Susan Claire Warshauer:
Multi-User Environment Studies:
Defining a Field of Study
and Four Approaches to the Design of Multi-User Environments
Software programs are too often viewed like data objects apart from a human
context. Design models that treat software like pieces of information
transmitted from author (programmer/developer) to single user are not
inaccurate per se; in fact, such models continue to underscore the
development of single-user, multimedia and information-intensive programs.
But such models leave out the significant element of human interaction
involved in a category of software programs that I call "multi-user
environments," the most "people-intensive" or "presence-intensive" of
software programs. Design objectives for such environments still include
transmitting information but more fundamentally include facilitating
communication and human interaction.
Multi-user environments are software programs that allow a person to
interact with other people, programmed entities, and/or a persistent
environment in real-time or asynchronously (Note 1). A physical space
environment where people interact may also be considered a type of
multi-user environment, but in this paper I focus on computer-based
multi-user environments (MUEs) that are on the Internet or local area
networks. These multi-user environments allow interaction to varying
degrees through text, graphics, immersive multimedia, audio and video. By
offering the compound multi-user environment, I stress both the
"multi-user" or people part of the concept as well as the situatedness of
people in a common environment where input is mediated by an interface with
textual, graphical, audio or video elements.
I approach the multi-user environment as an interface and use A. R. Stone's
(Lebkowsky et al., 1993) definition of interface as anything across which
agency changes form. I define the interface of a multi-user environment as
anything across which the agency of multiple people changes form. "People"
includes real-time participants as well as programmers and designers of the
environment. Sometimes the participants, programmers and designers of the
environment overlap. Agency refers to the extent to which one feels one
has a meaningful impact on the circumstances, events, people, avatars,
representations, narratives, and outcomes within a multi-user environment.
So multi-user environments may be viewed as interfaces that offer varied
options for people to exercise their agency and have that expression
recognized in the design and interaction within the program.
Multi-user environments include MUDs (Multi-User Domains, Dimensions or
Dungeons), computer games, CU-SeeMe and
other audio-video conferencing programs, Internet Relay Chat (IRC), the
UNIX Talk program, Web chat rooms such as ESL
Chat Central, ICQ, Ding, Microsoft NetMeeting, AOL Instant
Messenger, ExploreNet, Microsoft Active
Worlds, and immersive virtual reality simulation environments.
A Spectrum of Multi-User Environments
Attempts to place multi-user environment programs in discrete categories
are understandably limited since some of the programs could be placed in
more than one category. Yet offering preliminary technical and genre
distinctions provides some basis from which to understand a diverse field
of programs; too often this field receives insufficient careful attention
because of broad labels like cyberspace that overlook the finer differences
in specific multi-user environments.
- Talk programs
UNIX Talk, Internet Relay Chat
- MUDs (Multi-User Domains, Dimensions or Dungeons)
- Computer games
- Web chat programs
- People browsers
- Audio-video conferencing programs
The range of programs within the category of multi-user environments
suggests a diverse set of qualities that should be addressed in any
definitions of sub-groupings: the extent to which the program has a
persistent environment, an extensible database, graphical, textual or audio
media, immersive imaginative surroundings which suggest a sense of situated
space, awareness of the presence of others in the environment, a narrative
or plot-related objective, and synchronous or asynchronous interaction
between a person and other people, bots or objects in the environment.
Four Approaches to the Study and Design of Multi-User Environments
Multi-user environments may be studied as:
People who critique multi-user environments or who are involved in
designing such environments may draw insights from the fields of interface
design, graphic design, information design, human-computer interaction or
interface studies, computer-supported cooperative work, computer game
design, performance studies, literary studies, and cultural studies.
- performance spaces
- literary works, and
- cultural sites
For example, some interface design questions that relate to multi-user
environments include: how do people's communication, representation, and
navigation options affect their willingness and ability to participate in
the environment? How do the interaction options and set of people online
affect people's interest in the environment? How responsive is the
environment to human needs, desires and actions? Is the graphic design and
textual description in the environment pleasing to and functional for
people? Is the environment design tightly coupled to the design of the
interface, such as in UNIX Talk when one view of the environment is
generally seen by those using it? Or, are several different client
interfaces used to access the environment, such as different client
programs for accessing a MUD which offer different textual and graphical
views and distinct interaction options to the user?
The impact of interface design decisions may be seen in specific instances.
For example, in the mIRC 5.41 client for Internet Relay Chat (IRC) (Vonck,
1995-98), as of October 1998, the small, fixed size of the message input
window would seem to encourage short textual exchanges among people; how
might increasing the size of the message input window, or making it a
variable size window which gives the user the option to increase the size,
affect the length and type of communication that people engage in via text?
In another interesting parameter in the comic-like interface of Microsoft
Chat 2.1, as of October 1998, the decision to allow
individuals to change their own background scenes (while other people they
are interacting with may have a different background scene behind their
characters) negatively impacts the ability of multiple participants to
immerse themselves in a common visual environment. In fact, the design
decision seems to fly in the face of physical space theater traditions in
which multiple actors perform within a common location as communicated
through the set or dialogue.
The "stage" for people's interactions in multi-user environments is
represented by a textual and/or graphical interface; the interface and
programming code that underlies it serve as an interactive representational
medium for the programmers and participants. The interface should not be
considered separately from the programming code; rather, it is constitutive
of this code.
The designers of any of these environments will need to decide what type of
communication, navigation, interface and character representation systems
to imbed in the environment. They will also need to determine the type of
cultural, social or educational experience they want for their
participants, as well as how much freedom, anonymity, and ability to extend
the system (or database or world or interaction options) to give
The participants, who may also be programmers of some of these
environments, should value their own experiences in the environment and
remain cognizant of what makes them comfortable or alienated there. People
may ask whether they feel themselves to be part of the environment, as
though they have an impact on it or the people there, and whether they feel
comfortable with the other people who visit, inhabit, speak or build there.
People may consider how the interface or environment constructs their
participation, representation, communication and navigation options; does
the level of mediation in the interface and environment allow the
individual to maintain a sufficient sense of agency?
The development of terms such as multi-user environment and the
conceptualization of Multi-User Environment Studies as a field are not
isolated phenomena. Across a range of fields, the movement from static to
dynamic text and image has been registered by the development of new
terminology. Although hastened by new technologies, this phenomenon is not
original to the post-1970s development of digital and Internet-based
In the 1930s, for example, Marcel Duchamp came up with the term "mobile" to
describe Alexander Calder's moving art works. The new term heralded an
artistic trend that valued dynamic movement within the work of art. The
inclusion of motion and dynamism in the work of art shifted the concept of
art a hairline away from performance itself. Jean-Paul Sartre's
interpretation of the mobile in 1946 suggests analogies to a performance:
"A mobile: a little local festival, an object which is defined by and
exists only in its motion, a flower that fades when it ceases to move, a
pure play of movement" (Dervaux).
More recently in the 1990s, literary and cultural theorists, graphic
designers, architects, artists and software developers have attempted to
capture the more dynamic sense of movement inherent in their digital works.
M. Novak (1991) uses the term "liquid architecture" to describe the
architecture of cyberspace. Strikingly, a parallel development in the
field of Information Design yields the same nomenclature. Graphic designer
T. Muller uses the modifier "liquid," but to convey the sense of a more
dynamic typography. Muller (1998) describes the "transformation of
traditional, static typography" into what he refers to as "liquid
typography--a dynamized form present in time-based and interactive
environments" (26). Similarly, graphic designer S. Ishizaki (1997b) uses
the term "kinetic typography" to describe the sense of movement in digital
typography. Ishizaki (1997a) states that he aims to create "visual design
solutions that are as active and responsive as a dance performance" (3).
Moreover, in literary studies, a dynamic sense of movement in digital media
is imbedded in the term "hypertext." The term hypertext, in contrast to
text, is used to emphasize a non-linear or multi-linear structure
(depending on the critic) and associative form of writing in digital
programs that allow linking and multi-directional movement between text
lexias or nodes. Yet even within the newly articulated concept of
hypertext, distinctions were drawn between more and less dynamic types.
Landow (1991, p.21) distinguishes passive from interactive hypertext
systems. M. Joyce (1988) uses the terms "exploratory" hypertext and
"constructive" hypertext to describe a similar distinction.
But a new wave of terminological revision is in process to further clarify
the extent to which hypertext is considered dynamic and interactive. E.
Aarseth (1997) argues that the term "cybertext" describes a greater sense
of dynamic interactivity than that allowed by the term hypertext. Aarseth
(1997, p.64) develops a two-tiered schema in which static qualities are
associated with ordinary text and hypertext while dynamic qualities are
associated with cybertext.
Even as some literary theorists have settled on terms such as hypertext and
cybertext to capture the more dynamic sense of movement and interaction of
particular digital texts, they ultimately gesture toward the
human-interactive, improvisational elements of performance itself. The
terminology has moved from physical space architecture to dynamic
architecture, from static typography to dynamic typography, from static
text to the (originally considered to be) dynamic hypertext to the now even
more dynamic (as seen by some) cybertext. These various movements
culminate in what I consider to be terms that represent movement and
dynamism in human interactive spaces mediated by digital media: performance
and real-time presence. Moreover, the term multi-user environment, moreso
than cognates of the word text, is suggestive of the concepts of
performance and presence, particularly when these concepts are accompanied
by improvisational and unpredictable input among humans in an interactive
The "environment" side of the compound multi-user environment, however,
relates to qualities evident in the reading of a print-based work as well
as the real-time participation in a multi-user environment; these acts have
in common the reader or participant's sense of a psychic or visual place
that she or he participates in or imagines. So an imaginative space,
environment or virtual reality is evoked by participation in a multi-user
environment, but may also be evoked in the experience of reading a novel or
other print-based text or in viewing a physical space theater performance.
Yet the addition of "multi-user" to environment sets it apart from a
single-user, print-based immersive environment that one reads about but
does not participate in, in terms of writing, navigating, communicating
with others or representing oneself within the environment.
In summary, a fundamental shift has occurred in the development of software
programs which must take into account the humanistic ways in which people
connect via software and the Internet. In contrast to single user
applications that are developed with the objective of transmitting
information from a designer-programmer to a user (or in contrast to
multi-user software programs with a similar emphasis on transmitting
information to a database), a range of software programs has been
developed that multiple people use with the objective of communicating and
interacting with each other.
What lags behind this move is a corresponding
shift in the conceptualization of these types of environments. Vastly
needed is a concept of software programs that foregrounds interaction
between people. I offer multi-user environments as one such category,
along with sub-categories based on genre, technology, activity and purpose.
Finally, to contribute to the systematic study and design of multi-user
environments so that people may share insights across a range of programs,
I outline four analytical frameworks from which to study multi-user
environments, based on interface design, performance studies, literary
studies and cultural studies.
1) I include environments that facilitate asynchronous interaction within
the concept of multi-user environments but in this paper focus more on the
environments that facilitate real-time or synchronous interaction. One
example of a multi-user environment that facilitates asynchronous
interaction is a newsgroup interface that lists messages in a hierarchical
indented fashion on a Web site or newsgroup client interface. A physical
space and printed text corollary for this type of newsgroup interface would
be the table of contents of a book or journal, or a cork bulletin board
where pieces of paper with text on them are posted in various areas.
In fact, the more asynchronous the interaction and communication in an
online environment and the more its remnants are seen in individual textual
messages, the more "text-like" and less theatrically performative the
interaction seems to me. For this reason, and because of my interest in
physical space theatrical performance, I have leaned toward studying the
multi-user environments that facilitate real-time interaction. While I
agree that multi-user environments may be simultaneously viewed as types of
texts, I typically view them as types of events premised on direct,
real-time human interaction. At the same time, a number of multi-user
environments such as people browsers and audio-video conferencing programs
now offer a suite of internal programs that combine synchronous interaction
systems with asynchronous messaging systems. Back to text.
Aarseth, E. (1997). Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature.
Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Dervaux, I. (1998). Alexander Calder, 1898-1976. Brochure distributed at
Alexander Calder art exhibition. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of
Joyce, M. (1988, Nov.). Siren Shapes: Exploratory and Constructive
Hypertexts. Academic Computing.
Ishizaki, S. (1997a). Continuous Design Solutions as Emergent Behaviors
of Active Agents. Vision Plus Monograph 25 E. Vienna, Austria:
International Institute for Information Design (IIID). IIID is at:
Ishizaki, S. (1997b). Kinetic Typography: Expressive Writing Beyond the
Smileys :-). Vision Plus Monograph 26 E. Vienna, Austria: International
Institute for Information Design (IIID). IIID is at:
Landow, G. P. & Delany, P. (1991). Hypertext, Hypermedia and Literary
Studies: The State of the Art. In P. Delany & G. P. Landow (Eds.),
Hypermedia and Literary Studies (pp. 3-50). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Lebkowsky, J., Nathan, P. X. & Stone, A. R. (1993). Allucquere Rosanne
Stone Interview for Mondo 2000 [On-line]. Available:
Microsoft Corporation. (1998). Microsoft Chat. [On-line]. Available:
Muller, T. (1998). "Liquid Typography: The Transformation of Traditional,
Static Typography into a Dynamized Form Present in Time-Based and
Interactive Environments." Proceedings of Vision Plus 4, The Republic of
Information: An International Symposium on Design for Global Communication
(pp. 26-46). Conference sponsored by Carnegie Mellon University School of
Design and International Institute for Information Design. Pittsburgh, PA:
Carnegie Mellon University.
Novak, M. (1991). "Liquid Architectures in Cyberspace." In M. Benedikt
(Ed.), Cyberspace: First Steps (pp. 225-254). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Vonck, Tjerk. (1995-98). Welcome to the mIRC Homepage! [On-line].
Available: http://www.mirc.co.uk/ (visited 25 October 1998).
Dr. Susan Warshauer lives in the mountains of West Virginia where she may
occasionally be seen wandering in MountainMOO or ATHEMOO. She is the Coordinator of
the Center for Literary Computing and
Assistant Professor in the Department of English at West
Virginia University in Morgantown.
Susan began writing about performative and literary approaches to
multi-user environments in 1994 in Aesthetic
Approaches to the Design and Study of MUDs, and a recent article on
Multi-User Environment Studies will be published in the Literary &
Linguistic Computing journal.
Susan grew up in Wilmington and Greenville, North Carolina, and in New
Orleans, Louisiana, and got her undergraduate degree from Brown University
in 1983 and her Ph.D. in English from the University of Texas at Austin.
Her interests include: performative approaches to multi-user environments,
interface theory, theorizing agency, theater studies, community-based computing,
collaborative multi-user environment software, playwriting, manuscript
research on Tennessee Williams, creative writing in digital media, and
literary computing. Her recent joy is learning to play blues piano. <:-)
Susan Claire Warshauer