Medievia Mudslinger

September 9th, 2001

Medievia as a Work of Fiction - Written by Almetis

I was recently fraught with the dubious task of trying to explain Medievia to a friend of mine. At first I described it as a Multi-User Dungeon (MUD), yet the image of a dungeon hardly seems accurate for a place that has dozens of cities; separated by a vast wilderness that share a vibrant economy. I tried to describe Medievia as a game, for certainly it has many characteristics common in gaming such as a complex scoring system, rules and repetitive actions. While Medievia is certainly a game, the label fails to recognize that a player can happily exist in the world without ever having to attain any goals or participate in any activities that a game is predicated on.

Vryce, the owner and operator of Medievia.com, prefers to describe his creation as a "virtual world", yet this implies that Medievia does not exist. Certainly there is a distinction between what is real and what is imaginary, but the boundary between these two worlds is permeable. Every player that logs into Medievia begins to share a world-view. They can describe different places, share common experiences or debate the moral code reflected in the rules and actions of other characters. The interaction between the "virtual world" and the "real world" is to such a degree that players have been able to fall in love inside the "fantasy" world; have the romance carry over to "reality", and even result in marriage. If Medievia did not exist, none of these things would happen. Ultimately, I described Medievia as a work of fiction, in which every person who logs in becomes the hero and author of their own story. The following pages will explore the literary and psychological process through which a game can be transformed into a literary fiction.

Exploring Medievia as a work of fiction can best be achieved via a literary model known as Possible Worlds Theory (PWT). The basic approach of the theory is to regard the semantic content of any text as constructing a unique domain or world. The term 'world' is used primarily as a metaphor to represent the set of abstract conditions or state of affairs proposed by a text. PWT requires a text to be seen as a discourse or speech-act that asserts propositions. While the conditions proposed by some texts may be exceedingly improbable or infeasible, and may even contradict what are believed to be the laws of nature, they are all nonetheless considered possible in that they are at least imaginable or cognizable alternatives to the actual state of affairs within 'the real world.'

The terms 'real world' or 'reality' are contentious and require some clarification as to their usage here. To begin with, PWT assumes that there is only one real world (sometimes called the 'actual world' or 'empirical world') and that it is the only world that is not the product of a linguistic, textual or cognitive performance. It is therefore the only world with an objective existence independent from any process of describing or conceptualizing it. This is admittedly a vague definition that does not specify the precise conditions or properties of reality. I will refine this definition to address these concerns as I progress. For now, however, it suffices to assume that the real world is the one to which both authors and readers of fiction belong, but to which fictional characters do not. In contrast, there are potentially an infinite number of possible worlds that could be constructed through a discursive or cognitive performance.

PWT developed its application to literary studies from the consideration logicians and philosophers gave to the peculiar ontological status of fictional characters, objects, places, and events. This hazy ontological status, or mode of existing, becomes apparent when (following the method of logicians) one considers the truth-functional value of propositions made about fictional entities. Consider the statement 'Batman lives in Gotham City.'

Anyone who has read a Batman comic would identify this proposition as being true and would judge a contradictory one such as 'Batman lives in Metropolis' to be false. There is not and never has been, however, a real person (i.e. non-textual) named Batman who lived anywhere at all. Since the subject to whom the two statements refer is non-existent within the real world some logicians have claimed that neither statement can be evaluated as being true. According to this approach, the speciousness of the assertion that 'Batman lived' (or that he 'was,' 'said,' 'feels,' 'runs,' et cetera) disqualifies any such proposition that refers to her or any fictional character from being considered true, and renders them semantically false or, according to some logicians, nonsensical. This line of reasoning is premised upon the assumptions that it only possible to refer to and make truth-functional propositions about things that exist, and that the only possible way to exist is as part of the real world.

This simple ontological categorization between either existence in the real world or else non-existence, however, proves grossly inadequate to account for and differentiate between the many of the types of discursive propositions we regularly make. In particular, it severely limits our ability to sensibly discuss fiction, for it semantically treats both propositions, that Batman lives in Gotham and that he lives in Metropolis, as being equivalently untrue. In response to such failures, the theory of multiple possible worlds was developed by philosophers and logicians who assert that there are other modes of existence in addition to existing in the real world. Fictional characters are prime examples of such an alternate mode of existence. They do not exist within the real world in the same way as real people, but as identified and identifiable elements of alternate possible worlds that are generated by and in the minds of real people.

Works of fiction are able to generate alternate possible worlds by using literary markers (or phrases) such as 'imagine,' 'pretend' or 'suppose' to indicate a cognitive exercise of considering a deviation from the status quo. Conventionally, these predicates are omitted in works of fiction because the parties involved understand that the discourse pertains to an imagined world, rather than a real world. This is often seen in the way that children play make-believe. When one child says to another "Let's pretend that we are spies and that we are on a secret mission," the other child responds "okay, I will pretend to be James Bond, and you can be Austin Powers." Having established these basic rules, the children no longer find it necessary to explicitly acknowledge that they are pretending. When one of the children later exclaims, "the enemy soldiers are coming towards us!" his friend still understands that this is part of the game of make-believe, not reality, without the first child predicating his assertion with the phrase "let's pretend."

The notion of fictional discourse being implicitly predicated as pretended assertions resolves the semantic problems that the narrow ontological approach earlier philosophers and logicians stumbled upon. On its own, any proposition must be judged according to the conditions of reality. Predicated with 'let's pretend that,' however, the same proposition can now alternatively be evaluated according to the rules and conditions specified by the imaginative game or exercise. The predicate thus identifies and isolates the semantic and ontological domain in which the subsequent proposition is asserted to be true. If someone were to say "I am flying to the ocean in a few minutes", the sentence would have different connotations depending on the ontological domain in which the statement was made. If made in reality, we would assume the person were flying by airplane to go on a vacation, for work or perhaps some other mundane task. If the statement were made on Medievia, we would assume the person were flying on a dragon to run a zone, go trading or perhaps to search for a dragon lair. By identifying the semantic and ontological domain for which a fictional text makes assertions, one is able to sensibly discuss fictional characters and events, without running into semantic failures. In practice, this is as simple as predicating any statement with a phrase such as "within the world of Medievia."

The Gods are the primary authors of Medievia. This is done through constructing zones, authoring the code and writing the rules that determine the conditions of the world. Players are also given the opportunity to author Medievia by creating clantowns. Once building is complete, Gods and players cease being authors and become characters within the fantasy world. The dialogue between the characters, along with the choices the players make, determine the present story as well as future plots. For example, a player can choose to attempt a trade run. During such an attempt, two characters may decide to ally themselves together to increase their chances of success. This alliance could result in the start of a friendship, which in turn could lead to a romance and a marriage. The choices the characters make have real consequences within the fictional environment, which dictate in what way the story unfolds. In this way, characters can be seen as actors improvising a script, within the limits set out by the script.

Everything referred to by a fictional text must designate a part of the alternate world it generates, the text itself determines the properties, laws and limits that define that world, and that indicate how similar or dissimilar it is from the real world and other possible worlds. But how is it that a small text; perhaps the size of a room description (a few sentences in length), can create an entire world? This can be explained using a "theory of minimal departure" which states that the world of the text is constituted by assuming that it corresponds to the real world in all respects other than those about which the text informs us otherwise. This principle reflects how readers fill in many of the gaps of information that texts leave. Without the text of Medievia, for instance, stipulating that the sky is blue, that all the characters have two eyes, and that pigs cannot fly, readers assume that all these things are true. In doing so, readers also account for the historical time and setting in which the work is set and was written. Players generally do not, for instance, imagine Lord Chepstow loading a cellular phone in his griffon pack, nor wearing a pair of jeans from the "Gap". Generic conventions can function as norms that a text may be assumed to adopt if it does not stipulate its diversion or subversion from them. For example, because the conventions of fairy tales dictate that witches are ugly while princesses are beautiful, a reader may be led to assume that these conventions hold true for a similar fairy tale type world generated by a text in which these facts are neither explicitly affirmed nor contradicted.

Many critics have pointed out, however, that there are some facts about fictional worlds that are impossible to assume or determine since the text provides insufficient information. For example, we shall never know how many children Lady MacBeth bore because the play leaves this question unanswerable. As a result, fictional worlds are necessarily incomplete or unfinished. This is true of all fictions. We do not get to see Oliver grow into a man at the end of the Dicken's novel or know what happens to Frodo after his adventures with the ring in Tolkein's novel. Medievia is a continuing work of fiction and as such the world is expected to grow and change over time. New zones, new characters and new environmental conditions are a necessary part of the literary development. The incompleteness of textual worlds, however, does not undermine the premise that the differences between a particular fictional world, on the one hand, and the real world, on the other, must be explicitly specified by the text. The properties and conditions that differentiate one possible world from all the others a certain reader may be familiar with are only those enunciated in the text. By having to stipulate the unique or unconventional conditions of their worlds, works of fiction foreground the disparity between the worlds they construct and all the other possible worlds, including reality, that any given reader or spectator has already encountered.

Strictly speaking, it is not fictional texts themselves that generate alternate possible worlds, but rather the cognitive processes by which authors produce and readers interpret those texts. The text acts as a guide to allow the audience to envision the world an author conceives. It is important to note that the author and the reader may not always perceive the constructed world congruently. This is apparent to anyone who has tried to pronounce a character's name in Medievia, only to find out later that the player uses an alternate pronunciation. These disparities arise out of differences in the cognitive process in interpreting the text used to create the world. Creating an alternate world is a mental process, and as such we must recognize that what someone believes to be true dictates how that person distinguishes reality from fiction. This is evident when considering the world created by a person who is delusional or during the experiences of a dream. Pretending is distinguished from other cognitive processes, however, because it requires a deliberate and conscious construction of an alternate state of affairs. In turn, fiction is differentiated from other types of discourse, including lying, because both author and audience, like the children playing make-believe, are aware and believe that the discourse is comprised of pretended assertions. Consequently, both the speaker's commitment and audience's expectations that fictional assertions accurately describe reality are "deliberately suspended".

When we are engaged in a fictional work, we generally are simultaneously aware that we are in bed reading a book, looking at the computer monitor, or in a theatre watching a film or play. Some theorists have used the notion of reader's or spectator's employing a dual consciousness, one ego situated in reality and the other involved in the fiction, to explain why, for example, we cry at the heroine's death but do not jump on stage to try and save her. While most of the time we can separate fiction from reality is not always so clear.

There is an inherent impulse within PWT to distinguish fiction from reality clearly and conclusively. This approach would be an inaccurate reflection of the fluid and unstable interaction between reality and fiction that we actually experience. This is apparent in our ability (especially through metaphor and allegory) to simultaneously refer to multiple semantic and ontological domains. Indeed, we commonly understand that, in addition to literal interpretations, fictional characters, events, objects and stories can also be seen as figuratively representing or exemplifying aspects of reality. Recently a God put an item "Medievia for Dummies" on auction. This item was meant as a satirical comment on reality rather than designed as a resource for characters to use. The interaction between reality and fiction is particularly evident in Medievia because of its duality in ontological modes. Much like how Alice, while in Wonderland, was able to talk about and describe her home that resembled Victorian London, so too are characters in Medievia able to step outside the ontological domain of Medievia and discuss 'reality'. This is as easy as prefacing the sentence with the words 'in real life' or 'irl' for short. While genuine interaction in a fictional world is physically impossible for the reader, it can be psychologically true. Just as we are able to discuss the world of fiction in the real world, so can we discuss the real world within a fictional environment.



Interaction between different worlds is common in literature. Arthurian legends contrast and separate Arthur's Camelot (i.e. the Christian domain) from a parallel fairy kingdom, yet fairies or monsters and Christian knights frequently stumble into one another's domains. From a strictly literary perspective, biblical stories in which mortals interact with their God(s) are another example of the ability in literature to cross magical thresholds and interact with another domain. This interaction is a necessary part of a fictional discourse, as it allows characters to comment and reflect upon the conditions of reality.

Generally, the more permeable the boundary between any two domains is, the less those two domains are in fact distinct, and the more they will share the same beliefs, laws, cultures and properties. This is because the more a person is able to access and interact with a foreign realm, the more the foreign world is incorporated into that person's world-view and become just a part of the person's own world. Every player that logs onto Medievia begins to share a world-view. They can describe different places, share common experiences or debate the moral code reflected in the rules and actions of other characters. While the world of Medievia may appear very different from the mundane reality of our every day lives, in terms of character ideals, values, humor, perspective, decision-making skills, and personality, the two worlds are similar. One example of shared values would be that of loyalty. In both Medievia and real life, we as a society tend to value loyalty; to our jobs, friends, clans or family.

These shared values are why so many relationships that begin in Medievia are able to cross over into reality. This is a common literary experience. Reality has always been acknowledged to not only shape the development of art-work, but also how we perceive and interpret those works. For instance, both the author and readers of 'A Tale of Two Cities' naturally used their personal knowledge of the real London in order to form their conceptions of the novel's fictional setting. Likewise, though George Orwell's '1984', for example, is a fictional narrative, it certainly has had an impact at times on the way people, individually and institutionally, think and act in the real world. The basic segregationist impulse within PWT to sharply distinguish fiction from reality dismisses the tremendous interaction and interdependence of the two ontological modes. This is especially true of Medievia, because the world is designed to thrive off this interaction. Medievia is designed by its players for its players. As such, the world that is created becomes a reflection of the player's cumulative experiences in reality and in the fantasy world. To compensate for this, theorists have developed corollaries to the PWT that strive to explain the complex relationship between reality and fiction.

There can be no doubt that reality has a significant influence in the actions and development of Medievia as a world. As authors, players invest themselves emotionally and psychologically in the characters they create. What the characters say and the things they do are reflective of the person authoring the dialogue. To a large degree, this honesty and depth of character help distinguish Medievia's literary appeal. It is important to note however, that the categories of non-fiction and fiction do not directly correspond, respectively, with accurate and inaccurate discourse about the real world. Fiction or non-fiction is a status that is assigned to a text as a whole, and is not determined by the accuracy with which the text's component propositions correspond to the actual conditions of the real world. By definition, because Medievia is considered a fantasy world by its members, all its component parts must also be considered elements of the fiction. All the places, objects, events and players become fictional entities within the world of Medievia. I imagine some readers may find it disconcerting to be relegated the same literary status as a "smurf" or a "pokemon", but perhaps those readers could take comfort in also sharing some esteemed company. Characters such as Shakespear's Julias Ceasar or representations of cities such as London in a Dickens novel, must be considered fictional entities because the text that they are part of are fictional discourses. A more modern example would be the title character in the popular film "Being John Malkovich". John Malkovich cannot be considered a real person, involved with fictitious characters taking part in fictitious events any more than Roger Rabbit could be considered a fictional character taking part in "real" events.

We have already seen, however, that actual world material can enter into a fictional world only if it assumes the ontological status of a non-actual (i.e. unreal) possible alternate, and this can be used to explain an author's or audience's relationship to fiction. PWT semantics legitimizes the sovereignty of fictional worlds vis--vis the actual world; at the same time, however, its notion of accessibility offers an explanation of our contacts with fictional worlds. The access requires crossing of world boundaries, transit from the realm of actual existence into the realm of fictional possibilities. Obviously, it is through the activities of reading and watching (as well as authoring or directing) works of fiction that we come to have contact or access to fictional worlds. In order to reconcile this with PWT's separation of reality and fiction, critics have sought to explain how these activities involve pretending.

Like children in a suburban basement pretending to be international spies in some tropical forest, real world people likewise participate in fictional worlds by assuming alternate egos, settings, and circumstances. This is most clear in the case of actors, because they clearly assume one specific characters' personas, surroundings, and actions, yet also applies to authors, directors, readers and spectators of fiction, who in course of a work must adopt a whole range of personae. In Medievia, the room descriptions can be perceived as a narration. To the author, the descriptions are merely a discourse of pretended assertions about an imagined world. To the narrator, the assertions are sincere ones about what to them is the real world, (even though the narrator is never clearly identified by the text). Just like any real person or fictional character, a narrator may lie or be mistaken about the conditions of the world that they are nonetheless a part of, as is the case with unreliable narrators such as Holden Caufield in the novel "The Catcher in the Rye". Thus, an exit may be hidden in the land of Medievia not because of some devious or magical form of construction utilized by the builder, but rather because the narrator simply did not notice it. Additionally, a fictional narrator or character may tell a fictional story, thereby creating a fiction within a fiction. Examples of this in Medievia are seen in the stories told through auto-quests. Within the course of a work of fiction, the author need not exclusively adopt a single narrating persona, but by writing from the perspective of other characters, an author can thereby assume the alternate personae and perspective of these other characters.

In the process of reading, the reader replaces and becomes the author of the text. In terms of PWT, readers become the creators or generators of fictional worlds. Readers are comparable to the more passive of the two children playing make-believe, more or less following the game that the other child has outlined and pretending whatever that more bossy child tells him or her to pretend. In following a text, readers adopt the same personae and positions within the fictional world that the author did in creating the text. As a result of the reader's textual positioning, the reader becomes the discursive "I" or consciousness, and therefore assumes the voice, persona, circumstances and perceptions of the narrator and occasionally of other characters. In this way, readers and authors are like actors who play more than one part. In Medievia, each player not only identifies with the role of their own character, but also takes on the additional personification of narrator, and possibly of other characters as well.

This relationship between the author, fictional persona, and reader can perhaps be more clearly seen in terms of the medium of film. A film director sits in the real world and selects a series of camera angles, or points of view, with which to present an alternate possible world. In effacing the reality of cameras, artificial lighting, microphones, film crew, etc. within the film, the director adopts the pretense (i.e. pretends) that these points of view originate not form where he or she chooses to place a camera, but from somewhere inside the fictional world. In some shots the point-of-view may be presented as originating from a specific character's gaze, and in others it is often presented as originating from a space within the fictional world that is not occupied by any identified character. In this latter scenario, the film's point of view is analogous to the discourse of a narrator who is unacknowledged and unidentified by the literary text. In turn, when the spectator watches the film, their perspective is positioned within the fictional world via the director's choice of camera angle. Thus while reading a text, or watching a film or a play, at some level we as audience members are led by the text to imagine ourselves occupying specific personae and spatial positions within an alternate world. From the perspective of these adopted personae and positions we observe the fictional narrative unfold as if it were reality. Fiction thus invites us to observe through other eyes and participate through other personae in worlds other than our own. In this way, reading or watching fiction allow us to gain access to other worlds and other perspectives.

It is this experience of traveling from the mundane routine of every day life into a different perspective that is the appeal of fiction. Medievia can be categorized within a fantasy genre of literature, in which the reader voyages to another realm, a magical kingdom or never-never land, far removed from the ordinary hum-drum world of work and highway traffic and fast-food. This fantasy world has variously landed in Oz, Narnia, or any one of Disney's enchanted landscapes. At the heart of all these fantasies is the imagination.

Fiction, at its most loosely based definition, can be described as literary creation via the act of imagination. A game and a work of fiction need not be mutually exclusive categorizations. There are a plethora of games that revolve around literary creation such as "mad-libs" or improvisational acting games. There are also numerous computer software titles geared towards interactive storytelling. Most of these products are geared towards children, to help them learn words, shapes and numbers. As various technologies improve, I believe we will see the formation of a greater number of interactive stories for adults, in which the reader's choices will determine the outcome of the story. It is my argument that Medievia, and other text-based games like it, have already accomplished this feat, and it is only a matter of time before it is recognized as such within the literary community.

The quality of any fiction is in its ability to engage and challenge the reader. The interactive nature of Medievia's world allows characters to have a depth that is impossible for a traditional medium to attain. Personal history, memory, intellect and emotion guide the dialogue, which make it both sincere and unpredictable. The interactive characters provide feedback that act to provide a mirror to our own world and allow an insight that might otherwise not be attained through traditional methods. Ultimately, the characters and the world continue to challenge the reader in new and innovative ways, which is the hallmark of any successful fiction.

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