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The Mudder's New Clothes

by Rebecca Handcock


Why do mudders wear clothing? Muds are after all a virtual reality, so no one can see that you are naked, and cultural nudity taboos surely do not exist in the virtual universe. In fact, the whole point of a mud is that you can create an on-line persona that is as different or as close to the real-world you as you want. Some answers to this question can be found if we first examine why people in general wear clothing, and secondly how these concepts translate into the mudding world.

Why do we wear clothing?

Lovely dress, lovely woman

An 18th Century period costume.

The primary function of clothing is protection, whether from extremes of cold and heat (where the hirsute laugh at the naked), or from harsh or rough conditions (fire-walkers excluded). The strength of this protection ranges from medieval armor through to a kitchen apron. If, when you are safely swimming on the Great Barrier Reef or sweating in an un-air-conditioned city office job, and you wonder why you cannot just go nude, it will be obvious that clothing must have some additional cultural influences beyond mere protection.

Clothing, which includes footwear, jewelry, makeup, hairstyles and body-art, is often used to distinguish groupings based on sex, ethnicity, wealth, social position, and personal interests. Examples range from football teams and New Guinea tribesmen, to ghetto gangs, and the 'in' crowd in high-school. Uniforms are a separate form of identification that give the wearer a sense of anonymity and uniformity, where the role is more important than the individual. Also, certain styles of clothing such as the Muslim burqa and the limitations of Amish colour restrictions, or the variation in the tolerance of nudity, reflect views of cultural, religious or historical significance.

One of the most important roles of clothing is that of expressing individuality. The allowable variation in clothing styles is often limited within the boundary of a cultural group that strives for uniformity, in which the individual attempts uniqueness while not straying from the cultural norm. My favorite example of this is a comment yelled down the street at a group of identically dressed teenagers on a city outing, "You're all individuals!"

Why do mudders wear clothing?

So why do mudders wear clothing? Clearly the issues of protection do not apply, and the restrictions of culture are often waived or not applicable in a virtual reality. Also, clothing that identifies membership to a group is rare due to the usually solitary character development of most mudding, although there are exceptions such as family groups that form for adventure or war. The answer may lie in why people play muds in the first place. Since a mud differs from many computer games by having player interaction, it would seem that one attraction of muds is their sense of community. Whether positively or negatively, a mudders must interact with other players, and therefore must decide what sort of persona they will project.

On a mud this sense of community is achieved through words and virtual actions, not through actual physical appearance. In fact, physical appearance is rarely relevant since the remote nature of the net has distilled human interaction down to written communication and description. The classic quote of "On the net no one knows that you are a dog" applies here. What we are left with is the drive for individuality of appearance, with the added bonus that you can appear as you would like to be, no matter how close this is to who you are.

Mudders as individuals

Mudders are definitely individuals. When encountering a player on a mud, one of the first actions is to look at the text description for the person and observe his or her appearance. If we ignore the listing of artifacts and flotsam collected throughout various quests and campaigns, it is the written description of a person that is the first indicator of his or her personality. A default newbie setup will tell us that the person is new to the universe and, like an infant child, is still developing the skills to define their mud personality, whereas individual clothing will indicate varying degrees of mud sophistication. Once a unique description has been created it can tell us a lot about the individual who is being portrayed; how they would like to be viewed, their attitude, their physical appearance, and of course, what he or she is wearing. Let us not forget the fun aspect of clothing. Anyone who has undertaken a mud flirtation can imagine their own version of the dance of the seven veils.

It is interesting that the clothing a person wears reflects the society norms from where a persona is drawn. Clothing on a mud may be used as tokens that identify the person as belonging to a particular group or stereotype. The player may wear the black leather and muscles of a tough biker gang, the frills and flounces of a debutante, or the flippancy and incongruity of both flounces and leather, but these are merely symbols that are interpreted by the observer. This is the main role of clothing on a mud, to be symbols that help characterize the individuality of the player.

How does clothing appear on muds?

Depending on the sophistication of the mud, clothing may simply be a part of the description of the person, which is listed then the person is looked at, or may be a more complex construct. Mud clothing can be coded objects with properties associated with real world clothing. It can be worn, borrowed, or dropped, wet or dry. It can be coded so that you can only put on a certain number of a particular article of clothing (too bad if you have two left feet), and it makes sure that you can not forget and put your boxers on over your jeans. An example of clothing can be seen in my on-line description on Flame ( 4242).

> look bec
Bec has red hair and throws snowballs
Bec is wearing:
a jewel encrusted dress of fine green wool and a jeweled belt.

What can you tell from this description? That I am probably a girl with red hair. That I live or like to pretend that I live somewhere cold enough to throw snowballs. That I like to wear dresses with a tastefully rich attitude. More investigation reveals...

> look lady
A sheer veil flows from a heart shaped headdress. The overgown is of a wood green flowing wool. The huge cut-away 'Window of the Devil' armholes are lined in ermine, and the fine white linen under-dress is edged in jewel-coloured embroidery. A gold, jewel-encrusted belt encircles the waist, with the tongue of the belt handing down the front. The long flowing sleeves of the over-gown are knotted up and more jewel coloured embroidery edges the cuffs.

In the more sophisticated mud there are constructs that go beyond the individuality concept for clothing. These include shops that sell custom clothing and clothing that has special properties in quests. It is even possible that the cost of purchasing custom clothing can reveal skill and status from questing, although this is dependent on the monetary economy of the individual mud.

Finally ....

In summary, although clothing has many functions in the real world, on a mud its primary goal is the expression of individuality, with the occasional complication of cultural reference and group membership. Perhaps as the sophistication of muds and their offshoots increases then more of the real world meanings of clothing may trickle through the virtual side. If that happens, all I can say is, do not judge a mudder by her clothes!

Some Readings on Costume and Culture

Rebecca Handcock © 1999; Bec is an Aussie currently doing her Ph.D. in Toronto. She has red hair and throws snowballs.