Originally published in Anthropology & Education Quarterly
Spring 1995 Vol. 26(1):95-104
Copyright 1995, American Anthropological Association, Dr. Reed D. Riner, and Jen Clodius.


by Reed D. Riner (1)
Northern Arizona University
Flagstaff, AZ

and Jennifer A. Clodius (2)
University of Wisconsin
Madison, WI


The authors and their colleagues are engaged in the fifth iteration of a classroom-based socio-cultural simulation activity called "The NAU Solar System". Teams of students in classrooms on seven campuses are role-playing the development and interaction of human communities in a future Solar System; the NAU team will, once again, establish the first permanent human settlement on Mars. Interaction among the teams is facilitated through the Internet by e-mail and an on-line Multiple User Domain (MUD) program, a text-based virtual reality, which mediates student participation. Each team is evaluated in reference to the local faculty member's pedagogical objectives.



The authors and their colleagues on eleven other campuses are engaged in leading teams of students through the fifth iteration of the NAU (Northern Arizona University) Solar System Simulation (3). This is a classroom based role-playing simulation in which the teams of students build working models of communities and work-sites, some situated off-Earth, in an historically plausible future Solar System. (We will have more to say about what constitutes 'historic plausibility' later in this article.) The 'model- building' is done face-to-face in each classroom, and also collaboratively among the teams of students through the Internet. Students and faculty communicate with each other through the Internet using a variety of communications formats, including a Multiple-User Domain (MUD) program and E-mail.

This article describes, primarily from the location of the Mars Settlement class at NAU, how the simulation is conducted, and what pedagogical and anthropological premises are involved. It is our contention that the pedagogical 'innovations', or alternatives, which we have incorporated into the Solar System Simulation, are both different from and complimentary to conventional instruction. The simulation requires that students engage both halves of their brains, using technology creatively and binding creativity to technological feasibility.

At NAU we have been able to package a very unconventional course within conventional administrative constraints. ANT 390 Cultural Simulation: Mars Settlement is offered as 3cr.hr. lecture with a 1cr.hr. lab incorporated into the course which meets 14:20- 17:00 T/Th in a spring semester that runs from mid-January through early May. Usually EGR 390 Technological Simulation: Mars Settlement is offered and scheduled concurrently; thus two rooms are available, so one can be used as a break-out room. Both courses are designated 'writing intensive' and are available for General Studies requirement and Honors, as well as major/minor elective, credit. Students from all undergraduate levels and from all majors may--and do--enroll. (Neville and Riner 1993)

Northwest Passage is offered as a one-credit fieldwork adjunct to courses in anthropology at the University of Dayton. The L-5 settlement is a one-credit addition to the Anthropology for the Future course offered at Cabrillo College. Doug Raybeck's 14 person Halcyon Mission to the Astroid belt met weekly as an upper-divison 3cr. hr. anthropology elective course. The mission to the astroid Ceres was organized within an honors course at Liberty High School, Issaquah, Washington. On each campus the course, emulating a different site in the future Solar System, has different pedagogical objectives, depending on the faculty member and sponsoring department, and different administrative constraints that need to be accommodated. On each campus conventional packaging seems to have been easily adapted to our unconventional course contents and collaboration.

Jim Funaro, leader of the L-5 team and founder of the annual CONTACT Conferences where the idea for the Solar System Simulation was conceived, argues that, "If you want to understand how something works, build a working model of it." (Funaro 1991) If you want to understand the workings of a socio-cultural system, build a working model ... in which each individual site, and the supra-planetary socio-cultural system of the future Solar System as a whole is a plausible working model in which the builders are immersed. If you're going to teach participant-observation and applied anthropology, have students DO participant-observation and apply anthropology (Ericson and Rice 1990). This, then, is one of the unique aspects of the Solar System Simulation: rather than merely explaining how systems work by taking them apart analytically, we ask students to actually build and, to some extent, live in their models. Concurrently the team of faculty members is modeling the team behaviors they expect of their students.

At the first meeting of the NAU Mars Settlement course we assemble all of the students in a large room furnished with tables and chairs, moveable adult-style furniture, and plenty of chalk-board and wall space. With some ceremony, deliberately aping a rite of separation, we close the door. We announce to the students, "You are the population who has been selected to establish the first permanent settlement on Mars. You are already en route in the mission ship. You will arrive in parking orbit ready to land at the end of the fourth week of class. By then you will have to have designed a plan for a community that will be viable in the severe Martian environment. More than merely viable, this must be a community that will be worth living in for you, and for your children. You are going to have to work out scientifically and historically plausible answers to the questions: when are you? why are you here? who are you, and where have you come from? where are you going to settle on Mars? and what are you going to do once you do settle?" One student commented, "This is not a bogus problem, like the problems are in so many other classes, with problems that are obviously 'set-ups' and trivial."

The 'building' is not primarily the building of animated table-top models; it is composing a plausible scenario and a set of rules to direct the playing out of a viable and desirable community. Students collaboratively build social structure(s), and play out the consequences in a process of discovery. Immediately the students have to organize themselves to analyze their common problem: how to survive in a non-Earth environment. They must determine how to break the problem into manageable parts and assign individual responsibilities with commensurate authority for solving those parts, while maintaining dialogue with other members of their community. The students must devise a viable system of self-governance. (Graves and Graves 1987, 1985, Johnson, Johnson and Holubec 1986, Collier 1980, Johnson and Johnson 1975) Another student has remarked on "never having opportunity to make (to design) an organization that works; all the student government organizations (on campus) are already organized for us." In the longer range, this 'classroom organization' is carried over into the Mars Settlement and played out in the model that students describe in the text-based virtual reality, the Multiple- User Domain (MUD) of SolSySim in the Internet.

Before making the jump to that frame of reference--into the MUD--we want to make explicit some of the anthropology applied in our pedagogy. Riner recalls the indelible impression left in his thinking upon reading:

Is it not ironical that in a planned society of controlled workers given compulsory assignments, where religious expression is suppressed, the press controlled, and all media communication censored, where a puppet government is encouraged but denied any real authority, where great attention is given to efficiency and character reports, and attendance at cultural assemblies is compulsory, where it is avowed that all will be administered to each according to his abilities, and where those who flee are tracked down, returned, and punished for trying to escape--in short in the milieu of the typical large American secondary school--we attempt to teach 'the democratic system'? (Van Norman 1968).

This comment was published when McLuhan's maxim 'the medium is the message' was new and pervasive (McLuhan 1965). McLuhan's intent is that actions speak louder than words, that deep-structure speaks louder than surface structure. When the medium contradicts message, when initiative and collaboration are exhorted in a classroom arranged and organized in the traditional 19th century authoritarian, industrial, instructional style, the result is not direct learning but acute conflict (Bateson, Jackson, Haley and Weakland 1956, Bateson 1960a, 1960b, 1969). The message of the context is inculcated much more indelibly than is the content of instruction. In contrast, the message in our medium is that success will result from a diversity of participants collaborating collegially and creatively in the solution of common problems. We expect that 'work' in the future will be less individual, competitive and convergent on a common end product, rather that work will be more cooperative, collaborative and divergent to a multiplicity of products (Hine, 1977). If the school experience is intended to provide socio-cultural competency, especially future socio-cultural competencies, then the classroom experience must model the context in which those competencies will be employed. Therefore we have 'deconstructed' the traditional classroom and the instructional style curriculum in order to construct a futures-oriented pedagogical experience.

Second, we have invited play rather than compelled work as the primary motivating factor in this pedagogical situation (Riner 1978, Csikszentmihalyi 1975, Bateson 1955, Huizinga 1950). The result has been that students throw themselves into the simulation with such energy and absorption that many have slighted, even dropped, other classes. This is an embarrassing success.

Third, we stimulate students to think in multiple future tenses. In each iteration the students have decided that the first permanent settlement on Mars could feasibly be in the mid-2070's. From that date they look back to the present and 'reconstruct' the events that led up to their situation; this entails thinking holistically about all of Earth's socio-cultural systems. And they look ahead at the future of their Settlement; this entails sensitive consideration of the continuity of past, through present, with future. Thinking systematically about alternative, plausible futures has a strong impact on all of one's thinking. The general character of this impact has been written about by Polak (1961:49-50), Boulding (1956:125), and Textor (1984:1) but has begun to be studied systematically only by Rogers and Tough (1992) Thinking in a future context, as our students do, adds a second tense to futures thinking, with additional general 'consciousness raising', but as yet unspecified, impacts on their cognitive structures.

Finally, we emphasize model-building and problem solving. Some social scientists are assessing socio-cultural systems as chaotic systems (Riner 1991, Gleick 1987). Chaotic systems cannot be predicted, but they can be modeled, and the models can be manipulated so the player(s) can discover properties latent in the model. And models, unlike societies, can be experimentally altered in search of preferred results, problem solutions. This is important scientifically and intellectually; it is equally important pragmatically, ethically, and pedagogically. Ethics precludes experimentation with human communities; human subjects legislation increasingly discourages teaching students participant-observation by doing it. Simulation students are immersed in a model of their own devising, and goaded by assignments, to reflect critically on the implications which follow from that model. Or, as another student observed, "This class isn't really about Mars; the last thing that it's about is Mars! It's really about organization and disorganization, and order, and apathy, and solving problems, and how people do -and don't- work together, and take risks, and make ethical decisions, and ...." until he ran out of breath.

And all of the foregoing is reflected and reconstructed in the MUD (4). The Multiple-User Domain is a kind of computer program that enables several people to log in to a common account and chat with each other 'on-line' by typing their utterances in turn. The unfolding conversation scrolls up on the participant's screen looking like a play script. In the version we use (written by a Mars alumnus), players may partition their "cyberspace" environment into rooms, connect the rooms with doors, write descriptions for the rooms and for themselves, and create objects which they may then carry from room to room. Players and objects may be assigned membership in groups, and doors may be locked open and closed to members of specified groups. All of these 'sets' and 'props' and selective locks are recorded in the data base and so become more or less permanent parts of the text environment. The syntax of players, rooms, exits, objects and groups permits the parallel construction of very complicated models of social systems.

The genre of MUD-type programs began as recreational environments. We've taken a relatively low-tech, popular, "every-man's" sort of virtual reality and turned it from recreational to pedagogical ends. We are using it, successfully, to impact the cognitive development of classrooms full of students. We believe that this methodology is successful in part because the learning takes place in a variety of cognitive domains simultaneously. Both technological and creative skills are required and developed, as is evidenced by the inherent qualities of working with and in the MUD database.

The 'text', that is the data base along with the program for its manipulation, has the cumulative property of culture as records "of and for behavior, .. as the product of action and the precursor to future action" (Kroeber & Kluckhone 1952). The text also has the 'revisable' property, again like 'real' culture; players may erase things they have constructed and put new features in their place. As their creative and technological skills increase, students frequently change or enhance their previous constructions. The original objects, however, have made impacts on the surrounding space, and these impacts remain as archaeological features in the simulation. Students, as a consequence of their active (and reflective) participation, develop increasing awareness of the culture they themselves are creating. The "system of stuff and rules" accumulates and becomes the increasingly limiting and potentiating, and a more apparently real referent in their lives (Freilich 1992).

At some point in this experience it suddenly dawns on almost every student that s/he has been, and is, a collaborator in making the system in which s/he finds hirself. S/he discovers the consequences of the previous decisions, and begins to give increasing forethought to consequences of present and future decisions. Sometimes this awareness occurs first in the 'student' observer mind-set; in other cases it occurs first in the 'Martian' participant mind-set. By the time it occurs a certain definite distance has developed between the 'student' and hir 'persona'. Communicating the insight from one mind-set to another, from observer to participant, from participant to observer, is a challenge that emerges for many of the students. We believe this achieves the 'reflexivity' asked for by forward-looking anthropological educators (Segal 1990, deRoche and deRoche 1990, Smith 1990, Peterson 1990).

The plausibility of the students' future history is not only desirable, it is required. We allow the development of new technological futures only to the extent that students can demonstrate their feasibility, preferably by extrapolating from current research trends or ideas. While this may seem restrictive, given the advances made over the last century, it does preclude the students developing "sudden" breakthroughs in, say, faster-than-light transportation. All of the teams have available to them (both in the MUD and through E-mail) a variety of expert professional advisors who specialize in physics, legal systems, astronomy, and planetary data.

Yet another kind of learning occurs as students develop the virtual model of their communities. A number of concepts familiar to computer programmers, conce made challenging and even fun in a MUD. These concepts include linked lists, loops, if-then-else clauses, Boolean logic, pattern matching, set theory, variables, lables, attributes tracing and parsing. Though, to a new user, these concepts would seem baffling in a computer class, on a MUD they have immediatly visible and applicable uses. Once someone has explained to a user that moving a room is as easy as opening new doors to it from someplace else and removing the old doors, (which a programmer would see as moving a node in a linked list) they understand and are able to do it quite easily. Once a MUDder starts learning the tricks possible in a MUD, it's only a short transition to using them in a bonafide programming environment.

Additionally students learn improved communications skills. One of the benefits of using a MUD environment is that it equalizes (dare we say "democratizes"?) the interaction dynamic within the student group. Many students who rarely express their ideas, concerns and questions in a seminar setting feel free to do so at a keybaord. This increased participation using electronic media has been noted by others. According to Sproull and Kiesler, perceived status in face-to-face interactions has a high correlation to how much the person speaks. In their experiments, however, discussions held electronically showed twice as much equality of participation as discussions held face-to-face (1991: 60). We find that, because we have greater participation from all of our students, a broader range of ideas is presented and considered as students develop their cultural systems.

Differentiation in traditional gender roles is also reduced electronically, according to Sproull and Kiesler's observations. In the NAU Solar System Simulation we've noted similar variation from "traditional" roles. Female students aren't supposed to prefer "hard" sciences; we've had women take on the design and theoretical construction of power plants. Male students aren't supposed to be good with words; we've had men take on the role of team historian.

Working in the MUD environment can act as a Goffman-esque "backstage" for some students. They become used to interacting with other students, and, time and again, we've seen these increased communication skills carried from the MUD back into their everyday lived experiences. This is not to say, of course, that working through a MUD will cure a lack of social skills, but it has certainly helped numerous students with whom we've had experience.

We come, then, to why we, as educators, have continued to use this method of teaching anthropology. First, it works. Our students become enthused, and willingly learn information about subjects in which they previously had no interest, and (albeit sometimes unintentionally) learn to look at their current world in a considerably broader perspective. Second, by removing the course curriculum from Van Norman's all-too-accurate description of the American academic institution, we allow the students to teach themselves. This is not to say, of course, than we stand idly by and let chaos reign--there are, indeed, assignments and expectations and grades. In fact, we frequently find ourselves running to keep ahead of new ideas, new concepts, and new applications in order to be able to guide and suggest alternatives to impractical ideas.

Finally, we are aware that we are treading on some not-yet-firm ground, what Howard Rheingold calls "homesteading on the virtual frontier". We are, in pushing anthropology into the future, studying the initial impacts made by virtual communities--communities of interest, not of location. As Rheingold observes, these virtual communities have, and will continue to have, ramifications on "our real-life relationships and communities [and] lead to fundamental questions about social values in an age when so many of our human relationships are mediated by communications technology" (1993: 146). This, then, is anthropology for the future--and it's fun!.


(1) Reed D. Riner (rdr@dana.ucc.nau.edu) is Professor of Anthropology at Northern Arizona University, (Flagstaff, AZ 86011), where he regularly teaches seminars on the anthropological study of alternative futures. His most recent publications include "Anthropology About the Future" Human Organization, 50(3), Fall 1991, and, with Melvin K. Neville "The Futures of Higher Education: Past, Present and Future" in "Creating the 21st Century", Futurics 15(3&4):57-67, 1991. Earlier versions of this paper were presented at CONTACT VIII, Mar 1991, Phoenix, Az, the 21st Century Conference, Apr 1990, ASU-West, Phoenix AZ, the World Future Society conference "Creating the 21st Century" July 1991, Minneapolis, MN, and the National Collegiate Honors Council conference, Nov, 1991, Chicago, IL. The author especially thanks his collaborators Mel Neville (NAU), John Bregenzer (U Dayton), and Denise Aedan for their contributions in the development of this paper and the project from which it derives.

(2) Jen Clodius (jclodius@students.wisc.edu) is a graduate student in Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and studying community-formation on the Internet. Her most recent publications include several ethnographic technical reports for NORC at The University of Chicago. She was originally introduced to SolSys and DragonMUD when she was the teaching assistant for an anthropology class involved in the SolSys simulation. Clodius has been co-administrator of DragonMUD since May, 1991, dealing primarily with issues of human relations, computer-mediated communications, and human-machine interfaces. Additionally she has been an advisor on SolSys since 1992.

(3) The sites, faculty members, disciplinary affiliations and institutions, reading from the bottom of Earth's gravity well up, are: Northwest Passage (a submarine city under Earth's north polar cap), John Bregenzer, anthropology, U Dayton; Luna Station, Chris Jones, political science, Eastern Oregon State College; L-5, Jim Funaro, anthropology, Cabrillo College; L-4, Alluquere Rosanne Stone, radio, television, film, U Texas-Austin; Mars Settlement, Reed Riner, anthropology, and Melvin Neville, computer science, NAU, and James Dator, political science, U Hawaii; Ceres, Don Robertson, honors, Liberty High School, Issaquah, WA; Halcyon (Jovian Moon Mission), Doug Raybeck, anthropology, Hamilton College. Additionally Alan Aycock and Henri Beaulieu, anthropology, U Lethbridge, James M. 'Tim' Wallace and Leigh Mills, anthropology, NCSU; Elizabeth Viau, education, CSLA; Marilyn Garber, philosophy, CS-Dominguez Hills, and Ted Christiansen, The George Washington University are participant-observers, intending to lead teams in the next, Spring 1995, iteration.

(4) MUD (short for Multi-User Dungeon, originally) was the name of a game written by Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle when they were students at Essex University in the UK. The first, and still one of the most commonly-used American versions, was TinyMUD, written by James Aspnes of Carnegie-Mellon University in 1989. Our program, DragonMUD (Ver 1.5.5.J7) has been adapted and comprehensively re-written by John P. 'Jopsy' Crane. Cited as one of the seven "first rank" TinyMUDS in Bartle's critique, DragonMUD is the oldest continuously-running implementation of the TinyMUD family, and the only one of those initial seven still in existence. Originally put up in December 1989, it became accessible to non-local players when NAU went on the InterNet in March of 1990. Crane's version of the TinyMUD code is now being used by several other sites, including Athens located at Merrimack University in Maine, Prohibition in Santa Cruz, California, ToadMUD in San Diego, and MetropolisMUD in Raleigh, North Carolina, with several other sites under development.

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