a new religion. Originally, as an inherent part of the game, a single religion existed: that of the Priests of Boccob. However, after one of the most influential players in the game was killed by a monster, the Town Baker, it was determined that this monster was really a deity in disguise, and the Cult of the Baker was formed. This religion began as a humorous aside but eventually developed into a serious part of the game with many adherents, a complete and hierarchical priesthood, incorporated many intricate ceremonies, and even practiced ritualized player sacrifice. This too was countered by a reactionist response from the majority of players, and eventually the Cult went underground after systematic persecution of its followers.

As these examples illustrate, StickMUD is attractive to many players from diverse nationalities and varying ages because, as opposed to being a simple game, StickMUD is a true society with its own culture and behaviors. The players in StickMUD have developed their own rules to govern this play for many reasons, but significantly, these rules have been developed independently by the players to govern and direct how “life” is lived in StickMUD. When asked why they liked to play StickMUD, all of the players who responded stated that it was the interaction with other players that was the main reason for their involvement with StickMUD. This desire to interact with other players is the result of the common, shared culture that all of these players have developed within the society of StickMUD. While some may speak English everyday, and others are native users of Finnish, they all recognize “pk”, “mk”, “*rotfl*”, and know a “pink olophant” when they see one. ( “pk” is player kill, “mk” is being killed by a mon ster, “*rotfl*” means “I rolled on the floor laughing”, and a “pink olophant” is a sign that a player is hallucinating for some reason on the game.)


Who really plays StickMUD and Why?

As an agreement with players and administrators on StickMUD, I promised to make available to them a copy of this paper as well as a brief summary of what my findings were. In order to facilitate this, I am including here as an Addendum the demographic material I was able to collect on the inhabitants of StickMUD, as well as some of the facts related to them. More than 50 people took part in this study, and interestingly, everyone who responded to the survey indicated that they would like a copy of this paper to read themselves. The interest of the players in learning who composes their friends and neighbors in the World of StickMUD was so great that I have been asked to make this information available for placement on World Wide Web, an information server that people from all over the world can use to in order to learn about StickMUD.

Demographics: Of the 22 people who provided this information, 18 were male and 4 were female. The oldest player was 28 years old and the youngest player to respond turned 13 years recently. The average age of those responding was 21.5 years. There were 10 U.S. citizens, 7 Finns, 2 Swedes, 2 Canadians, and 1 resident of the U. K. Of this group most players described themselves as Caucasian/European, while one described himself as Hispanic and another as Filipino-American (Asian). One player who respond is blind and uses an Eureka A.4 talking (verbal output) computer to play StickMUD.

Those universities represented include: University of Jyvaskyla, Finland Technical University of Nova Scotia, Canada University of Scranton, U.S. Francis Marion University of S. Carolina, U.S. Bowling Green State University, U.S. Purdue University, U.S. University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez Campus, U.S. University of Falun/Borlange, Sweden Mount Saint Vincent University, Canada Michigan State University, U.S. University of Michigan, U.S. Colorado State University, U.S. Interestingly, most players reported that they played StickMUD as many hours a week as they spent on schoolwork. Several reported spending up to 4 times as much time on StickMUD as they spent n school work.

Many players have jobs, a surprising number working as consultants in campus computer labs where they “get paid to MUD”. One person who responded works as a computer consultant for the City of Jyvaskyla, one works as a computer engineer at Mitre Corporation, one player is a cook, and another is a mailman. One player is a merkantti about to begin work for the government of Finland. Several players noted that playing StickMUD has effected there life in some way. One Finnish player noted that he now sleeps during the day when StickMUD is closed, and has begun to speak English when he dreams at night. Another player form the U.S. has made 4 or 5 trips to different states to visit people he met on StickMUD. Almost all respondents noted that they had made new friends through playing. On the lighter side, one U.S. player noted that he now knows the proper use of vulgarity in English, Finnish, and Swedish. When asked to describe the most exciting part of playing StickMUD, most players responded that this was trying to kill another player. Player killing was described as a “rush” and most players commented on the adrenaline high they felt while hunting or being hunted by another player, “…you have all this adrenaline flowing … but all you are doing is typing … I think everyone when they start pk’ing gets the shakes …trembles a lot “ (Silverlock). Werneri described it as “the most exciting thing to strangle Zeus … with a garrote … my adrenaline was pumping like crazy and all my MUD-playing friends were cheering around me …”

In responding to the question of what was the funniest thing they could remember happening on StickMUD, the player Mac replied with “time the coders burned the players homes down” referring to an instance where, since a new type of house had been developed for players to use, in order to get players to switch, the Co – Administrator Val decided to burn the players houses down in a catastrophic fire. One player, who asked for anonymity, recounted another humorous incident: “I was so drunk that I accidentally took a sex change [in the game] … And now I’m too broke/ashamed to ever play again… “

When asked why they played StickMUD, players responded with one or more of three reasons: 1) to met and talk with other players from different countries, 2) as a break from boredom in everyday life, 3) to relieve stress and tension by vicariously killing monsters and accumulating power. My personal experience in StickMUD has been that the first two reason are the most influential in bring players back again and again to the World of StickMUD. Excalibur also summed these feelings up as “… meet people, gain power and flaunt it, diversion from our cruel reality … helps pass ideal time … plus, MUDding is addicting …”

Acknowledgment: I would like to thank all of the players in StickMUD for taking the time to answer my questions. Also, special thanks to Graah, Tron, and Arthur for answering the hard questions about how “the immortals” really feel about the game as well as for permission to do this study.


“Studies in the Anthropolgy of Play: Papers in Memory of B.Allan Tindall”, Phillip Stevens, Jr. ed., Proceedings of the Second Annual Meeting of the Association for the Anthropological Study of Play, West Point, N.K.: Leisure Press, 1977.