digital arts & culture 1998

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

  • 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
  • Worlds
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.

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:

  • interfaces
  • performance spaces
  • literary works, and
  • cultural sites
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.

Interface Design

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.

Common elements

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 participants.

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?

New Terminology

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 technologies.

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 representational medium.

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.

Works Cited

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 Art.

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: interview

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: (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






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Last update: 26th of October 1998.