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Mud Governments

If you spend a bit of time to wander away from your favorite mud (MUD, MOO, MUSH, MUX, whatever) to explore some other environments, it quickly becomes clear that not just the game/play structures differ quite radically, but also the way muds are run. Traditional ways to classify muds stress the nature of the activity on the muds, such as muds that are primarily based on role-play, hack'n'slash, chat, player killer, creative writing, etc. What if we focus on muds as little societies and consider them from the point of view of the government they have?

The tension between "game" and "society" (or "community") is as old as muds themselves. Anyone who has been on a mud for a while will have witnessed this peculiar pattern in bulletin board discussions where one person states that people should not get so excited because "it is only a game" while others will reply that there is plenty of reason to get excited since there are real people on the other end of the line and therefore muds are (also) a community. As a game, a mud is an organization not unlike any other. The organization has some people in charge who run the show, in one style or another. However, as a community, the way the mud is run becomes more political. Priorities have to be set, limited resources allocated, disciplinary measures taken in ways that carry a lot more weight than in a game. For example, if you have ever witnessed one of your fellow mudders being banished, you will know that such an issue weighs a lot heavier than "It's only a game and you are no longer allowed to play along". In this article, I want to propose a few distinctions to get a grip on mud governments, in an attempt to get a better grip on some of the questions about mud governments that have been bothering me.

Usually, the immortals (or creators or wizards) make the big decisions. When muds are considered from the perspective of a community, the immortals form the government. Now the immortal government is not necessarily the only government. Some muds have formed mortal governments: some form of politics organized by or for the mortals, like leaders of guilds in medieval muds, or voting systems or plebiscites on some MOOs that I have seen. However, the crucial distinction that I want to make here, is not between mortal and immortal governments. In the more developed and more subtle muds, some form of government has been implemented as part of the virtual world, be it the Starfleet Command, a nobility, or some Board of Elders. Apart from such in-character governments, there can also be forms of mortal government that involve out of character aspects of the game, that allows players to decide on priorities in coding, allocation of resources, or disciplinary measures. In the latter, the mortals are to some degree part of the government of the mud. Therefore, I would suggest that the first crucial difference for understanding mud governments is between the in-character (IC) and the out-of-character (OOC) governments of muds.

Let us start with OOC governments and try to distinguish a few types of muds. (The list is based on my own limited experience with different muds. I do not claim it to be complete.) The simplest form is the absolute ruler type mud: one immortal makes all the decisions. The absolute ruler can have a staff of lesser gods, but typically his or her word is Law. The "enlightened" absolute ruler may listen to the mudizens (denizens of the mud) and have a more modest opinion about his or her own capacities to see what is best for the community, but there are obviously also plenty of muds around where the ruler is more like a wrathful god(ess). On some of those muds, absolute obedience is coupled to degrees of self-abasement that never cease to surprise me. Many muds start off in this way. I propose to call these the absolutist muds. A strong point of such governments is their potential to respond to crises quickly, their obvious weakness is abuse of power.

As this absolutist type mud grows, the absolute ruler can typically not keep up the total control over the mud. One way to handle this, is for the absolute ruler to appoint trusted members into key positions. In other cases, a small team of friends started the mud and keeps control over it. We then get an oligarchy, a system based on a relatively small power elite that makes all key decisions. In some cases, some mortals can become unofficial members of the power elite, mortal members of the court of immortals, as it were. Decisions on these sorts of muds are typically made by the elite with high degrees of secrecy to shield off the internal differences between factions. Mere mortal members often know very little of the feuds that can haunt such elites for years. Let us call this an elitist mud. A strength of this type of mud government is a relatively quick response to crisis in a way that is more balanced than in absolutist muds, but a risk is the development of faction conflict and nepotism.

Another way to handle the growth of a mud is to expand the number of people in power but based on strict rules. Such muds tend to become bureaucratized. They develop complex hierarchies with specific responsibilities and specific sanctions. The more extreme forms of such muds develop dazzling amounts of rules of what players and immortals are and are not allowed to say or do, typically forcing new mudizens to wade through lengthy "help" files to get acquainted with them. Some of these muds explicitly present this approach as the solution to the corruption that can develop in an elitist mud, for example based on bad experiences of immortals on previous muds. We could call these muds bureaucratic or - perhaps more accurately - legalistic. They run the risk of developing an inaccessible load of rules and a sluggish system of decision making, but generally provide better securities against nepotism. A heavy reliance on rules will lead to mudizens relying on and referring to rules in conflicts, at risk of creating a spiral of rule-making for each and every type of event, even the highly exceptional ones. Then there are muds that guarantee some form of formal input from mortals, such as plebiscites or votes over allocation of memory capacity to different parts of the world, or priorities for coding. In some cases, such priorities are not based on voting, but on "buying" coding time with mud currency. We could call this a plebiscite type mud. The strength of such a mud is the high level of player participation, the risk is a form of populism that can marginalize the smaller or less powerful groups. I must admit my experience with such muds is very limited.

Last, there are muds that have attempted to set up complex mechanisms of consensus decision making, typically coupled to plebiscites as ways to resolve issues that cannot be brought to consensus. Such muds tend to become very "political", as participants are expected to invest a considerable amount of time into collective decision making. LambdaMOO is the most interesting example I have seen of this type of government, where the immortals have restricted their powers to technicalities of keeping the system running and implementing the decisions made by the collective. The legal system consists of a quite progressive system of mediation by elected "mediators", an anti-authoritarian form of judges. Problems of allocation of limited resources (memory space) are handled by an elected board. This is not a democracy in the traditional meaning we normally use the word. In fact, I consider it an attempt to get beyond traditional notions of democracy. I suppose we could call this an 'egalitarian' type mud. It's strength is the high level of involvement of mudizens, some of its weaknesses are a complex body of rules based on precedents and complex and relatively slow decision making that can lead to high levels of public conflict.

Most muds are difficult to fit into either of these types, but balance somewhere in between these types. Although I do not want to condemn any mud for their government, I do have my own mudish political preferences. In fact, I think muds have an incredible potency to experiment with forms of governance that is not morally justifiable in real life. For me, the biggest political challenge for muds is to find new mechanisms of democracy, innovations that can provide us with means to improve our in real life societies. Perhaps that is a bit of an over-stretched expectation for the muds that are to a large extent also a game, but then again: playing politics could be fun too. And so the question that puzzles me that lead me to write this, is in what way something that is "just a game" but also a bit of a community could help us to find valuable new ways to "do politics" in playful ways. I am afraid my hopes are no longer as high as they used to be, given the state of OOC politics on most muds. However, we still have that other kind of politics I insisted on distinguishing earlier: What about the potential of IC governments?

So far, I have kept IC governments completely separated from OOC governments. Although useful, such a distinction is also somewhat artificial. Even game-like muds that have little or no role-play and little or no IC government, will have political issues that very much involve substantial, IC elements of the game. For example, they will get conflicts over which class of players (guild or whatever) gets access to certain goodies, weapons, commands etc. Members of such groups may try to get benefits for their IC group from the OOC government. In other cases, IC governments can get some control over OOC aspects, such as coding priorities, for example when a group of priests manages to buy immortal time to code a new temple.

This creates some interesting interactions between IC and OOC governments. Some muds have found complicated IC justifications for OOC absolute governments, for example by making the absolute ruler a god in the IC world. An interesting tension that puzzles me is the tension between my own preferences for radical democracy and my preference for high-magic muds, typically set in a medieval setting that is not very inclined to modern notions of democracy. In fact, I think this is a difficult problem for all muds that have the creativity to set up IC governing institutions: players will expect democratic institutions. Although absolute power of the immortals may be generally accepted, in my experience, a risk of absolute power of players is met with great suspicion (fortunately). There is a legitimate fear that IC governments that have no democratic controls may have extremely negative consequences to some denizens of the mud.

But is this not strange? Is it not the immortal power, the OOC power of our muds, that we should be suspicious about? Is it not peculiar that in my typology of muds I have not been able to create a type simply called "the democratic mud"? What would we have to fear from an undemocratic IC government but game-enhancing IC consequences, if there was a sound OOC democratic government to guarantee our basic mudish rights? And so the more I think about it, the more I wonder whether the democratization of OOC mud governments is not only politically preferable, but even a better basis for more subtle IC game play.