Virtual environments offer socialization from home -- Multiuser dimensions (MUDs) are popping up on the World Wide Web

By George Mannes
Updated June 30, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

It’s a perfect summer day. You go to an outdoor cafe, meet a few friends, maybe head back to your apartment to look at some etchings. But, in fact, you’ve never left the building. Is that clear as MUD?

Welcome to WorldsAway, a graphical MUD (multiuser dimension) from Fujitsu and CompuServe that’s testing on the on-line service this summer. Scheduled for a September debut, it lets you direct characters who chat, carry objects, gesture, even decorate their virtual rooms. A less ambitious MUD called Worlds Chat — set on a minimalist space station — is already reachable on the World Wide Web.

These virtual environments are primitive MUDs — computer programs that allow simultaneous users to role-play, battle, or just chat in imaginary, highly detailed worlds. Traditionally created solely from text descriptions, MUDs can evoke universes out of, say, Dungeons and Dragons or Star Trek and are a lot more fun than on-line chats.

MUDs, developed in 1979, have enjoyed explosive growth over the past couple of years, says Lydia Leong, moderator of the newsgroup. An estimated 700 MUDs dot the Internet landscape, almost all operated for love, not money. The downside: Bosses and teachers are watching out for MUD slides. Because MUDplay is so time-consuming, many schools and businesses have banned MUDding.